Competing for the First Time in the Isle of Man TT Race / 1959

Chapter 1

Kiyoshi Kawashima was put in charge of the great project of entering the Isle of Man TT competition.


In Honda's first Isle of Man challenge, everyone worked on maintaining the machines, including the team leader, the riders, and the manager. From left: riders Junzo Suzuki and Giichi Suzuki, team leader Kiyoshi Kawashima, team manager Yoshitaka Iida, mechanic Shunji Hirota, rider Teisuke Tanaka, chief of maintenance Hisakazu Sekiguchi, and rider Naomi Taniguchi.

"When that declaration was made, I was wondering who would handle such a huge job," he said. "Then, it was given to me. We immediately started working on a prototype engine, which was finished by the end of the year. However, the Old Man was being troublesome, people all around us were being troublesome, everybody was telling us what to do, and the situation was a mess. I told them, please make us into a specialized unit or I won't go on with this, and the response was the simple, 'Do it!' We started what was called the Number 2 Research Section and brought in engine design men, body design men, assembly men, riders, and a team manager. We were attached directly to the top, with only the Old Man above us. this was after the second Asama race. The engine was handled by Tadashi Kume and Kimio Shinmura, and the body by Toshiji Baba, who had been on the verge of starvation in Scõo Paulo. The riders were members of the Honda Speed Club, an in-house organization created when we entered at Asama. In those days, we could decide things by asking a question and getting a show of hands, so I don't remember if we ever had any directives. So all of us, from the engine men on out, were nonconformists in one way or another," he added, laughing. "Anyone who was a respectable engineer wouldn't have considered getting into anything so reckless as competing in the Isle of Man TT Race. As for us, from the Old Man on down, none of us were respectable."

Kawashima added:

"Around that time, there were a lot of engineers who were in their thirties and forties, but the company went ahead and gave the job to a bunch of young guys instead. I wasn't thirty yet. We were all in our twenties. Although we were given a lot of responsibility, we were so young that it didn't scare us."

In September 1958, as the team was moving forward through repeated trials and errors, they acquired an Italian production racing machine. It was a 125 cc F.B. Mondial. Kawashima remembers:

"It was a 1956 model, and that was the first time we'd seen an actual racer from over there. We learned a lot from it. I could say that we were able to build our first Isle of Man TT competition racer thanks to that machine. The F.B. Mondial was a single-cylinder machine, but we decided on a 2-cylinder design. In January 1959, we completed a bike called the RC141. However, its power output was 15.3 PS, so it still hadn't caught up with the 16.5 PS of the F.B. Mondial, which was three years older. Soon after that, the four-valve RC142 came out, and it had an output of 17.4 PS. We sent both of these machines to the Isle of Man."

On May 5, 1959, the members of the Honda team arrived on the Isle of Man, holding passports indicating they were temporary employees of Okura Trading Co. The group of nine included the team leader Kawashima, the riders Giichi Suzuki, Naomi Taniguchi, Junzo Suzuki, and Teisuke Tanaka, the mechanics Hisaichi Sekiguchi and Shunji Hirota, the manager Yoshitaka Iida, and an American, Bill Hunt, who was a rider and their interpreter. Why, though, did they disguise themselves as temporary employees of Okura Trading Co.?

Iida recalled:

"We thought that if we applied to go to a motorcycle race as members of a company that didn't even do any exporting, we wouldn't receive either exit visas or permission to take out foreign currency from the Japanese Government. Therefore, we borrowed the name of Okura Trading Co., which had helped us out with machinery imports. Our executives turned a blind eye and allowed us to do it. Any time that somebody in the company went overseas, there was inevitably some problem about it, so I was relieved. Still, our funding was tight, though not as bad as the Scõo Paulo trip. We stayed at an inexpensive lodging called the Nursery Hotel and we even cut our own hair, but at least we did have regular meals. You can't go into battle on an empty stomach. Before we left, the Old Man told us, 'You're going as representatives of Japan, so don't embarrass us,' and he made us study table manners. So we ate bad food with good manners. (Laughs) The meat was always mutton. We'd use hand gestures to ask the waitress what the meat was, and the answer was inevitably, 'Baa.'"

Iida, who was in charge of the team's funds, collected all the dollars allowed the team members for personal export, and that was the team's operating fund. The rice and bean paste they shipped by sea with the machines arrived covered with mold, so it was inedible. Their first job on the Isle of Man was removing rust from the machines.

That year's Isle of Man TT Races were held on the short Clyps course rather than the long Mountain course. The 125 cc class would do ten laps of 17.36 km each.

The team began its training. The training bikes were Benly CB92s, which had just gone on sale in February.

