Of all bike manufacturers Honda needs an introduction the least. The world’s largest motorcycle producer (as it has been since 1959), Honda is also the biggest of the so-called Japanese ‘Big Four’, the most successful marque in Grand Prix racing and also responsible for some of the most innovative and successful models of all time.
Read about the most popular Honda motorbikes:
Honda’s famous Super Cub is the most successful motor vehicle of all time. With production exceeding 100 million examples this simple commuter has outsold by far not only every other motorcycle ever made but even the world’s most successful cars such as the Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Golf.
At the other extreme, technological tour-de-force machines such as 1992’s NR750, 1983’s CX500 Turbo and 1978’s CBX1000, with their pioneering ‘oval’ pistons, turbochargers and six-cylinder engines respectively, have repeatedly showcased Honda’s world leading engineering.
But Honda dominates the mainstream, too. Models such as the original CB750, Goldwing and FireBlade, were true game-changers and proved so successful they not just dominated their respective categories – they came to define them.
While in motorcycle sport no-one can match Honda’s success, either, leading the way not only on Tarmac in Grand Prix and the TT, with which Honda has a particular association, but also winning championships is sports as diverse as motocross, desert rallies, trials even American flat track.
Not bad for a manufacturer which only built its first ‘big’ bike, the CB450, in 1965…
Like many of the new motorcycle manufacturers which emerged in the 1940s and ‘50s, particularly in Japan and Italy, Honda was born out of the rubble of World War 2. The desperate need for cheap transport combined with a ban on the production of arms or aeronautics, prompted many engineering entrepreneurs to turn to mopeds and motorcycling instead.
Among them was young engineer Soichiro Honda, who, after studying engineering, working as a mechanic and having a few forays into business with limited success, founded the company that bore his name in 1948.
At first, with a staff of just 12 and working out of a wooden hut in Hamamatsu, Honda began building and selling motorized bicycles using war surplus proprietary generator engines. When the supply of engines ran out Honda began making their own copies, which they called the Honda A-type. While the first complete Honda motorcycle, with both the chassis and motor made by Honda, was the D-type of 1949.
After the success of this and other lightweight models, Honda grew rapidly through the 1950s and by 1955 was Japan’s largest motorcycle manufacturer.
Around the same time, Honda became increasingly ambitious in motorcycle sport, particularly road racing. In the mid-1950s the Isle of Man TT races were the most famous – and important – motorcycle sporting event in the world. Honda himself visited the Island during a European fact-finding trip in 1954 and, having fallen under its spell and aware that racing success there could propel his company’s name far beyond Japan’s borders, vowed to return and win.
A full Honda racing team returned in 1959 – and disappointed. But in 1961 Honda notched their first TT wins the hands of the legendary Mike Hailwood, a pairing which would go onto numerous more victories through the ‘60s, rounded off with a legendary battle with MV Agusta’s Giacomo Agostini in the 1967 Senior.
Honda pulled out of racing shortly after and instead used its multi-cylinder racing expertise to develop the CB750, the world’s first four-cylinder superbike and a machine which both confirmed Honda as World No. 1, consigned Britain’s motorcycling industry to collapse and set the template for the ‘UJM’, the transverse four-cylinder ‘Universal Japanese Motorcycle’ which dominated bike sales for decades to come.
Bigger still and even more iconic machines followed. First the initially 1000cc Gold Wing in 1975 which remains in production as an 1800cc, six-cylinder machine today and has been the definitive ‘full-dress’ tourer for over 40 years. Then the CBX1000 six-cylinder in 1978, the definitive supersports, the CBR600F in 1987, RC30 production racer in 1988, Pan European in 1990, the list goes on…
Honda returns to Grand Prix racing
In the late ‘70s Honda also made a return to Grand Prix racing – as only Honda can: by creating the astonishing NR500, oval-pistoned, V4 four-stroke is a bid to take on the all-dominate 500cc strokers.
For once, Honda lost that battle, but ultimately, after reverting to a novel, three-cylinder, two-stroke design of its own, it won the war, becoming, in the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s, the dominant GP force again in the hands of Freddie Spencer, Wayne Gardner and, most famously of all, five-time champion Mick Doohan.
Nor was Honda’s sporting dominance restricted to GPs. In the ‘80s and ‘90s it also dominated at the TT and world endurance, particularly with its unique V4s. In world motocross and AMA supercross over the same era Honda was even more dominant, racking up 12 premier world titles (out of 14) between 1979 and 1992. It even won the first two world superbike championships. No manufacturer has been so dominant.
Throughout all of this Honda remained the world’s no. 1 for street bikes, too, with a reputation for quality and refinement matched only by unmatched technical ambition and sophisticated. Only Honda could come with a machine as all-round refined and brilliant as the third generation VFR750F in 1994, a V4 sports-tourer so classy and able it was widely considered the best all round motorcycle you could buy.
Honda's touring motorbikes
Only Honda could produce a machine so single-mindedly competent as the first ST1100 Pan European in 1990, a clean sheet, purpose-built European tourer with a unique transverse V4 that remained the go-to bike for the motorcycle services for over a decade.
Today, although standout machines such as those are fewer and production numbers are lower, Honda very much remains at the top of the pile of world motorcycle manufacturers. Bikes like the Fireblade and Africa Twin remain icons in their field, their smaller bikes and scooters remain best sellers in the developing world and in most forms of bikesport – and particularly in MotoGP – ‘Big H’ remains the manufacturers all others have to beat.
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