Honda has grown to become a top manufacturer of motorcycles. Its history can be considered a journey through five decades of forward thinking and technological innovations.
Soichiro Honda's success parallels the classic rags-to-riches fable - the lone individual starting in a humble setting, battling odds and succeeding, through talent, ingenuity, and good fortune. In a nation noted for reserve, Mr. Honda was and is often direct, frequently exuberant, sometimes hilarious, and always confident. He preferred getting his hands greasy in the shop over shuffling papers in the office. He chose learning on the job over academic paper chases. Yet when he realized that there was a deficiency in his technical knowledge, he did not hesitate to enroll in a technical high school - at age 29. The year was 1935. The motivation: learn why he was having problems manufacturing piston rings.
Before his venture into piston rings, Honda was employed as a technician. Automobiles, rather than motorcycles, were his first love. He dreamed of racing. After completing eight years of schooling, he joined an auto repair shop at age 15. Two years later, he became a Harley owner and then an Indian rider.
He opened his own auto and motorcycle repair shop in 1928 while pursuing his hobby, building racing cars. That same year, he applied for his first patent, for casting automobile wheel spokes. He organized Tokai Seiki Company, Ltd. to experiment with manufacturing piston rings. After initial failures, he sought further education which enabled him to successfully produce piston rings for automobiles, motorcycles and airplanes.
In 1945, Honda sold his stock to Toyota and took a year off. His sabbatical included music-making and merriment. Refreshed, he launched Honda Technical Research Laboratory in October of 1946. His new venture added war surplus Tohatsu and Mikuni generator motors to bicycles to provide basic transportation for the war-torn nation.
In November 1947, the 1/2 horsepower A-Type Honda was being manufactured and sold as a complete motorbike. Because the motorbike gave off a lot of smoke and a stench of turpentine it was known as the "Chimney".
Soichiro Honda started Honda Motor Company in 1948, at the age of 41. Soon after, he hooked up with financial whiz Takeo Fujisawa and together they built an empire. Honda enlisted 13,000 bicycle shops in Japan as Honda dealers. This move, combined with a decently reliable product, catapulted the company forward.
In 1948, Honda introduced a 90cc version of the A-Type known as the "B-Type".
By 1949, Honda came out with the "D-Type". Mr. Honda was involved in every step of the two-stroke D-Type Dream's design and manufacture. This was Honda's first motorcycle. This was far from simply slotting a motor into a pushbike frame. Honda called his machine 'The Dream', because his dream of building a complete, motorcycle had come true. Soichiro Honda was an engineer and was always looking to produce better and more sophisticated machines.
Honda had another dream and it turned out to be the 146cc, OHV, four-stroke E-Type Dream. A powerful machine producing 5 1/2bhp capable of 50mph. It had a steel frame and proper suspension front and rear. By October 1951, the new Dream was in production at the rate of 130 units per day. Sales success allowed Honda to focus vigorously on two key ingredients: quality and design.
In 1952, Honda produced the first "Cub" F-Type, a 1/2 horsepower, 50cc, two-stroke engine that was produced in huge numbers. You could get one to fit to your pushbike or buy the complete red and white Honda "Auto Bai". Less than a year after its introduction, production was 6500 units per month, at that time it was 70% of Japan's powered two-wheeler market.
Sales continued to boom, but the end of Korean War in 1953 triggered an economic depression in Japan that almost ruined Honda. The company survived, bolstered by the sale of Cub clip-on motors that were attached to bicycles. Healthy again, Honda produced the 90cc, four-stroke single, a motorcycle of even greater sophistication. This was known as the Benly; in Japanese this means "convenience". The J-Type Benly had a three-speed gearbox, produced 3.8bhp, a pressed steel frame, rear suspension with the engine and swinging arm on a sprung pivot, and telescopic front suspension. Before long, they were selling at a rate of 1000 units a month.
In 1954, a 200cc scooter, the Juno, was introduced to capture some of the sales from the Vespa scooter copies that were being built in Japan. Honda produced different versions of the Dream and Benly motorcycles over the next few years incorporating different size engines (up to 350cc) and other refinements.
In September 1957, Honda introduced their first twin-cylinder motorcycle, the sophisticated 250cc OHC four-stroke C70 Dream. It was the forerunner of Honda's high-performance 125 and 250cc twins.
In early 1958, Honda fitted an electric starter to the 250cc Dream and named it the C71 and, in 1959, the latest Benly an incredibly sophisticated 125cc OHC four-stroke twin, capable of 70mph was introduced as the C92.
In July 1958, Honda introduced in Japan what became the world's most successful motor cycle, the C100 Super Cub.
The Super Cub was developed over three years to be a cheap and practical motorcycle that literally anyone could use. It used a 50cc four-stroke OHV motor and centrifugal clutch with three-speed transmission. It was so easy to operate that even new riders could ride it as easily as a pushbike. Its innovative frame without a crossbar made it popular with the ladies and set a new trend in commuter motorcycling. The word "scooterette" was coined to describe this step-through style motorbike which sold in 50, 70 and 90cc versions.
By 1959, Honda was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, producing 500,000 units a year. This success turned Honda's focus to another dream…the American Dream.
Honda Motor Company wanted to expand internationally. They figured there was a world-wide market for light, economical, fun-to-ride motorcycles. The surveys suggested Europe and Southeast Asia while downplaying the United States as a potential market. The reasons: annual sales of only 60,000 units and a negative motorcycling image.
Honda management eventually ignored the surveys. One reason: Honda's model line of 50cc to 300cc models would not compete directly with the large-displacement models preferred by the U.S. market. Mr. Fujisawa championed another reason: the world's consumer economy focused on the U.S. acceptance in the American market would offer a base for world acceptance.
Kihachiro Kawashima was selected as Executive Vice President and General Manager of American Honda Motor Company. Joined by seven employees, he opened a shop in a small storefront office on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Its operating capital: $250,000. The date: June 4, 1959. The market sought: consumers wanting small, light, easy to handle and maintain two-wheeled vehicles.