Honda Motorcycle History
Honda was founded in the late 1940s as Japan struggled to rebuild following the second World War. Company founder Soichiro Honda first began manufacturing piston rings before turning his attention to inexpensive motorcycles. Mr. Honda always had a passion for engineering, and this became evident by the wild sales success of his motorcycles in the 1960s and by competing head-to-head against the world’s best on racetracks. Today, Honda is a juggernaut, offering class-leading machines in most every category.
* 1906 Soichiro Honda is born in Hamamatsu, Japan. His father owns a blacksmith shop that also repairs bicycles. As a young man, Honda is an apprentice in an automotive garage in Tokyo.
* 1928 Honda returns to Hamamatsu to open his own auto repair shop. Enamored with speed, he builds his own race car.
* 1936 Honda is injured in an auto racing accident.
* 1937 He forms a company to manufacture piston rings. After a shaky start (owing mostly to his complete lack of formal training in metallurgy) his company becomes successful. He is a key supplier to Toyota, which starts manufacturing cars at about the same time.
* 1946 Soichiro Honda sells his piston-ring business. Japan is struggling to regain some semblance of normalcy, after having been bombed flat at the end of WWII. Honda realizes the need for affordable transportation and begins grafting war-surplus two-stroke motors onto bicycles. (The motors had originally been intended for use on portable generators for military radios.)
* 1948 Honda Motor Co. Ltd is incorporated. Soichiro Honda focuses on the engineering side of the business, while financial operations are controlled by Takeo Fujisawa.
* 1949 The company produces its first real motorcycle, powered by a 98cc a two-stroke motor. When an employee sees the first one assembled and it is ridden outside the factory, he says, “It’s like a dream.” The name “Dream” was adopted for the bike, officially known as Model D.
* 1951 Mr. Honda is infuriated by the noise, smell and fumes from the two-stroke motorbikes (including his own) that crowd Japanese city streets. In response, the company creates its first four-stroke motorcycle, the Dream E (146cc).
* 1952 Despite the fact that he despises such “primitive” powerplants, Honda flirts with his original notion of auxiliary motors for bicycles. The Cub F (two-stroke, 50cc) clip-on motor is sold through thousands of independent bicycle shops across Japan. It is only manufactured for two years, but it introduces the “Cub” trademark, which will be popular for decades in various guises.
* 1953 The Benly J (4-stroke, 90cc) is released. At least some of these were sold with “Benly” tank-badges, and carried the Honda name on engine cases only. The Benly series also lasted a long time, and ushered in an era of improved performance. They were immediately popular with Japan’s amateur racers.
* 1954 Soichiro Honda shares his own dream, of success in Grand Prix motorcycle racing. He writes, “My childhood dream was to be a champion of motor racing with a machine built by myself. However, before becoming world champion, it is strongly required to establish a stable corporate structure, provided with precise production facilities and superior product design. From this point of view we have been concentrating on providing high quality products to meet Japanese domestic consumer demand and we have not had enough time to pour our efforts in motor cycle racing until now… I here avow my intention that I will participate in the TT race and I proclaim with my fellow employees that I will pour all my energy and creative powers into winning.”
Mr. Honda attended the Isle of Man races as an observer that year, paying particular attention to the German-made NSU motorcycles that dominated the 125 and 250 classes. Although it is widely believed Honda “copied” these machines, it is not true; the NSU racers were singles with bevel-drive cams–nothing like the early Honda racers.
* 1957 The leading Italian manufacturers, including MV Agusta, Gilera, and Mondial announce that they will withdraw from World Championship racing, citing increasing costs. MV Agusta will renege on this agreement and continue racing. Honda buys one of the last Mondial race bikes. The Japanese company doesn’t copy the Italian bike, but it does use it as a source of inspiration and an example of the standard they need to reach.
* 1958 The Super Cub (aka C100, aka CA100, aka simply “the Honda 50”) hits the market. It features a pressed-steel frame, leading-link fork, step-through design and a 50cc four-stroke motor. It is destined to be sold under various names, and will later grow to 70cc, and finally 90cc. It will become the most popular motorcycle–indeed, the most popular motor vehicle of any kind.
* 1959 Honda enters the famed Isle of Man TT races for the first time. The company fields five machines in the 125cc “Ultra-lightweight” class. The bikes are 125cc twins, of the type raced the previous year in Japanese national competition. Naomi Tanaguchi achieves the team’s the best TT result, finishing sixth. Honda wins the manufacturer’s trophy in the class.
Honda opens American Honda Motor Co. in Los Angeles.
* 1961 Honda dominates both the 125cc and 250cc classes at the TT. Mike Hailwood wins both races, with Hondas finishing 1st through 5th positions in each case. The Isle of Man Examiner newspaper says simply, “It was a devastating win for the Orient.”
* 1963 This year, Honda focuses on F-1 car racing, and the motorcycle racing program suffers. Sales of street bikes remain strong, however: the Super Cub is awarded the French Mode Cup; Honda opens its first overseas plant in Belgium; Grey Advertising unveils the famous “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” campaign. Early the following year, Honda buys commercial time in the Academy Awards for a “nicest people” television ad featuring the Super Cub.
