Honda Motorcycles – A Five Decade Journey
By Staff Writer
Honda has grown to become a top manufacturer of motorcycles. Its history can be considered a journey through five decades of forward thinking and technological innovations.
Soichiro Honda’s success parallels the classic rags-to-riches fable – the lone individual starting in a humble setting, battling odds and succeeding, through talent, ingenuity, and good fortune. In a nation noted for reserve, Mr. Honda was and is often direct, frequently exuberant, sometimes hilarious, and always confident. He preferred getting his hands greasy in the shop over shuffling papers in the office. He chose learning on the job over academic paper chases. Yet when he realized that there was a deficiency in his technical knowledge, he did not hesitate to enroll in a technical high school – at age 29. The year was 1935. The motivation: learn why he was having problems manufacturing piston rings.
Before his venture into piston rings, Honda was employed as a technician. Automobiles, rather than motorcycles, were his first love. He dreamed of racing. After completing eight years of schooling, he joined an auto repair shop at age 15. Two years later, he became a Harley owner and then an Indian rider.
He opened his own auto and motorcycle repair shop in 1928 while pursuing his hobby, building racing cars. That same year, he applied for his first patent, for casting automobile wheel spokes. He organized Tokai Seiki Company, Ltd. to experiment with manufacturing piston rings. After initial failures, he sought further education which enabled him to successfully produce piston rings for automobiles, motorcycles and airplanes.
In 1945, Honda sold his stock to Toyota and took a year off. His sabbatical included music-making and merriment. Refreshed, he launched Honda Technical Research Laboratory in October of 1946. His new venture added war surplus Tohatsu and Mikuni generator motors to bicycles to provide basic transportation for the war-torn nation.
In November 1947, the 1/2 horsepower A-Type Honda was being manufactured and sold as a complete motorbike. Because the motorbike gave off a lot of smoke and a stench of turpentine it was known as the “Chimney”.
Soichiro Honda started Honda Motor Company in 1948, at the age of 41. Soon after, he hooked up with financial whiz Takeo Fujisawa and together they built an empire. Honda enlisted 13,000 bicycle shops in Japan as Honda dealers. This move, combined with a decently reliable product, catapulted the company forward.
In 1948, Honda introduced a 90cc version of the A-Type known as the “B-Type”.
By 1949, Honda came out with the “D-Type”. Mr. Honda was involved in every step of the two-stroke D-Type Dream’s design and manufacture. This was Honda’s first motorcycle. This was far from simply slotting a motor into a pushbike frame. Honda called his machine ‘The Dream’, because his dream of building a complete, motorcycle had come true. Soichiro Honda was an engineer and was always looking to produce better and more sophisticated machines.
Honda had another dream and it turned out to be the 146cc, OHV, four-stroke E-Type Dream. A powerful machine producing 5 1/2bhp capable of 50mph. It had a steel frame and proper suspension front and rear. By October 1951, the new Dream was in production at the rate of 130 units per day. Sales success allowed Honda to focus vigorously on two key ingredients: quality and design.
In 1952, Honda produced the first “Cub” F-Type, a 1/2 horsepower, 50cc, two-stroke engine that was produced in huge numbers. You could get one to fit to your pushbike or buy the complete red and white Honda “Auto Bai”. Less than a year after its introduction, production was 6500 units per month, at that time it was 70% of Japan’s powered two-wheeler market.
Sales continued to boom, but the end of Korean War in 1953 triggered an economic depression in Japan that almost ruined Honda. The company survived, bolstered by the sale of Cub clip-on motors that were attached to bicycles. Healthy again, Honda produced the 90cc, four-stroke single, a motorcycle of even greater sophistication. This was known as the Benly; in Japanese this means “convenience”. The J-Type Benly had a three-speed gearbox, produced 3.8bhp, a pressed steel frame, rear suspension with the engine and swinging arm on a sprung pivot, and telescopic front suspension. Before long, they were selling at a rate of 1000 units a month.
In 1954, a 200cc scooter, the Juno, was introduced to capture some of the sales from the Vespa scooter copies that were being built in Japan. Honda produced different versions of the Dream and Benly motorcycles over the next few years incorporating different size engines (up to 350cc) and other refinements.
In September 1957, Honda introduced their first twin-cylinder motorcycle, the sophisticated 250cc OHC four-stroke C70 Dream. It was the forerunner of Honda’s high-performance 125 and 250cc twins.
In early 1958, Honda fitted an electric starter to the 250cc Dream and named it the C71 and, in 1959, the latest Benly an incredibly sophisticated 125cc OHC four-stroke twin, capable of 70mph was introduced as the C92.
