Soichiro Honda (本田宗一郎, Honda Sōichirō, November 17, 1906 - August 5, 1991)was a Japanese engineer and industrialist, best known as the founder of Honda Motor Co., Ltd.. He was born in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka, Japan. As president of the Honda Motor Company, Soichiro Honda began producing motorcycles in 1948. Honda turned the company into a billion-dollar multinational corporation that produced the best-selling motorcycles in the world. As a result of Honda's excellent engineering and clever marketing, Honda motorcycles out-sold Triumph Motorcycles and Harley-Davidson in their respective home markets. Honda Motor Company began producing automobiles in 1963 and by the 1980's was Japan's third largest auto manufacturer.
Honda was known for his willingness to take risks and for his unique style of management, which emphasized personal initiative and relied on a close relationship between management and workers. Honda remained president until his retirement in 1973, stayed on as director, and was appointed "supreme adviser" in 1983. His legendary status was such that People magazine placed him on their list of the "25 Most Intriguing People of the Year" for 1980, dubbing him "the Japanese Henry Ford."
Soichiro Honda was born on November 17, 1906, in Komyo Village (now Tenryu City), Iwata Gun (County), Shizuoka Prefecture, as the eldest son of Gihei Honda and his wife Mika. In 1913 Honda entered elementary school. Gihei Honda was the local blacksmith but could turn his hands to most things, including dentistry when the need arose, and Honda spent his early childhood helping his father with a bicycle repair business. At the time his mother, Mika, was a weaver.
In 1914, he saw an automobile for the first time. For the rest of his life, Soichiro Honda said that he never forgot the day he ran, a small and insignificant figure, after that motorcar. Long before it actually reached Yamahigashi (now called Tenryu-shi), a small village in Japan's Shizuoka Prefecture, the car’s extraordinary engine noise heralded its arrival. Hearing the rumble, the small boy was at first astonished, then excited, and finally enthralled. Later he would describe that moment as a life-changing experience. According to Honda, as the car drew closer, he began to tremble, and as the car passed and the dust cloud engulfed him, it triggered something inside him. "I turned and chased after that car for all I was worth," he said later. "I could not understand how it could move under its own power. And when it had driven past me, without even thinking why, I found myself chasing it down the road, as hard as I could run."
He had no chance of catching it, and the experience became a symbol for his life; he was always chasing something that was just beyond his reach. When the car had long departed, the young boy continued to stand there in the empty road, breathing in the fumes of its gasoline. When he came upon a drop spilled on the dusty track, he dropped to his knees and sniffed the oily stain, like a man in a desert smelling water.
Honda's spirit of adventure and his determination to explore the development of new technology had their roots in his childhood. The family was not wealthy, but Gihei Honda instilled in his children the ethic of hard work and a love of mechanical things. Soichiro soon learned how to whet the blades of farm machinery, and how to make his own toys. He was fascinated by the noise of the small engine that powered a nearby rice mill, and demanded daily that his grandfather take him to watch it in action. At school he was given the nickname 'black nose weasel' (less derogatory in Japanese than it sounds in English), because his face was always dirty from helping his father in the forge. There are numerous stories of Honda’s technical ingenuity during his childhood, including his use of a bicycle pedal rubber to forge his family's seal on school reports that were less than promising.
His father opened a shop, and the bicycles that they sold helped Honda to hone his engineering skills. The dream of that car on the country road drew him like a magnet towards anything mechanical. In 1917, a pilot called Art Smith flew into the Wachiyama military airfield to demonstrate his biplane's aerobatic capabilities. Eleven-year-old Honda raided the family's petty cash box, 'borrowed' one of his father's bicycles, and rode the 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) to a place he had never before visited. When he got there he found that the price of admission, let alone a flight, was far beyond his meager budget, but he climbed a tree to watch the plane in motion, and that was enough. When Gihei Honda learned what his son had done to get to the airfield, he was more impressed with his initiative, determination and resilience than he was angry with him for taking the money and the bike.
Just before he left middle school, Soichiro Honda saw an advertisement for “the Manufacture and Repair of Automobiles, Motorcycle and Gasoline Engines” by a company named "Art Shokai" in a magazine called Bicycle World. At 15, without any formal education, Honda arrived in Tokyo to look for work. In 1922, he obtained an apprenticeship at Art Shokai.
