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Soichiro Honda

He was an Engineer Throughout his Life. ~A Business Hero in Postwar Japan

photo:Soichiro Honda

With his excellent ideas and strong spirit, he developed the world-famous Honda Motor Co., Ltd. from a single small factory in one generation. He founded “Motorcycle City Hamamatsu.” Though already president of his company, at the age of 30 he returned to school at Hamamatsu School of Technology (now Shizuoka University Faculty of Engineering). He put on the school uniform and hat and mixed in with the young students. Later, when his great deeds were recognized, he received the Japanese honors of Ranju Hosho (Medal with Blue Ribbon), Senior Third Rank the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun and others. He was also the first Japanese admitted to the Automotive Hall of Fame in America. In his later years he was saying “A founder of automaking doesn’t hold a flashy company funeral that stops traffic.” So, when he passed away, no formal funeral was held although each factory held a modest “Thank-you Gathering. ”It was the appropriate farewell for Soichiro.

Place of origin:Komyo village, Iwata-gun, Shizuoka Prefecture (present day Tenryu Ward, Hamamatsu)

“Behind the success of any big project, through the process of study and effort,is the accumulation of 99% errors.”
He started as a car mechanic and he retired as president. He built the world famous Honda Mortor Co., Ltd. in one generation. He said, “Don’t chase after the others. We must create something that surprises people.” He was always talking about originality, and was often called the Edison of Japan. Edison said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” In the same way, the success of Soichiro was supported by 99% failure.

He wanted to make something with his hands.

He was born in 1906 as the eldest son of a blacksmith in Komyo village, Iwata-gun, Shizuoka Prefecture (now Tenryu Ward, Hamamatsu). His father, Gihei, was a skilled craftsman. He was influenced by his father and liked to tinker with machines from a young age. He was very clever with his hands. He graduated from elementary school in 1922. After that he became an apprentice at Art Shokai, an auto repair shop in Tokyo. At first, the work was only cleaning and baby-sitting every day. But he cheered himself up, saying “I am very happy just seeing these cars.” He felt very satisfied. In between his chores he watched the work of the master and senior pupil with eager eyes. After one year passed, he was allowed to use a spanner. Then he could start to show his ability. His hands were dexterous with great sensitivity, and he liked cars more than anything else. From early morning until midnight, he worked away enthusiastically. After that, in 1928 he opened a branch of Art Shokai in Hamamatsu city. His master in Tokyo gave his blessings to this venture, and it should be noted that Soichiro was the only person who received such permission.

Art Shokai.

(Art Automobile Service station)
The Art Shokai Hamamatsu Branch in 1935. The car on the left is the “Hamamatsu.” Soichiro is standing next to the car wearing sunglasses. The 15th person from the left is his younger brother Benjiro. On the right, you can see an auto repair lift which was very rare in those days. This was also one of the inventions of Honda.

photo:Art Shokai.

Soichiro’s reputation of being able to repair anything spread all over Japan and he was earning as much as the Prime Minister. But he was not satisfied. “No matter how much I earn, repairing is repairing. I want to create something myself.” So he started to produce piston rings despite the objections of the people around him. But his challenge ended in disaster. He delivered 50 rings selected from 30,000 but only 3 rings met the requirements. This failure moved Soichiro to action. He realized how important it was to learn basic metallurgical theory. So he proceeded to study at Hamamatsu School of Technology (now Shizuoka University Faculty of Engineering ) as an auditing student.   After he completed his studies, he succeeded in mass production of the rings and took out 28 patents for them as well.

Gearing up for auto races

In July of 1936, the Japan Automobile Speed Competition was held for the first time in Japan at the Tamagawa Speedway, which was the first race circuit in Japan. Young Soichiro Honda and his younger brother Benjiro participated in this race with their automobile called the “Hamamatsu.” It was an American vehicle they had modified by themselves. They left all the other cars behind until the very end. Just before the goal, it crashed heavily as it tried to avoid another vehicle. Benjiro was thrown to the outside of the car and suffered bone fractures and severe contusions over his whole body. He required six months to recover. Soichiro also was injured on his face and left arm.

photo:Gearing up for auto races

How do you know without trying

In 1946, Soichiro established Honda Technical Research Institute and sold auxiliary engines for bicycles. The engine was modified from a small engine for a military radio. This product was the origin of Honda and the start of his dream. In 1947 he completed a motorized bicycle mounted with the "Honda A-type" auxiliary bicycle engine which was the first Honda engine. On the engine tank it said “Honda.” It was the first Honda product on the market. In 1948 he established the Honda Motor Co., Ltd. Next year, Honda started to sell its first all-in-house developed motorcycle, the “Dream D Type”.

