Honda motorcycles is one of the great motorcycle success stories of our times, started by an entrepreneur with a dream who just had a great idea and the courage to put his ideas into practice. Soichiro Honda, who was born in November 1906 in Hamamatsu Shizuoka, started his interest in all things mechanical by helping his father who ran a bicycle repair business - a fact which undoubtedly later helped him in the development of his own business. He was obviously an enterprising boy and set off for Tokyo when he was fifteen to look for work, only returning home to start his own business when he had learnt a trade as a garage mechanic.
The Boy Honda
From a young age, Honda's founder, Soichiro Honda (本田 宗一郎, Honda
Sōichirō) had a great interest in engines. After training as a mechanic he worked at a Japanese tuning shop, Art Shokai, where he tuned cars before they were entered in races. While he was there he invented a piston design which he hoped to sell to Toyota. When the first drafts of his design were rejected, he worked painstakingly to perfect the design, even going back to school and pawning his wife's jewellery for collateral to finance his efforts.
Eventually, he won the contract with Toyota and built a factory to construct pistons for them, but sadly after all his efforts, the factory was destroyed in an earthquake! Never one to give up though, Honda sold off the remains of his factory to Toyota, earning him enough capital to start a factory of his own.
The birth of the Honda Cub
Things which were happening in the world at the time gave Mr Honda the impetus to evolve. During World War II there was a gasoline shortage meaning that he was unable to use his car to get around so he had the novel idea of attaching a small engine to his bicycle. Having grown up with a father who ran a bicycle repair shop, and done an apprenticeship as a garage mechanic, this was something which he had the skills to do. When he had made this contraption and began riding it around, it attracted a great deal of interest and 'transport envy' from people who saw it and this inspired him to establish the Honda Technical Research Institute in Hamamatsu, Japan, to develop and produce small 2-cycle motorbike engines.
To finance his venture, Honda called upon 18,000 bicycle shop owners across Japan to take part in revitalizing a nation torn apart by war, and he received enough capital to engineer his first motorcycle, the Honda Cub.
Make do and mend motorcycles
Looking around for a solution to his and other peoples transport problems, Honda came across a job lot of 500 war surplus two-stroke motors designed to power electric generators; nobody else wanted them so Honda picked them up cheap.
His aim was to adapt them for attachment to push-bikes and, by
October 1946, his small factory in Hamamatsu was making complete,
makeshift motor bikes using proprietary cycle frames. Because gasoline
was in short supply, Honda adapted his motors to run on turpentine, a
fuel that he himself distilled from pine trees and sold throughout
Japan. Turpentine (or gas thinned out with turpentine) was not the
best thing for powering motorbikes, and required a lot of strenuous
pedalling to warm the engine up enough before you could get going, but at least they worked and got people from A to B.
Start as you mean to go on
This was the auspicious beginning of the Honda Motor Company, which would grow, by 1964 to be the world's largest manufacturer of motorcycles - no mean feat! The Honda story is the story of one man's unparalleled achievement of bringing motor cycles to the masses, born out of necessity in post World War II Japan, where public transportation was desperately overcrowded and gasoline severely restricted.
Honda's first bikes were very successful but his supply of cheap
surplus engines ran out after a few months. Business was booming for Honda by then so he decided to start manufacturing his own motors. So, using the surplus motor as a model, Honda designed and built his own 50cc engine.
By November 1947, the 1/2 horsepower A-Type Honda was being manufactured and sold as a complete motorbike rather than an engine tacked on to a push bike. Because the motorbike gave off a lot of smoke and a stench of turpentine its nickname was the "Chimney".
Enter Honda Motor Company - a story of success...
Soichiro Honda started the Honda Motor Company, at the age of
41. Soon after he hooked up with financial whiz Takeo Fujisawa and
together they began to build an empire.
Honda introduced a 90cc version of the A-Type known as
1949Honda came out with the "D-Type". Maybe one of Soichiro Honda's keys to success was that he was involved in every step of the two-stroke D-Type Dream's design and manufacture, and as an engineer he was always looking to produce better, more efficient and more sophisticated machines.
1951The D-type was swiftly followed by the OHV for-stroke E-type Dream,
1952Honda 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
1953Honda 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
1954A 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.