Honda started out doing menial tasks at Art Shokai, and gradually became a trusted mechanic. Yuzo Sakakibara, the owner, took notice of the young man's ability and taught him not only how to do mechanical repairs, but how to deal with customers and the importance of taking pride in his technical ability. At that time ownership of automobiles and motorcycles was restricted to the upper class, and most automobiles were foreign-made.
Sakakibara also encouraged Honda's interest in the world of motor sports. In 1923, the company began making racing cars under Sakakibara’s leadership, with the help of his younger brother Shinichi, Honda, and a few other students. Their first model was the “Art Daimler,” fitted with a second-hand Daimler engine; then they created the famous machine born from the marriage of a “Curtiss” aircraft engine and an American Mitchell chassis. (This car is still preserved in the Honda Collection Hall in operable condition). Making parts for this monster gave Honda invaluable experience. On November 23, 1924, the “Curtiss” won a stunning victory in its first race at the Fifth Japan Automobile Competition, with Shinichi Sakakibara as driver and 17-year-old Soichiro Honda as accompanying engineer.
As customers brought in Mercedes, Lincolns, and Daimlers for attention, Honda's experience and ambition grew. At the age of 20, Honda was called up for military service but, because he was color blind, he avoided spending any time in the military.
In April of 1928, Honda completed his apprenticeship and opened a branch of Art Shokai in Hamatsu, the only one of Sakakibara’s trainees to be granted this degree of independence. It opened its doors for business on April 25, 1928, the day that, thousands of miles away on Daytona Beach, Frank Lockhart died trying to break the land speed record. Lockhart, a mechanical genius, had set new standards for race car design, and in the years that followed, Soichiro Honda's own technological ideas would similarly revolutionize Japan's motorcycle and automobile industries.
Honda, however, never sought dominance in his homeland; at a time when Japanese nationalism was at its peak, he saw from a broader point of view. "I knew that if I could succeed in the world market," he said, "then automatically it would follow that we led in the Japanese market."
A photograph taken around 1935 shows the Hamamatsu factory and the Art Shokai Hamamatsu Branch Fire Engine, fitted with a heavy-duty water pump. The Hamamatsu branch had grown from one person to a staff of 30, and the factory manufactured dump trucks and converted buses to carry more passengers. In October of 1935, Honda married his wife Sachi, who joined the business as a bookkeeper and accompanied him in his travels for the rest of his life. In 1936, Soichiro Honda had an accident during the opening race at the Tamagawa Speedway; he was not seriously injured but his younger brother Benjiro fractured his spine. Honda raced only once more, in October of that year. In 1937 war broke out in China, and during a so-called “national emergency” motor car racing was out of the question in Japan.
In 1936, dissatisfied with repair work, Honda set up “Tokai Seiki Heavy Industry” with Shichiro Kato as president. Honda threw himself into the new project and started the “Art Piston Ring Research Center,” working by day at the old factory and developing piston rings at night. After a series of failures, he enrolled part-time at Hamamatsu Industrial Institute (now the Faculty of Engineering at Shizuoka University ) to improve his knowledge of metallurgy. For two years he worked and studied so hard, it was said, that his face became altered and he looked like a different person. When his manufacturing trials finally succeeded, he handed the Art Shokai Hamamatsu Branch over to his trainees and became president of Tokai Seiki. The company began to manufacture piston rings, but their technology proved faulty. Honda had a contact at Toyota Motor Company Ltd; out of the fifty piston rings he submitted to their quality control, only three met Toyota’s standards. After two more years of investigating manufacturing techniques at universities and steel makers all over Japan, he was in a position to supply mass-produced parts to Toyota and Nakajima Aircraft. His company now employed two thousand workers.
In 1941, Japan entered the Pacific War, and Tokai Seiki was placed under the control of the Ministry of Munitions. In 1942, Toyota took over 45 percent of the company’s equity and Honda was downgraded from president to senior managing director. As male employees were gradually called up for military service, and replaced with women from the volunteer corps, Honda devised ways to automate the production of piston rings.
Air raids on Japan intensified and it was clear that the country was headed for defeat. Hamamatsu was smashed to rubble and Tokai Seiki’s Yamashita Plant was also destroyed. The company suffered a further calamity on January 13, 1945, when the Nankai earthquake struck the Mikawa district and the Iwata Plant collapsed.
