Soichiro Honda: The Founder of Honda and The Legend

Soichiro Honda was the son of a blacksmith who, through trial and error, war and natural disaster, built one of the world's greatest automobile brands, Honda.
Christopher McFadden
Soichiro HondaHonda

Soichiro Honda was a Japanese engineer and industrialist who would go on to found one of the world's best-known car brands, Honda. It was established in 1946 and Soichiro would oversee its expansion from a small wooden shack making bicycles to the multinational automobile and motorcycle manufacturer we all know today. 

As a teenager, Honda worked as an apprentice under one Yuzo Sakakibara who taught him a great deal about automobile and motorcycle engineering as well as running a business. His tutelage under Yuzo would be foundational to the future man Honda would become. This was a highly influential time for Soichiro where he would learn a great deal about many different kinds of motor vehicles. He would soon put this experience to great use when he strove out to build his own business.

Although this new company hit a few technical issues initially Honda would improve his knowledge of metallurgy at university, allowing him to produce quality parts for his customers. World War 2 would see his factory bombed out and an earthquake the following year would finally put an end to his first venture. Selling what remained of it to Toyota, Honda would use the proceeds to found Honda and make some of the world most famous motorcycles. The company would grow from strength to strength to become on the world's best-known automobile brands in the world.

"We have consistently chosen a most difficult path filled with hardships. We must possess the will to challenge difficulties and the wisdom to create new values without being bound by established standards. We do not wish to imitate others." Soichiro Honda, Founder

Early Life of Soichiro Honda

Soichiro Honda was born on November the 17th 1906 in Komya Village, Iawata County, Shizuoka Prefecture. He was the eldest son of Gihei (his father) and Mika (his mother) Honda. Gihei was a skilled blacksmith and his mother an accomplished weaver. His family was, relatively poor but Soichiro's childhood was, nonetheless, happy. His parents were insistent about the need for basic discipline and instilled a strong sense of honor and respect into young Soichiro. Partly thanks to his upbringing,  Honda would grow to despise inconveniencing others and held punctuality in high esteem. Honda also inherited his father's dexterity and curiosity for machines.

During Honda's early childhood bicycles were starting to become very popular in Japan. More and more customers were beginning to ask his father to repair their machines and, sensing an opportunity, he decided to open a repair shop of his own. Using his blacksmithing skills and willingness to learn he quickly grasped the basics repairing second-hand bicycles and re-selling them at competitive prices. From this moment his business began to be seen as the best bicycle store in the neighborhood. Soichiro would spend much of his childhood was spent helping his father with his bicycle repair business.

Honda had little interest in traditional education. His school would often hand out school grading reports to children to show their parents. These were to be returned to the school with a family seal to prove that the child's parents had indeed reviewed the document. Soichiro Honda, showing a spark of his future self, created a stamp to forge his family seal out of a used rubber bicycle pedal cover.  He soon provided the same service for his classmates diligently forging their family seals.

Soichiro Honda: The Founder of Honda and The Legend
Soichiro Honda (left) and Takeo Fujisawa (right) Source: Honda

Honda had an early fascination with cars

Unfortunately, this had gone a little too far and the entire fraud was uncovered as Honda was unaware, at the time, that stamps needed to be mirror-imaged. His family crest was symmetrical when written vertically and so was not a problem but some of his friends' were not. Honda, even as a toddler, was fascinated by cars. He would later recall how he never forgot the smell of oil that came off the first car he ever saw in his village. He even once borrowed one of his father's bicycles to see a demonstration of the airplane made by pilot Art Smith, which cemented his love for machinery and invention.

Just prior to Soichiro leaving school in 1922 Soichiro Honda saw an advert for an automobile servicing company Tokyo Art Shokai. The advert was for the "Manufacture and Repair of Automobiles, Motorcycles and Gasoline Engines". Honda also noticed that this company had placed quite a few adverts in automobile and bicycle magazines. Soichiro reasoned that Art Shokia must be one of Tokyo's top automobile repair workshops and that there must be many young men eager to take up apprenticeships with them. Soichiro decided that he had to work for them as soon as he was able. 

