Why today? Because today marks thirty years since the passing of the man who changed the future of technology with his mad, rebellious passion, his vision, and his adamant refusal to conform to standards, a passion that later became what we know today as Honda. Ladies and gentlemen, Soichiro Honda (本田 宗一郎).
An innovator and a rebel committed to his cause, Soichiro is of humble origins – born in a village in the Hamamatsu region of Shizuoka, Japan, on an autumn day – on 17 November 1906 to hard-working and tenacious parents. His father, Gihei – a blacksmith by trade – is the one who instilled in Soichiro his initial passion for machinery. From his mother – Myka – he inherits his tenacity, determination, and exaggerated curiosity, the character traits shared by both of them strengthening his character in the years to come.
Soichiro was a stubborn man, a misfit to the canons of society, a visionary and a dreamer, stubbornly refusing to conform to the current norms of society, as he did not see their point or purpose, and he – in his righteous cause – was not helped by them, and even more so by them putting obstacles in his way; perhaps that is why he is even today remembered as a rebel. But despite all these aspects that would easily pass as flaws in the eyes of many, the proof of Honda’s success today reflects the truth behind the passion.
He refused to accept conventional schooling – which is not surprising if we take into account all that I mentioned above about his personality. He left school after only 8 years of study, at the age of 15, despite all the efforts of his parents to convince him to continue on this path.
Already with some experience behind him from his teenage years spent in his father’s bicycle workshop, Soichiro sets off for the great metropolis of Tokyo, enlisting as an apprentice in a reputed auto mechanic workshop – Tokyo Art Shokai.
The workshop was among the most famous in Tokyo, and that certain apprentice position was one of the most coveted positions at the time. Soichiro coped brilliantly, and what’s more, the owner of the workshop – Yuzo Sakakibara – noticed him quite quickly; no wonder, because Soichiro showed not only devotion to his craft or hard work, but also enthusiasm, passion, and the power to improvise when the situation demanded it, without a real strong interest in the financial side, as happens to an ordinary man. And Yuzo knew how to appreciate value and talent when he discovered it.
By taking him under his wing, he gently showed him how important not only the technical aspects of a problem were, but also the inseparable quality of appreciating and valuing your own creation – both for its good parts, as well as accepting failure when it occurs. Yuzo guided him in all aspects of his development as a mechanic, leaving a deep imprint on Soichiro’s soul – he has repeatedly admitted that the man who underpinned his knowledge and inspired him to improve throughout his career was his own boss, Uzo Sakakibara, and the man he respected most to the last moment of his life.
Soichiro worked hard, on fire, to broaden his knowledge of machines, mechanics, and principles. From the late stories of those who had the opportunity to work with him we learn that he never stopped at just one area of this vast field of mechanics – in other words, he was the man who was good at everything – but literally good at everything, sometimes even talking about things that were seemingly impossible for a man or that remained at the level of lines in the handbooks of the great engineers.
The same Yuzo encouraged Soichiro’s interest in motorsport – in 1923 he started to work on racing cars, under the guidance of his mentor and his younger brother Shin’ichi. Together they succeeded in creating a prototype using a Daimler engine, followed shortly after by the Curtiss – a model that is still kept in the Honda museum today. The Curtiss is actually a mix between an aircraft engine – American Curtiss “Jenny” A1, mounted on the chassis of a Mitchell model – the car participated on 23 November 1924 in the Fifth Japan Automobile Competition, piloted by Yuzo’s brother, winning a place among the leaders.
Shortly afterward, in April 1928, Soichiro was named head of a small workshop in Hamamatsu province by his boss, an opportunity he took advantage of, trying to bring small ideas for improving products and vehicles to life – one of the proposals was to replace the spokes of bicycle wheels with metal ones, for which he actually received a patent, but it did not bring much profit to the small workshop, which had since become his personal property. Soichiro then changed the course and started manufacturing engine piston rings – a project in which he invested all his money, but was ridiculed by the workshop’s bosses. Not having the notion of letting himself be ruined, Honda continues manufacturing these piston rings, even though for a long time this activity, or “hobby” as his colleagues called it, leaves him more broke than with money in his pocket.
But why did he fail? Because Soichiro’s attitude, rather arrogant on the technical side, was holding him back; having a problem with mixing metals, Honda didn’t listen to what the more knowledgeable told him, stubbornly sticking to his own recipe. The change came when Soichiro shifted his own way of looking at and approaching his surroundings and accepted the importance of studying, enrolling as a student at Hamamatsu Technical School – thus finishing high school.
He succumbed to learning when he was given the secret of the mixture needed for his piston rings – silicone. Soichiro thus became a full-time student, at the rather advanced age of 28. An interesting fact about that period is that Soichiro was the only person in the university who drove a car, personally owned – a Buick, at a time when even professors could not afford a personal vehicle.
Soichiro marries his girlfriend Sachi in October 1933, at the age of 28. Sachi – an educated woman – was also his only love, remaining close to him until her last day. She was also his right hand or test driver when Honda Motors took off a few years later.
The fact that Soichiro opened his mind and vision to expand on foreign learnings set him on the right track, and he soon became a successful builder of racing engines; their special feature was that none of them exploded, thanks to the engine cooling method he invented, which was completely new in the racing world. But don’t be scared, Honda didn’t finish his studies either, vehemently refusing to take his graduation exams; his answer was quite dry, simple but convincing at the same time: “I need knowledge, not a diploma“.
