This short article was written for Motor Trend magazine.
WITH THE DEATH of 84-year-old Soichiro Honda, the world’s auto industry has lost one of its greatest individuals, a forward-thinking leader whose name belongs right up there with the likes of Henry Ford and Walter P. Chrysler. Unlike Ford, of course, Honda wasn’t the first to mass-produce automobiles, and unlike Chrysler, he wasn’t a natural corporate administrator – that task he left to his fastidious partner, Takeo Fujisawa – but in one turbulent generation, he took a new company from a shed on a bomb site to dazzling showrooms throughout the world, from motorized bicycles to the best-selling car in the U.S. and the most successful powerplant in the Formula One World Championship.
The son of a blacksmith, Honda showed little academic aptitude, gladly leaving school at 15 and failing, in his early 30s, to qualify for a diploma at technical college. He was too busy doing things to study. As an apprentice at a Tokyo car repair shop, he gained useful technical knowledge, particularly after the business-boosting Tokyo earthquake and ensuing fires of 1923, and by 1927 he’d opened his own shop in his home town of Hammamatsu. His ambition to become a race driver was ended by a near-fatal accident, and his first business diversification, in the manufacture of piston rings, then aircraft propeller tools, was stopped by allied bombers. What little was left of Honda’s workshop after World War Two he sold to Toyota Motor Corporation, buying time to design a rotary weaving machine and indulge his ideas for the commercial extraction of salt from seawater.
Less than a year after the war, though, Honda was unable to resist a military surplus bargain – 500 small generator engines that he and 12 others attached to bicycles. Soon Honda was also making hiw own 50-cubic-centimetre two-stroke engine, capable in the days of gas shortages of running on pine-resin fuel, and before long he was making the cycle frames, too.
In September 1948, the Honda Motor Company was formally established, with capital of about $1500. In 1951, Honda switched from two- to four-stroke engines. In 1954, the Japanese recession and bankrupt creditors came close to sinking the company, which had just invested 10 times its value on machine tools. By 1958, it was the first company to sell more than a million motorcycles in a year and had timidly begun exports to the U.S., and by 1962 Honda had unveiled its first automobile, a mini-size device with buzzy 531-, 606- and 791-cubic-centimetre engines. Foreigners regarded those cars as something of a joke, but before he died, and perhaps even before he retired in 1973, Soichiro Honda had the last laugh.