And so, at the age of 15, he decided to leave home and head for Tokyo to work as an apprentice in an Art Shokai garage in the Yushima area of Hongo, Tokyo in 1922. At this time employment was very different to what we expect today. Junior staff members were provided with board, lodging, and pocket money but received no official wages to speak of. His time at Art Shokai was incredibly influential for Soichiro and would influence much of his adult life.

Soichiro Honda: The Founder of Honda and The Legend
Honda worked as an apprentice at Art Shokai. Here he worked closely with the owners, the Sakakibara brothers to build, amongst other things, a Curtiss Racer. Soichiro can be seen in the middle of the above picture. Source: Honda

Honda gets spotted

Art Shokai's owner, Yuzo Sakakibara quickly spotted the young Honda's potential and Honda would learn a great deal about engineering and business from Yuzo. Sakakibara was the ideal teacher, both as an engineer and as a businessman. As well as understanding repair work he was also skilled in more complicated processes such as the manufacturing of pistons. 

Sakakibara's repair work included motorcycles and automobiles. At this time in Japan ownership of these types of transportation was restricted to a very limited social class. Most of the vehicles were also foreign made. Also at this time, there were many large and small car manufacturers around the world ranging from mass production to limited production runs of high-quality vehicles. To this end, Art Shokai was a literal crucible of fire for the young Honda who would quickly become familiar with a wide range of automobiles and motorcycles. Honda's thirst for knowledge and eagerness to learn would mean that his apprenticeship at Art Shokai was the ideal place for him to work at that time.

Soichiro would work very hard to extend and deepen his understanding and knowledge of automobile engineering. So much so, in fact, that he surprised many of his peers with his level of expertise. "When he was an apprentice at Art Shokai and when he was the manager of the branch in Hamamatsu, the Old Man learned so much by doing real work with real machines," said Kawashima. "He didn’t just have theoretical knowledge – he was an expert at all sorts of practical tasks like welding and forging. Those of us who had only studied the subject on paper from an academic standpoint just couldn’t compete."

After this time he returned home to start his own auto-repair business in 1928 at the tender age of 22.

Honda loved racing

During his time at Art Shokai, Sakakibara would encourage Soichiro's interest in motorsports. This was a past time that has a long history in Japan dating back to the early years of the Taisho Era (between 1912 and 1926). Starting out as motorcycle racing this industry would quickly expand to include full-scale car racing as early as the 1920's. This became a very popular sport in Japan with Japanese motor fans being fully aware of other global races like the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) as well as the Grand Prix and Le Mans races. In around 1923, Sakakibara decided to start to make racing cars.

Soichiro Honda: The Founder of Honda and The Legend
1928 editions of the automobile magazine "Motor". They contain articles on the new Art Shokai branch managed by Honda and information on the Isle of Man TT races. Source: Honda

Thier first racer was a so-called "Art Daimler" using a second-hand Daimler engine. Their second attempt was the "Curtis". This model can still be seen at the Honda Collection Hall in full working condition. The "Curtiss" was made using a second-hand engine from another American Curtiss "Jenny" A1 biplane that was fitted to the chassis of an American Mitchell car. On November 23, 1924, the "Curtiss" took part in its first race at the Fifth Japanese Automobile Competition. It even won a stunning victory with Shin’ichi Sakakibara as driver and Soichiro Honda as accompanying engineer. After that experience, the seventeen-year-old Honda would never lose his enthusiasm for motorsports.

When Honda reached the age of 20 he was called up for military service. During the medical, he was found to be color blind and. therefore, was excused from spending time in the military. 

Soichiro Honda: The Founder of Honda and The Legend
The Hamamatsu branch of Art Shokai, circa 1935. Honda can be seen wearing sunglasses next to the car on the left of the picture. Source: Honda

Honda is given his own workshop

In 1928 Honda successfully completed his apprenticeship and opened his own branch of Art Shokai in Hamamatsu. This would make him the only one of Sakakibara's trainees to do so. Soichiro Honda, at the age of 21, used all of his acquired skill and knowledge to expand the services of the garage far beyond simple vehicle repair. His efforts would later earn him the title of "Edison of Hamamatsu".

