Honda: Post WWII History

Auspicious Beginnings

It’s hard to imagine, given the worldwide presence of Honda today, that the company-like all start-ups-had its fair share of servings of humble pie. It was in 1946, as Japan was recovering from the devastation that had been heaped on it in World War II, that a young man, visiting with a friend, stumbled upon a generator engine designed for a wireless radio from the former Imperial Army.

The young man, a former auto mechanic and inventor, immediately came up with the idea of attaching the 50cc motor to a bicycle. The country’s decimated infrastructure and struggling post-war economy had made bicycles the primary mode of transportation.

The concept of creating an add-on power source to ease the demands of peddling-thereby extending range and load capacity-was born. The young man was Soichiro Honda. A small building in Hamamatsu City was acquired and a sign was hung above the front door that boldly announced; Honda Technical Research Institute.

The first of their prototype engines was the legendary "chimney" engine. President Honda thought up a thoroughly unique concept for a new engine, and showed it to Kawashima by "drawing it on the shop floor." Crouching down and sketching out conceptual drawings on the floor was an unchanging habit throughout his life.

The nickname given this engine-the "chimney"-still remains. As it suggests, both the piston and the cylinder head had a long protrusion on top, and there was an unusual central scavenging system, making for a most unconventional 2-stroke design. No such engine had ever been used on a motorcycle before.

The aim with this engine was to minimize the disadvantages of the 2-stroke and to improve performance. In other words, it was supposed to reduce fuel consumption and raise power. However, development of this engine stopped before it was put into production. The machining tolerances and materials available at the time were simply not up to the requirements of this design and, apparently, the engine had been subject to one problem after another.

With the chimney engine development suspended, Honda had to hasten the work of coming up with the next plan. This turned out to be the Honda company’s first original product to be sold on the market, the Honda A-Type. Compared to the radically innovative chimney design, this appeared to be a rather orthodox 2-stroke engine.

However, as Kawashima had explained: "The intake assembly didn’t use the piston valves you saw elsewhere. Instead, it had rotary disk valves attached to the side of the crankcase." Furthermore, the manually operated belt transmission mechanism that also was used for the clutch was patented.

A dozen employees toiled away six days a week modifying these small generator motors and attaching them to bicycles. There were often serious doubts among the staff if Honda was going to be able to make payroll each week. But the work and commitment continued and the struggling new company managed to gain a foothold.

In November 1947, the Honda A-Type entered production and was immediately put on sale. The earlier, modified engines used a tubular fuel tank that had been nicknamed the "tea canister," but the A-Type had a cast aluminum fuel tank with a teardrop shape instead.

To put these humble beginnings in perspective, Soichiro inadvertently made his young wife, Sachi, the first official female test rider for the Honda Company when he asked her to try one of the machines. Sachi claims her husband had said she was the inspiration for the invention because he couldn’t stand seeing her work so hard at pedaling her bicycle when she went off to shop for food.

One has to wonder if in fact Mr. Honda understood the sensation it would create in having people see a woman riding a motor-driven bicycle; a kind of precursor to Honda’s legendary, industry-changing approach to marketing and advertising.

The rest, as they say, is history. Honda expanded exponentially, introducing progressively advanced motorcycles that took on the vanguard of British, European and American machines, establishing itself in relatively short order as a major force.

Honda helped change the public’s perception of motorcycles (up to that time somewhat dubious in various parts of the world) with a legendary ad campaign that touted; "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda."

It’s amazing to consider that in his lifetime, Soichiro Honda turned a tiny local company that attached small motors to bicycles into the industry giant is it today, expanding to automobiles, motorboats and a host of other technological entities.

Mr. Honda lived to see the Honda name become a global phenomenon synonymous with technological excellence. And to think it all started with a casual visit to a friend’s house in 1946.