The History of the Honda Motor Company

The history of the Honda Motor Company began with an autophile and his dream. Japanese entrepreneur Soichiro Honda had loved motor vehicles almost since birth. When he was fifteen, he started working at an auto repair shop, and his passion grew. His greatest dream was to become a world-renowned car racer, and it was an ambition which he would fulfill in time. But first, the auto lover found himself employed as a technician. During his free time, he nurtured his growing interest in motor vehicles by building race cars and tooling with his Harley motorcycle.

Honda possessed a natural talent for anything motorized, and his skills allowed him to open the doors of his very own repair shop in 1928. As his curiosity grew, he attended technical school in order to discover the perfect way to manufacture a piston ring. Honda combined his inborn knowledge with his new technical knowledge to take the first tentative steps toward entrepreneurial success. He utilized what he had learned about piston rings to form the Tokai Seiki Company.

In 1928, he secured his first of many patents (for automobile wheel spokes). Then, as World War II ravaged Japan, Honda cornered the market on badly needed generator motors. His growing capital allowed him to break ground on the Honda Technical Research Laboratory in 1946. Just two short years later, the Honda Motor Company, Ltd. would open its doors in Hamanatsu. The motor world would never be the same. The company initially found its niche in the manufacture of motorcycles. Following the launch of the company’s first success—the “C” model motorcycle—Honda and his then-twenty employees launched themselves into motor history with the three horsepower, two-speed transmission “D” model. The motorcycle was aptly named the “Dream D” after jubilant employees allegedly shouted “It’s like a dream!” upon its completion. And a dream it was. The “Dream D” was like a dream come true for the war-recovering Japanese society: it was inexpensive; it conserved valuable fuel; and, perhaps most importantly, it provided a temporary escape from the surrounding troubles. The overwhelming success of the “D” model and the later “E” model helped Honda build a reputation for quality and design supremacy, even when an early-1950s economic depression threatened to dim the company’s shining star.

By 1955, Honda had weathered the storm and saw his dream at least partially realized when his company became the top motorcycle manufacturer in Japan. When those top sales figures expanded to include the world in 1959, Honda began to realize the enormous potential in a global expansion of his empire. While his business associates encouraged him to open a plant in either Europe or Southern Asia, Honda saw potential in another market: the American market. Marketing experts pleaded with Honda to change his mind, citing the low sales figures for motorcycles in the United States. But Honda and his trusted advisor Fujisawa ignored the pleas, realizing that America was becoming an increasingly important presence in the global marketplace.

In 1959, newly appointed Executive Vice President and General Manager Kihachiro Kawashima officially introduced American Honda Motor Company to the American public. With a $250,000 “allowance,” the time was now or never for Honda America. Due to the disinterest of skeptical American dealers, AHMC set up shop in various hardware stores and sporting good stores. The new enterprise faced a hard sell to dealers and the public alike: the name Japan still held negative connotations for an American society struggling with its own wartime memories; fuel efficiency was not foremost in the minds of much of the public; and the vehicles of America were expected to be faster and leaner than their Japanese counterparts. However, at the same time AHMC was experiencing the growing pains of a rookie company, Soichiro Honda was fulfilling his lifelong dream of mastery on the racing circuit.

He won the Isle of Man in the early 1960s, and continued a steadily rising string of successes on the race course. This publicity helped boost the Honda image in America, and Honda’s reputation was further boosted when it was honored with its first manufacturer’s award in 1962. The company also reached out to a weary public through an ambitious magazine advertising campaign that emphasized Honda’s strengths: dependability, fuel efficiency, simplicity, easy maintenance, and a unique (rebellious?) design. AHMC struck one final blow to the competition with its risky—and expensive!—advertising onslaught during the 1964 Academy Awards. But the ploy worked, jumpstarting sales by millions. Despite its slow start, AHMC was dominating sales in the same manner as its Japanese counterpart by the end of its fifth year (matching the original HMC’s 65% share of the market with its own impressive 62% share). Soon, the company would become the standard bearer in the industry, pioneering both the Motorcycle Industry Council and the Motorcycle Safety Council. It would also solidify its image with a series of philanthropic efforts. With the success of the American Honda Motor Company, Honda felt more confident than ever in his next goal: dominance in the automobile industry. He faced hurdles from the government, which delayed its approval for Honda’s entrance into automobile manufacturing. Part of the reason for this hesitation was Honda’s subsidization of its US market, which led to questionable pricing practices in Japan.

In spite of the initial delays, Honda unveiled its first automobile and truck products in 1962. In 1969, American Honda also introduced its first automobile import, the N600 Sedan. The story was much the same: initial skepticism (could a motorcycle man really make effective automobiles?), followed by eventual success. The enormous popularity of Honda’s “CB” model motorcycles helped convince the public that their faith in Honda was well-placed. So, when Honda embarrassed the competition with his environmental-friendly Civic automobile (in a time of growing pollution concerns) in 1972, both the American public and the American government were more than receptive. Soon, Honda International Trading was exporting its now-successful American creations to Japan, closing the circle of success. When the top-selling Accord made its way onto American streets a few short months later, the Honda success story was finally complete: Japanese motorcycle supremacy, worldwide motorcycle supremacy, and now automobile supremacy.

His vision finally fulfilled, Honda retired in 1973, leaving Kiyoshi Kawashima to carry on his legacy. Honda would witness the birth of yet another successful corporation (Honda of America Manufacturing in Marysville, Ohio), which would revolutionize the workplace with its emphasis on teamwork and cooperativeness. Honda would also be on hand for a Team Honda first-place victory in world motocross in 1981, for the crowning of a new American Honda president (Tetsuo Chino) in 1983, for a series of honorary distinctions (including a clean sweep of the Motor Trend Import Cars of the Year selections), and for a most fitting 25th anniversary present of record-setting sales. For all of his contributions and milestones, Soichiro Honda set another standard when he became the first Asian to be inducted into the U.S. Automotive Hall of Fame. Today, Honda’s selection of Accords, Civics, Preludes, Passports, Acuras, and Odysseys bear the Honda seal of excellence. Millions of motorcycle and automobile lovers around the world can attest to that excellence.

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