Honda was born in Tenryū, Shizuoka, a small village under Mount Fuji near Hamamatsu on November 17, 1906. He spent his early childhood helping his father, Gihei, a blacksmith, with his bicycle repair business. At the time his mother, Mika, was a weaver. Honda was not interested in traditional education, his school handed grade reports to the children, but required that it will be returned stamped with the family seal, to make sure that a parent had seen it. Soichiro created a stamp to forge his family seal out of a used rubber bicycle pedal cover. The fraud was soon discovered when Honda started to make forged stamps for other children. Honda did not realize that the stamp had to be mirror-imaged. His family name 本田 was symmetrical when written vertically, so it did not cause a problem, but some of other children’s family names were not.
Even as a toddler Honda had been thrilled by the first car that was ever seen in his village and often used to say in later life that he could never forget the smell of oil it gave off. Soichiro once borrowed one of his father’s bicycles to see a demonstration of an airplane made by pilot Art Smith, which cemented his love for machinery and invention.
At 15, without any formal education, Honda left home and headed to Tokyo to look for work. He obtained an apprenticeship at a garage in 1922, and after some hesitation over his employment, he stayed for six years, working as a car mechanic before returning home to start his own auto repair business in 1928 at the age of 22.
In 1937, Honda founded Tōkai Seiki to produce piston rings for Toyota. During World War II, a US B-29 bomber attack destroyed Tōkai Seiki’s Yamashita plant in 1944 and the Itawa plant collapsed in the 1945 Mikawa earthquake. After the war, Honda sold the salvageable remains of the company to Toyota for ¥450,000 and used the proceeds to found the Honda Technical Research Institute in October 1946. In 1948 he started producing a complete motorized bicycle, the Type A, which was driven by the first mass-produced engine designed by Honda, and was sold until 1951. The Type D in 1949 was a true motorcycle with a pressed-steel frame designed and produced by Honda and with a 2-stroke, 98 cc (6.0 cu in) 3 hp (2.2 kW) engine, and became the very first model in the Dream series of motorcycles. The Society of Automotive Engineers of Japan (Japanese) lists both the Type A and the Type D models as two of their 240 Landmarks of Japanese Automotive Technology.
As president of the Honda Motor Company, Soichiro Honda turned the company into a billion-dollar multinational that produced the best-selling motorcycles in the world. Honda’s engineering and marketing skills resulted in Honda motorcycles outselling Triumph and Harley-Davidson in their respective home markets. The next year, Honda was reacquainted with Takeo Fujisawa, whom he knew during his days as a supplier of piston rings to Nakajima Aircraft Company. Honda hired Fujisawa, who oversaw the financial side of the company and helped the firm expand. In 1959 Honda Motorcycles opened its first dealership in the United States.
Honda remained president until his retirement in 1973, where he stayed on as director and was appointed “supreme advisor” in 1983. His status was such that People magazine placed him on their “25 Most Intriguing People of the Year” list for 1980, dubbing him “the Japanese Henry Ford.” In retirement Honda busied himself with work connected with the Honda Foundation.
Even at his advanced age, Soichiro and his wife Sachi both held private pilot’s licenses. He also enjoyed skiing, hang-gliding and ballooning at 77, and he was a highly accomplished artist. He and Takeo Fujisawa made a pact never to force their own sons to join the company. His son, Hirotoshi Honda, was the founder and former CEO of Mugen Motorsports, a tuner for Honda vehicles who also created original racing vehicles.
ASME established the Soichiro Honda Medal in recognition of Mr. Honda’s achievements in 1982; this medal recognizes outstanding achievement or significant engineering contributions in the field of personal transportation. In 1989 he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame near Detroit. Soichiro Honda died on August 5, 1991 of liver failure. He was posthumously appointed to the senior third rank in the order of precedence and appointed a Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun.
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