In July 1958, Honda introduced in Japan what became the world’s most successful motor cycle, the C100 Super Cub.
The Super Cub was developed over three years to be a cheap and practical motorcycle that literally anyone could use. It used a 50cc four-stroke OHV motor and centrifugal clutch with three-speed transmission. It was so easy to operate that even new riders could ride it as easily as a pushbike. Its innovative frame without a crossbar made it popular with the ladies and set a new trend in commuter motorcycling. The word “scooterette” was coined to describe this step-through style motorbike which sold in 50, 70 and 90cc versions.
By 1959, Honda was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, producing 500,000 units a year. This success turned Honda’s focus to another dreamâ€¦the American Dream.
Honda Motor Company wanted to expand internationally. They figured there was a world-wide market for light, economical, fun-to-ride motorcycles. The surveys suggested Europe and Southeast Asia while downplaying the United States as a potential market. The reasons: annual sales of only 60,000 units and a negative motorcycling image.
Honda management eventually ignored the surveys. One reason: Honda’s model line of 50cc to 300cc models would not compete directly with the large-displacement models preferred by the U.S. market. Mr. Fujisawa championed another reason: the world’s consumer economy focused on the U.S. acceptance in the American market would offer a base for world acceptance.
Kihachiro Kawashima was selected as Executive Vice President and General Manager of American Honda Motor Company. Joined by seven employees, he opened a shop in a small storefront office on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Its operating capital: $250,000. The date: June 4, 1959. The market: consumers wanting small, light, easy to handle and maintain two-wheeled vehicles.
American Honda’s first model line included the C100 Super Cub, CB92 Benly Super Sport 125, CA95 Benly Touring 150, CA71 Dream Touring 250, CE71 Dream Sport 250, and C76 Dream Touring 300.
The C100 Super Cub was the first Honda motorcycle sold in the U.S., eventually becoming the world’s best-selling vehicle (30 million to date). As proof that the original concept and design was perfect is the fact that today’s C50, C70 and C90s have only detail changes to set them apart from the machines of 25 years ago.
That same year, 1959, Honda introduced the 250cc C72 Dream in Amsterdam. This was the first Japanese bike to be officially shown in Europe. It surprised the crowd with its unusual pressed steel frame, swing arm and front leading link forks, sophisticated OHC all aluminum engine, electric starter and indicators.
In the UK, learners had just been restricted to motorcycles of this size and wanted the fastest bikes they could legally ride. The Honda’s were the fastest 250s around, and the C72 with its improvements like 12-volt electric’s and wet sump lubrication, successor of the C71, was capable of 80mph and could still get 66 miles per gallon.
The CB92 retained the pressed-steel frame and leading link forks while the CB72 received a tubular style frame and telescopic front suspension.
Back in Japan, Honda opened the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturing plant in Suzuka. Here, American dealerships rose to 74 by the end of 1960.
In 1961, two years after Honda started selling Super Cubs; Honda stunned the racing world with “Mike the Bike” Hailwood’s twin victories at the Isle of Man. It was the first of an unprecedented string of victories that was only the beginning of Honda’s racing tradition.
From the beginning, Mr. Honda dedicated his company to racing, racking up over 100 major motorcycle championships around the world. What was learned from building high-performance racing machines later led to the development of groundbreaking production motorcycles.
The classic CB72 and CB77 helped fuel interest in riding, got America on two wheels, and established Honda as a serious player. The Hawk name has appeared on Honda models CB72, CB77, CB400T, NT650, VTR1000F, and the 1998 VTR1000F. These models, offering surprising performance for their displacement, helped escalate the dealership count to over 400 by year’s end.
Endurance performance on the continent helped bury the specter of alleged poor quality assigned to Japanese manufacturing in general. In 1962, three Honda 50cc motorcycles survived a week-long 24-hour-per-day Maudes Trophy endurance test in England, covering almost 16,000 miles. Honda received the first manufacturer’s award in a decade and held the trophy for 11 years.
By this time, they controlled 65% of the Japanese motorcycle market. But America still presented a challenge – fighting the poor image of motorcycling in the U.S. The solution: renew efforts to replace that negative image with a new positive image that would allow creating a new motorcycle market.
The new image materialized – with an advertising campaign that would reshape the perception and marketing of motorcycles in the United States. This move would also establish Honda as the leader of industry direction. The concept: You meet the nicest people on a Honda.
