The First "Racing Laboratory on Wheels"
Ran in the Mount Asama Volcano Race / 1955
Mr. Honda set off on his trip to Europe on June 9, 1954. His primary objective was to observe the Isle of Man TT Races with his own eyes. He arrived at this Mecca of motorcycle racing, once only a distant object of desire, on June 13. The first thing he did was to inspect the race courses. These were not circuits built exclusively for racing, but literal road courses, sections of ordinary roadway closed off for the races. One was the Mountain course, 60.725 km long, and the other was the 17.36-km long Clyps course. Both appeared even more demanding than he had heard. His first sight of the assembled Grand Prix machines from all those different countries also overwhelmed Honda. He examined them in minute detail, squatting down in his usual way.
A famous race, whose name still lives in Japanese motorcycle racing history, began up in the Asama highlands in 1955. It is officially called the All Japan Motorcycle Endurance Road Race. Generally held every other year, the first race in 1955 was named the Asama Highland Race, and the second and third races in 1957 and 1959 were called the Mount Asama Volcano Race. Honda continued to taste bitter defeat in these competitions until the third, when it won an overwhelming victory.
This photo shows Soichiro Honda (fourth from the left) posing with Honda riders as Mt. Asama looms in the background.
The shock he received when the race began was even greater. Years later, a motor journalist named Shotaro Kobayashi asked him:
"What made you happiest as an engineer?"
This was Honda's response:
"To start with, I'll tell you what most disappointed me.
"It was when I first went to see the Isle of Man TT Races in 1954. What amazed me was seeing machines running with about three times greater power than we had been considering. From Italy, Germany and England, they all came together to the Isle of Man and I watched them shoot off like arrows. Not only were these machines unlike any we'd ever seen before, we'd never even dreamed of such a sight. When I went and saw that, my first reaction was a shock of disappointment. I had gone there after spreading talk all over Japan about how Honda would enter the TT Races, so this was a terrible shock to me. What did I say, I wondered, and what am I going to do? Then I pulled myself together and took another look. After a good night's sleep, I went back and looked at the racecourse again the next morning. Then it came to me. These people here have a history, and that's why they can make machines like these. We don't have that history, but we've seen these machines, and that can have the same effect for us as history." [Excerpts from Honda F-1 1964-1968, Nigensha Publishing]
The declaration had said that Honda would enter a 250 cc racer with an engine that put out 100 PS per liter. In other words, 25 PS. It asserted that if this were achieved, this would undeniably place Honda at the world's highest levels of engineering. Journalists came to Honda to cover this story of a Japanese who planned to compete in the following year's TT Races, however, and talk associated with them revealed that the 250 cc class winner in the race that year, a German NSU Rennmax, had power output of nearly 150 PS per liter. Honda's picture of the world level was far off the mark.
A short letter that Honda wrote to Fujisawa has been preserved, which said in part: "I saw the race for the first time on June 14, and it was terrific. I learned a lot about various things, and now I'm glad to have my confidence back. I'm sure things are harder back at the company, but please keep up with it."
Having had the wind taken right out of his sails, Honda had now regained his competitive spirit, and he continued his tour, visiting England, Germany and Italy, where he energetically toured motorcycle manufacturers, automobile makers, parts fabricators, machine tool makers, and so on. He also purchased racing parts that were not available in Japan. In England, he purchased racing tires and rims from Avon, chain from Reynold, and plugs from KLG. In Italy, he bought wheels from Borrani and carburetors from Dellorto. Carrying as many parts as he could manage, he returned to Japan.
Honda had secretly been worrying about the major problem of the company's cash reserves, but the instant he saw the smiling face of Fujisawa, who had come to meet him at Haneda Airport, he realized that they had made it through the crisis. The management situation, however, was still as risky as a tightrope walk.
Nevertheless, a TT Race Headquarters was established in October, and Kiyoshi Kawashima was directed to develop a racing engine.
"I asked if we really were going to compete, and the reply I got was, 'No matter what happens, we're entering the race," he remembered. "If we dillydally now, we'll get left farther and farther behind. Then, 'And you know, everyone is having a very hard time now. This is just the kind of time when people want to have a dream. To have flowers bloom tomorrow, we have to go ahead and plant seeds now.' That's what the Old Man told me. So I started designing a racing engine, figuring it out as I went along."
Meanwhile, the Dream E series had been selling for so long that it was beginning to get outdated. Before it lost its market competitiveness, Honda had to proceed with development of a successor machine.
In December, the first power product in two years made its appearance, the 4-stroke T-Type general-purpose engine. This product was the starting point for a series of 4-stroke general-purpose engines that continues to the present day.
However, it seemed hardly possible that the public promise of "Participation in Next Year's Isle of Man TT Races" could be kept.
In April 1955, the E-Type's successors were finally coming onto the market. First came the 350 cc Dream SB. The next month, May, saw the 250cc Dream SA. Both of these were new-generation, top-of-the-line models powered by Honda's first OHC engine. The SB had power output of 14.5 PS, and the SA was 10.5 PS. This marked the birth of Honda's first engines that had output above 10 PS.
Around this time, Japan was experiencing a fierce domestic sales war among motorcycle manufacturers that were putting their future existence on the line. Race meetings were proliferating, and all the manufacturers competed in them, because the winners could utilize victory to great effect in their advertising. In July, the recently-debuted SA won its first victory in the Fuji Mountain-Climbing Race, which Honda had never managed to win before.
