In the real world, success seldom shows up overnight. Instead, it’s typically a gradual process that moves forward slowly, propelled by bright ideas, a strong will and a commitment to work tirelessly. And while all of these traits may well hurry a person down a given path, there’s a larger question to be asked: What is the goal? That direction, that driving force begins with clear-minded vision—although with the truly great, it sometimes begins with a dream. Soichiro Honda possessed all of the above qualities, but perhaps most important of all, he had a dream.
Soichiro Honda’s dream began taking shape amidst the ruins of a ravaged postwar Japan. Following World War II, the entire nation entered the long and difficult process of rebuilding, and along with it came a huge demand for inexpensive transportation. Honda began by purchasing a batch of small-displacement army-surplus engines formerly used to power radio transmitters, which he attached to bicycles to power the rear wheel by a drive belt. This proved to be a profitable business venture, but the meager supply of engines was soon exhausted, prompting Honda to design his first powerplant in 1947—the A-type engine.
Honda associates quickly gave a nickname to this 1-horsepower, rotary-valve 50cc two-stroke engine. They called it the “chimney” thanks to its tall single cylinder, but also because it smoked ferociously when fed the only fuel available at that time, a turpentine-based oil extracted from pine trees.
By the next year, 1948, Honda introduced a new engine displacing 90cc for use in the Model B, a three-wheeler with a large cargo box residing between the two rear wheels. Later that year Honda revealed his Model C powered bicycle that featured an upgraded engine now displacing 96cc and producing about 3 bhp at 3000 rpm. Although the Model C still sported pedals and a belt drive, this machine now sprouted some of the trappings associated with motorcycle styling.
In August 1949, the fledgling Honda Motor Company completed the prototype of its first wholly built motorcycle. In keeping with what would soon become a company hallmark, this pioneering machine featured a number of Honda firsts including a kickstarter (in place of bicycle pedals), chain final drive (more efficient than the then-standard belt drive), two-speed transmission, pressed-steel frame and a telescopic front suspension. At the heart of this machine breathed a 98cc two-stroke single with a square bore-and-stroke of 50mm x 50mm, good for 3 horsepower at its peak of 5000 rpm.
According to company lore, on that day, the workshop was cleared to make space for a modest celebration. As Soichiro Honda and his 20 employees celebrated with toasts of home-brewed sake, one employee murmured, “It’s like a dream.” Immediately, Mr. Honda seized that little bit of inspiration and shouted, “That’s it! Dream!” And so the motorcycle’s name was coined: the Dream Type D.
It would be wonderful to say that the Dream D proved to be a smashing success, and that Honda Motor Company flourished from that day forward. But that was not the case. At the time, there were more than 200 motorcycle manufacturers all battling for a piece of the marketplace in Japan.
To feed that market, Honda sold bare engines as well as complete Dream D motorbikes to its distributors. The sales numbers showed Mr. Honda something unexpected: A Honda engine in a competitor’s frame was outselling the Dream D. Something had to be done.
Soichiro Honda possessed a gift for mechanical engineering and production, but early on he realized he needed a savvy business partner. So Honda joined forces with Takeo Fujisawa, and Mr. Fujisawa decided to take on the sales problems of the Dream D in eyeball-to-eyeball style. Mr. Fujisawa summarily announced to distributors that sales of the Dream D and the 98cc engine package would henceforth be an either/or proposition. Distributors could opt to sell the Dream. Or they could buy the engine alone. But not both.
Distributors did not take this sea change in sales policy lightly. Such hardball tactics angered some of the distributors to the point that a handful purportedly threatened Mr. Fujisawa at knifepoint. But the policy remained in place.
At the same time, Soichiro Honda fully recognized that the Dream D needed a number of improvements to pull in front in this congested marketplace. Fuel was still scarce at this time, so by late 1949 some of Honda’s competitors had turned to the more economical four-stroke engine design. After much consideration, Mr. Honda decided to embark upon the four-stroke path as well. This was an ambitious undertaking: Because the company had to risk expensive retooling to produce such engines, the design would have to be a good one. But Mr. Honda was willing to wager everything on the strength of bold engineering ideas, and so he moved forward on production of the Dream E in 1951, a daring endeavor that would begin the company’s climb to the top of the motorcycle industry.
The Dream E incorporated an overhead-valve (OHV) four-stroke engine, an idea far ahead of its time in Japanese motorcycle manufacturing, where the vast majority of four-strokes used lawnmower-like flathead engines. An OHV engine allows higher engine speeds because it offers less airflow restriction. Also, such engines feature more compact combustion chambers and allow a substantial boost in compression ratio to yield more power along with enhanced fuel efficiency. In addition, the Dream E featured two intake valves and one exhaust for superior breathing and efficiency—as witnessed by its use in many engines to this day. Once the Dream E became reality, this single-cylinder 146cc Honda could travel amazing distances on a gallon of fuel while delivering 5.5 horsepower—performance that far outstripped every other machine on the market.
On the day the prototype E was completed, engineer Kiyoshi Kawashima (who would become president of the company 22 years later upon Mr. Honda’s retirement) climbed aboard the bike and set off on an impromptu test run up the Hakone Mountains in a pounding rain, while Mr. Honda and Mr. Fujiwara followed behind in a Buick automobile. As the inclines steepened, Mr. Kawashima and the Dream E pulled away steadily from the car—while in top gear!—and vanished into the mist. At the rain-battered top of the mountain, the three men were reunited and they joined in ecstatic celebration—the test was a complete success.
The worth of the Dream E was more than born out in the form of hearty sales. In fact, the E’s overwhelming commercial success allowed the company to raise new funds to renovate older plants and build new ones, and also purchase the latest, most sophisticated machine tools and production equipment. This modernization process allowed Honda Motor Co. to reduce its dependency on outside suppliers and also set up its own distribution network. All in all, the Dream E represents the turning point in Honda’s early history.
In addition, the Dream E showcased Mr. Honda’s technological genius and foreshadowed his far-reaching vision and quest for excellence. Honda pushed an entire industry forward, and did so faster than any other company could imagine. Other manufacturers could not develop engines with the degree of sophistication and innovation that Honda displayed, nor as rapidly. As a result, of the more than 200 Japanese manufacturers that once filled the domestic motorcycle industry, only four remain today.
The Dream E stands as the sterling example of a moment in time—the first of more to come—when Mr. Honda bet the works on the strength of an idea, and came away a winner. More tough times were still in the offing for the fledgling company, but Honda Motor Company had already learned to do business in a way that would allow it to grow into a worldwide leader in the decades to come.