Soichiro Honda, Founder of Auto Giant, Dead at 84 : Entrepreneur: Japanese inventor revolutionized the motorcycle and built one of world’s largest car firms.


Soichiro Honda, an auto mechanic who founded Honda Motor Co., made his own name a synonym for motorcycles and moved on to challenge the auto giants of the world, died here Monday. He was 84.

His death, from liver failure, brought back memories of how he and Japan’s other “garage” manufacturers led the country’s recovery from the ashes of defeat in World War II.

Like the late Konosuke Matsushita, who founded Matsushita Electric as a light-bulb manufacturing firm, and Masaru Ibuka, the technological genius of Sony Corp., Honda launched his corporation with makeshift means--attaching recycled war engines to bicycles.


An inventor by nature who often joined the work on the floors of his factories and research laboratories, Honda developed engines that transformed the motorcycle into a worldwide means of transportation. He also helped develop a pioneering, low-emission engine for passenger cars.

In Japan, Honda gave the motorcycle a new image, elevating it above hot-rodder status and making it acceptable to the homemaker for trips to the grocery store.

At his death, the company that bears his usually mispronounced name--it’s actually HONE-dah, not HAWN-dah--stood as Japan’s fourth-largest car maker, manufacturing 1.9 million automobiles a year. It also is the world’s largest producer of two-wheelers, with 3.4 million motorcycles in its latest fiscal year. Corporate sales were $30.5 billion.

Although Honda exercised no control over the company since retiring in 1973, his passing stirred an emotional comment from Nobuhiko Kawamoto, Honda Motor’s president.

“(He) taught us the challenge of life without compromise and the real meaning of technology. With a great deal of affection and respect, we called him oyaji-san (the great father). Words cannot express the sorrow we feel for his departure,” Kawamoto said.

A maverick in a nation of conformists, Honda made it a point to wear loud suits and wildly colored shirts. Described even by Honda executives as a “tyrant in the factory” with “a quick temper (and) thundering methods of instructing younger workers,” he was blunt and outspoken to outsiders. He was never invited to join elite business circles, such as the staid but powerful Keidanren (Federation of Economic Organizations). The highest “elder executive” post he held was vice president of the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry from 1979 to 1987.


But it mattered little to him.

“As long as you don’t cause trouble or make other people feel unpleasant, you should be permitted to wear clothes of any color you want,” he once said. “This way of thinking is important to inventors and artists. Unless they have the courage and determination to break with established ideas, they cannot expect to do a good job.”

Instead of joining the business Establishment, Honda challenged it.

In 1967, at a time when the Ministry of International Trade and Industry was trying to amalgamate Japan’s plethora of auto makers, Honda entered the passenger-car business by coming out with a midget-sized “family car” called the N360. It had a 40-horsepower engine and a top speed of 81 miles per hour and rode the crest of Japan’s late-1960s motorization boom to become an instant hit.

A bare five years later, in 1972, the firm became the world’s first auto maker to develop an engine capable of restraining emissions to the standards specified for 1975 by the U.S. Clean Air Act without the use of a catalytic converter, announcing the development of the fuel-efficient, stratified charge CVCC (compound vortex-controlled combustion) engine.

The announcement severely embarrassed Detroit’s Big 3, who at the time were protesting that the Clean Air Act’s standards were too strict. But in 1973, Ford Motor Co. licensed the technology.

Sol Sanders, a former foreign correspondent and author of a Honda biography, said Honda “almost daily” appeared at the research lab where development work on the revolutionary engine was being done. Even as president of the company, “he worked as one of the researchers,” Sanders quoted a Honda engineer as saying. “Whenever we encountered a problem, he studied it along with us.”

“Success,” Honda said in 1974 when receiving an honorary doctorate at Michigan Technological University, “represents 1% of your work, which results from the 99% that is called failure. . . . (Success) can be achieved only through repeated failure and introspection.”

After his retirement, the company followed Honda’s pioneering spirit by becoming the first Japanese auto maker to invest in manufacturing in the United States, opening a plant in Ohio in 1982. It produced 464,118 made-in-America vehicles last year, outstripping its exports to the United States of 390,761 cars.

In sales, Honda also surpassed Chrysler in the first half of 1991 to become the third-biggest auto company in the United States.

But, like many other venture capitalists in Japan, Honda never managed to overcome his initial handicap as a newcomer in the passenger-car business at home. After its initial late-1960s splash into the Japanese market, the company saw its overseas performance consistently outstrip its sales in Japan. And, in recent years, its sales at home started slipping.

In 1973, Honda, at 67, and the late Takeo Fujisawa, a former wartime aircraft-company executive who joined Honda to provide the management, sales and financial leadership of the company, simultaneously retired on the 25th anniversary of Honda’s founding. Both declared their conviction that Honda should remain a youthful company.

“Honda has always moved ahead of the times, and I attribute its success to the fact that the firm possesses dreams and youthfulness,” Honda said at the time.

Unlike most chief executive officers in Japan who step down to become chairmen of their firms, Honda retained only the title of “supreme adviser.”

Both Honda and Fujisawa also refused to allow any of their relatives to join the firm.

In the same spirit of separating the company and the family, the Honda family Monday put up signs outside the founder’s home rejecting visits by company employees and announced that the late founder had instructed them to prohibit Honda Motor Co. from holding a company funeral. Instead, the firm said it would hold an o-rei no kai (a meeting of respects) to “express gratitude to those who supported (Honda) throughout his career.”

Born in 1906, Honda grew up in the town of Tenryu in Shizuoka prefecture (state).

The eldest son of a blacksmith who repaired bicycles, the young Soichiro had only an elementary-school education when, in his teens, he left home to seek his fortune in Tokyo. He was hired by an auto-repair company in 1922, but for a year he was forced to serve as a baby-sitter for the auto shop’s owner and his wife. While employed at the auto shop, however, Honda built his own racing car using an old aircraft engine and handmade parts and participated in racing.

In 1937, he established his own company, manufacturing piston rings, but he found that he lacked a basic knowledge of casting. To obtain it, he enrolled in a technical high school, applying theories as he learned them in the classrooms to his own factory.

But he did not bother to take examinations at the school. Informed that he would not be graduated, Honda commented that a diploma was “worth less than a movie theater ticket. A ticket guarantees that you can get into the theater. But a diploma doesn’t guarantee that you can make a living.”

World War II brought a boom to Honda’s firm, but when the fighting ended, he sold it to Toyota Motors and “decided to take a year off,” a company release said. He spent the year partying with geishas and drinking alcohol that he himself fermented. Years later, in retirement, when questioned as to why he agreed to serve as a member of a civic committee dedicated to eliminating prostitution, Honda commented that his own “unique experience” made him especially qualified for the job.

In 1946, he established the Honda Technical Research Institute--the bicycle-with-attached-engine firm that was the forebear of Honda Motor Co. Teaming up with Fujisawa in 1948, Honda proceeded to develop new engines and new styles that popularized motorcycles.

By 1959, Honda started entering international motorcycle races and began exporting to the United States. Autos followed in 1967.

In retirement, Honda devoted himself to public service and frequent travel abroad. He received the Order of the Sacred Treasure, first class, the highest honor bestowed by Japan’s emperor. He also received the American auto industry’s highest award when he was admitted to the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1989.

He is survived by his wife, Sachi, and three children.