Employees in the Art Shokai shop soon learned that Honda would not tolerate sloppy workmanship and poor performance. Honda's hot temper did not always encourage loyalty, but the employees who stayed recognized his total determination to succeed and to establish an engineering business second to none. After selling his business to Toyota Motor Corporation in 1945, Honda founded the Honda Technical Research Institute, which was incorporated in 1948 as Honda Motor Company. Honda focused his considerable energies on engineering, using all the experience he had painstakingly accumulated, including the time he had spent studying piston ring design at Hamamatsu and subsequent experimentation with a small engine-powered bicycle.
In 1948, Honda had a chance meeting with Takeo Fujisawa. The two men found they shared an interest in long-term investment, rare in post-war Japan, and agreed to work together. Fujisawa invested and took on the marketing responsibilities, and Honda continued to work on the technological side of the business. The first fruit of their partnership was a 98 cc two-stroke motorcycle, appropriately named 'Dream.' In the years that followed, Honda Motor Co. came close to financial collapse several times, for both Honda and Fujisawa were gamblers who knew that expansion would only be possible with risk. Growth at one stage was unprecedented, until the purchase of state-of-the-art machinery in the early 1950s brought them perilously close to bankruptcy. Honda was never faint-hearted.
Honda did much of the market research for his products, traveling to races all over the world and examining the competition’s motorcycles. When a benchmark was set with a competitive product, Honda would take this information home and strive to surpass it. His attitude took Honda motorcycles from a disappointing finish in their first international race in 1954, to a manufacturer’s team prize in the 1959 Isle of Man TT, Honda’s first year at that race. Two years later they won the Isle of Man TT again. Honda’s successes in racing resulted in successful sales. In 1959, Honda had topped the Japanese motorcycle sales chart with 285,000 units; two years later, Honda was selling at rate of 100,000 units a month. In the early 1960s Honda began racing in the Formula 1 series. By 1965, Honda had achieved a first place victory in the Mexican Grand Prix and several wins in Formula 2 the following year. The first effort, with the 1.5 liter V12 of 1964, succeeded just as the small-bore formula was ending. The subsequent 3 liter V12 was over-engineered and far too heavy, but won the Italian Grand Prix with John Surtees in 1967. Honda's next effort dominated throughout the late 1980s and the early 1990s, until Renault's arrival and Honda's decision to pull back in 1992. "Racing is in our blood," former president Nobuhiko Kawamoto once declared.
When Honda decided to begin exporting its products, the United States was chosen as its first target market. Most Japanese companies concentrated on exporting to Southeast Asia and Europe first, and avoided the United States until they were well-established overseas. Fujisawa explained that Honda always faced its toughest challenges first. When Honda first introduced its motorcycles into the United States in 1959, the Japanese government interfered by restricting the amount of investment that could leave the country. Soichiro Honda believed his products to be of the best quality, but the American public was disillusioned when Honda motorcycles began to blow gaskets and lose clutches. Shocked, Honda brought the motorcycles back to Japan. Using the investment funds which the Japanese government had refused to allow him to take to the United States, he re-engineered the motorcycles to meet the demands of American consumers, who rode at much higher speeds and for longer distances than Japanese motorcycle riders. By 1963, Honda had become the top-selling motorcycle in the United States.
Honda rejected conventional Japanese management techniques and promoted “the Honda way,” which emphasized personal initiative and depended on a close relationship between workers and management. He constantly asked his employees for their opinions and listened to their ideas. This freedom to express opinions openly contributed to the Honda Motor Company’s success. Honda personally tested the new models of motorcycles and cars until shortly before he retired as company president in 1973.
In the early 1960’s Honda decided to begin the production of automobiles. The Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry had decided to limit the automotive industry by merging Japan’s ten automotive manufacturers into two major companies (Nissan and Toyota) and one minicar manufacturer. Honda defiantly introduced the S360 sportscar in 1963, and by the early 1980s had become the third largest Japanese automaker.
Honda remained president until his retirement in 1973, stayed on as director, and was appointed "supreme adviser" in 1983. His legendary status was such that People magazine placed him on their list of the "25 Most Intriguing People of the Year," for 1980, dubbing him "the Japanese Henry Ford." In retirement, Honda busied himself with work connected with the Honda Foundation.
Even at an advanced age, Soichiro and his wife Sachi both held private pilot's licences. Soichiro also enjoyed skiing, hang-gliding and ballooning at 77, and was an accomplished artist. He and Fujisawa had made a pact never to force their own sons to join the company. His son, Hirotoshi Honda, is the founder and former CEO of Mugen Motorsports, a company which tuned Honda motorcycles and automobiles and also created original racing vehicles.
Soichiro Honda died on August 5, 1991 of liver failure.
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