Happy 75th birthday to the world’s most important motorcycle brand


Honda is having a tough time in MotoGP right now, but no other company has had such a big impact on motorcycling, both on racetrack and road

Soichiro Honda kneels at corner to watch his motorcycle passing

Before the days of datalogging – Soichiro Honda closely observing the cornering performance of a Honda race bike at his Arakawa test course


This Sunday, while MotoGP does its thing in India, the Honda Motor Company will celebrate its 75th birthday.

Company founder Soichiro Honda may well be spinning in his grave (at 22,500rpm, in tribute to his gorgeous multi-cylinder 1960s grand prix bikes) at the poor performance of his current MotoGP project, but make no mistake about it, this is a huge anniversary, because no other company has had such a big impact on motorcycling, both on road and racetrack.

The Honda Motor company was founded on September 24, 1948, three years after the Americans ended the Second World War by dropping the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

From the archive

Soichiro Honda was born 42 years earlier, at the late dawn of the automotive era, the son of a blacksmith and all-round artisan who imbued his son with his skills. The moment the youngster saw the first car trundle through his village, near Hamamatsu, he became obsessed with engines and wheels.

When he was 15 Honda-san moved to Tokyo to work as an apprentice at a car repair shop, where the owner used him to do housework and babysit instead. Honda carried the owner’s baby on his back and got soaked with wee. Not an auspicious start.

His first mechanical job was working on his boss’s racing car, powered by a Curtiss V8 aircraft engine. And he won his first race in this monster, sitting shotgun to the driver, as riding mechanic.

Five years later Honda-san opened his own repair shop in Hamamatsu. But he wanted more – he wanted to make things, not fix them. By the time Japan invaded China in 1937, he was making piston rings, for military use.

Now his genius blossomed. He invented a four-axis lathe which improved production efficiency four-fold. Then he created an automatic propellor cutting machine that produced a propellor every 15 minutes, instead of one a week, which helped Japan fight the Americans in the Pacific and the British in Burma.

Soichiro Honda with mechanics outside his repair shop in 1931

It’s 1931 and 25-year-old Honda-san (wearing sunglasses and white overalls) and his workers stand outside his Hamamatsu repair shop


By 1945 his business and much of Japan had been reduced to rubble, including its public transport network. Honda-san quickly understood that people desperately needed a cheap, simple way to get around.

The Honda motorcycle story began when he bought a job lot of 500 Imperial Army radio generators which he used to power bicycles, equipped with hot-water bottles as fuel tanks. The bike was christened the Putt-Putt.

In 1947 Honda built his first engine, which powered the Honda Model A, which was followed by the B and C. By 1949 the company was making 1000 motorcycles a month.

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In the 1950s Honda started racing, but its early outings in Japan’s Mount Fuji race – around the volcano – weren’t successful. Thus began a never-ending rivalry, its six-horsepower Benly 125 four-stroke soundly defeated by Yamaha’s YA-1 two-stroke.

Honda-san always liked to bite off more than he could chew, so in 1954 he announced his intention to contest the Isle of Man TT, at that time the world’s most important motorcycle races.

A fact-finding visit to the Isle of Man to research Honda’s 125cc entry blew his mind. He was astounded by the speed of the bikes – MV Agustas and Mondials – so he bought a Mondial 125cc grand prix bike and lots of parts and machine tools to take home. By 1959 Honda’s first GP bike was ready and the nine-horsepower RC142 twin scored a world championship point in its first TT.

Less than two years later Honda scored its first GP victory and by the end of 1961 had won the 125cc and 250cc world championships, taking the first five places in the 250 series, topped by Mike Hailwood.

This was the start of one of the golden eras of GP racing, as fellow Japanese manufacturers – Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha – hurried to join the battle with the struggling European industry. The opposite of the current situation in MotoGP.

Soichiro Honda with some of his first factory riders

Honda-san (in glasses) with some of his first factory riders. Naomi Taniguchi (far right) scored Honda’s first world-championship point in the 1959 125cc TT


And, ironically, considering the current situation, Honda astounded its rivals with its ability to react quickly to solve problems. At the start of 1962 Honda’s first 50cc GP bike went from a six- to an eight- to a nine-speed gearbox in just three GPs.

The machines that Honda produced in this period were mind-boggling: the 250 six, a 125cc five and a 50cc twin, which revved to 22,500rpm. The 50 made 290 horsepower per litre, which isn’t much less than Honda’s current RC213V MotoGP bike.

By the mid-1960s Honda had become the world’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer, producing 1.25 million machines a year. In 1966 Honda won the constructors’ world championship in every class – 50cc, 125cc, 250cc, 350cc and 500cc – a feat that will never be bettered, because since the late 1980s there have only been three GP categories.

Honda quit motorcycle GPs at the end of 1967, scared away by the unstoppable two-strokes and keen to invest heavily in its first Formula 1 car project.

