By: Mark Gardiner
By the mid-1950s, Honda® was already the largest manufacturer of lightweight motorcycles in the world, but the company was still virtually unknown outside Japan.
There is no doubt that Soichiro Honda realized that racing—and winning—in European Grands Prix would build worldwide credibility and open global markets for his company. But his desire to compete--and beat the world's best--was not based on some marketing plan. It had been a lifelong dream.
In March, 1954, Mr. Honda made his dream public, telling his employees and the world. "My childhood dream was to be a champion of motor racing with a machine built by myself. However, before becoming world champion, it is strongly required to establish a stable corporate structure, provided with precise production facilities and superior product design. From this point of view we have been concentrating on providing high-quality products to meet Japanese domestic consumer demand and we have not had enough time to pour our efforts in motorcycle racing until now. ... I here avow my intention that I will participate in the TT race and I proclaim with my fellow employees that I will pour all my energy and creative powers into winning."
The Isle of Man is located in the Irish Sea, halfway between Liverpool and Dublin; a choppy, five-hour ferry ride from anywhere. So how did the Island's Tourist Trophy races become Mr. Honda's obsession?
The TT story begins in 1907. At the time there were hundreds of British motorcycle manufacturers, but there was nowhere in England to stage a race. Sensing an opportunity to build tourist traffic, the Isle of Man offered the use of Manx public roads.
The Tourist Trophy races are run over a 37-mile route, through towns and villages, and over the Island's highest peak. The Mountain Course was the longest, most demanding, race course in the world. It still is.
After World War II, the most prestigious races in each country were organized into an official world championship. The TT was the obvious choice as the British Grand Prix. Still, it remained first among equals. Manufacturers and riders invested as much—and risked as much—to win at the TT as they did to win all the rest of the championship. Men who could win on the mountain, such as Geoff Duke (he still lives on the island, a stone's throw from the course) and John Surtees became household names. The machines they rode, whether production racers such as the Nortons or factory specials such as the Gileras, were held in awe by motorcyclists everywhere.
In June of 1954, Mr. Honda and one of his trusted advisors flew halfway around the world to watch the races. Although he kept a relatively low profile—he stayed at The Nursery, a hotel in Onchan, a few miles from the center of TT festivities—Mr. Honda's presence was certainly noted. The Isle of Man Examiner published a photo of him in the racing paddock. He's dressed in a light-colored suit and a snappy fedora. His TT credential is clipped to his lapel. He's wearing glasses, leaning over to look at a motorcycle, probably one of the German N.S.U. machines. There's a camera hanging around his neck. The caption reads: "Japan Next Year? Mr. Soichiro Honda and Mr. Sanuki, who plan a TT entry next year, look for points in the race paddock on Monday."
The Weekly Times was perhaps slightly less politically correct. Its story was headed, "Japs in T.T. Next Year?" and opened with this lead: "Will there be a Japanese entry in the Lightweight TT next year? Mr. Soichiro Honda, president of the Honda Motor Company, of Tokyo, is sure there will be." Mr. Honda was surely one of the most interested spectators. That year, both lightweight classes (125 and 250cc) were dominated by German riders on N.S.U. motorcycles.
As an experiment, the 125cc race was held on the new, 11-mile Clypse Course. Like the Mountain Course, it started and finished on Glencrutchery Road, one of the main streets in Douglas, which is the island's biggest town. The new course was controversial. It produced slower average speeds, though even skeptics had to admit it had been a cracking race.
The 250s ran on the traditional Mountain Course. Up there, the N.S.U.s were nothing short of awesome. The winner, Werner Haas, lapped at 91 mph, faster than many riders in the 500 class. The German bikes-twin-cylinder models with a bevel drive operating twin overhead cams-spun to unheard- of peak revs, and generated 33 horsepower. Privately, Soichiro Honda was shaken. In his heart, he knew his company was not ready for the TT.
I like to think that it was on that long flight back to Japan, with his head literally in the clouds, that Mr. Honda made one of the most influential decisions in his company's history. He realized that as long as Honda engineering was inspired by European machines, his motorcycles would be a generation behind the European works efforts. He vowed instead to design the world's most powerful racing motorcycles from scratch. That would take time. But after visiting the island, Honda's legendary research and development department, and racing arm, began to take shapes that are still recognizable today.
Four years later in 1958, Honda sent a few trusted employees back to see firsthand whether they had caught up. Again they kept pretty much to themselves. Like ordinary Japanese tourists, they took lots and lots of pictures.
Finally, in 1959, a Honda team arrived to compete. Even though many Britons still vividly remembered the war, the Manx people seemed especially thrilled by a team from so very far away. The front page of the Isle of Man Examiner carried a photo of local children, clamoring for autographs from Junzo Suzuki, one of four Japanese riders sent by Honda (none of whom had ever left their country before). The team also included a manager, engineer and mechanic. Bill Hunt, an American, came to the island too; he acted as both a fifth rider and team liaison. Their bikes were previous-year models, twin-cylinder 125cc machines of the type used in the Japanese championships.
One man was missing: Kunihiko Akiyama had died in a Japanese race a month earlier. A star at home, he had cherished the hope of riding in the TT. Before the Honda team raced, they rode out to Ballacarrooin and walked up a hill near the course. There, they buried a small casket containing a lock of Akiyama's hair.