Then November brought the start of what were popularly known as the Asama Races. A dedicated course was available from the second race on, but the first race used public roads. Honda entered specially tuned machines based on the 250 cc Dream SA in three classes, the 250 cc, 350 cc, and 500 cc. These placed second, first, and first, respectively. However, in the 125 cc class, the Benly JC tasted defeat from Yamaha's 2-stroke YA-1, which swept first through fourth places.
Naturally, Mr. Honda had come to Asama. There he witnessed with his own eyes the defeat of the crucial 250 cc and 125 cc motorcycles.
"I'd never seen the Old Man's face get so red before," said Omura. "It was hard to end up in second place in the 250 cc class, and first place was taken by a Lilac from Marusho Motor Co., Ltd. The president of that company, Mr. Tadashi Ito, had worked under the Old Man back when he was running the Hamamatsu branch of Art Shokai. The winner in the 125 cc class was the very first racer put out by Nippon Gakki YAMAHA, which had just started manufacturing motorcycles that year. So that made him even madder. I won in the 350 cc class, but this was one of those dangerous times, so I slipped away quietly and went back to our lodgings. As an old saying goes, a wise man never courts danger. I don't know what happened to the team chief and mechanics who stayed behind," he added in laughter.
Kawashima recalls that even though they lost the races, they had put themselves in a strong position:
"The motorcycles we entered in the first and second Asama events were tuned-up production models. Up until that time, and this wasn't true only of Honda, motorcycles weren't sports bikes. They were working vehicles. We took this kind of bike and tuned it so it could go faster, doing whatever we could to make it like a sports bike. We'd also incorporate all kinds of new mechanisms and ideas and test them out in the races. We would ride full out in the races, so we would also get an idea of a bike's durability. When we got good results on a machine, we would use it as a production model. Honda had a habit of putting in too many innovative ideas and ending up with a failure, and that happened here, too. Some of them would break down completely during tests, before the main event, and we would totally lose our heads. If instead of doing that kind of thing, we had done just an orthodox tuning job, we might have started winning sooner. To exaggerate a little bit, Honda was going through a streak of losing all the races it entered, and this was true at Asama as well. This was bound to happen whenever the Old Man went to the races, so our luck was pretty bad," he laughed. "Still, the technology and know-how we gained by this certainly helped us raise the level of our production machines. Later, when we had taken up the Formula-One challenge, people would ask why we were putting so much money into what was no more than an adventure, and the Old Man would say, 'That's a racing laboratory on wheels.' The first generation of our 'racing laboratories on wheels' was at Asama."
Kawashima also said:
"In the second Asama race, too, we were thoroughly beaten again by Yamaha in the 125 cc and 250 cc classes. We won in the 350 cc class, but Yamaha hadn't entered in this class. We only won in the 125 cc and 250 cc class races after we returned from our first entry in the Isle of Man TT competition four years later, in 1959."
From the second race on, the Asama event was held on a specially constructed course for which the motorcycle manufacturers had shared the construction expense. Honda by then had already become Japan's top manufacturer, and it contributed the largest amount toward building the course. It was called a road race course, but all we had done was level some rough land at the foot of Mt. Asama. The course was left as dirt mixed with fine volcanic debris, and it remained unpaved.
As Kimio Shinmura says:
"This was at the time of the second race. I can still remember it vividly now. The sun was starting to go down, and the Old Man was sitting on top of an embankment where the pampas plumes were shining white in the sunlight. The leading Yamaha bike came zooming up and crossed the finish line right before our eyes. I was with Mr. Kume, watching from the side, and the Old Man wasn't angry at all. He just said, lightly, 'There's no use crying over spilt milk.' He seemed forlorn, and I felt sorry for him."
Shinmura was later to design engines for such machines as the Benly C90, the 250 cc Isle of Man TT racer, and the N360.
"But you know, it's better not to go racing with the Old Man," he added. "If you do, you're bound to lose. The reason is that just before the start of the race, he would fiddle with your machine. It'll probably be good to do this, you think, but then he doesn't stop. He just can't quit," he said laughing. "He realized this himself, so when we were at the Isle of Man and the World Grand Prix, he hardly came around the machines at all. We finally got our revenge on Yamaha at the third Asama race. That time, however, not only did Yamaha not enter the race in the 125 cc class, but on top of that, our winner wasn't the works machine that had come back from the Isle of Man, but a production Benly CB92 Super Sports ridden by an amateur, Moto Kitano. Uncommonly enough, Mr. Fujisawa was there, too, and he went over to the Old Man, who was looking a little out of sorts, and said to him, 'Well, it's three cheers for the production that you let take the honors. This will be excellent for business. Thank you so much.' The Old Man was speechless," he said, laughing. "And actually, that did make the CB92 a lot more popular."
In the 250-cc race that followed, Honda's first in-line 4-cylinder machine, the RC160, appeared on the scene. The powerful "Honda sound" of its 14,000 rpm engine astonished the spectators, and this motorcycle swept first through third places. Honda finally had a smile back on his face.
The economy started out in a slump in 1955, but started to improve rapidly from the autumn. Business conditions were the best they had ever been since the founding of the country, so people called it the "Jimmu Upturn" after the first emperor of Japan.
In the automobile industry, the first generation Toyopet Crown made its appearance, and Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo K.K., now known as Sony, put the first transistor radio on sale and so became the talk of the town.
Honda, having ridden out of its difficulties, again put its throttle wide open.