Mugen is synonymous with Honda, but not quite in the same way Gazoo Racing is with Toyota or STi is with Subaru. This is despite the fact that Mugen has a much longer history – since 1973 - and is the only one who can boast of victories in Formula One (1999, Jordan-Honda).
For many people in this part of the world, their first encounter with the Mugen brand is on some tacky stickers on a badly modified car, partly because Mugen is independent from Honda, which also means that it doesn't benefit from Honda's worldwide marketing reach.
But this doesn’t appear to trouble Mugen, which is odd but understandable once you get to know Mugen’s philosophy, as well as that of its founder Hirotoshi Honda – the only child of Honda Motor’s founder Soichiro Honda.
Despite being the scion of one of Japan’s most successful companies, Hirotoshi is very contented with living a quiet life. He has no grandiose plans of building a business empire and is very comfortable pursuing his interest in motorsports behind his late father’s shadow, who had never intended for him to take over his company anyway.
Hirotoshi’s old man Soichiro Honda was a man far ahead of his time. He doesn’t believe in family dynasties and had never set out to build one. In fact, he did mention that naming his company after his family name was probably a mistake.
Since Hirotoshi was born, Soichiro had always encourage his son to pursue his own path rather than join Honda. Being a free spirit person himself, Soichiro didn’t want to impose his will on his son. He had seen enough businesses failed under the founder’s children or grandchildren.
More like a quiet geek that’s more comfortable in a garage than a pub, Hirotoshi barely matches his late father’s reputation for drinking but shares the same passion in motorsports.
Contrary to popular culture, Soichiro Honda didn’t set out to establish Honda as an industrial giant. He was an engineer with very little interest in business, and merely wanted to build the best product.
Much of Honda’s commercial success was due to Takeo Fujisawa, his partner and investor, whose company Fujisawa Shokai (Trading) merged with Soichiro Honda’s Honda Kogyo (Industry) in 1949 to form Honda Motor Co.
Although Mugen was founded in 1973, its history dates to 1964, when Hirotoshi’s father launched the Honda S600 sports car. The then 22-year old Hirotoshi immediately went about modifying his father’s S600.
When not studying at the Nihon University’s College of Art, Hirotoshi hung out with Nobuhiko Kawamoto and Shoichiro Irimajiri, both young engineers at Honda R&D, who would later become CEO and President of Honda’s American operations respectively. They feared his father’s fiery temper and high standards of engineering, but loved talking about cars with the junior Honda.
The trio of car guys often hung out with Tetsu Ikuzawa, a college friend of Hirotoshi who had recently made a big name for himself at the 1964 Suzuka Grand Prix, for overtaking a Porsche 904 Carrera GTS and briefly held the lead for one lap, in a Prince GT – the car that would later birth the Nissan Skyline GT-R.
Ikuzawa’s personal car was a Honda S600, which his friends at Honda R&D loved modifying, often with smuggled out Honda R&D parts!
The antics of Hirotoshi and his friends at Honda R&D were an open secret, but being the son of Soichiro has its perks - but even that had to come to a stop when it was found out by senior engineers, who spotted R&D parts on Ikuzawa’s car when it was sent in for regular servicing. The younglings were let off with a stern warning.
In 1967, Hirotoshi built his friend Ikuzawa a souped-up Honda S800 for the Nurburgring 500 km race in Germany, which took home the class win, at its first attempt.
Such was the origin of Mugen and its close association with Honda – informal and lacking in structure but yet intertwined.
When Hirotoshi founded Mugen in 1973 with seed money from his father, its first product was the MF318 engine used for the Japanese Formula FJ1300 series. It was based on the Civic’s engine and proved to be successful.
Mugen’s subsequent business was building racing engines and parts for the Civic, which had an active one-make race series in Suzuka, before joining the Japan Touring Car Championship series.
The business continued to grow, venturing into F1 with some success, but pulled out every time Honda rejoins as an engine supplier.
Somewhere along the way Mugen encountered a rough path in 2003, when the company was found guilty of tax evasion and had to be shutdown.
The court would eventually clear Hirotoshi Honda of any wrongdoing. Hiro-san was like his father, not a businessman but unlike his father who had a trustworthy moneyman in the form of Takeo Fujisawa, Hirotoshi’s partner Norio Hirokawa, wasn’t an honest person.
Mugen had to be restarted under a new company M-Tec Co. Ltd., thus explains the reasoning behind the different company name.
Today, M-TEC continues to work closely with Honda R&D. Despite being an independent entity, the computers of Mugen engineers at the company’s headquarters in Asaka, in the outskirts of Tokyo are linked to Honda R&D’s at Wako, for easy sharing of confidential CATIA engineering files.
At the rear of the company’s Asaka facility is an engine dyno room that has developed several F1 engines.
The Asaka facility also houses two autoclaves so it can produce ultra-lightweight carbon fibre components.
Mugen’s own craftsmen and expert machinists are also able to produce race-ready, FIA-standard engine parts with extremely tight tolerances of up to 1/1000 mm.
Today, Mugen is most active in the Japanese Super Formula series (formerly Formula Nippon) and the Super GT (NSX, GT 500 category). The Mugen HR-417E four-cylinder engine is used on both racing series.
At the lower grassroots level, Mugen supports Honda’s Fit 1.5 Challenge Cup one-make race, as well as the N-One Owner’s Cup.
It is also developing electric racing bikes for the Isle of Man TT.
For Hirotoshi Honda, Mugen will always be a builder of racing cars and engines – some of it costing upwards of USD 500,000. Selling styling accessories for road cars is just a supplementary business. Thus explains his indifference on the lack of proper marketing of the Mugen brand to end users.
Mugen is not BMW M or Mercedes-AMG, and harbours no ambitions of becoming one. Mugen is best understood as a racing team that also happens to sell car parts and accessories.
Instead, think of Mugen as something between McLaren - a racing team which also makes full fledged road cars - and Williams - a racing team who doesn't make road cars but has a history of tinkering with some.
Hirotoshi is quite satisfied with leaving Mugen as it is. He has since retired and no longer manages the day-to-day operations at Mugen.
Every now and then, Mugen’s ‘Complete car business’ division will produce a limited number of road cars, all limited only to the Japanese market and sold via Honda dealers.
The first was the legendary Mugen RR in 2007. Limited to just 300 units, it was an even more track-focused FD2 Civic Type R, with power upped to 240 PS and 218 Nm.
Next came the Mugen RZ in 2012. Also limited to just 300 units, it’s basically a supercharged Honda CR-Z, with power upped to 156 PS and 185 Nm.
The most recent was the Mugen RA, in 2016. It’s based on the Honda S660, and was aptly limited to 660 units. Since it’s a ‘kei’ car, and Japanese law limits its power output to just 64 PS, the engine remains unchanged but many tweaks were done to the chassis.
Considering that Mugen have been introducing a new road car once every four or five years, perhaps there could be a successor to the Mugen RR within the next two years, probably as a final hurrah to send off the FK8 Civic Type R.
For now, there are only Mugen accessories to dress up the Civic Type R.
By the way, the Mugen is often mispronounced outside of Japan. It should be pronounced as, ‘moo-gant,’ which means limitless in Japanese, not ‘miu-ghen.’