In 1959 the 125cc class had a decidedly Italian flavor. In practice, the four fastest riders were Luigi Taveri, Bruno Spaggiari, Tarquinio Provini and Carlo Ubbiali. Taveri was on an East German M.Z., but the others were on Ducatis and M.V. Agustas. "Against these experienced riders and race-bred machines, it might be thought that the Oriental incursion into racing can be forgotten," wrote the Examiner. "Nevertheless the Honda machines are potent and the lap times of Naomi Tanaguchi improve with every circuit he makes of the Clypse course."
Amongst the many journalists in attendance, there were a few who noticed the precise organization in the Honda pits, and wondered if they weren't sandbagging, waiting for the race to show their hand. They weren't. The race, as expected, went to the Italians. But Naomi Taniguchi finished in sixth place, earning a coveted silver replica of the TT trophy. Giichi Suzuki and Teisuke Tanaka earned bronze replicas for their seventh and eighth place finishes. Junzo Suzuki finished 11th; Bill Hunt crashed out, unhurt.
Because the first five places in the 125cc race were split amongst M.V. Agusta, M.Z., and Ducati, the Honda team's combined results earned them the manufacturer's prize. Mr. Honda's personal goal, as he often demonstrated in subsequent years, was outright victory, but the Manx newspapers didn't see it as cause for disappointment. Their report began with one of the most prescient statements in the history of motorsports journalism: "The entry of a Japanese team in the 125 Lightweight TT yesterday did not prove to be a serious challenge to the Italian stars, but their performances were good enough to show that they might well be a force in the future."
The next year Honda came back with four-cylinder machines; pure racers, which bore no similarity to production bikes. The unpopular, six-year experiment with the Clypse Course was over. Perhaps because the Lightweight classes were once again to be run over the famously daunting Mountain course, the team drafted Tom Phillis, an Australian with Mountain experience, and Bob Brown, as well as bringing over their Japanese aces. In the 250cc race Phillis ran as high as fourth, but retired late in the race. His position was inherited by Bob Brown, and he was followed in fifth by the aptly named Moto Kitano. Taniguchi finished in sixth.
In the 125cc race, Honda riders finished in sixth through tenth positions. Only the fact that M.V. Agustas finished 1-2-3 prevented Honda from winning another team trophy. The Honda machines' turn of speed and reliability were duly noticed. Some of the top European riders wondered what they could do on the Japanese bikes.
Suzuki entered the TT races for the first time in 1960, too. Its rider, M. Itoh, crashed out unhurt at Bungalow, a sweeping left made trickier by railroad tracks running across the exit. The East German rider Ernst Degner also crashed his M.Z. at the same spot, in the same session. It was an interesting coincidence, because just a few years later at the Swedish Grand Prix, Degner defected. He took knowledge of two-stroke expansion chambers—closely guarded industrial secrets which at the time were only known on the other side of the Iron Curtain—to his new employers: Suzuki. Few indeed are the manufacturers, or the riders, who achieve victory on the Mountain in their first few years of trying. But in 1961, Honda's short TT apprenticeship ended.
That year, there were no official works entries in either the Senior or Junior classes. Their absence may have focused more attention on the Lightweight classes, where several manufacturers (including Yamaha, for the first time) fielded some very exotic machines. Honda once again bolstered its team with several riders: Phillis, the South African-based rider Jim Redman, Swiss rider Luigi Taveri, Scotland's Bob McIntyre, and a budding motorcycle genius, Englishman Mike Hailwood.
In practice for the 125cc race, Hondas had been dominant. When the race itself began, Ernst Degner's M.Z. was the only non-Honda among the top six, and he dropped out on the second lap. For most of the race, every rider on the leaderboard was mounted on a Honda. For a manufacturer, it was a performance so dominant as to be nearly anticlimactic.
However, Taveri pushed Hailwood right to the end. After 113 miles, Hailwood won by a mere seven seconds. Phillis, Redman, and Shimazaki rounded out the top five. Looking back on it, it seems appropriate that Mr. Honda was given his first TT victory by perhaps the greatest motorcycle rider of all time. Needless to say, Honda won the team trophy as well. The Examiner said simply, "It was a devastating win for the Orient." The 250cc race was run later the same day. Based on practice times, this one was still up for grabs. M.V. Agusta claimed to have withdrawn its factory team, but the guys working on Gary Hocking's motorcycle certainly looked like the works mechanics from past years.
Bob McIntyre opened with a storming first lap, averaging nearly 100 mph from a standing start. Hocking, on the M.V., was close behind. On the second lap, McIntyre went faster than any of the previous years' 350cc racers. Indeed, his times would have dominated the 500cc class just three years earlier! Hocking dropped back to third, then retired with a mechanical failure. Once again, every rider on the leaderboard was Honda-mounted.
McIntyre was denied the victory he deserved when, halfway round his final lap, his own engine expired. So Hailwood inherited his second win of the day, followed by Phillis, Redman, Takahashi and Taniguchi, all on Hondas. It took seven years, not the single year he'd hoped, but even Mr. Honda couldn't have dreamed of the extent of his Isle of Man TT success when it finally came.
Originally published in the December 2009 issue of Honda Riders Club of America.