Dictatorship has fallen out of fashion recently. But there’s no doubt that it’s the best way to build great cars, and from great cars build a successful car business. We’re talking an enlightened, benevolent despotism here, but let’s be in no doubt: you need one guy at the top, with an utterly clear, focussed picture of what he wants to create, intolerant of the blurring and compromise and greyness that big organizations inflict on even the best ideas.
What great car was ever created by a bureaucracy? Not one.
And how many are inextricably linked with the man that made them, and had the authority to execute his ideas without interference? Ford and his Model T. Ettore Bugatti, and everything he ever made. Porsche and the Beetle. Issigonis and the Mini. Gordon Murray and the McLaren F1. Ferdinand Piech and the entire Volkswagen empire, that will probably soon be the largest carmaker in the world.
And Soichiro Honda, and the Honda Super Cub. Eh?
Honda’s founder might not be as closely associated with one car as the other titans of the automotive industry. But his scooter is the best-selling vehicle of all time with over 60 million produced. It has easily outsold the most popular car, the Toyota Corolla, of which around 40 million have been made but has been constantly reinvented. The world’s obsession with cars means we’ve neglected Soichiro’s influence, but he put more of the world on wheels – and for less – than any of the great carmakers.
Just as importantly, the company he created is still shot through with his restless engineering creativity. Today Honda makes everything from that Super Cub to private jets, a direct reflection of the wide-ranging obsessions of its founder. Honda wasn’t just an engineer, but a painter, potter and pilot too. He got it from his Dad, Gihei, a blacksmith who moonlighted in amateur dentistry, and his Mum, a weaver who had plainly missed her vocation as an engineer and modified her loom for better performance.
Young Soichiro spent so much time in his father’s forge that he was nicknamed ‘the black-nosed weasel’; it sounds like less of an insult in Japanese. He famously ran after the first car he ever saw, and as it roared away from him fell to his knees to sniff a spot of oil it had dropped. Aged eleven, he ‘borrowed’ some of the housekeeping money and his father’s bicycle and rode 20 miles to see a display by an American pilot in an early aircraft, and when the money he’d pinched proved insufficient to buy a ticket he climbed a tree to get a better view.
Maybe the world should have known then. An apprenticeship at an early Tokyo car dealerhip followed; Soichiro ended up as the ‘riding mechnic’ on the owner’s aircraft-engined racing car, for which he would machine parts from scratch. Working for someone else didn’t suit him for long, and at 21 he left to start his own dealership. But he was more interested in invention than business; first came a new design of spoked wheel, the proceeds of which bought him a Harley Davidson and a speedboat.
Then he decided he was going to improve the design of piston rings, so he enrolled in night school to learn metallurgy. As they expelled him for not taking a note or sitting an exam, he was using the knowledge he had absorbed to found a business he would shortly sell to Toyota. And then, as Japan entered the war, it was aircraft propellers; Honda’s new production process cut the manufacturing time from a week to fifteen minutes.
All this by the age of 33, remember. They were calling him the Edison of Japan.
He started the Honda Motor Company in 1948, and you probably know the rest. It began with anaemic motorized bicycles; the Super Cub is called Super because it was significantly more powerful than the weedy efforts it superceded from 1958.
Honda took on a partner, Takeo Fujisawa, to handle business, which he claimed to be no good at despite a series of successful start-ups. But it was Fujisawa who steered the young Honda Motor Company through a series of financial crises and into the relative stability that funded Soichiro’s continued ‘dreaming’.
It was motorsport next; Honda won its first TT in 1961 after just three attempts and its first Grand Prix in its second season in 1965.
Soichiro might have professed to be uninterested in business, but he won’t have been unaware of the impact these victories had on the way the world viewed Honda. They instantly set it apart from Toyota, and made those of us who want our cars and bikes to be something more than affordable and reliable – but affordable and reliable too – want a Honda. Soichiro Honda died in 1992.
His ideas didn’t.
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