Defeat was not an option

by Andy Bryenton

As a young boy growing up in Hamamatsu, Japan, Soichiro Honda was not the young academic his parents (a blacksmith and a weaver) hoped for. Instead, he meticulously copied the official stamp he needed to say he’d shown his parents his grades, forging it from a bicycle pedal’s rubber.

This escapade taught the young Soichiro two things; reliance on his own skills with his hands, and the value of never giving up. He left school with no qualifications but with an affinity for machinery and engineering.

He went to Tokyo as a teenager and begged to be allowed to work as a mechanic, a position he enjoyed until the age of 22 when he returned home to open his own garage.

He drove a turbocharged Ford in one of Japan’s first auto races in 1936, at a time when turbocharging was all but unknown outside of aircraft. The experimental car crashed, and Soichiro badly injured his left eye. But while he gave up racing from that point, he saw a future in powerful internal combustion machines.

His next step was to forge piston rings for Toyota corporation. Through a process of gruelling trial and error, which saw Honda lose the contract at one point, Soichiro persevered and managed to fully automate the manufacturing, in the style of Henry Ford (a man he’d be compared to in later life). Just as things were taking off, with new factories opening and new components hitting the production line, the war effort crumbled and Allied bombs destroyed one of Soichiro’s factories. Just as the Imperial army surrendered, an earthquake leveled the other. Honda sold the scrap metal and debris to Toyota at a huge loss, but moved on.

Next came the idea of converting bicycles with 50cc generator motors, making Japan’s first motorbikes.

In the rationed, fuel-scarce postwar reconstruction they sold like hot cakes, and soon Honda were making their own engines, frames, gas tanks, wheels; whole bikes, which formed the basis for the best selling 50cc of all time, the Cub.

Just 14 years after losing it all, Honda established his first motorcycle dealership in the United States. The nation which was once Japan’s wartime rival became one of his biggest markets, in which he would go on to outsell Harley Davidson.