Encounter with a Cast-off Military Surplus Engine / 1946

One day in September 1946, Mr. Honda visited the home of a friend, Kenzaburo Inukai. There, by chance, he came upon a small engine. He had come to know Mr. Inukai through automobile repair work he did when he was running the Hamamatsu branch of Art Shokai and Mr. Inukai was running a taxi company. Mr. Inukai happened to have a generator engine designed for a No. 6 wireless radio from the former Imperial Army that an acquaintance had left with him. When Mr. Honda saw it, he was immediately inspired with an idea. It was a moment of destiny. This encounter determined his whole future direction, and it was from this decisive moment that the later Honda Motor Co. would be born.


The Yamashita Plant in Yamashita-cho, Hamamatsu (circa 1952)

Mr. Honda had started out as an automobile repair mechanic. Engines were what he knew best, and on top of that, he was an inventor.

It did not take him any time to come up with an idea: "Let’s use this to power a bicycle."

The notion of attaching an auxiliary engine to power a bicycle had been around for a long time. It had been made into a commercial product in England and other places, and a few of these products had been imported into Japan in prewar days. Moreover, the original concept of the motorcycle had developed from the notion of adding a power source to a bicycle. A bicycle with an auxiliary engine attached is very close to the original motorcycle design. Although such machines existed, they were still not at all common in prewar Japan. After the war, transportation conditions in Japan had deteriorated, and people’s primary means of transportation had become the bicycle. With cargo piled up high, it also became a working means of freight transport. If an auxiliary engine could be attached, how much easier it would be. And how much more useful. He had discovered something that people would enjoy, and that would at the same time make a good business, and that furthermore was in his own special field.

Mr. Honda immediately set to work on a prototype. It was at this time that he took a Japanese-style hot water bottle that he found in his house and used it as the fuel tank. The initial prototype had the engine attached to the bicycle forward of the handlebars and applied driving power by means of a rubber friction roller pressed against the side of the front wheel. This concept was very similar to that of the Vero Solex, a best-selling moped in France. However, this method quickly wore down the poor-quality tires of the time from the friction, resulting in frequent blowouts. The driveability was also poor, and this method was quickly abandoned. Instead, he recast his idea in a conventional engine layout with a V belt driving the rear wheel.

Here, however, an original idea was already at work. The method of attaching the manual clutch mechanism together with the belt tensioner was registered as a utility model.

During this postwar period, bicycles with auxiliary engines were appearing simultaneously in different areas of Japan. This was not through coincidence. Rather, it was a phenomenon that appeared in response to the needs of that time. Production of proper motorcycles had recommenced, although in small numbers, by a handful of companies that had existed before the war, and an entirely new type of two-wheeled vehicle was also produced the year the war ended. This was the first scooter made in Japan, the Rabbit, in 1945.

However, prices of these machines put them out of reach for most people. By contrast, the auxiliary engine for a bicycle was welcomed as a revolutionary convenience that could somehow be afforded.

This 2-stroke 50 cc modified engine that represented the beginning for Honda Motor Co. was among the first of such products to appear.

"In the late summer of 1946, a small, barrack-like building was erected amid the bending clumps of plumed pampas grass in the burned-out open plot at No. 30, Yamashita-cho, Hamamatsu City. Inside was an old belt-driven lathe, and outside were about ten machine tools in a row. At the entrance, a signboard proclaiming the Honda Technical Research Institute was hung. The president and twelve or thirteen employees were hard at work."

This was the opening passage of a Honda Motor Company history published for the seventh anniversary of the founding. The president, of course, was Soichiro Honda. This history records the day simply as late summer, but more accurately, it was September 1. The auxiliary bicycle engine was put on the market in October, so the Honda Technical Research Institute was founded just a short time before that encounter with the wireless radio generator engine.

"Before coming across this engine, we had tried out a number of different things, and none of them seemed to be quite what the Old Man (the way Soichiro Honda was referred) wanted to stick with," said Isobe, describing President Honda’s enthusiastic absorption. "But this time, he had a completely different attitude. The rubber roller method didn’t work, so he wondered whether to try attaching the engine in the center, or in the rear, and talked about whether it should have a drive belt or should he use a chain, and so on and so on. For three or four days he worked straight through, day and night. I was there with him, too, helping out. At that point, the Honda Technical Research Institute signboard was already out."

Sachi recalls: "‘I’ve made one of these, so you try riding it.’ That was what my husband said when he brought one of his machines to the house. Later, he claimed that he made it because he couldn’t stand to watch me working so hard at pedaling my bicycle when I went off looking for food to buy, but that was just a story he made up afterward to make it sound better - although that might have been a little part of it. Mainly, though, I think he really wanted to know whether a woman could handle his bike. I was his guinea pig. He made me drive all over the main streets that were crowded with people, so I wore my best monpe (baggy trousers worn by farm women and female laborers) when I took the bike."

Thus, the first woman test rider in the early history of Honda Motor Co. was the president’s wife, Sachi. How the passersby must have stared. Here is a bicycle that acts like a motorcycle, and it’s being driven around by a woman. Apparently, part of President Honda’s scheme was to have his machine become the talk of the town.

