The daring history of Honda

From racing cars to EVs, and to fuel-cell vehicles to hot hatches, Honda has always done things its own way. We look back on 72 years of innovation

  • The story of Honda

    The story of Honda

    © Honda

    Honda has never stood still. For 72 years, the company has been characterised by innovation, from manic VTEC petrol engines to hybrids and fuel cells. Over the next 60 slides, we explain how it all started for Honda, and take an affectionate look at some of our favourite cars.

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  • Quite literally, Mr Honda

    Quite literally, Mr Honda

    © Honda

    Soichiro Honda was born on the 17 November 1906. He was to Honda what Steve Jobs was to Apple: a visionary, a pioneer and a dreamer. From the day he established Honda in 1948, to his retirement in 1973, he shaped the organisation and drove it forward. He was, quite literally, Mr Honda.

  • Inspired by the Ford Model T

    Inspired by the Ford Model T

    © Ford

    In 1916, as a 10-year-old growing up in Japan, Soichiro Honda caught a glimpse of a Ford Model T passing through the village. Having never seen anything like it before, he ran after the car, bending down to smell the oil it left on the road. That moment would change his life forever.

  • The star apprentice

    The star apprentice

    © Honda

    Honda preferred hands-on learning and real-world experience to academic learning. He left school in 1922 with no qualifications, then joined a car and motorcycle repair business called Art Shokai, widely considered to be one of the best firms of its kind in Japan. At the time, cars were still the preserve of the very wealthy, so Soichiro Honda had access to vehicles that would otherwise have been out of reach. His role fed his thirst for knowledge and he soon became the firm’s star apprentice.

  • A first taste of racing cars

    A first taste of racing cars

    © Honda

    In 1923, the company began making racing cars. The first was a Daimler-engined car called the Art Daimler, which was subsequently followed up with the Curtiss, so-called because of its American Curtiss A1 biplane engine. The 17-year-old Soichiro Honda played a big part in the development of the racing cars. And as we now know, motorsport would play a big part in the growth of Honda.

  • Opens a branch of Art Shokai

    Opens a branch of Art Shokai

    © Honda

    In 1928, having been declared medically unfit for military service, Soichiro Honda completed his apprenticeship and was given permission to open a branch of Art Shokai in Hamamstu, Japan. His passion for invention and development earned him the nickname ‘the Edison of Hamamatsu’. He invented a lift-type repair stand, believing “a human being should not have to do his work crawling around underneath a car”. Quite right, too.

  • Honda sets the wheels in motion

    Honda sets the wheels in motion

    © Honda

    Honda’s most significant breakthrough was the development of a wheel with cast-iron spokes. Until the late 1920s, wheels had wooden spokes, resulting in numerous breakages on unpaved roads. His invention stemmed from his days working on bicycles and was a huge leap forward in terms of automotive comfort and safety. Honda was already forging a reputation for innovation.

  • Honda gets very rich, very quickly

    Honda gets very rich, very quickly

    © Honda

    Soichiro Honda grew very rich, very quickly. Licensing money poured in from the world’s carmakers, helping him to enjoy the high life, which included motorcycle racing and messing about with motorboats. His next development set him on the path to greatness. Convinced he could build a piston ring better than anybody else, in 1936 he founded the Art Piston Ring Institute.

  • Honda goes back to school

    Honda goes back to school

    © Honda

    One of Honda’s biggest clients was the huge Toyota Motor Company, but disappointment would follow when Toyota rejected all but three of the 50 piston rings he delivered. Undeterred, he went back to school to learn more about metallurgy, studying at night and working during the day. True to form, he quit the course in 1939 without collecting his diploma and would go on to hold a total of 28 patents related to piston rings.

  • Honda parties hard

    Honda parties hard

    © Honda

    He founded the Tokai Seiki Heavy Industry company, which would later go on to employ 2,000 people, before Honda sold it to Toyota in 1945 for $5,000. He then went on holiday – for a long time. With money to burn, he partied hard, learned how to play the flute and spent time converting medicinal alcohol to sake. Purely by accident, he then went on to the next phase of his remarkable career.

