Throughout his life, Honda's founder, Soichiro Honda, had an interest in automobiles. He worked as a mechanic at the Art Shokai garage, where he tuned cars and entered them in races. In 1937, with financing from his acquaintance Kato Shichir?, Honda founded T?kai Seiki (Eastern Sea Precision Machine Company) to make piston rings working out of the Art Shokai garage. After initial failures, T?kai Seiki won a contract to supply piston rings to Toyota, but lost the contract due to the poor quality of their products.After attending engineering school without graduating, and visiting factories around Japan to better understand Toyota's quality control processes, by 1941 Honda was able to mass-produce piston rings acceptable to Toyota, using an automated process that could employ even unskilled wartime laborers.:16–19
T?kai Seiki was placed under control of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (called the Ministry of Munitions after 1943) at the start of World War II, and Soichiro Honda was demoted from president to senior managing director after Toyota took a 40% stake in the company. Honda also aided the war effort by assisting other companies in automating the production of military aircraft propellers.The relationships Honda cultivated with personnel at Toyota, Nakajima Aircraft Company and the Imperial Japanese Navy would be instrumental in the postwar period. A US B-29 bomber attack destroyed T?kai Seiki's Yamashita plant in 1944, and the Itawa plant collapsed in the 13 January 1945 Mikawa earthquake, and Soichiro Honda sold the salvageable remains of the company to Toyota after the war for ¥450,000, and used the proceeds to found the Honda Technical Research Institute in October 1946.
With a staff of 12 men working in a 16 m2 (170 sq ft) shack, they built and sold improvised motorized bicycles, using a supply of 500 two-stroke 50 cc Tohatsu war surplus radio generator engines.:19 When the engines ran out, Honda began building their own copy of the Tohatsu engine, and supplying these to customers to attach to their bicycles. This was the Honda A-Type, nicknamed the Bata Bata for the sound the engine made. In 1949, the Honda Technical Research Institute was liquidated for ¥1,000,000, or about US$5,000 today; these funds were used to incorporate Honda Motor Co., Ltd.:21 At about the same time Honda hired engineer Kihachiro Kawashima, and Takeo Fujisawa who provided indispensable business and marketing expertise to complement Soichiro Honda's technical bent.:21 The close partnership between Soichiro Honda and Fujisawa lasted until they stepped down together in October 1973.:21
The first complete motorcycle, with both the frame and engine made by Honda, was the 1949 D-Type, the first Honda to go by the name Dream. Honda Motor Company grew in a short time to become the world's largest manufacturer of motorcycles by 1964.
The first production automobile from Honda was the T360 mini pick-up truck, which went on sale in August 1963. Powered by a small 356-cc straight-4 gasoline engine, it was classified under the cheaper Kei car tax bracket. The first production car from Honda was the S500 sports car, which followed the T360 into production in October 1963. Its chain-driven rear wheels pointed to Honda's motorcycle origins.
Over the next few decades, Honda worked to expand its product line and expanded operations and exports to numerous countries around the world. In 1986, Honda introduced the successful Acura brand to the American market in an attempt to gain ground in the luxury vehicle market. The year 1991 saw the introduction of the Honda NSX supercar, the first all-aluminum monocoque vehicle that incorporated a mid-engine V6 with variable-valve timing.
CEO Tadashi Kume was succeeded by Nobuhiko Kawamoto in 1990. Kawamoto was selected over Shoichiro Irimajiri, who oversaw the successful establishment of Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc. in Marysville, Ohio. Both Kawamoto and Irimajiri shared a friendly rivalry within Honda, and Irimajiri would resign in 1992 due to health issues.
Following the death of Soichiro Honda and the departure of Irimajiri, Honda found itself quickly being outpaced in product development by other Japanese automakers and was caught off-guard by the truck and sport utility vehicle boom of the 1990s, all which took a toll on the profitability of the company. Japanese media reported in 1992 and 1993 that Honda was at serious risk of an unwanted and hostile takeover by Mitsubishi Motors, who at the time was a larger automaker by volume and flush with profits from their successful Pajero and Diamante.
Kawamoto acted quickly to change Honda's corporate culture, rushing through market-driven product development that resulted in recreational vehicles such as the first generation Odyssey and the CR-V, and a refocusing away from some of the numerous sedans and coupes that were popular with Honda's engineers but not with the buying public. The most shocking change to Honda came when Kawamoto ended Honda's successful participation in Formula One after the 1992 season, citing costs in light of the takeover threat from Mitsubishi as well as the desire to create a more environmentally-friendly company image.
On 23 February 2015, Honda announced that CEO and President Takanobu Ito would step down and be replaced by Takahiro Hachigo by June; additional retirements by senior managers and directors were expected.
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