The new image was presented in a new way – with general interest magazine advertising. The goal: acquaint the nation with Honda products, present motorcycles as socially-acceptable vehicles, and introduce the concept of motorcycling, Honda and fun in the minds of millions who never previously considered the subject.
The strategy worked, opening the door to motorcycling freedom for millions of Americans. Honda’s small, affordable, easy-to-ride and easy-to-live-with machines provided transportation and excitement.
Several features made Honda’s products attractive to the sport’s newcomers and old-timers alike, eager for a product, even a lifestyle, previously not available. Compared to what was available at the time:
Hondas were clean. They did not leak oil – or fling it, because fully enclosed drive chains were featured on many early models. They were economical. They were durable and dependable. Control cables lasted years rather than weeks. Electrical systems did not mysteriously quit. They were simple and easy to maintain.
Though Honda’s new imports lacked the traditional “look” of the popular British motorcycles, their finish and performance sparked growing ranks of admirers. And the new styling began to grow on enthusiasts.
With many of the new Hondas, performance took on a new meaning, one not necessarily related to power alone. The small displacement step-throughs provided basic transportation for a young generation hungry for freedom. The trail models gave fisherman, hunters, campers and explorers an affordable and reliable means of backwoods/off-road transportation that provided fun and excitement as a bonus. As the model line increased, so did customer acceptance.
The C77 a 305cc version of the Dream and the CB77, a Super Sports motorcycle producing 28.5bhp were introduced in 1963. Imports were up to 150,000 motorcycles as American Honda moved to its current headquarters in Gardena, California. In four years, the original staff of eight had grown to 150.
In 1964, the C95 a 154cc version of the Benly and a 161cc version of the CB160 were also offered. The Hondells recorded “Little Honda” in 1964. Honda entered the American pop culture as the subject of this hit song. American Honda decided to spend half its annual advertising budget in one day. One night really, the 1964 Academy Awards telecast. Two 90-second commercials cost $350,000 – and triggered millions in sales – as well as national recognition. As its dealers’ showrooms handled the jump in traffic, America Honda fielded requests from Coca-Cola, DuPont, RCA, Pepsi-Cola, Westinghouse, and others for promotional tie-ins.
Following through on its commitment to motorcycling in America, American Honda acted as the catalyst in the formation of the Motorcycle Industry Council. American Honda also initiated formation of the Motorcycle Safety Council, providing 50% of the funding. Further safety efforts included working with many state motor vehicle departments and distribution of the safety promotion film, The Invisible Circle.
Expanding community involvement included donating motorcycles for youth education purposes. A juvenile delinquency-prevention program with the YMCA, initiated in Southern California, escalated into the National Youth Program Using Mini-Bikes (NYPUM) that provided mini-bikes for youths. Overall, American Honda has donated over 15,000 mini-bikes as well as thousands of other motorcycles for rider education. In 1988, the company opened a Rider Education Center in Colton, California, the first of its kind.
By the end of 1964, as a result of its leadership in image direction, marketing and education, American Honda had 62% of the U.S. market, just five years after opening its doors.
In 1965, Honda, always eager for a new market, jumped into the big leagues with their first big, fast production motorcycle, the innovative 43bhp CB450 twin. This was a double overhead-camshaft machine with torsion bar valve springs that would do a genuine 104mph, a machine to challenge the 500cc-plus bikes.
Despite its performance, sales of the CB450 worldwide were poor. A number of engineering changes were made. In 1967, a five-speed gearbox was added.
New product development continued, stimulated by expanded international racing. A year later, in Motorcycle Grand Prix road racing, Honda established an industry first – sweeping all five manufacturers’ solo road racing world titles. That race-developed technology in motorcycles would soon appear in consumer products. In 1967, Honda had their first big off-road win in the “first” Baja 1000.
But then, American Honda faced a sizable economic hurdleâ€¦its first since the early days. A year long slump saw sales drop from 20,000 to 13,000 units per month. The company decided to update its models. Shipments were suspended and inventory was restyled as the factory developed new products. In 1968, Honda stopped production of the CB72 and CB77 and produced a new line of high performance SOHC twins with five-speed gearboxes, called the CB250 and CB350, with the CB350 able to hit 106mph. This response saw sales return in the spring of 1968 – the same year Honda commemorated the cumulative sale of 10 million units world-wide.
Sales were further stimulated by the 1968 introduction of the Z50A MiniTrail 50. This model, which still lives today as the Z50R, introduced more youngsters to motorcycling than any other single model ever manufactured. Z50 model sales in excess of 450,000 units rank it as American Honda’s all-time best-selling model.
