Historic Motorcycle Brands
When young, Soichiro Honda worked as a mechanic, tuning cars and entering them in races. In 1937, with financing from an acquaintance, Kato Shichirō, Honda started making piston rings for Toyota, but lost the contract due to poor quality. His Honda Motor Company grew in a short time to become the world’s largest manufacturer of motorcycles by 1964.
After the initial Toyota rejection, Soichiro attended engineering school, but didn’t graduate and visited factories around Japan to better understand quality control processes.
By 1941, Honda was able to mass-produce piston rings acceptable to Toyota, using an automated process that could employ even unskilled Wartime labourers.
Honda also aided the War effort by assisting other companies in automating the production of military aircraft propellers. The relationships Honda cultivated with personnel at Toyota, Nakajima Aircraft Company and the Imperial Japanese Navy were instrumental in the post-War period
After the Wartime destruction of his plants, Honda sold the remaining assets to Toyota and started the Honda Technical Research Institute, in October 1946.
Honda Super Cub
With a staff of 12 men working in a small shack, they built and sold improvised motorised bicycles, using a supply of 500 two-stroke 50cc Tohatsu War surplus radio generator engines.
When the engines ran out, Honda began building its own copy of the Tohatsu engine and supplied them to customers, to attach to their bicycles.This was the Honda A-Type, nicknamed the ‘Bata Bata’ because of the sound the engine made.
The first complete motorcycle, with both the frame and engine made by Honda, was the 1949 D-Type, the first Honda to go by the name Dream.
At about the same time, Honda hired engineer Kihachiro Kawashima and Takeo Fujisawa, who provided indispensable business and marketing expertise to complement Soichiro Honda’s technical bent. The close partnership between Soichiro Honda and Fujisawa lasted until they stepped down together in October 1973.
Soichiro Honda, being a racer himself, could not stay out of international motorsport, so in 1959, Honda entered five motorcycles into the Isle of Man TT race.
However, while is race engines were powerful enough, it took until 1961 for Honda to tune its chassis well enough to let Mike Hailwood claim Grand Prix victories for Honda, in the 125cc and 250cc classes. Hailwood later picked up Senior TT wins in 1966 and 1967.
Honda’s race bikes introduced exotic engine configurations, headed by the five-cylinder, 22,000rpm, 125cc bike and six-cylinder 250cc and 297cc bikes.
1967 Honda RC174 Mike Hailwood
In 1960, when it was still a small manufacturer, Honda broke out of the Japanese motorcycle market and began exporting to the USA. Working with the advertising agency Grey Advertising, Honda created an innovative marketing campaign, using the slogan: “You meet the nicest people on a Honda.”
In contrast to the prevailing negative stereotypes of motorcyclists in America as tough, antisocial rebels, this campaign suggested that Honda motorcycles were made for everybody. The three-year campaign was hugely successful and in 1963, Honda sold 90,000 motorcycles in the USA.
1969 Honda CB750
At its peak in 1982, Honda manufactured almost three million motorcycles annually. By 2006 this figure had reduced to around 550,000 but was still higher than its three domestic competitors .
Honda’s story as an archetype of a smaller manufacturer entering a market already occupied by highly dominant competitors promoted the UK Government to commission a report by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 1975.
The Poms wanted to know why and how the British motorcycle industry had been out-competed by fledlging Japanese competitors.
The report concluded that Japanese firms made a large number of motorbikes in order to benefit from economies of scale and learning curve effects. It blamed the decline of the British motorcycle industry on the failure of British managers to invest enough in their businesses to profit from economies of scale and scope.
Honda CBR 600F
Another explanation was offered in 1984, by Richard Pascale, who had interviewed the Honda executives responsible for the firm’s entry into the US market. He reported that Honda’s success was due to the adaptability and hard work of its staff, rather than any long-term strategy.
The most recent school of thought on Honda’s strategy was put forward by Gary Hamel and C K Prahalad in 1989. They argued that Honda’s success was due to its focus on leadership in the technology of internal combustion engines: the high power-to-weight ratio engines Honda produced for its racing bikes provided technology and expertise which was transferable into motorcycles.
At Historic Vehicles, we think that a clear reason behind Honda’s success has been its willingness to experiment with different types of bike configurations. We can’t think of any bike maker who has developed more frame, engine, transmission and final drive variations than Honda.