  • Honda’s wife goes for a bike ride

    Honda’s wife goes for a bike ride

    © Honda

    Honda’s wife, Sachi, had returned home exhausted, having cycled to and from the village in search of rice. She told him that next time he should go, something that Honda was not prepared to do. So he promised her he’d build a motorised bicycle. Months later he built a bicycle powered by the abandoned engines that were used in the wireless radios during the Second World War. He collected all he could find.

  • A hot water bottle for a fuel tank

    A hot water bottle for a fuel tank

    © Honda

    For a fuel tank, Honda used a hot water bottle. It was a primitive and crude creation, but it worked. Sachi was overjoyed, a reaction that simply encouraged Honda to build more. Not content with using copies of the engines found in the old wireless radios, Honda set about creating something new. The so-called ‘chimney engine’ was born, a unit that was superior to the old engine, both in terms of performance and fuel economy. Sadly for Honda, it failed because it was too advanced for its time.

  • The A-Type is born

    The A-Type is born

    © Honda

    This failure led to the development of the first totally original product to wear the Honda badge. It was called the Honda A-Type, a revolutionary machine thanks to the design of its crankcase and a manually-operated belt transmission. It went into production in November 1947, with a new engine plant following in February 1948.

  • The Honda Motor Company is formed

    The Honda Motor Company is formed

    © Honda

    In September 1948, the Honda Motor Company was formed. A follow-up to the A-Type in the form of a three-wheeled B-Type, was unsuccessful, but a later C-Type fared better. It was like a motorcycle with pedals and it was the first Honda-badged product to enter a public race.

  • The first Honda motorcycle

    The first Honda motorcycle

    © Honda

    Proving that dreams can come true, Honda launched the D-Type – or Dream – in August 1949. Doing away with a hand-operated clutch, it revolutionised motorcycle production. This was followed in 1951 by the Dream E-Type, notable for being Honda’s first four-stroke vehicle. It would prove to be incredibly successful, shifting 500 units a month a mere six months after its release and then, with the fitting of a third gear, seeing monthly sales top 2,000.

  • Using direct mail for the Cub F-Type

    Using direct mail for the Cub F-Type

    © Honda

    In 1952, Honda used direct mail to help source sales outlets for the new Cub F-Type motorcycle. Over 50,000 letters – each one addressed by hand – were sent to bicycle shops. Honda received a staggering 30,000 responses, with outlets invited to part with 19,000 yen for a bike that would retail at 25,000 yen. To support the campaign, Honda bought a light aircraft to shower Japan with promotional leaflets.

  • Tackling the American market

    Tackling the American market

    © Honda USA

    Honda’s expansion overseas began in 1952 when the Cub F-Type was exported to Taiwan. But it wasn’t until 1959, when Honda formed the American Honda Motor company, that things really started to kick off. Tackling the American market would be a huge challenge, not least because the Americans were fiercely loyal to their homegrown motorcycles.

  • You meet the nicest people on a Honda

    You meet the nicest people on a Honda

    © Honda

    It was in 1962 when Honda made its American breakthrough. The famous ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda’ ad campaign changed the image of motorcycles and motorcyclists forever and helped the Super Cub to become one of the most successful vehicles on the planet.

  • Honda at the Isle of Man TT

    Honda at the Isle of Man TT

    © Honda

    No look back through the Honda archives would be complete without mentioning the astonishing achievement at the Isle of Man TT. Soichiro Honda had a dream of successfully competing at a motorcycle Grand Prix on a bike he built himself. In 1954 he had attended the world-famous TT races as an observer, returning five years later to win a class manufacturer trophy. But in 1961, the world suddenly became very interested in Honda. The team dominated the 125cc and 250cc classes. Mike Hailwood finished first in both, with Honda filling first to fifth places in each case. Now Honda was on the map, and it certainly helped the company’s fortunes outside of Japan, especially in the US.