1957In September 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.
1958In July Honda introduced in Japan what became the world's most
successful motorcycle, 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 women 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. Also early in 1958 Honda fitted an electric starter to the 250cc Dream and named it the C71.
The latest Benly, an incredibly sophisticated 125cc OHC four-stroke twin, capable of 70mph was introduced as the C92.
them apart from the machines of 25 years ago.
That same year, Honda introduced the 250cc C72 Dream in
Amsterdam. This was the first Japanese bike to be officially shown in
Europe. It surprised the crowd with its unusual pressed steel frame,
swing arm and front leading link forks, sophisticated OHC all aluminium
engine, electric starter and indicators.
In the UK, learners had just been restricted to motorcycles of this
size and wanted the fastest bikes they could legally ride. Honda's
were the fastest 250s around, and the C72 with its improvements like
12-volt electrics and wet sump lubrication, successor of the C71, was
capable of 80mph and could still get 66 miles per gallon.
The CB92 retained the pressed-steel frame and leading link forks
while the CB72 received a tubular style frame and telescopic front
Two years after Honda started selling Super Cubs, Honda
stunned the racing world with "Mike the Bike" Hailwood's twin victories at the Isle of Man. It was the first of an unprecedented string of victories that was only the beginning of Honda's racing tradition.
From the beginning, Mr. Honda dedicated his company to racing,
racking up over a hundred major motorcycle championships around the world.
What was learned from building high-performance racing machines later
led to the development of ground breaking production motorcycles.
The classic CB72 and CB77 helped fuel interest in riding, got
America on two wheels, and established Honda as a serious player. The
Hawk name has appeared on Honda models CB72, CB77, CB400T, NT650,
VTR1000F ever since, the latest being the 1998 VTR1000F.
Not content with success on the race track Honda decided to re-brand themselves and try to lose the image that motorcyclists were all tough guys and rebels. to try to achieve this Honda put out this ground breaking advertising "You meet the nicest people on a Honda". This advert had successful popular appeal, making Honda and motorcycling in general, more appealing to everyone.
1963The C77 a 305cc version of the Dream and the CB77, a Super Sports
motorcycle producing 28.5bhp were introduced.
The C95 a 154cc version of the Benly and a 161cc version Of
the CB160 was also offered.
An indication of how much Honda motorcycles had got into the American psyche came in when Honda entered American pop culture in 1964 when the Hondells recorded a song called "Little Honda"
Honda, always eager for a new market, jumped into the big
league with their first big, fast production motorcycle, the innovative 43bhp CB450 twin. This was a double overhead-camshaft machine with torsion bar valve springs that would do a genuine 104mph, a machine to challenge the 500cc-plus bikes. Despite its performance, sales of the CB450 worldwide were Poor.
1967A number of engineering changes were made, and a five-speed gearbox was added. Honda also had their first big off-road win in the "first" Baja 1000.
Honda stopped production of the CB72 and CB77 and began production of
a new line of high performance SOHC twins with five-speed gearboxes,
called the CB250 and CB350, with the CB350 able to reach 106mph.
At the Tokyo Show Honda, after months of tantalizing rumours,
unveiled a landmark achievement that would change the motorcycling
world forever. A 750cc bike with four cylinders and a disc brake that
was so fast and powerful a new word, 'superbike', was coined to
describe it. The CB750F four was the biggest bike out of Japan,
proving that a high-performance motorcycle could also be very
1969In April Honda set the motorcycle world on fire with the
introduction of the CB750. Performance was staggering, easily hitting
120mph and at the time it had better acceleration than anything else
on the road.
In 1969 the first Honda automobile sold in the U.S., leading Honda
to become a pre-eminent automotive power as it entered the car market as well.
You may say I'm a dreamer....
Soichiro Honda was a racer, a businessman, and a manufacturer. But most of all he was a dreamer. He didn't just dream of a better way of making piston rings, but founded a small company, and began making them. He also dreamed of giving people everywhere an economical form of transportation, and actually put that into practice as well and began producing small motorcycles. And the story does not end there but Honda motorcycles are still supremely successful and have assembly plants around the globe. Honda now also produce cars, boat engines, aircraft, solar cells and robots to name but a few - and who knows what is on it's way next...