Honda History

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Honda History



 1948 - present
Honda was founded by Soichiro Honda, who was born in 1905 in the small rural town of Hamamatsu. As an apprentice, Honda joined the Art Trading Company, one of the few garages in Tokyo which specialised in the repair of automobiles.

The most junior of the team of apprentices, he spent most of his first eighteen months in their employment tending his master's young family. In 1923, the Art Trading Company became one of the many victims of the fires which raged within Tokyo after the Great Earthquake.

Soichiro Honda, then only eighteen, was the only employee of Art Trading to remain after the calamity. Assisting his master, Honda rebuilt fire-gutted cars; this experience stood him in good stead and when, at the age of 22, he decided to return to his home town to start his own repair business, he was allowed to name his new concern Art Trading.

All-Japan Automobile Speed Championship

While in Tokyo, Honda had built some racing cars, one of them being a machine powered by a 90 hp Curtis aero engine, which won a number of races. From his own workshop in Hamamatsu, Honda built and entered cars for the All-Japan Automobile Speed Championship.

During one attempt at a record, he and his brother nearly lost their lives when their supercharged Ford somersaulted at over 120 kph. They lost the car and the race, but won an award for breaking the record.

In his early thirties, Honda turned his talents to producing piston rings. The results were disastrous, for he knew nothing of metallurgy and most of his first production batches were useless. It was only after studying metals and casting that Honda began to turn out usable products.

When war came he supplied his piston rings to most of the industries involved with building internal combustion engines. At the end of hostilities in the Pacific, Honda sold his piston-ring factory and began a short period during which he tried his hand at producing salt from sea water and attempted to evolve a rotary weaving machine; he also acquired some 500 small engines used for powering communications equipment.

Just a year and two months after the end of World War 2, with Japan defeated and most of her cities in ruins, Honda set up a shack just 12 ft by 18 ft in Hamamatsu. Inside, a rickety belt-driven lathe, a single dilapidated machine tool, a couple of desks and chairs and twelve workers were all jammed together. That was the inauspicious start of the Honda Motor Company, in 1974, the world's leading manufacturer of motor cycles, the first company to turn out more than 1,000,000 machines in a single year, the firm whose racers swept all competition before them to claim all the World Championships it contested in motor-cycle Grand Prix racing.

Running On Pine Tree Extract

The first product which Honda turned his hand to was a small motorised bicycle, using those 500 surplus engines. The production rate was one a day and, with petrol strictly rationed, the engines were forced to run on a fuel made from pine tree extract. When his supply of surplus engines ran out, Honda was forced to build his own power unit to propel the popular converted bicycle. His original conversion had been so successful that he had to continue; his answer was a 50 cc 'chimney' engine which had a very high cylinder head and incredible performance for its size.

Soichiro Honda's Curtis aero-engined racer
One of Soichiro Honda's first projects was this Curtis aero-engined racer of the 1920's.

Honda S800 Cabriolet
Honda S800 Cabriolet.

The beautiful Honda S800 Coupe
The beautiful Honda S800 Coupe.

Honda N600
Honda N600.

Honda V12 F1 in 1965
Richie Ginther in a Honda V12 1.5 litre car, Monaco, 1965.

John Surtees in Honda F1 at Monza, 1968
John Surtees picutured behind the wheel of a V8 Honda F1 car at Monza in 1968.

Honda N360 Scamp
Honda N360 Scamp, which was fitted with a tiny 354cc engine.

Honda Z600Honda Z600.

1974 Honda Civic
1974 Honda Civic, which could be optioned with a 1500 stratified-charge engine.

1974 Honda Civic Interior
1974 Honda Civic Interior
A number of converted cycles followed and, in 1948, the Honda Motor Company was officially formed, its first premises being in Hamamatsu. In 1974, the company still produced motor cycles as it did in 1948, but the range was now from 50 cc to 1000 cc, and coupled to the bike production was the capability to turn out specialist machines including portable generators, introduced in 1965, outboard motors and agricultural power tillers, all at the ultra-flexible Hamamatsu factory.

There were, at that time, no less than 35 products produced at Hamamatsu, where the production line system was highly sophisticated and programmed to cope with high output, against loss of man hours with the change from product line to product line. Much of the smooth production was derived from the suggestions of the work force, who saw the problems at their level on the workshop floor. The spirit of the management, noting the suggestions of production workers to ease and improve work flow, was common throughout Honda's five factories.

The Hamamatsu factory was established in its modem form in 1954 at a time when Honda had decided to purchase new machinery to replace his obsolete production equipment; his plant was way behind anything that was being used in the West. He bought a little over a million dollars worth of American, German and Swiss machine tools, as it was just a question of the company remaining in its present position or being left behind, as there were 55 companies making motor cycles, where just five years before there had been five.

The Honda 50 Step Thru

Honda preferred to take the risk with the option of leading the competition. During this very period, the sales began to flag, and due to the economic recession that gripped Japan, no bank was prepared to finance the new plant purchased by Honda. Honda's workers went without their annual holiday, assembled the new equipment and got back into production so fast that the machines which the new tools produced were sold rapidly enough to pay for the new imports.