Chapter 2

Tanaka talked about his impression of the first trial run on the Isle of Man:

"I had never once before raced on a paved road. Asama was a dirt track, you know. In those days, even the national highways in Japan were mostly gravel roads. When we got to the Isle of Man and saw how different the conditions there were from Japan, I felt like shivering. there were sidewalks and stone walls on both sides of the road, and there was a semicylindrical ridge down the center. So this public road is where we ride the Isle of Man TT Race, I thought. We've finally made it all the way here. The only thing left now is to go ahead on sheer determination. That was my first reaction. I rode around the course several times to memorize it, but it was such a difficult course that I almost panicked. I stopped along the way to take a break, and the islanders came up curiously to talk to me. 'Are you Japanese? Where is your motorcycle from?' I told them it was a Honda from Japan, but they seemed to have the idea that the Japanese weren't able to make motorcycles. They looked at my Benly very suspiciously," he added, laughing.

Tanaka repeatedly told the local people, "Made in Japan, made by Honda," but he says they would not believe him.

The Benly engine was running very well. However, the tires lost their blocks, and the chains soon stretched out so the rollers flew off. These things had to be replaced daily. The spark plugs lost their electrodes, holes opened up in the pistons, and the team found out beyond any doubt that the made-in-Japan parts were still far from world standards. The helmets they had brought from Japan failed to pass the sponsoring Auto Cycle Union's inspection, so they were directed to use Cromwell helmets, made in England.

"We came a month ahead of time, so we were the first to show up on the Isle of Man," said Kawashima. "The other teams didn't arrive that early. Then I realized, almost as an afterthought, that of course, the Isle of Man TT Race wasn't the only World Grand Prix races. Then the others started to show up and begin training, and sure enough, they were very fast. It was a bigger shock for me than it had been for the Old Man. After all, I was going to be competing with them any day."

Kawashima wondered what instructions to give the riders. The engine aside, the bottom-link front suspension looked out of date and he was concerned about both frame rigidity and brake performance. Honda's test course, built along the Arakawa River, was a simple arrangement of two flat, straight runs. The data from testing there simply were not relevant to this course, which had many ascending and descending slopes and seventy-four different curves. Kawashima says:

"The riders and the mechanics of other teams were on such a different level from us that at first I was seriously discouraged. I soon recovered, though. I started feeling very competitive, and I thought, all right, if we don't win this year, then just you wait until next year! All of us were eager to compete again the following year, including me. Whether you call it youth or stupidity, I don't know," he added, laughing. "There is something very distinctively Honda about this."

The four-valve cylinder heads, which had not been ready in time to be sent by ship, arrived by air freight. Only three of the machines would have their cylinder heads replaced in time for racing. Hirota, one of the team mechanics, smiled wryly as he remembered:

"When we got to the Isle of Man, things were just as they had been in Japan. All of us, from the team leader on down, worked till late. The way we saw it, it was easier working at night, when we didn't have spectators. Then it appeared in the newspaper that the Japanese were like mice in the attic. You could hear them scurrying around at night, it said."

Newspapers also reported that the Japanese worked Saturdays and Sundays, too, so their performance must be low and their efficiency probably won't improve.

Gichi Suzuki and Junzo Suzuki on the RC142.

On June 3, it was time for the finals. Taniguchi recalled:

"As we were lining up at the starting line, team leader Kawashima simply said, 'Don't overdo it.' That calmed me right down. All of a sudden, I said to myself, then I'll just race the best way I know how. If he had told me to do my best, I might have tensed up. The team leader really knew how to guide us. "

As Tanaka remembers it:

"When he said that to me, right into my ear, my knees stopped trembling. But to be honest, I just raced without any conscious awareness of it. It's no easy matter to figure out the braking points and the course lines by watching the other riders. I nearly went over on the corners any number of times, and just left it all up to my good luck. It was thanks to the machine that I managed to finish the race."

As Kawashima recalled:

"What I told them was to finish the race. If the machine broke down partway through, then we wouldn't get any data. We were aiming toward competition two or three years later, so we absolutely had to have at least one bike make it all the way. So I told all of them not to do it, and walked away. And then all four machines finished the race. That was more than we had expected."

Hirota's recollection follows:

"Bill Hunt fell on the RC141 and retired from the race, but everyone was doing great and the pit actually wasn't busy. On the seventh lap, the rear brake rod pin on Junzo's bike broke and fell out. We were used to that sort of thing from Asama, so we could make an emergency repair with a quick pit stop and send him back out. The engine gave no trouble at all. In ten laps, it went 173.6 km."

First place went to Provini on an M.V. Agusta. Taveri came second on an M.Z., and Hailwood third on a Ducati. On the Honda team, Taniguchi came in sixth, Giichi Suzuki seventh, Tanaka eighth, and Junzo Suzuki eleventh. Taniguchi won a Silver Replica, while Giichi Suzuki and Tanaka received Bronze Replicas. The team also took the Constructor's Prize.


Naomi Taniguchi, who placed sixth, with the Honda RC142. Giichi Suzuki came in afer him in seventh place, and Teisuke Tanaka in eighth. Honda was awarded the Prize.