At the Tokyo Show of 1968, Honda, after months of tantalizing rumor, unveiled a landmark achievement that would change the motorcycling world forever. A 750cc bike with four cylinders and a disc brake that was so fast and powerful a new word, “superbike”, was coined to describe it. The CB750F Four was the biggest bike out of Japan, proving that a high-performance motorcycle could also be very reliable.
In April 1969, American Honda introduced two more all-time top-selling models. For many, the appearance of the CB750 Four signifies the emergence of the modern motorcycle era. The Four boasted a front disc brake and a 67 horsepower engine. The SOHC model went on to sell more than 400,000 units, making it the second best seller to date. CT70 Trail 70 sales of more than 380,000 units rank it third on the all-time list. The SL350 Motosport also debuted.
The CT70 was Honda’s biggest seller for a single year, with nearly 100,000 CT70s sold in 1970 alone.
Around the mid ’70s, Honda produced a two-stroke moped known as the Amigo. It was cheaper to manufacture than the four-stroke bikes and started a whole new generation of lightweight Honda two-stroke mopeds.
After years of winning in Europe, Honda’s CB750-based race bike won there first big event in the U.S., serving notice that Honda was going to be a dominant force on tracks all across America.
A 750 Honda motorcycle won the 1970 Daytona 200. By year’s end, 58 dealers had generated less than 6,000 sales.
In April 1971, Honda introduced the 500cc four and in 1974, it was replaced by a 550cc version.
In the 1970s, 250 and 350cc motorcycles were constantly being modified to keep pace with the other manufacturers and fashions. Both were given disc brakes and the 350s were eventually upgraded to 360cc,
In April 1972, the CB350F was introduced, a beautiful 350cc SOHC Four. Expanding its commitment to the American market, Honda formed Honda International Trading (HIT). This company exports American products to Japan.
In 1970, Honda entered the off-road market with the two-stroke motocross bike, the Elsinore. And later in 1973 with trail versions, known as the MT125 and MT250.
Late in 1970, Honda introduced a “semi-serious”, four-stroke trail bike, the SL125 four-stroke single in Japan, and followed with the more serious SL250 in 1972. The SL250 had long travel suspension, lots of ground clearance and performed well both on and off road.
Both Mr. Honda and Mr. Fujisawa retired in 1973, 25 years after formation of the Honda Motor Company. Mr. Kiyoshi Kawashima was named the new president of Honda Motor Company.
1973 was also the year that Honda entered into motocross with a revolutionary two-stroke, winning right from the start. Honda’s been a dominant force ever since, winning more than 70 titles.
That same year saw the introduction of several significant model concepts: the XR75 off-road mini, the ATC70 mini, and Honda’s first two-stroke in 20 years, the CR250M Elsinore motocrosser. Motorcycle sales peaked at an all-time high of 700,000 units in 1973.
Honda adopted an official model year policy with the introduction of the 1974 line. Four more XLâ€™s appeared, along with the CB200 and three additional two-strokes, the CR125 and MT125 and MT250 dual-purpose models.
Up to now, off-road bikes were just modified street bikes. The XR75 was Honda’s first XR, a true off-road motorcycle right off the production line.
In 1975, Honda again dared to think big, creating the first long-distance touring machine, the GL1000 Gold Wing, a sophisticated, water-cooled, flat four; along with their first off-road-only enduro model, the MR175. In the process, Honda did not just create a new motorcycle; they created a whole new touring culture. Here was a touring bike that set the standards of comfort and sophistication. It had a shaft-drive, disc brakes and to keep the weight low, a 4.8-gallon gas tank under the seat.
Also, the original CB400F introduced the world to cafe-bike styling on a modern production machine. Its graceful four-into-one exhaust made it an instant classic, and while it looks mild today, in its time, it was a radical departure from the standard models.
In 1976, yet another technical innovation from Honda, the CB750A was the first modern motorcycle with an automatic transmission.
In 1977, Honda announced the completely new and re-styled CR250 and CR400 twins with three-valve per cylinder heads to replace the aging 250 and 400 twins.
Also that year Honda pushed the envelope not only in motorcycle design, but also in alternative product concepts, like the three-wheel scooter and the one-man dune buggy.
On October 11th, 1977, Honda publicly signaled its increasing commitment to American enterprise and community involvement. The company became the first Japanese motorcycle manufacturer to move a portion of the process to the United States. A new corporation, Honda of America Manufacturing, would assemble and manufacture products in America at a facility to be built in Marysville, Ohio.
