He was a high school dropout mechanic who was turned down for his dream job at Toyota, and eventually got by building makeshift mopeds at home. The name of his startup? the Honda Motor Company. If you’ve ever doubted yourself…read the incredible story of Soichiro Honda.
Soichiro Honda, standing among a team of Honda race bikes. Racing was a passion of Honda’s, and fielding a race team was a lifelong dream he eventually realized.
Certainly, you’ve heard of Honda, the brand. You may have even heard that its founder, Soichiro (so-EE-chee-do) Honda, took a tiny company building motorized bicycles and turned it into the worlds largest motorcycle manufacturer in his own lifetime.
But what you may not have heard about are those little defining moments that make the Honda story a truly special one. How he built and raced his own race car as a teenager, only to nearly die crashing it. How he worked for years to get a job with Toyota, but was turned down for being underqualified. How his first factory was bombed twice then leveled by an earthquake, forcing him to start again with nothing. Or how he walked around gathering discarded fuel tanks from Allied planes, which he used as scrap metal to build his first products.
Honda’s story is of a visionary, of an innovator, and of a rebel, one with a determination that ultimately advanced the motorcycle industry and brought us some of the most popular and iconic bikes in the world. No matter what your favorite brand is, you’re sure to be inspired by the Honda story.
The Beginning Of A Lifelong Passion
Soichiro Honda’s passion for engines began in grade school, where he caught his first-ever glimpse of an automobile. The sound of combustion and the smell of burnt gasoline made an instant impact on him, and he was awestruck at this “carriage” that could somehow move under its own power. It was a fascination that would last a lifetime.
Soichiro Honda was not the most avid student; as a boy he forged his family’s stamp to get homework signed off. Always the innovator, he helped other boys in his school do the same (until he got caught.)
Honda was the son of a blacksmith, and made extra cash helping his father repair bicycles as a boy. From the beginning, Honda was more interested in how things worked than in academics; he actually left school at 15 to go to Tokyo and find an apprenticeship working in an automotive shop. He did land a job at a shop, but it wasn’t what he expected; his original duties consisted of babysitting the shop owner’s child!
In time, by hovering around the technicians while watching the baby, Honda learned about mechanics, and even found that he had a knack for rebuilding engines. He eventually gained an apprenticeship at the Art Company, one of only a few automotive repair shops in Tokyo, while still a teenager.
Honda, The Young Mechanic
Honda couldn’t get enough of wrenching. He built his own race car in his free time out of spare parts, and even raced it competitively. He once worked for a week straight with virtually no sleep, preparing his car for a race while working full time by day at the repair shop. “It felt like I created a child, and I was its mother” Honda said of that first car – a car he later wrecked, in a crash that nearly killed him.
But he didn’t let that deter him.
By the age of 22, Honda was running his own location of the growing Art Company, and spent his twenties running his shop, building cars, and designing parts in his free time. In 1937, at 31, he founded his own company, Tokai Seiki, to manufacture a specially designed piston ring he had been developing for years. His plan: to become successful becoming a piston ring supplier for Japan’s automotive giant, Toyota. He was so confident in his designs, he even pawned his wife’s wedding jewelry to fund the venture.
The plan would have worked – if his pistons ring designs weren’t immediately rejected by Toyota for not meeting their strict standards. It was then that Honda realized his major shortcoming – while he was an expert in real-world mechanics, his lack of education was preventing him from crossing over into design.
Honda, The Aging Student
Honda wasn’t exactly the most eager classroom learner; he was a high-school dropout, and had once been reprimanded for telling a teacher that a diploma from his school “had less value than a ticket to the movies.” But without having received a technical education, he knew nothing about proper design, engineering or casting procedures. Honda decided to fix that problem by going back to school at a technical college, where the designs he had worked on for years were laughed at by his more technically savvy classmates.
Still, he was still not deterred.
By the time he finished his studies and gained the knowledge he needed to get his designs approved by Toyota, Japan was at war. For Honda, the timing couldnat have been better; Tokai Seiki got the contract just in time to supply hundreds of thousands of piston rings for the engines of the Japanese Imperial Army, and his business was finally a success.