With the NR500 engine Honda effectively made four-combustion-chamber V8
In 1979, Honda returned to Grand Prix motorcycle racing, with the monocoque-framed, four-stroke NR500. In attempt to make a four-stroke race engine competitive with a similar-displacement two-stroke, the NR500 had ‘race-track-oval’ cylinders, each with eight valves and two connecting rods. Unfortunately, the ‘NR’ proved unreliable and was dubbed ‘Never Ready’.
Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) was formed in 1982 and for the 1982 season, Honda debuted its first two-stroke race bike, the NS500. In the following year, Honda won its first 500cc Grand Prix World Championship with Freddie (‘Fast Freddy’) Spencer.
Wayne Gardner 1989 Donington Park – Stu Newby
Since then, Honda has become a dominant marque in motorcycle Grand Prix racing, winning a plethora of top-level titles with riders including Wayne Gardner, Daryl Beattie, Mick Doohan, Valentino Rossi, Casey Stoner, Dani Pedrosa and Mark Marquez.
Honda also heads the number of wins at the Isle of Man TT, having notched up more than 200 victories in the solo classes and Sidecar TTs.
Mick Doohan 1990 Japanese GP – Rikita
In the Motocross World Championship, Honda has claimed six world championships. In the World Enduro Championship, Honda has captured eight titles, most recently with Stefan Merriman in 2003 and with Mika Ahola from 2007 to 2010. In motorcycle trials, Honda has claimed three world championships, with Belgian rider Eddy Lejeune.
Because Honda is a relative newcomer to the motorcycle world, it’s not obvious which of its more modern bikes will be treasured in the years to come. However, there are some certainties and we’ve listed them below.
2020 Honda Super Cub
The obvious first entrant is the Honda Cub backbone-framed motorcycle range has been powered by a series of four-stroke, single-cylinder engines, ranging in displacement from 49cc to 124cc.
In continuous manufacture since 1958, with production that surpassed 100 million in 2017, the Super Cub is the most produced motor vehicle in history. Variants include the C100, C50, C70, C90, C100EX, CA100, C102, C50, Sports C110, C111. C110D and C114, as well as the Honda Trail series.
Honda RC174E engine
In stark contrast to the popular but pedestrian Cub was the series of multi-cylinder racing bikes Honda took to the international stage in the 1960s and culminated in the six-cylinder, RC174 that is certainly one the greatest GP bikes ever made.
Honda upsized the successful, six-cylinder 250cc RC166 for the 1967 350cc GP class, meeting the minimum-capacity, 300cc lower limit.
Mike Hailwood took the world championship in 1967, aboard the 66bhp, 17,000rpm RC174. Interestingly, the tiny engine’s output, at 220bhp per litre, was proportionately more powerful than many early 21st-century Moto GP bikes.
The Honda CB750 arrived on the global scene in 1969 and sounded the death knell for the British motorcycle industry. With its 68hp, four-cylinder, overhead-camshaft engine set across the frame, driving through a five-speed transmission, it could achieve 200km/h. It came with reliable electrics – no Lucas or Marelli – and an electric starter.
The CB750 was joined by the CB500 and CB350 smaller fours in 1971 and 1972, respectively. The motorcycle world would never be the same.
Honda GL1000 Gold Wing
In 1975 came the Honda Goldwing 1000 touring bike that boasted a 79hp, one-litre, flat-four, engine with shaft rear drive. The concept was successful enough to last until the 2020s, with another pair cylinders added.
As if the CB750 hadn’t been heartbreaking enough for the motorcycle competition, Honda introduced the six-cylinder CBX1000 in 1978. It didn’t have a long market life, because it was expensive and not that much quicker than the 750, let alone the increasing competition, but it did show that Honda was up for just about any challenge.
The 1978 Honda CX500 range was another illustration of the company’s ability to adopt flexible designs. This bike’s 50hp V-twin engine emulated Moto Guzzi’s layout, right down to the shaft rear drive. It departed from Honda’s OHC engine design in having pushrods, but that allowed the cylinders to be ‘twisted’ 22-degrees outwards, so the carbies didn’t interfere with the rider’s legroom.
A turbo version was released in 1978, with 80+hp, but replaced the following year by a naturally-aspirated, fuel-injected 650cc version that was later turbo-d, briefly.
When the CBX was phased out, Honda’s next technological feat was the VF/VFR series that began with the launch of the VFR750 in 1982. Camshaft wear issue plagued the early four-cam, V-four engines, but that was rectified quickly.
Honda’s V-four engine platform continued into the 2020s and is the basis of many other motorcycle brands’ high-performance and racing motorcycle engines.