The above photograph from 1935 shows the Hamamatsu branch of Art Shokai. This branch also made a variety of other vehicles including dump trucks as well as converted buses that could be used to carry large numbers of passengers. If you look closely at the photograph you should be able to make out a vehicle repair lift devised by Honda himself. When speaking of the device Honda said: "A human being should not have to do his work crawling around underneath a car". 

By the mid-1930's the branch had grown from a single employee to around thirty. Soichiro's wife, Sachi, had also joined the company to help run it. The couple had actually married in October of the same year. She helped out by making meals for the live-in staff and helped keep the accounts up to date and accurate.

In June of 1936, Honda had a serious accident when racing the Hamamatsu racecar at the Tamagawa Speedway. Another racer was exiting the pits and he was unable to avoid a high-speed collision. His car rolled and Honda was thrown clear of the car. Thankfully for all involved, he was not seriously injured but his younger brother and mechanic Benjiro had his spine fractured. Despite the accident, Soichiro took part in another race in October of the same year.

Soichiro starts moonlighting

The 1936 season, with some coercion from his family, finally put a stop to his racing days.  "When my wife cried and begged me to stop I had to give it up," Honda would later recall. However, his wife had remembered the situation a little differently. "Did he stop because of something I said? I think it was a lecture from his father that made up his mind!"

The following year would be the beginning of massive change for Japan and the world at large. Japan would enter a dark chapter of its history as war broke out with China in 1937 and their involvement in the Second World War. During this time of so-called "national emergency" imposed by the ruling governments pastimes like racing were forbidden. Many other motorsports died out during the war years.

At around the time of his accident in 1936, Honda was beginning to become dissatisfied with repair work. He began making plains to move into manufacturing. He initially began attempts to turn the Hamamatsu Branch into a separate company for this purpose but met resistant from Art Shokai shareholders. He had initially wanted the begin production of piston rings. Investors saw that the current workload and orders from repair work were bringing in a very healthy cash flow and they were not keen on taking a gamble on embarking on an unnecessary venture, as they saw it.

Honda was still determined to enter manufacturing industry despite the investor's rejection. He and an acquaintance, Shichiro Kato, decided to setup up their own company for this purpose. And so Toaki Seiko Heavy Industry, Tokai Seiki for short, was founded with Kato as president.

Soichiro Honda: The Founder of Honda and The Legend
The conveyor belt mass-production process for the D-Type at the Noguchi and Tokyo Plants Source: Honda

Honda's new venture shows potential

Both partners threw themselves into the venture and they began the Art Piston Ring Reseach Center. Here Honda would work tirelessly developing piston rings at night whilst simultaneously working at Art Shokai during the day. Their venture did not run smoothly, however. A series of technical failures forced Honda to enroll as a part-time student at Hamamatsu Industrial Institute (now the Faculty of Engineering at Shizuoka University), to improve his understanding of metallurgy. Over the next couple of years, Soichiro Honda would work and study hard until he had a breakthrough in 1939. Confident of their design he quit his position at Art Shokai and handed the running of the branch over to his trainees joining Tokai Seiki as president.

Production of pistons began in earnest but the product was still plagued with difficulties. This time issues revolved around the manufacturing technology rather than the design. At this time Honda and his partner had a supply order with Toyota Motor Company Limited. Of the fifty they had submitted for quality checking with them only three met their high standards. Honda spent the next few years visiting universities and steelmaking companies all over Japan to study and improve his knowledge of manufacturing. After this tour of duty, he had gained enough knowledge of the industry to improve his own mass-production process and supply high-quality parts to Toyota and Nakajima Aircraft company. Orders began to pour in and the company would go on to employ around 2,000 people at its height.

