Honda's First Dreams

From CycleChaos
Jump to navigation Jump to search

In August of 1949, the Honda Motor Company had completed the first prototype of a very important motorcycle. Technologically advanced for its day, it featured such Honda firsts as a kickstarter and chain final drive, as well as such rarities as a telescopic front fork and two-speed transmission. Power came from a 98cc two-stroke single with square bore and stroke dimensions, 50mm x 50mm, and it churned out 3 horsepower at 5000 rpm. According to legend, Soichiro Honda and his 20 employees celebrated with a party in the office, complete with home-brewed sake. One of the employees said, "It's like a dream!" And Mr. Honda shouted, "That's it! Dream!" and officially christened the new motorcycle the Dream Type D.

To understand the Dream D's significance to Honda, you have to know something of its background. After World War II, Japan was essentially starting over from the ground up, and people desperately needed inexpensive transportation. Honda's first efforts in 1947 resulted in the A-type engine, a 1-horsepower 50cc two-stroke that attached to bicycles and used army-issue hot-water bottles as fuel tanks. Employees nicknamed it the chimney, partly for its tall cylinder, and partly for the fumes created by the raw pine-resin fuel civilians had to burn at the time. But Honda wasn't the only one engaging in the enterprise. Many others had the same idea to provide cheap transport, and new companies sprouted up left and right; by the early 1950s, there were more than 200 Japanese motorcycle manufacturers. Standing out in such a crowd was crucial to a firm's future, and it was hoped the Dream D would provide a launching point for the Honda Motor Company.

But that's not what happened. At that time, Honda sold both engines and complete motorcycles to distributors, and the Dream D wasn't as popular as putting a Honda engine in a competitor's frame. Honda's business partner, Takeo Fujisawa, told distributors that if they wanted to sell the Dream, they could no longer get engines; if they wanted engines, they could not get the Dream. Such tactics angered some of the distributors enough that they supposedly threatened Fujisawa with knives. The Dream also had problems with insufficient clearance between its tires and fenders; mud would pack up during poor weather on the primitive roads of the time.

Yet Soichiro Honda had always preached learning from mistakes. "To me," he once said, "success can only be achieved through repeated failure and introspection." The Dream D offered that opportunity, to build success out of failure. And it would result in the Dream E of 1951, a radical departure for Honda, and one that would start the company's climb to the forefront of motorcycle manufacturing.

Fuel was extremely scarce and expensive, and by late 1949 some of Honda's competitors had turned to more economical four-stroke engines. Despite some initial reluctance, Mr. Honda decided to take the four-stroke path as well. This was an ambitious undertaking: If 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.

That design was an overhead-valve (OHV) four-stroke engine, an idea far ahead of its time in Japanese motorcycle manufacturing, where most were using lawn-mower-like flathead engines. An OHV engine allows higher rpm because it offers less restriction to airflow through the engine. Its more compact squish combustion chamber also allows a substantial boost in compression ratio, giving not only more pulling power, but better fuel economy too. The single-cylinder 146cc E-type engine could go 220 miles on a gallon of fuel, yet delivered 5.5 horsepower, and in an impromptu test, a test rider took the two-speed prototype on a rainy ascent of the Hakone Mountains, while Mr. Honda followed in a car. The machine made the climb easily, in top gear, averaging 45 mph.

By 1952 demand for the Dream E was brisk, despite the existence of some 200 other motorbike producers. In fact, the E's sales success allowed the company to raise new money, which was used to renovate or build three manufacturing plants, as well as buy sophisticated machine tools and production equipment. It also enabled the company to cut its dependency on suppliers and set up its own distribution network. The Dream E design is regarded as the turning point in Honda's early history for all those reasons--and two more.

The Dream E showcased Mr. Honda's technological genius, and ambition. Honda pushed forward faster than the competition. Other manufacturers could not develop engines as innovative and sophisticated as Honda could, nor as rapidly, and soon began to fall by the wayside, until of the nearly 200 only four now remain. Moreover, the Dream E was one of the first times Mr. Honda was willing to bet it all simply on the strength of an idea. That approach--the belief in bold engineering solutions--became the company's trademark, and is still true today. You can see it in such products as the Interceptor®, the Silver Wing®, the FourTrax® Foreman® ES, and the FourTrax Foreman Rubicon™. By 1952, the Honda Motor Company wasn't out of the woods yet. But it had learned a way of doing business that would allow it to grow and prosper in the years to come.