Theme : Japan – When Failure Breeds Success

The 1300 was a hugely significant car for Honda, but not in the way it was intended to be.

Honda 1300 A autoevolution-com
Honda 1300 Saloon – image :

Since it was never properly sold in Western markets, the Honda 1300 is rather an unknown in Europe. Introduced in 1969, it looks pretty generic; it might be any ordinary European saloon of the time, maybe a Fiat. Though, if you think that the front hints at a Vauxhall Viva HB, that’s because they both took a cue from a common source – in Honda’s case the link being Soichiro Honda’s own Pontiac Firebird. But, beneath the skin, the 1300 couldn’t have been more different from the mediocre and ultra-conventional Vauxhall. Honda has never been like other Japanese manufacturers, because Soichiro Honda was never like other Japanese car company bosses.

From the start, he was a hands-on engineer. In just 20 years, since 1949, he had built Honda into the largest selling motorcycle company in the World. In 1963, Honda produced its first production car, the jewel-like S500 sports car and, in 1967, the N360 kei car. Both of these drew heavily on the motorcycle side and, when the time came to produce their first ‘proper’ car, a four door saloon to compete with the likes of the Corolla in Japan, and to establish Honda as an international car manufacturer, Soichiro Honda saw no reason to change.

Honda S500 favcars-com
1963 Honda S500 – image :

He used the logical train that, if a flow of air was necessary to cool any engine, then it was wasteful to use liquid coolant as an intermediary. Honda had been making air-cooled motorcycles for years, why change for their cars? This obsession also stretched to demanding an air-cooled Formula One racer, the RA302, a hurriedly developed car that, in 1968, claimed the life of Jo Schlesser in the second lap of its only race.

So the 1300 motor was air-cooled, but without the external fins we would have seen on the likes of a VW or Citroen flat four. The ‘Duo Dyna Air Cooling’ featured fans both pushing and pulling air through a jacket cast in the cylinder head, occupying the area that would normally hold coolant. With a dry-sump and revving to 8,000, on paper the 1300 seems more like a racing engine and the results were suitably impressive, being available in basic 77 Series, single carburetor 100 bhp form and 99 Series, four carburetor 115 bhp form.

As a comparison, Vauxhall’s reasonably modern SOHC 1.6 litre four fitted to the larger Viva variants gave a, then respectable, 83 bhp, and even the excellent Lampredi designed 1300cc OHC of the Fiat 128 only produced 75 bhp. Testers reported that engine noise levels were on a par with water-cooled cars and that the car’s performance was excellent, especially the 99 Series which particularly impressed, though possibly less so when you needed to balance those 4 carburetors. But others at Honda remained convinced that this was not the way to go, particularly in view of imminent emissions legislation.

Engine Bay
Honda 1300 engine bay – image: Honda

It wasn’t just the transversely mounted engine. Little about the 1300 took the easy way. The transmission had power taken to it by a chain and sat behind the engine from where equal length driveshafts with CV joints and sliding spines drove the front wheels. Engine and the lower arms of the front suspension were mounted on a subframe. It’s slightly surprising to find MacPherson struts at the front, since Honda shied away from them for so long, but the rear suspension is entirely unexpected, featuring full width swing axles on semi-elliptics. Obviously this set-up minimised the camber change problems normally associated with swing axles.

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Throughout its gestation, the 1300 was a work-in-progress, with Soichiro Honda ordering changes whenever he saw a better way. Praiseworthy though this might seem, it was hardly commercially sound; at one point, before the car was put on sale, the production line was run in reverse, disassembling cars so that parts could be changed or modified. Some longer term innovations came from the project. For the coupe, to eliminate the need for solder filling of joins, an unhealthy process, Mr Honda instigated a process for making more complex, integrated side panels which resulted in the now-familiar ‘mohican line’ running along either side of the roof panel, which has since been copied by many other manufacturers.

Honda 1300 B autoevolution-com
Higher spec dashboard shows Soichiro’s taste for US design – image : autoevolution-com

The 1300 was not a success for Honda. In Japan it was seen as rather expensive and, even if one can see where the money went to justify its being more costly than a Corolla, buyers didn’t seem to be willing to fork out.  And, in terms of potential Western markets, the dimensions of the 1300 saloon were really a bit too small, particularly its width.  Honda lost money on every car they sold.

Honda 1300 C autoevolution-com
image : autoevolution-com

But, despite the relative failure of the President’s brainchild, and although his viewpoint and working practices were by no means shared by all at Honda, there was no palace revolution. It wasn’t needed. Soichiro Honda had been an inspiring and effective leader who led by example, and this attitude had been the reason for Honda’s success for its first 20 years. But it had now become a liability. Soichiro Honda’s ultimate reaction to the problems experienced with the 1300 was wise and, for a motor industry boss, dignified.

When his closest associate, vice-president Takeo Fujisawa, who had been with Honda since the beginning, pointed out that he must choose between being an engineer or a president, Soichiro chose the latter, making the path clear for Honda’s engineers to develop water-cooled cars that would meet future emissions regulations. This is a crucial part of Honda’s history, and one about which they are remarkably candid. The entire 1300 project was a difficult period, but they take justified pride in the fact that, ultimately, the right decisions for the company’s future were made.

