Source: Telegraaf, 23 June 1962, Page 11
Unnamed mechanic became industrial "glamour boy"
With eyes glistening with amusement and bursting into a fit of laughter at any moment, Soichiro Honda can recount his childhood, when as a seven-year-old boy he bicycled, shouting loudly and ringing his bell as loudly as he could, after the first car that was spotted in his hometown of Hamamatso. "Since then, the love for motorbikes has not left me," he says.
ABSOLUTE RULER AND DRIVING FORCE OF THE WORLD'S LARGEST
WORLD'S LARGEST MOTORBIKE FACTORY
From our special reporter JACQUES FAHRENFORT
WHEN I visited Soichiro Honda (58) a few weeks ago in his brand-new, nine-storey headquarters in Tokyo and asked him how he spent his free time, he pulled his mouth into a wide grin that bared all his (gold-encrusted) teeth. A blushing interpreter summed up the stream of Japanese words in one concise sentence: "Mr Honda likes to do things in his spare time, which Mrs Honda doesn't like when he does them; so he made a compromise and gave up his free time."
How this compromise worked out in practice is a history that is counted among the success stories of modern Japan. In barely 15 years, Honda worked his way up from a nameless mechanic and small businessman to one of the industrial "glamour boys" of modern Japan. Having started his career as a garage owner at the age of 20 with a personal capital of 21, he is now the absolute ruler and driving force of the world's largest motorbike factory.
IN NEW Japan, most things move fast. Since the group of men who hold Japan's economic future in their hands decided in 1952 that motorbikes are the most appropriate means of transport for the population, an ever-growing army of these two-wheeled monsters roars along the (bad) roads, reaching four million in 1961. Japanese businessmen, who since that year have thrown themselves into motorbike production, have made the country in 10 years' time first in front of the world's largest manufacturers, successively leaving England, Germany, Italy and France in a mighty race, out of breath and in silent amazement. With 1.6 million engines produced in 1961, Japan was followed by France with a production of 1 million.
But none of the twenty Japanese manufacturers of motorbikes can boast such a fairytale-like development as Honda. Started in 1948 with a capital of Fl. 10,000 (raised by Honda and some of his friends), Honda's three mammoth factories Saitama, Hamamatsu and Suzuka now produce 50 per cent of Japan's total output. With a capital of Fl. 86 million, the 5,500-strong organisation produced more than one million motorbikes in 1961. Looking down on his large family, Honda (in the factories he is nicknamed "oyaji": daddy) says: "Since 1950, Japanese production of motorbikes - excluding mines - has increased 114-fold; but Honda Motor's production alone has increased 863-fold since that year.
The home market has not been able to absorb this production explosion. Last year, 63,000 of the 1 million Honda motorbikes were exported to 60 different countries. In the United States alone, a network of 500 dealers ensured the sale of 20,000 motorbikes, and the stunned American motorbike industry watched as Honda's share of U.S. imports rose to a third of the total.
But Honda's ambitions went further. Opening up the European market, the cradle of the motorbike (still half of the total number of motorbikes used in the world are produced in our continent) was the second item on its export programme. Since the European Honda was established in Hamburg in 1961, sales - also in the Netherlands - have been expanding rapidly.
THE secret of Honda's export successes lies hidden on Europe's race circuits, where the company's factory teams have racked up some spectacular victories. When Honda motorbikes first took part in the Isle of Man TT race three years ago, no one predicted it.
Certainly not the driver from one of the European countries who remarked disparagingly on the occasion: "I knew the Japanese made good rickshaws, but I didn't know they also made motorbikes". Half an hour later, Honda engines blew their exhaust fumes in his face.
In last year's grand-prix races, Honda motorbikes completely dominated in the 125cc and 250cc classes. On the circuits of Spain, West Germany, France, England, Holland, Belgium, East Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden and Argentina, record after record was broken by the Honda motorbikes. The British magazine Daily Mirror grumbled: "The Japanese are so far ahead that they no longer need to copy our designs; there will soon be an industrial revolution: British manufacturers will imitate the Japanese".
Open sports shirt
THE CALENDAR, energetic man, who has unleashed all these storms, does not make the impression of a powerful industrialist, whose actions are jealously guarded around the world. When he is at work in one of his factories in his overalls and with the famous Honda cap on his head (which he still does daily), he is indistinguishable from his workers. He receives the stream of visitors who come to his office in the afternoon, dressed in an open sports shirt and slouching trousers.
With his ears glistening with amusement and bursting into a fit of laughter at any moment, he can tell of his childhood, when as a seven-year-old boy, shouting loudly and ringing his bell as loud as he could, he cycled behind the first car that was spotted in his hometown of Hamamatsu. On that occasion, he did not rest until the car finally stopped and he could look at me with big, admiring eyes at the shiny thing that moved by itself. "Since then, my love for motorbikes has never left me," he says.
As the son of a blacksmith and with five brothers and a sister, Soichiro's love of motorcycles didn't get much of a chance in his early childhood. He probably ran away from school at 16 and became a helper in a car garage. Honda never had a knack for studying, but he did have an instinct for business. After a few years, he thought he knew enough about the trade to start his own garage. By the age of 27, he had expanded that business into one with 50 staff.
