The world of motor sport changed forever half a century ago this June. And yet Honda’s arrival at the 1959 Isle of Man TT wasn’t met with foreboding by the European racing industry, rather it was greeted with wry amusement. Back then ‘Made in Japan’ were bywords for shoddily-made gimcrack goods and very few onlookers expected the first Japanese in world-class motor racing to get very far.
Even Honda’s men were unsure of themselves. Soichiro Honda had originally announced his plans to enter the TT – in those days the only race that really mattered – several years earlier but a recce visit had shocked him into delaying the debut. “What amazed me was seeing machines running with three times more power than we had been considering – I watched them shoot off like arrows,” he said many years later. “Not only were these machines unlike any we’d seen before, we’d never even dreamed of such a sight. My first reaction was a shock of disappointment. I had gone to the TT after spreading talk all over Japan about how Honda would enter the races. What did I say, I wondered? And what am I going to do?”
What Honda did was go shopping. He embarked on a grand tour of Europe, buying state-of-the-art racing motorcycles which were flown east to be disassembled and analysed. But his very first Grand Prix bike – the RC142 twin-cylinder, eight-valve 125 – wasn’t a straight rip-off of anything European, it was Honda already going his own way. A brilliant metallurgist who made piston rings for Japanese warplanes during World War II, Honda-san understood that more revs were the way forward, hence multiple cylinders and valves. The four-cylinder, 16-valve 250 that followed that first 125 twin was the genesis of the modern sports motorcycle – most of today’s superbikes use the same engine configuration: four cylinders in line, cylinders canted forward, 16 valves driven by double overhead camshafts, alternator riding piggyback behind the cylinders.
Honda’s RC142 wasn’t the fastest bike in the 1959 Ultra Lightweight TT, but lack of horsepower was the least of the team’s problems. The nine-man crew had to cope with all manner of woes on Mona’s Isle.
The five riders hoped that they were well prepared for the daunting 37¾-mile Mountain course, having spent months in Japan watching cine films of the circuit’s 250-odd corners. But on arrival they found out that the 125 race would be staged on a different circuit. Then they discovered that the Japanese food they’d carefully stowed with the bikes had gone rotten on the eight-week sea voyage from Yokohama to Liverpool; so every night for six weeks they ate Manx mutton. “Every time we asked the hotel cook what we could eat he made this noise: ‘Baaa, baaa!’” remembers Naomi Taniguchi, the team’s fastest rider.
Before leaving Japan Honda’s GP pioneers had been instructed in the ways of western etiquette, learning how to eat with knives and forks, and how to behave in a manner that would bring honour upon the Honda Motor Company. “So we ate bad food with good manners,” joked team manager Kiyoshi Kawashima, who later became company president. Honda’s humble Island hotel sounds like it might have been run by Basil Fawlty or the League of Gentlemen, because the owners forbade the entire team from visiting the hotel bar: a local drinking establishment for local people.
Not everyone laughed at Honda that June. The less bigoted observers noticed that the team knew what it was doing, and close inspection of the bikes proved them to be well engineered. Taniguchi may not have won the race but he scored the factory’s first World Championship point and Honda won the team prize for excellent reliability.
Among those who realised that Honda might be going places was Australian rider Tom Phillis, who had sold everything he owned to come to Europe the previous summer. Phillis wrote to Honda, seeking a ride. In 1961 he scored the factory’s first GP victory and first world title success; a year later he was dead, killed at the TT.
Following those early successes, Honda quickly rose to dominate GP racing, its engineers creating some of history’s most fabulous machines in an effort to defeat the newfangled two-strokes that swept through the sport in the 1960s. Japan’s only dedicated four-stroke manufacturer built a six-cylinder 250, a five-cylinder 125 and a twin-cylinder 50, all revving beyond 20,000rpm and producing specific power outputs that have hardly been improved upon today. The 1966 RC166 50cc twin made 280 horsepower per litre.
Eventually the dastardly two-strokes did prevail and Honda retired from motorcycle GPs to go F1 racing. They returned to bikes in the late 1970s on a quixotic quest to beat the two-strokes with the frighteningly exotic NR500: oval pistons, eight valves and two conrods per cylinder, and 22,000rpm. Nicknamed the ‘Never Ready’, the NR failed to score a single World Championship point during three seasons.
Honda later exacted revenge on its two-stroke rivals by building its own two-strokes, but all the while it lobbied the Federation Internationale Motocyclisme to give four-strokes a proper chance. The FIM did agree to let 250 turbos tackle the 500 two-strokes but Honda’s turbocharged oval-piston 250 was a short-fused grenade and never made it beyond the dyno.
Finally, in 2002 the FIM returned four-strokes to elite-class GP racing, allowing 990 four-strokes to take on the 500s. With Valentino Rossi on board, Honda was immediately dominant, maybe too dominant. Convinced that the machine mattered more than the man, Honda seemed too proud to care when Rossi defected to Yamaha, the same hubris that has poisoned some of its car racing ventures. Since then Honda has struggled to regain its pre-eminence and in recent years has lost out to Yamaha and Ducati. The marque has won just four Grands Prix during the past two seasons and only the most dewy-eyed Honda engineers expect the company to celebrate its 50th year in GP racing by winning the 2009 MotoGP World Championship.