* 1964 Two-stroke motors begin to dominate the smaller-displacement racing classes. In order to remain competitive in the 250cc classes, while still relying on four-stroke motors, Honda produces a six-cylinder 250, the 3RC164. This engineering marvel dazzles the racing world, but it is not enough to prevent Phil Read from winning the championship on his Yamaha ’stroker. In ’66 and ’67, however, Mike Hailwood will use the six to win the 250cc World Championship.
* 1968 19 years after the company’s first two-wheeler rolled out of the factory, Honda produces its 10 millionth motorcycle.
* 1969 Honda unveiled the CB750 at the Tokyo Motor Show in late ’68, but it didn’t hit the market until early ’69. It is impossible to overstate the impact this bike made, as the first modern mass-market four, and the first mass-market bike to come with a disc brake. Until well into 1970, CB750s were made with sand-cast, not die-cast engine cases. In truth, die-cast cases were lighter, stronger, and more oil tight. But it’s the sand-cast models that are prized by collectors.
* 1970 Honda entered four riders in the Daytona 200, but only one–Dick Mann–finished. The three DNFs were completely overshadowed by Mann’s victory. It was a huge win for Honda in America. That year, the 200 grid also included all-new triples from Triumph and BSA, and the first XR750 Harley-Davidsons. Although the factory bikes are often referred to as CR750 models, the CR750 was never sold as a complete motorcycle; it was only a kit of parts to be assembled on a CB750 donor bike. The factory racers were built by Honda’s Racing Services Center (the predecessor of today’s HRC) and officially designated “CB750 Racing Type.”
* 1972 Honda finally admits that in order to build a competitive 250cc motocrosser, the company has to make another two-stroke motor. CR250 “Elsinore” reaches the U.S. in early ’73. It is immediately the most effective production race bike in its class, and Gary Jones wins the AMA motocross championship on it in its first year.
* 1973 Soichiro Honda retires as the company President. He remains on the Board of Directors, which grant him the honorific title ‘Supreme Advisor’ in 1983.
* 1974 The first Gold Wing, the GL1000, is introduced at Cologne. It reaches the U.S. market in early ’75. The ’wing is the first Japanese production four-stroke to be water-cooled. It also features shaft drive and is one of the first production bikes to be fitted with a fuel pump. The pump is required because the “tank” in the normal position is actually an electronics bay and conceals the radiator overflow, while the real fuel tank is under the seat, to help keep the center of gravity low.
* 1978 In an effort to build a competitive four-stroke motorcycle for the 500GP World Championship, Honda produces the oval-piston NR500. It was effectively a “four-cylinder V-8, with 8 connecting rods and 32 valves. It is a technological tour-de-force, but manufacturing challenges prevent it from racing until late in the ’79 season. Honda persists with the machine through the ’81 season, but even Freddie Spencer can’t manage to win on it.
* 1981 Honda Gold Wing production moves from Japan to a new factory in Ohio.
* 1983 Freddie Spencer wins the 500cc World Championship. For the first time, Honda wins the “blue riband” championship. (The company first won the Manufacturer’s Championship in the 500cc class in 1966.)
* 1986 After a shaky start, the V-four “VF” series of road bikes is redeemed with the redesigned VFR750F “Interceptor”. Its gear-drive overhead cams once and for all banish cam drive and wear problems, and the model is generally acknowledged as being the “best all-’round road bike” for most of the next ten years.
* 1987 The CBR600F “Hurricane” is Honda’s first fully-faired, four-cylinder street bike.
* 1990 The VFR750R (aka RC30) finally arrives in the U.S., three years after it is first sold in Japan. It’s a true homologation special, and a genuine race bike for the street, selling for twice the price of a stock Interceptor.
* 1991 The company mourns the death of Soichiro Honda.
* 1992 200 units of the legendary NR (aka NR 750) are produced. This is a street-legal version of the ill-fated NR500 Grand Prix racer, which sells for a breathtaking $60,000. It’s loaded with ahead-of-its-time features including carbon-fiber bodywork, a digital dash, underseat exhaust, a single-sided swingarm, and fuel injection. In spite of lavish use of carbon and light alloy, it weighs nearly 500 pounds, and most of the people who have ridden it (still a small statistical sample!) are underwhelmed.
* 1993 The CBR900RR stuns the sportbike world. Designed by Tadao Baba, the “Fireblade” combines the power of an open-class motorcycle with the weight and handling of a 600.
* 1995 The radical EXP-2 (two-stroke 400cc) wins its class in the Granada-Dakar rally. The bike is the proof-of-concept for a cleaner burning and more powerful two-stroke engine concept that uses a pivoting “valve” to close the exhaust port.
* 2001 Valentino Rossi wins the last ever 500cc World Championship on the NSR500 two-stroke.
* 2002 All change. Or not. Rossi wins the first World Championship in the 990cc MotoGP era, on the five-cylinder four-stroke RC211V. Valentino Rossi wins the last ever 500cc World Championship on the NSR500 two-stroke.
* 2004 Honda prototypes a motorcycle powered by a fuel cell.
* 2006 The 50,000,000th Super Cub is sold.
* 2007 Honda is the first manufacturer to offer a motorcycle with air bag crash protection.