But because his plant was located near Toyota’s, and was busy at work supplying the Japanese war effort, it was also targeted by enemy bombing raids. His factory was destroyed twice by Allied ordnance – and was rebuilt both times – but was finally leveled by an earthquake after Japan surrendered to the U.S. in 1945. With no factory to run and no army to supply, Honda threw in the towel on Tokai Seiki, selling the land to Toyota and leaving the piston ring business for good.
Honda, The Unemployed Engineer
The war was over, and Japan was in ruins. There was no army to contract for, and the automotive market had been decimated along with the country’s economy and infrastructure. Tokyo’s roads were destroyed and fuel was in short supply, so even those with cars could scarcely drive them. Instead, many Japanese had taken to bicycles for personal transportation.
And that’s when Honda had his revolutionary idea.
Honda knew a thing or two about bicycles, having spent so many hours repairing them as a boy. He also knew the army still had thousands of small engines left over from the war, sitting unused. So he put the two together, fitting off-the-shelf bicycles with small 50cc two-stroke engines to propel them. The idea was an instant hit; word spread quickly about his life-changing motorized bicycle, and orders started flying in. The batabata, so named because of the distinct sound it made, was going to be his next big thing.
The Honda Type A, the first vehicle to ever wear the Honda badge.
In 1946, at the age of 40, he started the Honda Research Technical Institute, devoted strictly to the development of engines for his new motorized bicycles. In 1949, Honda officially founded the Honda Motor Company, and over the next several years, Honda went from being a small shop with only 20 employees, to multiple factories manufacturing hundreds of thousands of units a year.
Honda, The Racer
But he wasn’t content with that. Honda had put all his effort into building a company that would serve the more practical needs of the Japanese consumer, and had done so successfully; but racing on the world stage was a dream he still wanted to see lived out. It was more than just a personal goal; he knew that winning a race on an international circuit would put Honda, and more importantly, Japan as a whole, back on the map. For a country struggling to reinvent itself in the aftermath of world war, it would mean the world.
That’s why, in March of 1954, Honda wrote a letter to all his employees announcing his intention to enter a Honda motorcycle into the world’s most prestigious motorcycle race – and win it. It took four years of development, but in 1959, Honda entered four motorcycles into the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race, the first time Japanese motorcycle had ever been entered. Unfortunately, the Honda team didn’t win; instead, the Honda bikes placed 6th, 7th, 8th, and 11th overall. Still, Honda was undeterred.
The Honda team did manage to make history in 1959, demonstrating to the world that Japanese racing was a force to be reckoned with. But Honda didn’t promise his employees that they would enter; he promised them they would win. Honda’s determination soon prevailed, and he came through on his promise. The following year saw a 2nd-place best finish, and in 1961, the Honda team finally won the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place trophies – a clean sweep. This would mark only the beginning of Honda’s domination, not just in racing, but in motorcycle manufacturing as a whole.
Honda’s dream realized; a Honda race bike competing at the Isle of Man.
Honda, The Motor Company
The rest of the Honda story is more well-known history. In the 1960s, Honda broke into the north American market, beating out dominant manufacturers on their own turf (later doing the same in the automotive market), and was responsible for introducing many of the most iconic and admired motorcycles in the world. Honda has also become one of the most dominant brands in motorcycle racing, having won countless championships in Grand Prix, motocross, and enduro. Some of the most legendary names in racing have earned their titles aboard Honda machines, from Freddie Spencer in the 1980s to Marc Marquez today.
But even with all the great names attached to Honda, no name in the Honda legacy is more important than that of Soichiro Honda himself. He has become a true legend of the 20th century, admired by motorsports fans, emulated by business leaders, and idolized by the nation he helped rebuild.
And so it was that Honda, always a dreamer at heart, went from being an unemployed mechanic building mopeds in a garage, and built it into the largest motorcycle company in the world – all because he never allowed himself or Honda Motor Company to be deterred. “Success represents 1% of your work, which results from the 99% that is called failure.” Soichiro Honda didn’t just say that famous quotation; he lived it.
Were you around during the early days of Honda motorcycles? What do you think of the Honda story?