“Honda A-Type”and“Dream”

The motorized bicycle which mounted the support engine with the name Honda on it for the first time is at left. The first full-fledged motorcycle “Dream D Type” is on the right. Soichiro named the bike “Dream” in hopes of realizing his dream to make Honda a global company.

Honda’s motorcycle production grew continuously. In 1952 Honda moved its headquarters to Tokyo from Hamamatsu. Although he was CEO, Soichiro worked alongside his young engineers. He used to say, “How do you know, without trying?” There was no President’s office in the headquarters or factories. “CEO, factory worker; these are only titles. Everyone should work equally in the company.”
However the technological gap between Japanese companies and foreign companies was tremendous. Soichiro set the company’s goal as “To catch up and get ahead of foreign companies and make products loved all over the world.” In order to realize this goal, Soichiro decided to participate in international motorcycle races. Their first race was the International motorcycle race in Brazil in 1954. In 1959 they participated in the Tourist Trophy (TT) race on the Isle of Man, which was a prestigious race in which many top riders competed. They took 6th, 7th and 8th places in the 125cc class and got a team maker award. In 1961, in just the third year of participation, they dominated 1st to 5th places in the 125cc and 250cc classes in the TT race on the Isle of Man. It made the reputation of the brand “Honda” known all over the world.
They also embarked on the development of automobiles. In 1959 they made their first prototype sedan type car with a 360cc engine displacement. Soichiro was not satisfied with it although it was a revolutionary car with front wheel drive. He said, “This is not the car I want to make. I want to make a more fun and exciting car.”

Hey, lets make a sports car!

At the beginning of 1962, Soichiro Honda firmly said, “Hey, let’s make a sports car!” As a result, a sports car was chosen as the initial passenger car to be developed by Honda Motor Co., Ltd. He thought of this car as one that people could feel pleasure in driving, not just as a means of transportation. In those days, small 4-passenger cars were the mainstream in Japan.
Developing a sports car was an unknown field, but his determination could not be swayed. He said, “We will not make cars to respond to demand. Instead we will create the demand.”

Test Drive for the “S500”

In 1963, a test drive for the “S500” was held at the Arakawa Test Drive Course which was located near the research institute of Honda Motor Co., Ltd. Soichiro Honda drove the “S500” himself. Honda’s first 4 wheel vehicle was actually a light truck, the “T360.” The first standard car was the two-seater sports car “S500.” This was the opening of a new era for Honda Motor Co., Ltd.

photo:『S500』試乗会

In this way, the two-seater sports car "Sports 360" and "Sports 500" were born. They were unveiled at the 9th All Japan Motor Car Show. People crowded into the show venue and these vehicles garnered great attention everywhere. And in the next year, in February of 1964, they started to sell the “S500” as Honda’s first standard car. In August of the same year, Honda took part in Formula One (F1) racing which is the preeminent motor car race in the world for the first time. Despite being a latecomer to the four-wheel market, Honda was determined to take part in F1 races. In those days this was nothing more than a dream for Japanese car manufacturers.
But Soichiro’s dream from early childhood was to be the world champion of car racing, so this was the first step in realizing his dream. In 1964, Honda took part in the German Grand Prix with Japan’s first F1 car, the “RA271,” and the next year, Honda won the Mexican Grand Prix. That was truly a brilliant achievement after only two years since their first F1 race. After that Honda joined F2 races. In 1966, Honda won an amazing 11 victories in a row in F2.
Honda came back to F1 racing again in 1983, and later earned its first F1 constructors championship. Soichiro Honda said: “We have neither history nor tradition. We don’t even have a single technical specialist. We have only our own craftsmanship.”. He was a man who chased his dreams fearlessly.