Celebrate Honda’s birthday with these vintage highlights

Honda’s story began 71 years ago today. When racing enthusiast Soichiro Honda failed to produce piston rings that would satisfy Toyota. While he wasn’t a fan of traditional education, Soichiro’s late engineering studies and apprenticeships soon led to a production method that could ensure decent quality through mass production. Then came the war, and what was left of the business following the bombings and the Mikawa earthquake of 1945 got sold to Toyota. Cash in hand, Soichiro then set up Honda Technical Research Institute in 1946, employing twelve men to produce Type A mopeds powered by a war surplus of generator engines.

Once the supply of surplus motors ran dry, the Honda Technical Research Institute got liquidated and turned into Honda Motor Company. In 1948, Honda had 34 employees building bicycle auxiliary engines, but the big breakthrough came a year later. The “D” in 1949’s Honda Type D stood for “dream” and featured the company’s own pressed frame and two-stroke engine. Building from there, Honda became a motorcycle giant by the mid-sixties.

Honda Type D Motorbike

Of course, Honda wouldn’t stop at motorcycles. In 1953, the power products business began with the H-Type farming engine followed by the F150 tiller in 1959. Even more crucial was that on June 11, American Honda Motor Co., Inc. was established in Los Angeles, California. In Japan, the Super Cub went on sale the year before, while in 1959, Honda finally managed to send its 125-cc bike to race at the Isle of Man TT.

Honda Chevy Truck
Honda T 350
flickr / NAParish

Honda’s first four-wheeler appeared in 1963, but the most remarkable thing was that the T360 kei-sized pickup was immediately followed by the S500 sports car, a roadster with a 53-cc DOHC engine. This tiny, rev-happy wonder then got upgraded to become the S600, a roadster with a 57-hp 606-cc engine, as well as the option of a coupé body. It was a 90-mph car for America, but Honda soon proved it knew how to go faster. Much faster.

In 1964, it entered Formula 1 with the RA271, Japan’s first F1 car. The following year, Honda won the Mexican Grand Prix.

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While from 1967 on, Japanese Honda customers could enjoy their pocket-sized N360 hatchbacks, American Honda first opted for fifty of the bigger-engined N600s instead, which were imported to the U.S. purely on a trial basis. This ambitious move eventually lead Honda to creating the Civic, the core compact model that’s been enjoyed by many generations since 1972.

Regardless of early N600 sales among all those domestic V-8s, Honda also sold its one millionth motorcycle in the U.S. by 1968. This success lead to the foundation of Honda Canada and Honda Australia in 1969, while the brand opened its first plant abroad in Taiwan.

The Civic’s success was fueled by the oil crisis, as in 1974, its CVCC four stroke engine was the first to meet the new EPA Clean Air Act standards without the need for a catalytic converter. That’s because Soichiro Honda wasn’t just a racing enthusiast turned progressive industrialist; he was also an environmentalist. And by the ’70s, he just got fed up with two-strokes:

“What will happen to our streams, lakes, and rivers if all that exhaust gas mixed with oil gets pumped into the water?” Soichiro said. “I don’t care if everyone else is making two-strokes, Honda has to make four-strokes.”

And so Honda did, introducing the world’s first fuel-efficient four-stroke outboard marine engines in 1973. By this time, the company has also sold over 20 million motorcycles. Then came its second global car model in 1976—the Accord went on to change everything in America.

Soichiro Honda

Honda was ready to produce cars in the U.S. by 1982. The debut of their premium Acura brand followed in ’86. Two years later, driven by Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, Honda-powered McLaren MP4/4s won 15 out of 16 Formula 1 races. By this point, Honda’s engineering capabilities were beyond questioning. Today, Honda has 12 plants in America.

The legendary Honda NSX was launched in 1989, and while Gordon Murray was trying to figure out how to replicate its shifting feel in the McLaren F1, Honda’s V-6 supercar outshone Ferraris both in terms of handling and build quality. Enzo Ferrari got to see the F40 at speed before he died, and Soichiro Honda could say the same about the NSX. At 84, the mastermind behind the Suzuka Circuit died just days before the 1991 Hungarian Grand Prix, a race then won by Ayrton Senna and his McLaren-Honda.

1990 NSX

Now, well over 300 million motorbikes, 100 million generators, 20 million U.S.-built cars, 100 HondaJets and who knows how many ASIMO robots later, Honda will continue to power your lawn mower (including once that goes 100 mph in under seven seconds), fishing boat, and anything in between. And when it comes to cars, Honda might just have the best three-car garage on offer right now, be that for a fast driver, or somebody who prefers the green route:

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