Honda 145 Coupe cars-pics-db-com
Replacement 145 model in coupe form, showing the Mohican Line – image :

In 1973, the 1300 was replaced by the 145, based on the same body but with a fuel injected, water-cooled engine, though this too sold poorly only lasting until October 1974. But, in any case, by then the car was already part of Honda’s past. In mid 1972, the first Civic was introduced with perfect timing, an economical car at the start of an energy crisis and, in 1975, it received the first CVCC engine, a powerplant so efficient that, at the time, it met US emissions standards without a catalyst. In 1976, the Civic was joined by the larger Accord.

VCivic OSX Wikipedia
Honda finally cracked it with the first Civic. image : OSX / Wikipedia

Soichiro Honda and Takeo Fujisawa retired jointly in 1973. Nevertheless, one has to ask whether the admirably ambitious, yet sometimes fatally blinkered attitude shown by Soichiro was ever entirely expunged from Honda, both for good and for bad?

21 thoughts on “Theme : Japan – When Failure Breeds Success”

  1. I really enjoyed that – a warmly written, well researched and insightful piece on a car I did not know. Thanks.

  2. Good article – though it looks more like a Triumph Toledo to me than a Viva (though I see the similarity)

  3. That’s fascinating.
    If you take the long view, Honda’s experiments generated a lot of knowledge. It’s a mistake to think design is about success – getting there is often about useful “failures”. Honda is remarkable that they span the range from appliance to supercar via S2000s and FRVs.
    Who isn’t now morbidly fascinated by the 1300?

  4. Did anyone notice that the grille requires a “nose cone” or mask for the front? There’s a panel gap running around the front. That’s an unusual solution for the time.

    1. Indeed. Which is why I cite the GM influence. Although Soichio’s Pontiac Firebird would have had a chrome grille, the front of the 68 GTO gives a clearer idea.

      The advantage of the separate front pressing can be seen in the 145 facelift..

      I agree with Stephen also though. When we look at the earlier piece about the Toyota Tercel’s genesis, it’s clear that the Triumph 1300 had more influence in Japan than in Europe.

  5. Sean: the nose cone and bumper didn´t sit so well together on the 145. The GTO gets away with it by not having a distinct bumper. Wasn´t that mask made of plastic?

    1. Yes, the GTO’s bumper was deformable plastic. There’s that video of John De Lorean going at it with a sledgehammer. Hence no need for a bumper. But you get the distinct idea that is what inspired Honda. The Honda looked neat but staid, at least in 4 door form – the GTO looked exciting. Though I realise I didn’t look out a picture of the Pontiac fitted with the hood (bonnet) mounted tachometer.

  6. Soichiro Honda was obviously an exceptional person. He seems on the one hand to have been quite fanatical but, on the other, he seems to have engendered affection as well as respect in the people he worked with. The entire 1300 project seems to have gone through with a massive commitment from the workforce, despite nearly everyone’s misgivings, because they did not want to disappoint Soichiro. But I can’t find a picture of him with his Firebird.

    1. Isn’t it heartening to know that genius doesn’t exclusively come in Piech form?

    2. He sounds quite complex. The Mohican Line came about because he was concerned about his workforce using lead solder. Obviously from those photos, he could share a joke, and his wife doesn’t look like she conformed to any stereotype we Westerners might have about Japanese spouses.

      He was also mercurial. There was a story about him losing his temper with a worker and hitting him. The man said he looked at Honda and saw that he had tears in his eyes and he couldn’t bring himself to rebuke Honda.

      Definitely the 1300 marked Honda’s coming of age as a proper car manufacturer, which likewise meant that his leadership style, rather like a loving but sometimes scary dad, was no longer tenable.

      Still Soichiro or Ferdi, I know which one I’d rather have throw a camshaft across the room at me.

  7. Indeed; I have a great deal of respect for Soichiro Honda.

    And Carl F W Borgward – I feel they had a lot in common.

    1. Definitely! This man and the conspiracy theories about how the industry giants killed his business would yield enough material for several DTW articles. Hans Glas is another German patron that comes to my mind in this context. Or how about a monthly theme about men and their companies — their ideas, ranging from the unfortunate to the fantastic (P. Tucker) or even bizarre (B. Mohs)?

    2. Simon. An excellent idea. This will certainly be discussed at the next editorial meeting at DTW Towers.

      Despite creating the car that inspired Subaru to make flat fours, I feel that I feel that Glas father and son are more Soichiro-like than Karl Borgward. Borgward was in many ways the architect of is own misfortune – anyone who uses his suppliers as a source of cashflow reaps what he deserves. But Hans Glas (father) was a good paternalistic boss and Andreas (son) was an enthusiastic innovator.

      But just as Glas were scuppered by Hans’s disinclination to invest (an ironically well-meaning decision since he didn’t wish to risk the source of his employee’s livelihoods) it’s easy looking at the 1300’s story to see how Honda cars could have ended up being seen as a footnote in history – a hubristic project from an uppity bike company. Again it’s a tribute to Honda (man and company) that this never happened.

  8. That 100-115 hp 1.3 air-cooled engine seems like it would be more at home powering an updated S1300 version of the RWD Honda S800 sportscar than the existing FWD Honda 1300.

    1. Indeed, an S1300 sounds a very tempting prospect. Contemporary English language tests of the car are not that common but, as usual, motoring journalists are happy to find anything sporty, even if it might not be suited to the car. So it may be that the 1300 engine was ‘too good’ on one level for its intended market, and that the more placid Corolla was actually preferred buy Honda’s intended customers.

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