It’s a frigid March morning, and I’m standing outside of Honda’s corporate office in Aoyama, nestled deep in the heart of Tokyo, Japan. Less than 48 hours prior I was at the Honda Performance Manufacturing Center, where the new NSX is built, and it felt strange being back in the thick of it, albeit on the opposite side of the planet. But I was determined to get answers from the people behind the “H badge.” Thanks to a friendly guy who goes by the name of “Sushi,” I had one hell of a good contact in place.
Sushi-san had set me up with none other than Ben Nakamura, a seasoned veteran hailing from Honda’s PR department. Nakamura has near seen it all, both in America, and back in Japan. This is a guy who has done everything from oversee PR for Honda’s Formula 1 team to rebuilding of consumer trust in the fallout after the Takata airbag debacle, and now he’s facing his greatest challenge yet: Dealing with my inquisitive ass.
Over tiny cups of coffee, Nakamura starts delivering insights that even a fan like me didn’t know. For instance, did you know that Honda designed the infamous Suzuka Circuit back in 1962, when Japan didn’t even have freeways connecting major cities? Or that the first car it sold to the public wasn’t even a car, but a truck called the “T360?”
Over the next few hours, he covered everything from America’s “demand for more power and more attractive designs” in the cars they buy, to the the evolution of alternative fuel options. And at the end of it all, I felt both a bit overwhelmed and humbled. And as I stood outside the “Championship White” headquarters in the freezing rain, I tried to let it all sink in. Straight from Aoyama, Japan, here are seven things you probably never knew about Honda.
1. Motorcycles started it all
In October of 1946, Soichiro Honda established the Honda Technical Research Institute in Hamamatsu, Japan in order to develop and produce small 2-cycle motorcycle engines. Two years later, Honda Motor Company, Ltd. was born, and in 1959 Honda opened a tiny shop in Los Angeles with six employees, a trio of extremely well-made motorbikes, and a dream. Over the next 50 years Honda has released a massive amount of motorcycles, from the insanely fast CBR, to the puttering little 50cc Super Cub.
But what most people don’t know is that most of Honda’s early cars had 2-cylinder motorcycle engines powering them! Utilizing what was readily available, these motors were already deemed reliable, and since the cars weighed little more than a sushi roll, slapping air-cooled motorcycle motors in them was a no-brainer. Most of these motors barely crested 36 horsepower, but the cars they powered were typically smaller than the original MINI.
2. It isn’t always about automobiles
One of the first things Nakamura got me to do when I arrived in Aoyama was plop my posterior down on a UNI-CUB. This futuristic electric unicycle features a large wheel in the center, with a series of perpendicular wheels inside it that allow 360-degree turns at a standstill. The second generation seen here is a fantastic example of Honda’s interest in personal mobility, and cruising around in one, you get the feeling that the UNI-CUB is being steered by your thoughts, as it’s controlled by little more than leaning and “feeling” the direction in which you wish to head.
Another interesting apparatus that captured my attention was Honda’s therapeutic “Walking Assist Device,” which works with a person’s movement in order to help them walk again. Lightweight, easy to use, and surprisingly slim, this device gives those who are unable to move easily a chance to become mobile once more. It even has Bluetooth connectivity so doctors can track a patient’s progress and any potential risks or issues that might come up.
3. It has its own jet program
When I was meeting with the new NSX’s chief engineer, Clement D’Souza, he told an interesting anecdote that stuck with me. D’Souza said that after designing the 2012 CR-V, Honda brass approached him with two job opportunities: Lead a team that would build the new HondaJet, or engineer the NSX supercar.
While D’Souza wonders what his life would’ve been like if he’d engineered the HondaJet, its recent certification by the Federal Aviation Administration proves that the plane is doing quite well in the hands of others. According to Honda, its unique “Over-The-Wing Engine Mount” configuration makes the HondaJet the “fastest, highest-flying, quietest, and most fuel-efficient jet in its class.” Honda Aircraft says it currently has 25 aircraft on the final assembly line in its Greensboro, North Carolina headquarters, with more on the way.
4. It’s been using turbos for longer than you think
While the twin-turbo hybrid engine in the new NSX is big news, and the 10th generation Civic is the first Honda with a turbo, the company tinkered with turbos since the early 1980s, when the “City II Turbo” came out. In fact, it’s released numerous turbocharged offerings, from the Vamos sliding door van to the ludicrously named Life Dunk. Unfortunately, all of these vehicles were only made available in Japan, so we only received one boosted car prior to the new Civic.
The first turbocharged Honda in America arrived about a decade back as the first generation Acura RDX. Sporty, stiff, and ahead of the crossover craze, this boosted soccer mom mobile was a sporty alternative to the bland competitors. Unfortunately, the RDX’s thirsty K23 engine, premium fuel requirements, and 2-ton footprint made it pretty expensive to daily drive, and a V6 was swapped in after just a few years of slow sales.
5. It was selling hybrids, hydrogen, and American-made before its competitors
People assume that because it’s the best-selling hybrid, Toyota’s Prius was the first hybrid in America, but nope. In 1999, Honda beat Toyota to the punch by about a year. Unfortunately, like the first generation RDX, it wasn’t a huge hit due to its super small CRX size, funky rear wheel covers, and undersized engine.
Honda was also the first one to offer hydrogen-powered vehicles in the U.S., with the FCX Clarity back in 2008. It also became the first Japanese automaker to establish a manufacturing plant in North America, when the Marysville, Ohio plant went online in 1982.
6. Racing was once more important than vehicle production
Soichiro Honda famously said that “the pressures of racing challenges people, forces them to find innovative solutions and demands quick, accurate responses to new problems they’ve never faced before,” and boy was he right on the money with that one! For over 50 years, Honda has utilized racing as a way to make its cars faster, stronger, lighter, and more durable.
Back in its infancy, the RA270 Formula 1 car was more of a priority to the company than making production cars (for proof, see the construction of the Suzuka race circuit). But Mr. Honda also stressed that racing teaches teamwork by reminding his employees that “no single individual can bring success,” eventually ingraining this motto into the corporate culture of Honda. If you want to see the state of Honda racing today, take a quick look at IndyCar and note what kind of vehicles and engines are being raced.
7. There’s way more to it than transportation
Perhaps one of the coolest things about Honda is its interest in life beyond the blacktop. Honda makes everything from outboard boat motors and snow blowers, to riding lawn mowers and generators — it even designs and builds the robots that work on its assembly lines!
It’s a company that strives to be different and never tries to stick with the status quo. Maybe it (and Acura) has gotten a little soft around the edges, but with the recent shift in corporate structure, the impending arrival of the NSX, the Civic Type-R, and the return of the Ridgeline, there’s a lot on the way that’s increasingly attractive to potential buyers. We certainly loved the 2016 Pilot Elite and the redesigned V6 Touring Accord. We can’t wait to see what “The Power of Dreams” holds for us in the future.