BEFORE THE SECOND WORLD he switched to the production of piston rings, but that was not a success. He himself attributed this to his poor knowledge of technology at the time. Therefore, he took evening classes at a technical school, while he continued to look after his business during the day. For Soichiro Honda, this was the most difficult time of his life. His school career failed for the second time. As he stubbornly refused to take exams, he was expelled from there too. But he got his business back on its feet. As early as 1938, Honda was involved in the production of aircraft strips and by the end of the World War, he had built up a company with 1,000 employees. A bombing raid by the US Navy, which reduced the entire company to ashes, also brought an abrupt end to these illusions.
But Honda was not easily discouraged. Aided by an indestructible optimism and with a small capital sum left over from the war, he started a modest technology laboratory in 1946, which two years later had such prospects that he decided to convert the company into a partnership, the Honda Motor Co.
THE NEW company began its existence by purchasing dumped stocks of small engines that had been used in portable communication devices of the defeated Imperial Army. Honda converted these engines into auxiliary engines for bicycles. Soon, these mopeds were such a resounding success that the factory could not keep up with orders. The foundations of the company's astonishing development had been laid.
His successes did not make Honda a complacent, cautious man. After lengthy preparations, his company will launch a small car in the autumn of this year, and for Honda this will perhaps be the biggest adventure of its career. With some big ambitious industries as competitors and the import freeze announced for October, the car market is one of Japan's most hotly contested areas.
The Japanese car industry is still young. It was not until 1954 that production got well under way. In the strictly controlled defence industry of pre-war Japan, there was no place for the production of a luxury utility like a passenger car. Under the protection of the army, which needed trucks for its transport, only a truck industry grew. Only after the war, when the worst of the need was over, did production of passenger cars begin. Although development has been very rapid since then (passenger car production in 1961 was 250,000, 51 per cent higher than the previous year and eight times that of 1956), the share of passenger cars in the total output of the automobile industry is still low at 31 per cent, compared with 80 per cent in countries like the United States, Britain, France and West Germany.
THE CAR DISTRIBUTION in Japan is still not up to Western standards. In highly industrialised countries there is one car for every 21 inhabitants; in Japan there is only one car for 204 people. This situation is changing rapidly due to the powerful government stimulation of industry according to the classic Japanese greenhouse system. Behind an impenetrable wall of high import tariffs and import controls, domestic industry finds an ideal development climate.
Production costs are initially very high (based on engine size, a Japanese car in the 1.9 litre class is now 30 per cent more expensive than an American or European car and in the 800 cc to 1.5 litre class 20 per cent more expensive), but unhindered by imports, the cars can be sold at any price. The profits are therefore very generous and new expansions are financed in a feverish rush. Then comes the time when the domestic market is saturated and export opportunities have to be found. With an innocent face, import restrictions are lifted and with a clear conscience, the industry tries to get a foothold in overseas markets. It is a critical moment, but by then the country has a rationalised, powerful industry that can withstand the shock of foreign competition.
So far, the Japanese car industry is not over yet (although it won't be for long) and in the meantime the import restrictions give rise to the most peculiar scenes, which are again typical of the country. Recently - as a sort of pinprick for the domestic industry - 200 foreign cars of various makes were allowed into Japan. The government body in charge of import and distribution announced this six months in advance. The public could subscribe to a foreign car, but had to pay NLG 5,000 immediately. Nevertheless, there was a storm and the registrations were again several times higher than the number of cars to be imported. When the six months had passed and the wagons had arrived, a lottery was held among the subscribers. The winners of the draw - and of course they were the majority - were refunded their fl 5,000.- (without interest). Subsequently, the cars were sold by auction among the "lucky ones". The most outrageous situations arose. Wanted cars with a catalogue value of Dfl. 16.000 fetched Dfl. 35.000 to Dfl. 40.000; cars of Dfl. 10.000 often sold for double that amount. The (very sweet) profit was calmly pocketed by the government.
The Japanese people have an iron discipline and similar cases are accepted with a smile and a shrug. What is more important to them: Japanese industry is growing. Two giant companies call the shots on the Japanese car market. They are Toyota Motors (annual sales Fl. 1.4 billion, market share 25 per cent) and Nissan Motor (sales Fl. 1 billion, market share 20 per cent).
In the midst of the power struggle between these two giants and with the liberalisation of imports in the offing, Honda introduces its new car. With a personal annual income of Fl. 1.2 million, belonging to one of Japan's seven largest taxpayers, Honda need not venture into this new power struggle. But at 58 years of age (an age at which most Japanese have already retired from active life), his fighting spirit is unflagging.
Honda is the type of extrovert. His bubbling vitality occasionally finds an outlet in heavy drinking parties with some of his friends in one of Tokyo's many establishments (whatever Ms Honda may say about them).
When I asked him how he intended to spend the next few years, he looked thoughtfully out of the window at the busy traffic: "On the racetracks, our effort is focused on breaking the world speed record and on new Grand Prix victories. Engine production must be further expanded and the production and distribution departments will have to ensure a good introduction of the small car. A new project is in the pipeline in the laboratory, the development of an aircraft engine."
On his own, the interpreter softly added: "Mr Honda will be busy."