By Shawn Downey
Much like Elvis, Honda is everywhere. Honda’s flourishing presence in Motocross, Flat-Track, Enduro, Grand Prix, and Superbike Racing is not a coincidence. It is the result of a wiry little man’s mantra. The wiry little man is known to motorcycle historians as Soichiro Honda. Notice how I did not attempt to brief you on the pronunciation of his first name. It is not an accident. It is because I have no idea of the correct pronunciation.
If you have ever taken the time to consume a manufacturer’s advertisement known as Cycle World, I am sure you have been briefed on the historic achievements and the iron will of one Soichiro Honda. You may have picked up anecdotes regarding his tragic race car crash that occurred while setting a track record in July of 1936.
What you may NOT have known is that the engine from this race car was a “surplus” American Air Force 8-litre V8. He slotted this V8 into a race chassis of his own design and embarrassed factory-backed competitors for several races. Unfortunately, he met the demise of his racing career when he connected with a slower competitor. In English we pronounce the nomenclature of a slower rider as “lapper”. In Japanese, I have no idea how they pronounce it.
Several years later, Soichiro was convinced that factory competition led to an increased morale in factory workers so he became determined to assemble a world class racing team. This was not a small undertaking in the 1950s due to the financial burden of surviving amidst the plethora of motorcycle companies.
The post war boom had finally faded and the manufacturers found themselves vying for a decreasing market. So Mr. Honda, exhibiting the extreme intelligence he was well known for, did what all sane individuals do during a time of crisis. Drink Guinness. He jumped on a plane and headed to the Isle Of Man for an education in obtaining the proper Guinness pour and what it would take to successfully compete in the upcoming Isle Of Man races.
Once he arrived, he was more than a little startled at what he found. First, he found that the wounds of the war had not completely healed and many of the British were still quite resentful towards the Japanese due to the events dating back nine years.
Second, he realized his Honda sport bikes were severely under powered compared to the 33 bhp twins entered in the 250 cc race. A quick call to the factory confirmed that his own competition models yielded a paltry 10 bhp. Oops. Upon further investigation he realized that several very important components of his Honda’s were severely handicapped when compared to the European counterparts, i.e. chains, tires, and carbs. In an attempt to impress these facts upon his own engineers, he liberated “samples” of these items and took them back to Japan.
On the flight homeward, these “samples” were discovered by the flight attendant as Mr. Honda’s luggage surpassed the legal weight limit by several pounds. When the airline demanded additional payment for surpassing the allowed weight limit, Mr. Honda had no means to pay the additional fare so he argued that the airlines luggage policy was unfair and prejudiced. After all, Soichiro was a much smaller man than most of the passengers and should therefore not be required to pay the standard fare. Unfortunately, the airline was not about to change policy for Mr. Honda, so he emptied the majority of his suitcase by donning almost all of his wardrobe over his excising clothes and boarding the airplane. Temper, temper, temper.
Five years after this incident, Mr. Honda finally realized his dream of competing on the Isle Of Man. In standard Mr. Honda fashion, this feat was not accomplished without incident. Honda petitioned the British Auto-Cycle Union to discuss Honda’s participation in the Formula Races of the TT. As all faithful Isle Of Man enthusiasts know, the Formula Races were sectioned for 350cc machines and 500cc machines. Mr. Honda entered a 125cc machine against the likes of MV Augusta and Ducati. Oops.
It was at this monumental event that Mr. Honda propagated his second well known theory (the first being that thing about competition increasing the morale of the workers, etc…) “The rider is equally important as the machine. If we had a machine with the same level of performance as those of our competitors, we wouldn’t win the race without a top-notch rider.” Well, so much for my racing career.
By 1960, Honda arrived with a four cylinder 250cc that no longer suspiciously resembled the NSU&emdash;I wonder if that had something to do with “samples” in the suitcase… This new 250cc utilized Keihin flat slide carbs, double overhead camshafts, and an amazingly updated frame geometry. Unfortunately, Honda still had not employed the second well known theory&emdash;you know, that thing about needing a proficient rider. Until 1961 that is, when Mr. Honda was able to recruit Bob Brown, Tom Phillis, and (can we get a golf clap here please) the notorious Jim Redman. Results of these legends were evident immediately and the Saki flowed profusely.
Mr. Honda must have been working the mojo in 1961 because not only did the European manufacturers drop out of the competition due to a crippling European economy, but Honda was also able to add Mike Hailwood to the roster. At the age of 21, Mike Hailwood accomplished Mr. Honda’s dream by winning the 125cc and 250cc classes and setting world records at the same time. Albeit Mr. Hailwood was not an official member of the Honda race team, but then again, who was?
Mike The Bike Hailwood, as well as several other participants in the Isle Of Man, were riding “borrowed bikes” that Honda supplied to just about anyone who wanted them. This would be known as the “shotgun approach” to racing and proved to be highly effective until one fateful day when a free agent rookie beat the team captain against team orders…an embarrassment or an accomplishment, you be the judge.
Shortly after this uprising in the Honda team ranks (rumor claims that several riders were involved in a little fist-a-cuffs during the awards ceremony) Soichiro implemented a new policy to restore order to the disenchanted factory riders. He instituted a program recognizing the great achievements of the Honda team racers and rewarded them financially and socially by not offering hot shot rookies free rides. These practices enabled Soichiro to manage a streamlined race team and employ strategic tactics similar to his European counterparts.
Okay, so you see that whole last paragraph ? Everything except the fist-a-cuffs reference is peer crap. I made the whole thing up. Soichiro Honda continued the shotgun approach and offered rides to anybody exhibiting more guts than brains. This method ensured great multiples of Hondas on the race tracks and in the streets. Like I said, Elvis and Honda is everywhere.