Between September 1948 and March 1949, sales amounted to $39,700. By 1958, after the introduction of the Honda 50 'step thru' motor cycle, sales revenue increased to $179,312,000 and the firm sold over a million machines in one year, the first company ever to do so in the motor-cycle field. In March 1954, Honda announced that his company would enter the Isle of Man TT races. He believed that he would have to 'beat the best foreign machines on their home ground before he could enter the international market.

The Honda Research and Development Co

He went to the races that June and found that the bikes racing that year were producing three times as much power as his own, with the same capacity. It was not until 1959 that Honda returned with a team, and he took the Manufacturers' Team prize with his 125 cc bikes. A year after the first racing successes, the Honda Research and Development Co was opened, and it was within this branch of the firm that all the racing development was carried out.

As every racing machine, first the bikes and then the cars, was used as a test bed, much was derived from their performances, and the modifications were then transformed to the production models. The R & D Company functioned as its name suggests and backed the family of factories for all current development. In 1961, the dominance of Honda's 125 and 250 cc motor-cycle racing teams in world events brought huge publicity and the sales soared to over 100,000 motor cycles per month.

Honda Turns to Car Production

The 250 cc machines won ten out of eleven championship races that year and the 125 cc classes were all won by Honda machines except in three instances. The story was the same for 1962, and the Honda machines in the 125, 150 and 350 cc classes took three world championships. It was within this year, too, that Honda turned towards series car production. The S500 Sports was the first significant venture on four wheels and it was first seen at the 1962 Tokyo motor show. It was a baby sports car, with a four-cylinder in-line engine having twin overhead camshafts, and a choice of two capacities, 360 cc or 500 cc.

When production of the car started, the capacity was increased to 531 cc, and later it was raised to 606 cc. The S800 soon followed, and managed to make it into many car markets outside Japan - it having a capacity of 791 cc. The design of the car was hailed as neat and unusual. The aluminium block held wet liners and the three-bearing crank ran in needle roller main bearings. Engine dimensions were under-square (60 x 70 mm) and the compression ratio was 9.2:1. The S800 developed 70 bhp at 8000 rpm and could rev to about 11,000.

Models previous to the S800 had a novel rear suspension, with two chain cases acting as trailing arms, and these doubled up to provide drive to the differential. The S800 had a more conventional rear end with parallel rear-axle location and a long Panhard rod. Torsion bars acting on wish- bones looked after the front suspension. Performance of the little sportster in both its coupe and convertible forms was brisk with most of the acceleration from 6000 rpm upwards, there naturally being very little power below this speed.

On the 2nd August 1964, the 26th German Grand Prix was run with a new car from a new team: this was the V12 1½-litre Honda. Honda's GP racer emerged upon a Formula which had eighteen months to run, and the fellow competitors had previous seasons of knowledge to fall back on. Driven by a relatively unknown driver, Ronnie Bucknum, the Honda failed to complete its first race, as it ran off the road. Following the lines of their racing bikes, the Honda engineers had built a 60-degree V12, which had single spark plugs and four valves per cylinder.

The Honda N360 Scamp

It also had no less than twelve tiny carburettors, and twin camshafts; the power output of 200 bhp was at 12,500 rpm. The engine installation was peculiar in that the V12 motor was mounted transversely to the rear bulkhead of the multi-tubular space-frame chassis. After just one season's competition, the Honda Formula One car scored its first victory at the Mexican Grand Prix. The following year, in 1966, the factory's racing effort returned to its motor-cycle teams. They took five solo World Championships, this time for the 50, 125, 250, 350, and 500 cc classes.

On the racing-car front, the Formula Two 1000 cc Honda engines, with their four-valve heads and roller cranks, were trouncing the opposition. The engines, fitted to Brabham chassis, driven by Jack Brabham and Denny Hulme, won no less than twelve races. 1968 also saw the relase of the N360 family sedan - which was sold in Australia as the Honda Scamp. The market was wide open for a small family saloon and the 360 filled the bill. It was produced at the highly automated Sayama plant where the similar Z360, the LN360 van and the larger engined N600 saloon and Z600 coupe were produced.

As with all Honda products, the cars benefitted from a high degree of precision of construction and assembly. Part of the Sayama plant was devoted to turning out special machine tools for Honda factories. The N360 had a pressed-steel body and conventional suspension with MacPherson struts at the front and beam axle at the rear. The engine was a twin-cylinder, air-cooled vertical unit with an overhead camshaft. The N360 became a best-seller overnight.

Of interest to Australian's was the use of the 360/Scamp in the 1986 Melbourne cult film "Malcolm". Written by David Parker and directed by Nadia Tass, it starred Colin Friels, John Hargreaves and Lindy Davies, with Friels playing the part of Malcolm, an unemployed ex tram-worker adept at making all manner or inventions. The 360/Scamp is deployed as a get away vehicle, cleverly splitting in two to create dual motor bikes. What is even more interesting is that the replica tram built by Malcolm also uses a motorbike engine - although we cannot confirm if this was a Honda.

