East Meets West – Notes from the Archives

July 13th, 2017 by James Chartres

Words by: Gary Horstkorta

I’m sure many of you will remember the advertising slogan “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” which the company used in 1963 for the first time in the U.S. As a result of that advertising campaign, Honda motorcycle sales took off and they were on their way to establishing a nationwide dealer network and becoming a highly popular brand.

Seven years later in 1970, Honda introduced their first car into the U.S., the small N600 powered by a motorcycle engine and today of course they are one of the most popular car brands world wide. Now lets turn back the calendar to 1962, only two years after Honda established an American Division to sell motorcycles but the brand was relatively unknown. Only motorcycle racing enthusiasts knew the name based on Honda’s international racing success yet the company was looking ahead and planning their strategy for the U.S. market.

In the Fall of 1962, Honda’s founder and president, Soichiro Honda, paid a visit to San Francisco, his first visit to the U.S. since 1952. One of his stops was to at Kjell Qvale’s British Motor Cars Corp. to see his operation and also the BMC Competition Department headed by Joe Huffaker Sr. What follows is an article written for Competition Press dated December 22, 1962 by Gordon Martin about that visit.

While in the U.S. to help launch the first over-the-counter sale of common stock through U.S. brokerage firms, 56-year old Soichiro Honda, founder and president of the world’s largest motorcycle firm, found time to talk about his interest in racing.

Speaking through an interpreter in his first news interview in this country. Honda was shown the material printed about his firm’s racing activities in John Bond’s “Miscellaneous Ramblings” column in the January 1963 Road & Track. He was both amused and impressed, stating, “Honda is very fortunate to have press representatives on this and many other journals all over the world who promote our products, but demand no salary from Honda.” (Something may have been added or lost in translation.)

Mr. Honda (L) speaks to Kjell Qvale through the interpreter with Joe Huffaker in background and Gordon Martin on the right

Although it is no secret that Honda is preparing a Formula I Grand Prix car as stated in R&T, Mr. Honda, himself would neither admit nor deny that they are working on a W-type, 12-cyl. 1.5 liter engine for the car. He did state, however, that “the 220-bhp minimum target mentioned in the article as been surpassed in an engine turning a maximum of 13,500 rpm. He would not reveal the new peak horsepower.

The R&T item also mentioned that Honda’s GP car is rumored to be superior to English machines on the straights, but that road holding in the corners was still a Honda weak point. When asked about this, Honda made his only concession to the firm’s lack of GP experience, stating that they were still working on chassis tuning, and that lack of racing background with 4-wheel vehicles was a decided disadvantage.

Just when will Honda GP cars be seen in action for the first time? Again the vey pleasant, jolly Mr. Honda laughed and answered, “when our cars are ready to race.”

In this exclusive interview, Mr. Honda turned the tables and asked some questions related to sports car racing in the U.S. and how U.S. drivers could be obtained for a race set for Japan in 1963. The race will be run on the 3.5-mile Suzuka Circuit near Osaka, 280 miles west of Tokyo. It is regarded as one of the most picturesque circuits in the world, set in a lush valley and winding around several lakes, and it is without equal so far as facilities and course preparation is concerned. The land and the elaborate Suzuka course was paid for by stock wholly owned by Honda employees, officials, and Mr. Honda, himself. It was completed this Fall and one all-Japan Championship Motorcycle Grand Prix was held before winter arrived. Eventually, it is hoped, the circuit will play host ot an annual World Championship Grand Prix Formula 1 cars.

The Honda sports car, Mr. Honda revealed, is still not ready for export, although production lives are now being completed to assemble 400 units a week in the Spring of 1963. In addition to a sports car and a utility pick-up truck using a 356cc displacement engine, a 500cc sports car has also been designated for production. Both engines are 4-cycle (Honda detests 2-cycle engines), twin cam configuration, with the 356cc turning out 40 hp at 9000 rpm and the 500cc version 48 hp at 8000 rpm. The 500cc model is the only one set for export and it will top 80 mph, weights 1300 lbs. and will have a selling price, it is hoped of under $2000.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for one since they plan to sales-test it on the Japanese customers first.

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