Automotive Archaeology III
Unearthing the history of car companies, once a month. This month: Honda
Over 14 million engines were produced by Honda last year, and it gets a little confusing when they only sold 4.5 million cars. Then you remember everything else Honda makes. Honda is the largest manufacturer of internal combustion engines, with boat, lawn mower, ATV, motorcycle, generator, and race car engines making up the other 9.5 million. They have been manufacturing cars since 1963, and selling them in the US since 1969. But their history of manufacturing motors starts long before then, when Soichiro Honda mounted a combustion engine to a bicycle.
Honda was founded in 1948 with the D-type motorcycle, and then branched out from Japan to the U.S. in 1959 with the Super Cub and Benley models. The “D” in D-type actually stands for “Dreams”, because it was the first model ever produced by Soichiro. By this time, Honda was the largest motorcycle company on the planet, selling anywhere from 3000-6000 units a month in the U.S. alone. The first automobile sold by Honda in America was the N600. This was the Japanese equivalent of the Mini, which was extremely popular in Japan. It wasn’t until 1972 when the CVCC nameplate was used, but it was ultimately known as the Civic.
When the fuel crisis became a prominent issue in the 1970s, Honda sales went through the roof because they were producing the most fuel-efficient engines at the time. The Civic was achieving 40mpg and was number one on the EPA’s list of efficient vehicles. Other companies were trying to lower their carbon footprint with help from a catalytic converter, rather than look at the engine for the answer to their problem. Honda designed their engine with the idea of efficiency in mind, and this worked so well that the Civic didn’t even need a catalytic converter to pass emissions tests. They’ve held the standards in efficiency for over 40 years with cars like the Clarity, Insight, and CR-Z hybrids.
Honda has stepped outside their comfort zone a few times, but they’ve succeeded every time they do so. Their luxury brand, Acura, launched in America with the Legend and Integra as their first two models. They entered the high-performance sports car market with the NSX in 1990, carrying the revolutionary Variable Timing and Lift Electronic Control engine, or as you know it, VTEC. Honda then entered IndyCar racing in 1994 and raced the NSX-GT in the sports car series starting in 1997. Some argue that the Honda S500 was the first Honda sports car, and while that wasn’t its intention in 1963, it certainly turned out to be one. It’s 531cc engine revved all the way to 9000rpm, and weighed only a hair over 1500lbs, meaning it fit within the Japanese Kei car class. The modern successor of the S500 was the S2000, which was equally as revolutionary in terms of performance from small engines.
In 2006, the Hondajet company was started, taking Honda to the stratosphere. From winning F1 races, to powering homes in outages, and mowing lawns with robots, Honda is one of the biggest enterprises in existence. Back when Soichiro mounted an engine to a bicycle in Hamamatsu, he wouldn’t have been able to comprehend just how big his name was going to be over the next 75 years. He didn’t name the D-type motorcycle “The Dream” for nothing, and there’s still a lot more to dream about.