Iida remembers this:

"The team leader telephoned the Old Man to report. The Old Man reportedly said, 'Congratulations on the Constructor's Prize. You did well.' The next day, the world looked very different. The Honda team was on the front page of a newspaper. There wasn't any writing about mice or anything, and though I couldn't read the article very well, the story seemed to be saying good things about us. What made me smile, though, was when I saw the Japanese logo for 'Honda Benly' printed upside down. The people over there could read even less than I could, it seems," Iida added laughing.

Chapter 3

When they left the Tokyo Airport for the Isle of Man, Mr. Honda had seen them off, and he was there again to greet them when they returned to Tokyo. Apart from a reporter for a motorcycle magazine, no one from the press had come to cover their story. However, the morning edition of the Asahi Shimbun and the evening edition of the Tokyo Shimbun did carry stories, though small, reporting Honda's "team victory" in the sports pages on June 4. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun morning edition on June 7 introduced the story in its "Windows" (Mado) column. It remarked that Japanese riders had competed in a world-level motorcycle race against European riders with much more experience and won a team prize. It also had a photograph of the team's motorcycles. Then it went on to say:

"The motorcycles that so distinguished themselves were all Honda models. The manufacturer, Honda Motor Co., must be very pleased." The Ministry for International Trade and Industry calls this 'PR that is tailor-made for exports,' and praises its own manufacturing guidance."


The Honda RC214, restored model. Same model which used in TT race.

Kawashima comments:

"I don't recall ever receiving any manufacturing guidance from the Ministry for International Trade and Industry," said Kawashima, laughing. "This was probably their way of starting a fire under the industry so it would manufacture products that could be exported. After all, this was a time when even the people in the press didn't understand the difference between racing machines and production models.

"From the second year on, things changed completely, and it was like the difference between night and day," he said. "Both in Japan and in other countries. For one thing, we received travel permission right away. At the London airport, the year before we had been a group of suspicious people carrying motorcycle parts in their luggage. Now, though, they said, 'Hey, Honda!' and just waved us through. The change in ordinary people's recognition of motor sports was also very apparent."

Honda employees' spirits rose higher. They truly felt that they had come close to the world's top class. Iida remembers:

"A special edition of the Honda Company News had the president's remarks: ‘I am extremely happy that we were able to achieve results like this. The team leader, the riders, and the mechanics all did splendidly. I want to thank all of you who created these machines. However, we still have to deal with the matter of first through fifth place,’" he said laughing. "These are great lines that you'd only hear from the Old Man. I loved them because they expressed exactly what he was feeling."

The average speed of the victorious M.V. Agusta was 119.17 km/h. Taniguchi's Honda RC142 reached 109.90 km/h. The lap time achieved by the top-class machines was in range of 8 min. 40 sec., while Honda's best time was 9 min. 22.2 sec.

Preparation for the next year began almost immediately.

"We decided that we would go for both the 125 cc and 250 cc classes next time," said Kawashima. "The Old Man was still looking in on the Engineering Design Room, but he couldn't issue orders on every small point any longer. After all, we were combat veterans now, so we were in a strong position. If we said, we have to do it this way, he would answer, 'Oh, I see; just so we get the power,' and he would back off. We acted as though we wanted him to leave it to us, and he always paid attention to the ideas of people who were in the front lines. Mr. Kume took up the 125 cc engine, Mr. Shinmura took the 250 cc 4-cylinder engine, and to these young guys we added a wizard of intake and exhaust theory named Shizuo Yagi. With this team, the 125 cc bike placed second, third and sixth, the second time we competed in the Isle of Man TT. The 250 cc took the fourth place, and besides the Isle of Man TT, it also participated in six other World Grand Prix races, coming very close to winning. In the third year, we competed fully in the World Grand Prix series, and in the Isle of Man TT. Both the 125 cc and the 250 cc machines swept first through third places. I heard that the Old Man said, 'You ask me why I'm so happy? It's because my dreams came true.' with his voice choking, and I felt on the verge of tears myself."

As the team leader, Kawashima had succeeded in realizing the dreams of Honda and all the Honda employees in the third year of his attempt, 1961. He remembers:

"Just when the company was going through its most difficult time, it allowed us young members to initiate this challenging undertaking. When they lacked money, they didn't tell us to stop. As for myself, I learned many things through my experience of this project and by being the team leader: judgment, decisiveness, foresight, how to draw out people's capabilities, how to make strongly individualistic people work together, sweeping strategies and small-scale tactics. The strength of the individual is limited. When an organized team goes to work, however, it has enormous power and can accomplish amazing things. You might see it as a kind of social management. When I became president, this was very useful. When things were difficult, I would remember those days, and then I could endure longer. I was able to hold onto the challenging spirit. In that sense, I feel that I was privileged in being given worthwhile work to do."

As Kiyoshi Kawashima returned to Japan from the first challenge for the Isle of Man TT Races, another challenger departed from the country, as though they were trading places. This was Kihachiro Kawashima, who left Japan on June 10, 1959. He was going to establish Honda's first overseas base, American Honda Motor Co.