  • Honda’s first four-wheeled production vehicle

    Honda’s first four-wheeled production vehicle

    © Honda

    Honda’s first four-wheeled production vehicle was the T360 pick-up truck, introduced in 1963. It used a 30hp engine and each truck was painted in a distinctive May Blue paint job. To think the journey to this point had started with the chance encounter with the Ford Model T, all those years ago.

  • The Honda S500 and S800

    The Honda S500 and S800

    © Honda

    The Honda S500 followed the stillborn S360 project to become Honda’s first production sports car. Japanese journalists dismissed it as “just a four-wheeled motorcycle” and in truth it wasn’t a huge success. But it started the journey and many, many cars would follow. The S500 wasn’t exported to other markets, but the S800 was. Not that many were sold, but it certainly helped to raise the profile of the Honda brand.

  • The N360: Honda’s people’s car

    The N360: Honda’s people’s car

    © Honda

    By the mid 1960s, the Japanese car industry was booming. Production topped 1.7 million in 1964, making Japan the fourth largest car producing nation in the world. Soichiro Honda had always harboured dreams of building a people’s car, which in 1966 translated to the N360. Nicknamed the ‘little puppy’, the N360 was compact, easy to drive and affordable. In many ways, this was the Japanese Mini. Squint hard and you could be looking at Britain’s favourite small car.

  • A people’s car for the world

    A people’s car for the world

    © Honda

    The N360 and its van derivate, the LN360, were launched in 1966, when a group of 100 journalists were told it was a people’s car for the world. Less than a week later it made its debut at the 1966 Tokyo Motor Show. Also making its first appearance was the Toyota Corolla, a car that has done very well indeed, thank you very much.

  • The N-series sells a million

    The N-series sells a million

    © Honda

    The N360 was priced at 313,000 yen, making it tens of thousands of yen less than competing models. Soichiro Honda wanted it to be affordable for as many people as possible and that included a potential global audience. By April 1969, sales of N-series cars had topped 500,000 in Japan and by 1970 that number had increased to one million across the world. It was far more successful in its homeland than it was abroad, but Honda picked up some much needed experience, which helped shape the Civic.

  • Honda Life

    Honda Life

    © Honda

    Honda developed a product development strategy centred on customer demands. Rather than making cars that were good for the carmaker, Honda set out to make cars that were good for the customers. The first result of this was the Honda Life, introduced in 1971. You can see hints of the future Honda Civic…

  • Honda Civic

    Honda Civic

    © Honda

    The Honda Civic followed the slow-selling 1300, a car that led to Honda seriously considering leaving the automotive sector. The success of the 1972 Civic proves that Honda made the right decision in sticking with it. It arrived at exactly the right time, offering fuel efficiency when it was needed most.

  • Honda CVCC

    Honda CVCC

    © Honda

    Honda is notable for delivering the first engine to comply with America’s strict Clean Air Act of 1970. The CVCC low-emission tech essentially enabled Honda to deliver fuel-efficient engines without the need for power-sapping catalytic converters. This was a properly big deal back then and Honda achieved something every other carmaker was struggling to do. As you can imagine, America’s homegrown manufacturers weren’t best pleased.

  • Honda in Formula One

    Honda in Formula One

    © Honda

    Not that Honda had abandoned its racing ambitions. Back in 1964, Honda entered F1 for the first time, with the RA271 (seen here) competing in the German Grand Prix. The later RA272 car would go on to record its maiden victory at the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix. It was painted in the racing colours of Japan and was the first Japanese car to win a Formula One race.

  • Honda in Formula One

    Honda in Formula One

    © Honda

    Honda would continue to be active in F1 right up until the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. Notable drivers include the likes of Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello and John Surtees and the team achieved three race wins. In February 2009, team principal Ross Brawn led a management buyout of the team, going on to successfully compete as the Brawn GP team in 2009, with Jenson Button winning the world title.