"After riding around for a good while, I went back to the house, and my best monpe had gotten all covered with oil," Mrs. Honda continued. "I told him, this is no good. Your customers will come back and scold you. His usual response was, ‘Oh, be quiet. Don’t fuss about it.’ But instead, this time he said, ‘Hmm, maybe so.’ He was unusually submissive about it."

The reason for the soiling was that fuel/oil mixture was being blown back through the carburetor. Just as Mrs. Honda had wanted, the proper improvements were made to prevent this from happening in the market model.

The No. 6 wireless radio generator engine had been manufactured by Mikuni Shoko company, which was famous for its carburetors. President Honda quickly went out and bought up all of them that were left at the Mikuni factories in Odawara and Kamata.

However, with the 500 engines he was able to gather together he certainly did not do anything so simple as just attaching driving assembly parts and then market them. He dismantled every engine, put some work into it, and reassembled it before attaching it to a bicycle, then gave it a test ride before selling it. This was the earliest version of today’s finished vehicle delivery inspections.

Each bicycle auxiliary engine was given this treatment so that it would not defame the name of Honda Technical Research Institute, however unknown it may have been.

Finished in this way, the bicycle auxiliary engines came to be widely known through word of mouth alone. Having heard the rumors, buyers came to Hamamatsu from Nagoya, Osaka, Tokyo, and other major cities.

It was very apparent that the modified engines would soon bottom out. Naturally, President Honda was making preparations for what would come next. What they worked on, of course, was the development of their own engine, and the manufacture of a Honda engine.

In March of the following year, 1947, Kiyoshi Kawashima became the first member of the company with an engineering degree. He had his job interview at President Honda’s home, sitting up close at a traditional heated kotatsu (Japanese foot warmer) table. Sachi Honda remembered the occasion:

"My husband told him, ‘For now, I can’t afford to pay the kind of salary a university graduate usually gets.’ Kawashima kindly answered, ‘I don’t mind.’"

Kawashima recalls:

"Well, frankly, it was 1947, wasn’t it? It was the peak of unemployment. At that point, I didn’t care what the pay was. Just so I could do the work of an engineer, the company didn’t matter to me. The Old Man was a famous engineer in Hamamatsu, and this was a chance to work at his place. Also, my home was in Motome-cho, the neighborhood right next to Yamashita-cho, so it was only a five-minute walk to work. No transportation costs. The pay certainly was low at first, and sometimes I worried whether I would even receive it on time, and I worried about it sometimes, but I was a bachelor living off my parents, so I managed somehow. Looking back now, I realize I was very lucky," he said, laughing.

"You can start tomorrow," Honda told Kawashima and that simply, he was hired.

"Then, when I came in, my first job was modifying wireless radio generator engines. About ten of them would be hauled in on Monday every week, and I would take off the generator mechanism and dismantle the engine. On Tuesday, I would clean all the pieces. On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, I would work on the parts, and on Saturday put them together. Saturday afternoon, I would attach the engines to the bicycles and take them for test rides. I say test rides, but all I did, really, was ride them up a hill in the neighborhood," he said, laughing again. About the time that was done, a large group of peddlers - what we would call dealers, today - and even some very suspicious-looking black-market-type brokers would be waiting there. They would stuff about two engines each in their rucksacks and carry them away to Tokyo, Osaka, and all over the country. After paying in advance. I would see a wad of bills and think to myself, it looks like I’ll get paid this month, my wages won’t be delayed, and I’d feel very happy.

"The Old Man was famous for yelling at the employees among other things, but in the days of the Honda Technical Research Institute, we saw another side, too. One day, for instance, his wife came to the office of the Yamashita Plant. I remarked, ‘I heard that Mrs. Honda was here, is something going on?’ The man who was doing the accounting told me that she came and asked him, ‘He hasn’t put any money into the household accounts, so I can’t do the shopping. I’m really sorry, but could you lend me some money?’ For the Old Man, the employees’ salaries had priority. His wife and children came after that. That’s the kind of person he was."

"Still, this was before the company became Honda Motor Co., Ltd.," added Kawashima. "After we were incorporated, nothing like that ever happened. Long before, the Hamamatsu branch of Art Shokai that the Old Man had been running as his personal business changed and became an autonomous company. Up to then, he had his wife helping out at the office all the time, but when it changed over, apparently he told her, ‘From tomorrow, you don’t have any connection with the work here any more. Don’t talk to me about it, and don’t come to the office.’ He absolutely did not mix official business and private affair, and he didn’t allow anybody else to, either."

Even when its products started selling well, it was no easy matter to handle the books for the Honda Technical Research Institute. It seems that the accounts receivable were piling up. Financial accounts, in particular, were what President Honda most hated dealing with, and what he was least suited to.

"That was a mystery to me," said Kawashima. "When it came to product costs, and production efficiency at the plant, he was stricter than anybody, and extremely rational in his thinking. When it came to matters connected with sales, though, he just couldn’t handle it at all."

It was obvious that the modified engines would soon run out. Naturally, President Honda was making preparations for what would come next. What he and his employees worked on, of course, was development of their own engine - the manufacture of a true Honda engine.