The Honda V12

More fame graced Honda in the same year, as his new Formula One car had been revised for the 3-Iitre formula, which won the 1967 Italian Grand Prix in the hands of John Surtees. The 3-litre Formula One car differed from the 1½-litre in many ways. Construction of the body unit had been changed to a full monocoque, reinforced with four bulkheads. From the V12 of the 1½-litre formula, the V configuration had been increased 30 degrees to a 90 degree V12. Previously transversely mounted, the engine was moved to a longitudinal position.

Still air-cooled and with four cams, two per cylinder bank, it had lost its carburettor per cylinder, and now utilised a Honda-designed port injection system. Similar to the Honda Formula Two engine, the V12 had a built-up crank and rod unit which ran in needle rollers. A curious design feature was that the power was transmitted, via a spur-gear train, from the centre of the crank, to a drive shaft. Power output for the engine ran eventually at around 440 bhp at 12,000 rpm.

Motorcycle Production Reaches 10,000,000

By 1968 motor-cycle production had reached a staggering 10,000,000 machines. The mini N360 saloons continued to hold the lions' share of the car market, and Honda introduced the N360AT and the LN360AT with automatic transmissions. The Tokyo motor show that year revealed a surprise from Honda a full-size motor car. Although the car did not go into production until the following year, it showed that Honda was seriously considering making standard-sized machines.

The Honda 1300 was a medium sized car, with a length of 12 ft 7 in it was comparative to the Morris 1100 and the Triumph Herald. A front wheel drive layout, with an air-cooled, single-overhead-camshaft, in-line four, aluminium engine was the design arrived at by Honda's engineers. Unusual in a car of this class was the dry-sump lubrication with a front-mounted 7-pint oil reservoir. A notable feature was that the air-cooled unit was remarkably quiet, using the same system as the Formula One racer.

The Honda 1300

The fan received its drive from the end of the crankshaft and scooped the air in through a forward-facing duct. An output of 96 bhp at 7200 rpm was claimed, and the engine's peak torque was 78lb ft at 4500 rpm. Even more power could be had with the optional TS engine, which sported four carburettors and 110 bhp. Although the 1300 had MacPherson-strut front suspension, the rear end was somewhat diverse. It made use of a form of independent crossover swing axles, operating off half-elliptic leaf springs, the axle tubes crossed each other from either side of the chassis; this took a full departure from the N360s beam axle, and allowed more camber change for the rear wheels.

Both the engine options were available in the 1300 coupe, announced in 1970. Mechanically the same as the sedan, the coupe was treated to a European-style body with a twin air grill nose. Interior treatment leaned toward a sporting nature with deep sunken dials and non-reflective finish. For the two-wheel enthusiasts, Honda produced the first of the new generation of ' Super bikes'. Called the CB750 it was the first four-cylinder motor cycle to be made in large numbers, and it also offered terrific performance: a 67 bhp punch.

The CVCC Clean-Air Engine

The CVCC clean-air engine or compound vortex-controlled combustion engine was a 1973 development from Honda. The engine was an unusual design of the stratified-charge type which engineers had tried to develop over the years. Incorporating the low fuel consumption advantages of a diesel, with the light weight of a petrol engine, it could obtain clean-air emissions without the usual paraphernalia of after burners and catalytic converters, by increasing the air/fuel ratio to 22:1, instead of the usual 12-15:1.

Over and above 18:1, an engine misfired, wasted fuel and increases pollution. The CVCC engine ensured that no matter what the overall mixture was, there was always an intense mixture over the sparking plug. The secret of Honda's CVCC head with its diesel-like combustion chamber was this very factor. The chamber had its own auxiliary inlet valve which delivers a rich mixture to the plug head, while the inlet valve only introduced a weak mixture into the combustion space. Pollutant gases were not allowed to develop by using the weak mixture, but the temperature had to be high enough to burn all the hydrocarbons.

The Honda Civic

In Honda's 1973 Civic, both the CVCC and conventional engines were available. The appearance of the Civic broke away from Honda's old designs and brought back water cooling. The car's 1169 cc engine was mounted to the left of the body's centre line and from its transverse position, drove the front wheels via an all-indirect gearbox. Late in 1976, Honda unveiled a car that was subsequently hailed as the best Japanese car ever produced - the Accord. It represented the most significant step any Japanese manufacturer had taken to meet European cars on their own terms.

Today we are all familiar with the success (and quality) of Honda. In North America, the Civic name would go on to become the second-longest continuously running nameplate from a Japanese manufacturer; only its perennial rival, the Toyota Corolla, introduced in 1968, has been in production longer. The Civic, along with the Accord and Prelude, comprised Honda's vehicles sold in Australia, the UK and North America until the 1990s, when the model lineup was expanded.

Also see: Honda Car Reviews | Honda Vehicle Production 1963 - 1979 | Honda Colour Codes | Honda Specificatons
1985 Honda Civic Si Sedan
1985 Honda Civic Si Sedan
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