  • Honda as an engine supplier

    Honda as an engine supplier

    © Honda

    Of course, Honda is also notable for being an engine supplier to the likes of Williams, Lotus, McLaren and Red Bull with the likes of Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Max Verstappen all powering to victory courtesy of a Honda unit.

  • Honda Accord makes it debut

    Honda Accord makes it debut

    © Honda

    In 1976, Honda launched the Accord, initially as a hatchback, but later as a saloon. In 1982, it would go on to become the first Japanese car to be made in America, also topping the US sales chart in 1989. In common with many Japanese cars of the era, the Accord’s biggest enemy was rust. Many didn’t survive past the 90s, but the Accord name did. It’s now on to its 10th generation.

  • Accord: inspired by the Lotus Elite

    Accord: inspired by the Lotus Elite

    © Honda

    It’s a little known fact that the original Honda Accord was inspired by the Lotus Elite. It was felt that a low height and large expanse of glass would be preferable to the standard boxy saloon car that was so typical of the era. One could argue, with some justification, that Honda got the design right first time, but has failed to recapture the same magic since.

  • Honda Accord in BTCC

    Honda Accord in BTCC

    © Honda

    During the 1990s, watching the British Touring Car Championship was like watching all your friends’ dads race around a circuit in the car they drove to work. The likes of the Mondeo, 406, Vectra, Laguna and Primera were cars we could all relate to. The Honda Accord was also present. Which was kind of like discovering Colin from accounts goes bungee jumping dressed as Dita von Teese at the weekend.

  • Honda goes upmarket

    Honda goes upmarket

    © Honda

    In 1986, Honda launched the Acura brand in the United States – the first Japanese luxury car marque in America. Others followed suit, including Toyota with Lexus and Nissan with Infiniti.

  • Milestone after milestone

    Milestone after milestone

    © Honda

    By 1988, production had topped 15 million units, with 20 million units passed in 1992 and 30 million by 1995. The Honda Civic was a major contributor to this success, amassing 10 million sales by 1995, a mere 23 years after it was launched.

  • VTEC, yo!

    VTEC, yo!

    © Honda

    Honda and VTEC engines go together like a horse and carriage. The pair are inseparable. According to Honda, a VTEC engine combines the drivability in everyday situations with outright performance. In very simplistic terms, VTEC uses hydraulic pressure to switch between different cam profiles. The first car to utilise a VTEC engine was the 1989 Integra, in either XSi or RSi form.

  • Mk1 Honda Insight

    Mk1 Honda Insight

    © Honda

    In 1999, Honda launched the original Insight, a hybrid that actually beat the Toyota Prius to market. It was way ahead of its time and technically superior to the Prius, offering an aluminium body shell, a 1.0-litre engine and an integrated electric motor. Economy of up to 75mpg wasn’t out of the question, but the lack of rear seats meant it was never going to change the world.

  • First fuel-cell car in the US

    First fuel-cell car in the US

    © Honda

    Three years later, in 2002, the Honda FCX became the first fuel-cell car to be certified by the US EPA and California Air Resources Board for commercial use. The 2002 FCX was a development of the original concept, offering four seats, 107hp, 201b ft of torque and a range of 190 miles. It was also available in Japan.

  • Honda Prelude

    Honda Prelude

    © Honda

    The first Prelude was launched in 1978 and it would cement its position as a coupe majoring on its cruising credentials, as opposed to anything particularly sporting. Rather than being based on the Civic or Accord, the Prelude was a standalone product that tempted buyers with a generous level of standard equipment. By the time it bowed out in 2001, the Prelude had seen five generations, amassing over 800,000 sales in the process.

  • Honda CR-X

    Honda CR-X

    © Honda

    Goodness, the Honda CR-X was an excellent little car. Feeling every bit the Japanese Alfasud, the CR-X was smaller than the Civic upon which it was based but was much, much better to drive. It’s an example of another great car that stemmed from an era when Japanese cars would rust for a pastime. In other words, good examples are thin on the ground and command a hefty premium.

