Honda turns 75 - We take a look at their 9 best innovations beyond VTEC and Type R

Japan in 1948 was bleak. The atom bombings that nearly wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not that long ago while rations and shortages were often front-page news. Amidst all that, embers of hope were rising amidst the ashes.

75 years ago on 24 September, a petrolhead engineer established a company that proudly bears his surname. Honda Motor Co Ltd initially had 34 employees but little do the men and women working there know, they were on the precipice of automotive history.

Honda has grown from its humble engineering roots assembling simple but crude motorized bicycle engines to producing some of the most accomplished cars and bikes in the world. While the significance of Honda’s VTEC engine or its performance cars like the Integra Type R and NSX has been celebrated before, we’ll be looking at 9 of the most innovative technologies that Honda introduced in its 75-year history.

Also read: Besides the WRX and BRZ, we look back at Subaru's other significant models for its 70th birthday

1. The Cub bikes

The Honda Cub was not Honda's first bike or even product but it was the model that literally put the Japanese dreamers on the map. Since its introduction in 1958, over 100 million Cubs, Super Cubs, and their various iterations have been built across 15 countries worldwide including Malaysia.

Also read: Honda redefines its "Power of Dreams" slogan to be beyond just providing cars and motorcycles

Soichiro Honda and the team behind the Super Cub

Though the motorbike may look simple, the Super Cub is a marvel beyond just moving the masses with an affordable price. The use of a semi-automatic centrifugal clutch is widely attributed to Soichiro-san wanting the bike to be so easy to operate that “soba delivery boys can ride with one hand”.

Even its production was innovative as it was modelled on the Volkswagen Beetle production line in Wolfsburg. As a result, the plant was capable of producing between 30,000 to 50,000 bikes a month when the norm was around 3,000 units.

But what really sold the Super Cub was its marketing. It was advertised in women's magazines extensively in Japan while in America, the bike was introduced there through the legendary “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” ad campaign.

Needless to say, the Super Cub is the most important Honda model ever as without it, the following 8 innovations would never happen.

2. An automotive Disneyland

Prior to a proper circuit being built, motor racing in Japan is usually done near mountains like this Mount Asama Race in the 1950s

Following the massive success of the Super Cub, Honda-san envisioned a proper racing circuit to be built near the Suzuka factory that also doubles as a testing facility for its new models.

Designed by John Hugenholtz, the Suzuka Circuit opened in 1962. The first race was held in November which was the inaugural Japan National Road Racing Championship that saw competitors from all over the world racing in cars and bikes.

Also read: Batu Tiga was once Malaysia's motor racing playground, what the heck happened?

The events happening at Suzuka turned the sleepy rice paddyland into a tourist attraction, especially for those who are into motorsports. However, Honda’s co-founder, Takeo Fujisawa saw an opportunity that would attract even non-motorsports fans into the area.

In 1963, the Suzuka Circuit Park opened to the public which not only featured the usual amusement rides like roller coasters and a Ferris wheel but also educational automotive-related activities like a driving school. Today, the park is still operational and draws plenty of crowds even when Suzuka isn’t hosting a Formula One race.

3. Red Japanese cars

Considering how strict Japanese businesses are when it comes to traditional values and hierarchy, Old Man Honda was seen as an eccentric outcast even though his golden years were more mellow than his youthful period.

Always the rebel, Honda-san was often thinking outside of the box but sometimes those ideas backfired like the Honda 1300. Even when it came to producing Honda’s first car, there was some rebelliousness instilled in the company.

Also read: If it wasn't for the first-gen Honda Civic, Honda's automotive dream would've been dead

It might seem unusual that a sports car was used to kickstart the launch of a volume-selling brand but what made the S360 stand out wasn't just being the first kei sports car but its hue.

During the development of the little sports car, Honda-san was presented a dummy model painted reddish-orange and he suggested using a more vivid red for the production model.

Also read: This tiny Honda S360 is founder Soichiro's middle finger to Japan’s MITI

However, a challenge came from the Japanese government since the scarlet hue was banned on non-emergency vehicles. Honda-san was flabbergasted and wrote a column in The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s most-read newspapers, questioning why red is banned by law since it’s a basic colour in design.

“I’m aware of no other industrial nation in the world in which the state monopolizes the use of colours,” he wrote. That remark must’ve embarrassed the Japanese government who overturned the ban and red would be a popular colour choice all thanks to Honda.

4. Automatic transmission

A 1946 Oldsmobile ad proudly showing off its clutchless drivetrain

The automatic transmission was never invented by Honda as the slushbox existed way before the company produced its first car. While America saw nearly 80% of buyers choosing AT by the end of the 1960s, only 10% of buyers in Japan chose the two-pedal option in the same period.

Yet, Honda saw potential in automatics and decided to develop its own AT that was more efficient. When Borg-Warner didn't have a suitable transmission, the company designed its own transmission based on an existing BW gearbox.

Honda’s transmission used a hydrodynamic torque converter which was more efficient and simpler than the conventional hydraulic system.

The transmission, dubbed Hondamatic, made its debut on the N360 before being offered on other models like the Civic and Accord. The Hondamatic also made its way into bikes but its use on cars lasted until 1983 when it was replaced by conventional automatics. By that time, the AT had become widely accepted globally.

5. Cleaner engines

The Japanese automotive industry, especially Honda, has Edmund Muskie to thank for directly changing the tides of American perception of cars from the Land of the Rising Sun. The Maine senator helped to push for a revised Clean Air Act in 1970 that sought to see a massive reduction in CO emissions from cars in the country.

Honda was prepared for this as it established the Air Pollution Control Lab (AP Lab) in 1965, one of the first R&D centres in the industry dedicated to emissions studies.