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Honda is not merely the only company that contests both MotoGP and F1, it is also the only company that contests superbikes, endurance, motocross, trials, rallies, the world touring car championship, IndyCar, Super GT, F2 and so on. No other company comes within a million miles of that.

Why was Honda-san so good at what he did? He was a natural engineering genius, who knew what he wanted and put engineering before profit, which is why Honda nearly went bankrupt several times in its early years. The company’s future was only assured when he hired Takeo Fujisawa to look after its finances. Honda-san’s maxim was always this: build a well-engineered product and people will buy it.

In 1969, a decade after Honda became the first Japanese manufacturer to race in GPs, it launched the world’s first superbike, the four-cylinder CB750, which transformed the motorcycling landscape.

This machine was the basis of Honda’s racing activities for the next decade, which brought victories in the Daytona 200, the Le Mans 24 Hours and the Bol d’Or. Anywhere those horrible two-strokes wouldn’t spoil the fun.

However, by the late 1970s Honda importers around the world were telling their Tokyo contacts that the company must return to GP racing, because only success in the premier world championships makes the headlines that sell motorcycles.

Mike Hailwood on Honda 250 motorbike

Honda dominated GP racing throughout much of the 1960s, with a mesmerising line-up of machinery, including the 250 six, which Mike Hailwood rode to the 1966 and 1967 250cc world titles


Honda-san hated two-strokes – dirty and smelly – so returned to GP racing with a four-stroke, despite the fact that everyone else had given up four-strokes, because a two-stroke makes twice as many power strokes.

So Honda built a four-stroke that revved twice as high as the two-strokes. Enter the oval-piston, 32-valve NR500 V4, which reached the giddy heights of 22,000rpm but never scored a single world championship point in more than two years of GP racing.

In 1982 Honda admitted defeat and built a three-cylinder 500cc two-stroke, creating HRC (the Honda Racing Corporation) at the same time. The NS500 triple won the company’s first premier-class world championship the following year.

“He said, ‘Who designed this?!’ A bloke stuck up his hand and the cylinder was hurled across the room”

Honda-san was affectionately known as The Old Man (like Enzo Ferrari) but he wasn’t all avuncular. Tales of his rages are legendary, because you don’t get to build the world’s biggest automotive empire by being nice to everyone.

Former HRC engineer Stuart Shenton – now Rory Skinner’s Moto2 crew chief – remembers one of The Old Man’s last visits to a GP in 1985.

“Mr Honda came to Jarama and we were told he would be visiting [Takazumi] Katayama’s garage,” recalls Shenton. “We were told what to do and where to be, then we stood there waiting. Mr Honda arrived and laid into Takeo Fukui [who ran Honda’s GP racing project and later became president of Honda].

“I asked one of the Japanese what he was saying. He was telling Fukui, ‘Are you stupid?! Did you pay attention at school? Because you don’t know what you’re talking about!’. He said, ‘Right, you’ve built these bikes with reed valves, now bring me a reed valve’. Then he lectured the engineers about how he thought the reed valve should be.”

Marc Marquez and Honda team celebrate 2019 MotoGP championships

Marc Márquez and his Honda crew celebrate more world titles in 2019. No one has won more premier class races for Honda than the Spaniard


A year or two later Shenton was at HRC in Japan, with fellow pitlane guru Jeremy Burgess, crew chief to Mick Doohan and Valentino Rossi.

“Mr Honda turned up holding a motocross cylinder. He had come to find the designer. He said, ‘Who designed this?!’. A bloke stuck up his hand and the cylinder was hurled across the room. Then Mr Honda turned and walked out.”

Honda and HRC ruled grand prix racing for years after the arrival of the NS and the V4 NSR500, which begat the NSR250, possibly the sweetest GP bike of all time.

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And then there was the RS125, which provided competitive machinery from club level to GPs, so you could argue that it’s the most significant race bike of all time, just as you could argue that the Super Cub step-thru is the greatest motorcycle of all time. Manufacture of the Cub started in 1958 and has never stopped. Over 100 million have been produced, making it the most-produced motor vehicle of all time.

In 2001 Honda became the first manufacturer to win 500 GPs. That figure now stands at over 800, although the rate of increase has slowed considerably in recent years.

You probably know the rest. When MotoGP went four-stroke in 2002 HRC produced the sublime V5 RC211V. But when MotoGP switched to 800cc engines in 2007, HRC had a new group of engineers, who didn’t make a great job of the RC212V.

Indeed you might argue that the problems suffered by the current 1000cc RC213V started there, because the 213 was basically a development of the 212.

What must Honda do to fight its way out of the biggest hole it’s been in? It needs to change everything. Not just the bike, but the philosophy, the culture, the mindset, because companies and cultures that don’t change with the times die. European engineers currently rule MotoGP, so Honda needs European engineers and it needs to open its mind to their ideas, just as the Europeans failed to do when Honda and the rest of the Japanese industry conquered the world in the 1960s.