  • When Honda met Rover

    When Honda met Rover

    © Honda

    By setting up a joint-venture with British Leyland, Honda was the first Japanese carmaker to jump into bed with a British firm. This initially led to the Triumph Acclaim and Honda Ballade, but the later relationship with Rover is no less significant. The Honda Concerto was built alongside its Rover sibling at Longbridge. This relationship also gave Honda much-needed access to a diesel engine, something it had previously lacked.

  • Honda Legend

    Honda Legend

    © Honda

    The original Honda Legend of 1985 was the also result of a joint-venture with Rover, a project that also gave us the Rover 800. These big-engined, softly-sprung and fully-loaded Japanese barges were never big sellers in the UK, not helped by a serious drink problem and catastrophic depreciation. That said, they remain a tempting proposition at the lower end of the used car market. You can even get a stylish two-door coupe version.

  • Honda NSX

    Honda NSX

    © Honda

    Honda shocked the world in 1990 when it unveiled the stunning NSX. Here was a car that offered all the benefits of an Italian supercar, with the ease of use and reliability associated with a Honda Civic. The chassis was famously developed with help from a certain Ayrton Senna and would enjoy a 15-year production run. Honda continually fiddled with it as it searched for the perfect recipe.

  • Honda Beat

    Honda Beat

    © Honda

    The Honda Beat is notable for being the last car to be approved by Soichiro Honda before his death in 1991. The Pininfarina-designed ‘kei car’ was launched in 1991 and was a direct rival for the equally small Suzuki Cappuccino.

  • Honda del Sol

    Honda del Sol

    © Honda

    The Honda del Sol, or CR-X del Sol, or even simply the CR-X, was a second generation follow-up to the original CR-X. Once again based on the Civic, the all-new CR-X del Sol featured a removable hard-top, hence the reference to the sun. It wasn’t as sweet to drive as the original CR-X, but it did offer wind-in-your-hair motoring. It was in production from 1992 to 1998.

  • Honda NSX Type-R

    Honda NSX Type-R

    © Honda

    In 1992, we witnessed the birth of one of the great modern performance brands – and what a way to make an entrance. The Honda NSX Type-R or NSX-R was the first official Type-R, with Honda shedding 120kg of weight from the original NSX and also stiffening up the suspension. It wouldn’t be long before the Type-R magic was sprinkled on more affordable vehicles.

  • Honda Civic Type-R EK9

    Honda Civic Type-R EK9

    © Honda

    But the UK market would have to wait a while. The first ‘everyday’ car to benefit from the full fat Type-R experience was the EK9 Honda Civic. Although only ever produced for the Japanese market, it cemented Honda’s reputation for delivering an authentic performance hatch.

  • Honda Integra Type-R

    Honda Integra Type-R

    © Honda

    In 1997, UK petrolheads finally got what they were waiting for, with the arrival of the Integra Type-R. The R stands for Racing, which is apt, because the Integra was essentially a race car for the road. Thanks to its relatively new VTEC engine, the Integra Type-R would rev to a dizzying 9,000rpm. Initially only available in Championship White, this is considered by some to be the greatest front-wheel-drive car ever.

  • Honda Accord Type-R

    Honda Accord Type-R

    © Honda

    But what if you fancied an Integra Type-R, but needed the practicality of a four-door saloon? Step forward the quite brilliant Accord Type-R, complete with oversized rear wing. Although, as can be seen from this photo, the comedy rear spoiler was available as a delete option. The Accord Type-R was far better than it had any right to be. It was like driving a BTCC car to the office everyday.

  • Honda Civic Type-R EP3

    Honda Civic Type-R EP3

    © Honda

    No other Type-R has enjoyed the same level of success as the Civic. If nothing else, the EP3 Civic Type-R of 2001 demonstrated that Honda was capable of delivering a mass-market hot hatch without diluting any of the appeal associated with the earlier cars. It would prove to be a monumental success for Honda, taking the fight to the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Seat Leon Cupra R and Ford Focus RS.