Soichiro Honda: The Founder of Honda and The Legend
The first product to carry the Honda name was this Honda A-Type auxiliary bicycle engine. Source: Honda

Honda's future plans are ruined by the war

Any plans Honda had for the future of his organization were, literally, obliterated when Japan entered World War 2 on December the 7th 1941. Tokai Seiki was placed under the direct command and control of the Japanese Ministry of Munitions. Toyota was also awarded 40% of the company's equity in 1942 and Honda himself was demoted from President to the senior managing director.

Many male employees also began to resign as they were called up for military service. Most female employees also began to work in the factory as members of the so-called "volunteer corps" to help the war effort. In an attempt, to simplify the manufacturing process for the relatively inexperienced volunteers Honda helped calibrate the machines himself as well as creating methods of automation for producing their main product piston rings. 

At the request of Kaichi Kawakami, President of Nippon Gakki (now Yamaha), he also invented a form of automatic milling machine for wooden aircraft propellers. Kawakami was very impressed with Mr. Honda’s ingenuity: Previously it had taken a week to make a single propeller by hand, but now it was possible to turn out two every thirty minutes.

As air raids began to intensify in 1944 in Japan it became very obvious that they were on the brink of defeat. Hamamatsu was practically leveled and Tokai Seiki's Yamashita Plant was destroyed by a direct hit from a B-29 bomber attack. The company also suffered another disaster in January of 1945 when the Nankai earthquake struck the Mikawadistrictt and their Imawta Plant also collapsed. In the aftermath of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and Japan's official surrender in August of 1945, Japan's and Honda's futures were about to be completely transformed. 

Soichiro Honda: The Founder of Honda and The Legend
Honda's first company was bombed during WW2. B29A bomber on a long-range mission, circa 1945. Source: Rcbutcher/Wikimedia Commons

Honda Motor Company Limited

At the end of WW2 Honda sold any salvageable remains of Tokau Seiki to Toyota for around 450,000 Yen. With the proceeds of the sale, he founded the Honda Technical Research Institute in 1946. Honda's first motorized bicycle, the Type A, went into production in 1948. This bike was powered by Honda's first mass-produced engine and was sold until 1951. Honda's first true motorcycle, the Type D, first went into production in 1949. This was a pressed-steel frame designed bike with a 2-stroke, 96cc, 3HP (2.2kW) engine and it would become the first model in the Dream series of motorcycles.

The Society of Automotive Engineers of Japan lists both the Type A and the Type D models as two of their 240 Landmarks of Japanese Automotive Technology.As the company's president, Soichiro Honda would turn it into a billion-dollar multinational organization that would become famed for its best-selling motorcycles. Honda's understanding of engineering and marketing enable the company's motorcycles to eventually outsell both Triumph and Harley-Davidson in their home markets. The next year, Honda was reacquainted with Takeo Fujisawa, whom he knew during his days as a supplier of piston rings to Nakajima Aircraft Company. Honda Motorcycles would open their first stateside dealership in 1959.

Soichiro Honda would remain president of the company right up to his retirement in 1973. After this time he would remain as the company's director and be later appointed "supreme advisor" in 1983. His status was such that People magazine placed him on their "25 Most Intriguing People of the Year" list for 1980, dubbing him "the Japanese Henry Ford." In retirement, Honda busied himself with work connected with the Honda Foundation.

Later years

Soichiro Honda and his wife both held private pilot's licenses even at their advanced ages. He also liked to spend his later year's skiing, hang-gliding, and ballooning and at 77 he was a highly skilled artist. Honda and Takeo Fujisawa made a pact to never force their sons to join their organization. To this end his son, Hirotoshi Honda would go on to found and become the CEO of Mugen Motorsports a tuner for Honda vehicles that also created original racing vehicles. 

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) would establish the Soichiro Honda Medal in recognition of his great achievements in engineering in 1982. This medal is awarded to recognize outstanding achievement or significant engineering contributions in the field of personal transportation. Honda was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame near Detroit in 1989

Soichiro Honda died on the 5th of August, 1991 of liver failure. He was posthumously honored with the senior third rank in the order of precedence and appointed a Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun.

Via: Honda

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