Soichiro is taking advantage of the upward momentum and is getting more and more involved in this motorsport phenomenon, so he can experience first-hand the impact the engine has on the driver, to feel what needs to be improved. But in 1936, a rather severe accident put an end to his driving career for Soichiro, leaving him in hospital for three months with multiple fractures.
Soichiro’s first truly workable and considered product was completed on 20 November 1937, at which point Soichiro plucked up the courage, the first factory – Tokai Seiki – opening its doors in 1938, a year later. In 1941 the factory received quite large orders from Toyota and more and more during the Second World War, but the success was short-lived – in 1945, the city of Hamamatsu was bombed and Soichiro decided to sell his small factory to the Toyota concern for 450,000 yen.
Now comes the interesting part – tired of all the fuss, Soichiro decided to take a well-deserved break, spending about 10,000 yen on a barrel of booze, from which he and his friends toasted themselves for a year.
The name “Honda” first appeared on a plaque on the wall of a building in 1946, when Soichiro set up the Honda Technology Research Institute, where he built… mopeds. It should not be forgotten that Honda is a pioneer of motorcycles today, the concept of mounting an engine on a bike not being as widespread at the time as we might have thought. Europeans had been toying with the idea since the First World War, but Japan only tested a few imported bikes from overseas.
The first model to feature Soichiro’s signature was quite special – the engine was made from an old wartime radio generator, adapted and converted by Soichiro to power the bike’s frame – Honda sold 1,500 of the first model. In 1947, Honda replaced this adapted engine with a 50cc two-stroke engine, Soichiro Honda’s own creation. In September 1948, the Institute changes its name to Honda Motor Company. Honda experienced rapid growth thanks to these motorcycles, in ’51 launching the first four-stroke model on the market, and in 1958 the Honda name was recognized as the largest Japanese motorcycle manufacturer in the world.
Fame and notoriety are spreading, and Soichiro has to rethink his company’s management strategy – this part he does well. Honda has been recognized as a revolutionary not only in terms of the technical side of his company but also the rather broad and open vision of his staff – known for selecting his employees with great care, Soichiro has always believed that good work will be done by people who are not bullied or pushed around, thus giving the research department total freedom, without constraints. At the same time, he created a system of evaluation and promotion based on the employee’s personal criteria, on his performance within the company – in a way, Honda created a system designed to create geniuses, so that anyone could replace him as president of the company when needed.
However, he has not forgotten his first love, cars. In 1962, Soichiro took up his dream again and started building cars once more. Despite all the pressure Japan’s bigwigs put on him, attacking him with all sorts of arguments about how their country didn’t need another car manufacturer, Soichiro didn’t listen – the wolf is known to change his coat, but not his face. So Honda followed its instincts and did well – three years later it would lead the podium in this segment too.
Soichiro put his mind to it and thought about the problem from a different angle than a car manufacturer usually does, focusing on the emissions problem – no manufacturer had actually taken the problem seriously. Honda thus built the first catalytic converter and the first low-pollution engine, all of which were prepared for the company’s star car – the Honda Civic (SB1), which was to be launched in 1975 and enjoyed huge success.
What’s more, the 1970s were a success for Honda, with Soichiro deciding to open the first factory on American soil, in Ohio. The best-selling model on the US market was the very first model produced – the Accord, a model which soon became the leader in its market segment in the 1980s. The Accord is also the reason why Soichiro Honda’s name is still written in the American car industry’s Hall of Fame today.
Soichiro has admitted, in various interviews, that the key to success for him was simply the fact that every time, with every attempt he had, he would fail or succeed. And if he failed, it was not the end. He would pick himself up, as he did on numerous occasions, starting over. He never feared failure, taking it in his arms and preparing for the next victory with the same mad smile on his face. He never accepted defeat, he fought hard for his ideas, even though everything around him was howling that it was impossible, and he’d better give up.
Another particular detail of Honda’s was, as I related a little above, his different way of hiring people in the company – not infrequently he turned down individuals with impeccable credentials just because they had graduated from far too many schools; his main fear was that their thinking – too dogmatic and framed by societal standards – would affect the smooth running of his company and would not coincide with his open-minded product vision.
Soichiro didn’t need people out of the box and off the school benches, he needed visionaries or at least as crazy as he was in his years of apprenticeship. He vehemently refused to involve his relatives in his business, rejecting the idea of his chairman’s seat being taken by one of his children – “it doesn’t matter how good and brilliant the founder of the company was; there is no guarantee that his son is capable of the same greatness. The management of the company must be taken over by someone who has these leadership qualities in their blood”.
Soichiro Honda spent 65 years with the company, testing absolutely every new model that came to market. He died suddenly in 1991 at the age of 85 from liver failure. No one knew he was ill, as Soichiro remained at the helm of the company for a long time in the shadows, acting as vice president.
He left behind a company worth over $30 million, a name, a brand, a legend, 470 inventions and 150 patents, doctorates from American universities, Japan’s highest award – Japan’s Blue Ribbon, etc.
Soichiro proves even today that it’s not the schools you attend or the social environment that lifts you up in your daydreams, not at all. What matters is what you really want, if you understand your purpose in life, listen to the inner voice that sometimes sounds so crazy, and fight for your dreams. And fighting without misses, fences, and obstacles, heh, is impossible.
Thank you, Soichiro. You will always remain a cornerstone in the hearts of many Honda lovers and beyond.