One Hundred Years - happy birthday to Soichiro Honda

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The Suzuka factory in 1971 - just 13 years after the first factory was built.

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November 17, 2006 We regularly note significant historical milestones and today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of a significant technological achiever. Soichiro Honda, the founder of the Honda Motor Company was born this day, November 17, 1906. The son of a blacksmith and a weaver, Soichiro was fascinated by machines and how they worked. One of his earliest memories was being enthralled by the first motor car he had ever seen. He later said: “As the car rolled through our small village I turned and chased after that car for all I was worth.” The young Soichiro may not have been able to catch the car, but it signalled the chasing of his dream: to build his own cars and motorcycles and win world championships with them. Without formal education, Honda forged an empire encompassing road cars, All-Terrain Vehicles, engines, generators, outboard motors, personal watercraft, water pumps, scooters, snowblowers, robots and more recently jet aircraft.

By the age of 15, Soichiro hadn’t any formal education, but he had a thirst for knowledge and a passion for engineering. After a few years of helping his father in their bicycle repair business, Soichiro started as an apprentice at a garage, working as a car mechanic before starting his own auto repair business in 1928. Racing was an early passion. Soichiro built his first racing car with parts including a V8 aircraft engine, but he left racing in 1936 after a serious accident.

After selling his first company, Honda Motor Company was formed in 1948 . The first Honda motorcycle – the A Type – was an early success, proving to Soichiro that motorcycles could be the answer to cheap transportation. Early machines were refined until the development of the legendary 1958 Super Cub.

Honda’s passion for racing was still in his blood and soon the Isle of Man TT races would provide the pedestal to advertise the quality of Honda’s motorcycles. In 1954 he said: “I here avow my intention that I will participate in the TT race and I proclaim with my fellow employees that I will pour all my energy and creative powers into winning.”

Though his machines went on to conquer world motorcycle racing, there were many setbacks along the way.

The following excerpt from Honda F-1 1964-1968 by Nigensha Publishing tells of his first major challenge on the global stage.

Mr. Honda set off on his trip to Europe on June 9, 1954. His primary objective was to observe the Isle of Man TT Races with his own eyes. He arrived at this Mecca of motorcycle racing, once only a distant object of desire, on June 13. The first thing he did was to inspect the race courses. These were not circuits built exclusively for racing, but literal road courses, sections of ordinary roadway closed off for the races. One was the Mountain course, 60.725 km long, and the other was the 17.36-km long Clyps course. Both appeared even more demanding than he had heard. His first sight of the assembled Grand Prix machines from all those different countries also overwhelmed Honda. He examined them in minute detail, squatting down in his usual way.

The shock he received when the race began was even greater. Years later, a motor journalist named Shotaro Kobayashi asked him: "What made you happiest as an engineer?"

This was Honda's response: "To start with, I'll tell you what most disappointed me.

It was when I first went to see the Isle of Man TT Races in 1954. What amazed me was seeing machines running with about three times greater power than we had been considering. From Italy, Germany and England, they all came together to the Isle of Man and I watched them shoot off like arrows. Not only were these machines unlike any we'd ever seen before, we'd never even dreamed of such a sight. When I went and saw that, my first reaction was a shock of disappointment. I had gone there after spreading talk all over Japan about how Honda would enter the TT Races, so this was a terrible shock to me. What did I say, I wondered, and what am I going to do? Then I pulled myself together and took another look. After a good night's sleep, I went back and looked at the racecourse again the next morning. Then it came to me. These people here have a history, and that's why they can make machines like these. We don't have that history, but we've seen these machines, and that can have the same effect for us as history."

Though initially regarded with amusement by the racing establishment, the small Japanese team improved dramatically at each outing and soon found the reliability and speed to be competitive. Being competitive and winning are different matters though, and Honda realised he needed to procure the necessary riding expertise to win. He did this by hiring the best, and his dreams were realised in 1961, two years after Honda’s debut on the Island, when Mike Hailwood won the Ultra-Lightweight and Lightweight TTs.

Other dreams were subsequently chased and realised: Formula 1 wins, a Formula 2 championship and countless motorcycle titles. Since then, Honda has diversified into road cars, All-Terrain Vehicles, engines, generators, outboard motors, personal watercraft, water pumps, scooters, snowblowers, robots and now jet aircraft.

Soichiro Honda remained president until his retirement in 1973, but he stayed on as a director and was appointed ‘supreme advisor’ in 1983. During his retirement, Soichiro remembered his humble roots and spent much of his time working with the Honda Foundation, which was set up to aid non-profit-making organisations which help youngsters in minority or impoverished communities.

It was fitting that his was an active retirement, as both Soichiro and his wife Sachi both held private pilot’s licences and he also enjoyed sports as diverse as hang-gliding, skiing and ballooning. Long after retirement he was still often seen on the shop-floor, discussing problems with his engineers and managers.

Soichiro Honda died on August 5th 1991, but dreams never die. From the HondaJet down to the humblest lawnmower, all Honda products have been infused by the DNA of the dreams of Soichiro Honda.

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