  • Honda S2000

    Honda S2000

    © Honda

    The Honda S2000 never wore a Type-R badge, but it did offer the same level of thrills, albeit in a different flavour. The 2.0-litre engine would rev to the same 9,000rpm, delivering 240hp in the process. Some people loved the fast and furious delivery of power, others went scurrying off in the direction of the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z4.

  • Honda CR-V

    Honda CR-V

    © Honda

    A change of direction here, although the CR-V is no less worthy of a mention than the aforementioned firecrackers. Alongside the Toyota RAV-4, the Honda CR-V championed the car-like SUV long before the crossover was born. Launched in Japan in 1995, the CR-V gained a reputation for rock-solid reliability and ease of use, although the lack of a diesel engine did limit its sales in the UK.

  • Honda Jazz

    Honda Jazz

    © Honda

    The Honda Jazz is the curse of the British B-road, a car that’s guaranteed to be straddling the central white line, invariably with the fog light switched on. But let’s not be too beastly to the Jazz, because it always does well in reliability and satisfaction surveys and its mini-MPV shape gives it a USP in a competitive sector.

  • Honda CR-Z

    Honda CR-Z

    © Honda

    Ah, the Honda CR-Z. Billed as the CR-X for a new generation, it never quite reached the lofty heights of its ancestor. It was put forward as the world’s first sport hybrid coupe, a kind of cross between a CR-X and an Insight, if you will. Sadly, it was too expensive and too cramped inside to be considered a true great. Good fun, though.

  • Honda NSX

    Honda NSX

    © Honda

    The second-generation NSX was an entirely different animal to the first, with a V6 engine, three electric motors and a nine-speed gearbox driving all four wheels. It divides opinion and isn’t cheap – around £170,000 – but we love it.

  • HondaJet

    HondaJet

    © Honda

    If you needed proof that the spirit of Soichiro Honda is still alive at Honda, look no further than the HondaJet. At a time when even the established players are struggling to make a living in the small private jet market, Honda launches the HondaJet. The £3 million jet is unique in the sector for its wing-mounted engines, which not only look great, but also free-up space inside the cabin. Honda’s team of designers and engineers stayed true to this unique layout from the outset and you suspect it was a case of either doing something different or doing nothing at all. It’s the kind of pioneering spirit that has seen Honda develop the likes of a rechargeable electric-powered snow thrower.

  • ASIMO

    ASIMO

    © Honda

    Who doesn’t like ASIMO, Honda’s humanoid robot? So life-like is ASIMO, it’s impossible not to feel a degree of warmth to the autonomous machine. He (or it?) was ‘born’ in 2000 and given the name ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility. The aim is to deliver a robot that can function in an actual human living environment. He can already play football, but sadly he can’t quite bend it like Beckham. Not yet, anyway.

  • Probably the best TV ads… in the world

    Probably the best TV ads… in the world

    © Honda

    Honda has consistently delivered the best TV ads in the world. From ‘The Cog’, which promoted the Accord, to ‘The Impossible Dream’, a brand-led campaign, Honda just gets it right time and time again. Who can forget the England-themed campaign during another ill-fated World Cup.

  • Honda motorcycles

    Honda motorcycles

    © Honda

    And let’s not forget Honda’s contribution to the world of motorcycles. From its humble beginnings in Japan, Honda helped to change the image of motorcycling in the US. In 2004, it prototyped a motorcycle powered by a fuel cell and in 2007 it was the first manufacturer to offer a motorcycle with an airbag. Oh, and that tiny Super Cub motorcycle? Not only is it the best-selling internal combustion vehicle ever made, it has also been granted a 3D trademark in Japan. Iconic? Just a bit.

  • Honda e

    Honda e

    © Honda

    We conclude with the Honda e: an electric city car like no other. Its interior – including rear-view cameras for wing mirrors – is breathtaking and its styling is super-cute. Yes, a 137-mile range seems limited, but it should be ample for city life. Fingers crossed for a Type-R version…