By Mike J. Brewster
Late in life, long after he had retired from his namesake automotive company, Soichiro Honda was still bothered by The Myth. It held that the industrial success of post-World War II Japan was rooted in the country's traditional values of consensus, sublimation of the individual, and worker harmony. According to The Myth, rigorous internal competition, a focus on individual achievement, and infighting over corporate strategy and direction were phenomenon generally seen only in Corporate America. Japanese companies succeeded as one, while U.S. businesses flailed along as collections of thousands of individuals.
But to Honda, the former motorcycle mechanic who eventually racked up 150 patents, all success came down to individual motivation. The man who built Honda Motor Co. (HMC ) into one of the world's most innovative auto companies and spearheaded the Japanese challenge to America's Big Three carmakers in the 1970s and 1980, once told a reporter: "Each individual should work for himself. People will not sacrifice themselves for the company. They come to work at the company to enjoy themselves."
Honda presumably knew of what he spoke when he insisted that Japanese companies were just as brutally competitive as their American counterparts. Certainly, few of his rivals -- many of whom were members of the zaibatsu, or large combines based on long-time family ties -- ever treated the upstart Honda with respect or deference, or gave him any more consideration than an ant to be crushed.
Not only was Honda ostracized from polite Japanese business circles for most of his career because of his unusual management techniques and aggressive marketing style, but Japanese bureaucrats tried to block Honda's growth more than once. It wouldn't be overstating the case to say that when the fuel-efficient Honda Civic took the U.S. by storm in 1972, there was likely as much tangible resentment in Tokyo as in Detroit.
The man who would eventually cause all of this angst in the American and Japanese Establishments was born in 1906 in Komyo, a tiny village about 125 miles southwest of Tokyo. It's no wonder that Honda never really felt at home in Japan's rigidly defined business world. Like his lifelong idol, Thomas Edison, he had little formal education and even less interest in conventional wisdom. Once, as he was being berated by a schoolteacher for not completing an assignment, Honda retorted that a diploma from the school had less value than a ticket to the movies.
Honda left school at age 15 to seek work as an auto mechanic in Tokyo. His first job was hardly auspicious: For a year he cared for the infant baby of his boss's family. With the child in tow, he often wandered the garage, watching the mechanics and making suggestions. As Honda tinkered with engines in between diaper changes and bottle feedings, it became obvious that his strength wasn't in child care but rebuilding engines.
He was so good at it that he starting building engines for racing. He soon attempted a full-time stint as a professional race-car driver, but a crash suffered in a race nearly killed him and sent him back to work as a mechanic. A second crash soon after, in which he drove off a bridge with several geishas in the car (everyone survived), put a stop to a nightlife that, like his race-car driving, had veered out of control.
A newly focused and newly wedded Honda began working for a succession of mechanics in the mid-1930s, a period in which he focused largely on refining piston action to build a higher performance engine. When he formed his own company in 1937, Japanese militancy was at its height, and in 1938, Honda's company was forced to switch to building engines for the Imperial Navy's boats and planes. After Allied bombing leveled his factory near the end of the war, Honda showed that his mechanical genius extended to pursuits other than cars. For more than a year, he made a living brewing alcohol with a homemade still.
In 1948, he returned to his true love by starting a new company: Honda Motor Co. This time, he took on a partner, Takeo Fujisawa, to handle the back-office operations that Honda found so crushingly dull. They soon came up with the batabata, a motorized bicycle named after the sound the engine made. The motorcycle, which more established Japanese automobile companies like Toyota (TM ) and Nissan (NSANY ) had never introduced on a large scale, became a huge hit across Japan.
Honda's most popular model, the Dream, could soon be spotted all over the Japanese islands. But Honda, already becoming legendary for spending long hours in the shop with engineers, had something bigger in mind: building a car that would leave Toyota's and Nissan's models in the dust.
When Honda Motor introduced its first car in 1957, the N360, the Japanese government tried to strongarm Honda into merging his company with one of the country's stronger automakers. He refused and set out to make stylish vehicles with high quality handling and engineering.
While Honda Motor was actually slow to penetrate the Japanese car market in the 1960s, the next decade saw the introduction of its revolutionary CVCC engine. Designed as a direct challenge to the big, gas-guzzling cars Detroit was still churning out, the new engine burned a leaner mix of gasoline, giving Honda's new models superior fuel efficiency and an environmentally friendly reputation.
Seemingly overnight, the Honda Civic and Accord became the cars of choice for millions of middle-class Americans. But what really appeared to gall Ford (F ), General Motors (GM ), and Chrysler (DCX ) -- and to ventually cause a backlash against Japanese investment in the U.S. -- was that in 1982 Honda Motor started building cars in the U.S. to get around legislation limiting imports.
As a CEO, Honda continued to baffle many in the Japanese business community. He mandated individual, not team, performance goals and ridiculed other Japanese companies for everything from timidity to misplaced loyalty toward washed up managers. Honda didn't lose his knack for doing things differently even in retirement. Instead of taking the traditional Japanese route of fading into the background as an honorary chairman, Honda took the title of "supreme adviser," and made an 18-month driving tour of Japan, visiting Honda's 700 production plants and dealerships and reporting back to corporate headquarters with his findings.
On Aug. 5, 1991, Honda died of liver failure. Honda Motor was still the third-largest carmaker in Japan, behind Toyota and Nissan. So, although Soichiro Honda hadn't left his lifelong rivals in his rearview mirror, he had globalized the auto industry, ushered in a new era of fuel-efficient vehicles, and showed Detroit that it could never, ever get complacent again.
As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles for the greatest innovators of the past 75 years, from science to government. BusinessWeek Online is joining in by adding more online-only profiles of The Great Innovators. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation
Mike Brewster is a New York-based writer