In 1972, Honda presented the Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) engine to the world. The low-emission engine produces lean combustion via a prechamber which was unconventional at the time. Only Honda and Mazda could meet the new emissions regulations which took effect in 1975.

The CVCC engine was first introduced on the Honda Civic but the technology was also used by its competitors under license which include Toyota, Ford, Chrysler, and Isuzu.

6. In-car navigation

Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites would only go live for the general public in 1983 and the first in-car GPS would be introduced in 2000. Yet, in 1981, Honda introduced the world’s first commercially available in-car navigation system, the Electro Gyrocator.

Only available as an option on the 1981 Honda Accord and its upmarket twin Vigor in Japan, the navigation system cost JPY 300,000 which was around half the price of the car! It was a flop and only lasted for that model year before being scrubbed off the options list.

Also read: 45 years and 10 generations later, we pick the best Honda Accord

The Electro Gyrocator is aided by a gyroscope device that would position the location centrally. The driver was provided with a set of transparent maps that would be inserted into a CRT monitor as well as a marker pen that the driver set as their destination. It was a crude-looking device and the maps were inaccurate to scale.

Honda's first digital navigation system as shown in the Legend

Still, it was the beginning of modern in-car navigation and by 1990, Honda would introduce its first digital map-based navigation system on the Honda Legend. In 1997, Honda introduced the InterNavi service, its internet-enabled service which has its own in-car navigation service.

Finally, in 2003, Honda offered the InterNavi Premium Club system on the Odyssey. It featured the world’s first telematics system that provided real-time traffic information, almost a decade before Waze came into the fray.

7. Four-wheel steering

One of the features promoted in many Japanese car commercials in the 1980s is four-wheel steering (4WS). While it was applied in many cars at the time like the Mitsubishi GTO, Toyota Celica, and Nissan Cefiro, the car that introduced it was the third-generation Honda Prelude in 1987.

Just like the automatic transmission, Honda wasn’t the first to develop the 4WS system as Daimler-Benz was working on the system for four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicles. However, the system was never offered for mass production and while it worked in rough terrain, it was marred with stability issues on smoother roads.

This Frankensteined Accord holds the basis of the Prelude's 4WS system

Honda’s approach would be different since it would be applied to front-wheel drive (FWD) vehicles which is what the H brand was mostly offering. In 1981, they began implementing their take on the system on a specially modified Accord test car.

Despite the unorthodox method, the test car successfully demonstrated what the engineers wanted. Down the line, the 4WS system shifted its focus from speed to steering angle as the latter makes more sense in parking and other tight manoeuvres.

The 4WS system would prove to be a new standard in handling and dynamic performance in the industry that it became prevalent with rival carmakers in the Japanese Bubble Era. Nowadays, the system is implemented on luxury cars but it was Honda that pioneered it on a regular coupe.

8. Practical interiors

‘Man maximum, machine minimum’ (M/M) is an ethos that defines Honda’s impressive interior packaging. It’s a philosophy seen on almost every Honda vehicle made from the original N360 to the WR-V today.

Also read: Let us show you how much gear can fit into the 2023 Honda WR-V's 380 L boot

Indeed the idea of maximising space for occupants while minimising space for machines and mechanicals is very much suited to the front engine-front-wheel drive (FF) layout of cars that Honda builds. The ethos came to a head in the 1990s as the automotive industry became attracted to a new trend.

The minivan boom was taking over the world at the time and Honda wanted a piece of it. The first Odyssey had plenty of inspiration for the interior, from private jets to bullet trains. It's those modes of transport with their large aisles that saw the Odyssey’s interior being a lot more configurable than rivals and yet as easy to drive as a car.

The Odyssey would help pave the way for other family-friendly Honda models introduced in the 1990s like the CR-V, Stepwgn, and S-MX. These bold models helped to propel Honda sales in Japan and all over the world but Honda’s next model would take the whole M/M approach to a new level.

The first-generation Honda Jazz was a winner in terms of interior packaging and a huge success all over the world. It introduced the Ultra Seat concept which features a multiple-mode seating system that allows tall or long items to fit inside. The feature is also seen in the City, City Hatchback, and HR-V while also being copied by others.

Also read: The 2022 Perodua Myvi facelift's seating configuration almost rivals City Hatchback's ULTRA Seats

9. Quieter wheels

Not every car can be as quiet as a Rolls Royce and a higher cabin noise level can affect a car’s comfort. Thus, carmakers have installed sound insulating materials to improve noise levels but when it comes to the wheels, Honda provided a solution that reduces resonance.

It developed a resonator that wraps around the wheel which contains vents to allow air to pass through and cancels pipe resonance sound. Honda claims that its noise-reducing wheels drastically reduce noise at around 220 Hz.

The resonators themselves are made from lightweight resin and are fitted to the wheel rim without the use of connecting parts like bolts. These resonators can also withstand up to 1,500 G during high-speed driving and bond to the wheel stronger without losing shape.

The quieter wheels were first introduced in 2010 on the Honda Legend in Japan and the Acura RL in North America. Currently in its second generation, the newer resonators are significantly lighter and are offered on the highest variant of the 10th-gen Accord in Malaysia, the 1.5 TC-P.

Also read: Review: Honda Accord 1.5 TC-P - 7 Series space and tech for under RM 200k

Those are nine of the most innovative ideas developed by Honda in its past 75 years. Beyond just producing highly desirable cars, motorbikes, and other machinery, Honda is also famous for its research and development as well as being bold. Here’s looking forward to its 100th anniversary in 25 years’ time.

Also read: 2023 Honda Civic Type R (FL5) launched in Malaysia - 319PS/420Nm, 6MT, yours for RM 399,900

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CY Foong

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Traded advertising for a career that fits his passion for cars. Enjoys spotting cars during his free time and has a soft spot...

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