Six months later, on April 3, 1978, ground was broken for a 220,000 square foot facility costing about $35 million. Its capacity: 60,000 units per year. The plant became operational in September of the following year.
New products for 1978 included the first Honda two-stroke moped (PA50), the first CR25OR works-type motocross model, the first motorcycle counterbalancer and three-valve head (in the CB400T), the first V-twin motorcycle, the CX500, and the first hi-tech dual-purpose machine, the XL250S, which featured a 23-inch front wheel and dual exhaust pipes.
1979 brings in the first full-scale Japanese motor-vehicle production facility on U.S. soil.
Also that year, the CBX, powered by an incredible 1047cc, 6-cylinder engine, harks back to Hailwood’s RC166 that won the Isle of Man. The new line also included the first full-sized four-stroke enduros, the XR185, XR250 and XR500, and Honda’s first custom model, the CX500C Custom Honda’s NR500 race bike debuted in 1979. Oval pistons eventually found their way into production in Honda’s exotic NR750.
A larger GLl100 Gold Wing headed the 1980 model list. The Interstate was the industry’s first full dress touring bike.
The Ohio manufacturing plants demonstrated Honda’s commitment to America while serving as a model for blending eastern and western business philosophies. The Honda management style emphasizes recognition of all employees as “associates” while stressing teamwork rather than a potentially tense management vs. labor coexistence.
The first Pro-Link, liquid-cooled motocrossers appeared in 1981. The XR models also featured the Pro-Link suspension.
That same year, Team Honda gave America a first in world team motocross. The Honda Race Team swept both the Motocross and Trophee des Nations events. Team Honda repeated the sweep the following year, initiating a victory string that remains unbroken to date by multiple-manufacturer teams that have included Honda MX star Rick Johnson.
Two industry firsts appeared in the 1982 model line. The first modern V-Four engines appeared in the VF750S Sabre and VF750C Magna. The first production use of turbocharging with fuel injection specifically designed for a twin-cylinder motorcycle appeared in the CX500 Turbo.
Tetsuo Chino became the new president of American Honda in 1983. Expanding its American manufacturing commitment, Honda established Honda Power Equipment Manufacturing, Inc., based in North Carolina. Perhaps the biggest single leap in the sportbike industry, the Interceptor instantly elevated the level of both technology and performance available in a production motorcycle.
Honda’s first “traditional” V-twin custom motorcycle, the Shadow combined modern features like liquid cooling and shaft drive with a classic look and style, and helped build the modern custom market for Honda. Unlike other customs, this one was built for performance, reigning as the most awesome production motorcycle of its day. Together with the Interceptor, the Magna showed the explosion of technology from Honda.
Honda made riding scooters cool, creating edgy advertising with hip celebrities like Grace Jones. This marketing blitz paid off and scooter sales soared. In 1984, riding the wave of demand for scooters created by Honda, the Spree became the best-selling scooter of all time.
Honda Research of America was established in September 1984. This think tank was created specifically to develop new products for the American market and to keep Honda on the cutting edge.
In 1985, Unbelievably, Spencer won Grand Prix World Championship titles in both the 250 and 500cc classes in the same year. This feat had never been done before, and has not been done since.
In 1987, with the introduction of the Hurricane, Honda began an 11-year domination of the 600 Supersport class, with five championships on the track, and dozens of enthusiast-press best-bike awards.
Yoshihide Munekuni became American Honda’s president in 1988. Honda’s first flat six, and largest displacement motorcycle to date, the GL1500 Gold Wing, was included in the 1988 model selection that also featured the NT650 Hawk GT and three NX models to replace XL dual-sports motorcycles.
In 1989, Soichiro Honda was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame (USA) in October 1989. The “Old Man,” as he was affectionately known, received worldwide recognition for his enormous accomplishments and contributions.
In 1996, by combining a hot-rod Gold Wing engine in a custom chassis, Honda again defied conventional limitations, and the Valkyrie clearly established itself as the ultimate power cruiser.
In 1997, using a surprisingly stock GL1500 motorcycle engine, Kenny Lyon broke a land-speed class record. He hit 232.4 miles per hour at the Bonneville Salt Flats aboard his 33-inch-high, 24-foot-long bullet-shaped bike.
Then there was the first production of aluminum-framed MX bikes. Once again, Honda pushed the technological envelope.
Honda’s success in the global marketplace relies on its commitment to continued investment in America’s future. That has been their philosophy since they first started U.S. operations in 1959. It is what they believe in. It is what the customers expect, and it is why they will continue to grow in America.