Text: Vince Pornelos / Photos: Vince Pornelos | posted November 26, 2015 13:01
The Honda Museum at Twin Ring Motegi
There exists, in a secluded facility north of Tokyo, a building that houses some of the greatest machines in the world. From production cars, touring cars, highly advanced robots, racing motorcycles, and even cars that have been sprayed with champagne after taking the checkered flag in Formula One are all here.
That is how we can best describe the Honda Collection Hall as we take a high-revving tour of Honda's greatest machines.
After two hours on a bus from Tokyo, we arrived at Twin Ring Motegi. For the unfamiliar, Twin Ring Motegi along with Suzuka Circuit are Honda's hallowed grounds; the two biggest circuits owned by the Honda Motor Company.
Unusually, we're not here to drive the track, as we made our way to a very nondescript building tucked away amidst Motegi's highly curated trees. It was the Honda Collection Hall, a building that contains over five decades of Honda's accomplishments on the road, on the race track, on two wheels or four, and even on two legs.
Really, however, this whole building tells the story Soichiro Honda and how his passion drove his company to pursue their dreams.
As the story goes, Soichiro Honda had his first experience with a car back when he was a kid. He was walking on a path when he heard the distant rumble of an early automobile; when it passed him, he gave chase on foot as far as he can, but the car disappeared into the distance, thus starting his passion for anything with an engine.
At age 17, he built his first race car while working at Art Shokai, a local automobile shop. Using the chassis of a Mitchell and the engine of a Curtiss biplane, Honda was able to build the “Curtiss”, the very same one that is on display at the lobby of the Honda Collection Hall. And it's still in pristine and working order, leather straps over the bonnet and all.
But the official beginnings of the Honda Motor Company was in post-World War II Japan and on two wheels. Due to Soichiro's colorblindness he was not drafted into the military, but wanted to help Japan get back on its feet -or on wheels- after the ravages of the war. Using a small surplus engine from a radio generator, Honda was able to produce a bolt-on motor for the the bicycles common at the time, allowing people an affordable means of transportation. An example of this 1946 Honda Bicycle Engine is on the second floor of the museum, the real starting point for the Honda Motor Company.
What followed was the 1947 Honda Model A, a further development of the bicycle engine and the first one to bear the Honda name on the fuel tank. Then in 1949, the company came out with their first true motorcycles with the in-house developed Honda Model C and the pressed-steel frame Honda Dream D, and then their motorcycle business grew from there.
Models such as the Cub F (another bicycle engine that debuted the signature Honda red and white), the Dream CS1the now-ubiquitous Super Cub, the CB sport bikes, Scramblers and the like followed. Honda even forayed into racing and enjoying victories at the Isle Of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) and in grand prix motorcycle racing with their RC142, 161, so on so forth until today. All of these motorcycles and motorized bicycles are displayed at the south wing of the second and third floors of the Honda Collection Hall.
We are here, however, for the cars, and this building's rooms are replete with them.
Contrary to what many would have thought, Honda's four-wheeled beginnings was not in the form of a hatchback, a sedan, or a sports coupe. No, Honda started out in the automobile business with the 1963 T360; a pint-sized, single-cab pick-up truck designed to meet the Kei car or keijidosha (light vehicle) class with its 356cc motor in Japan.
Honda actually had a prototype roadster called the S360, but it didn't make it to production. They then used the mechanicals to develop the T360 and, four months later, the 1963 S500 roadster. 1,300 examples of the roadster were made over a year, but the T360 proved very successful; over 100,000 examples rolled out of the Honda assembly line over 4 years.
Being motorcycle specialists, perhaps the small Kei class proved to be a good avenue for Honda to get into cars, and so they kept at it. In this museum visitors can spot many other examples of Honda's creativity in the category such as the 1965 Honda S600 with the GT fastback body, the funky 1971 Honda Life, the 1985 Honda Today, the 1991 Honda Beat (the first one with PGM-FI) and even the 1970 Honda Vamos, an open-body, military-style truck in OD green, no less.
Amidst all their efforts in the Kei car business, the dreamer in Soichiro Honda made sure to pursue even grander ambitions in four-wheeled motorsport and so he set his sights very high: Formula One.
To do this, the company purchased a Cooper Climax T53, the direct descendant of the first Formula One cars that had the engine mounted behind the driver, much like today's GP racers. The example that they bought is still in the Honda Collection, but they didn't get it to race, instead they studied it extensively for their own racing dreams. The result of that research was the 1964 Honda RA271, Japan's first ever Formula One race car.
Honda entered the 1964 F1 season as the Honda R&D Company, and the #20 RA271 that is immaculately preserved in the museum made its racing debut at the 1964 German GP at the Nurburgring. The car proved to be a learning curve for Honda, as it ended up retiring for various reasons in the three races it took part in, but it led to the development of the RA272 for the next season. And that's when things changed.
With Richie Ginther behind the wheel, the #11 RA272 performed better than its predecessor with some finishes in the top ten. In the season finale, however, the RA272 and Honda did what they came to accomplish: they won the race. Ginther drove the RA272 from P3 on the grid to P1 on the opening lap and never looked back until the checkered flag. It was the first and only F1 win for the American, the first F1 win for Goodyear, and the very first F1 win for Honda. Being their first success in F1, #11 RA272 is prominently located at the lobby of the museum.
Honda's next win in F1 came about 2 years later in 1967, this time with the Honda RA300 in the hands of racing legend and 1964 champion John Surtees. The #14 RA300 won on its debut at the home ground of Ferrari at Monza, and was Surtees's last victory as well as the Honda R&D Company's last before pulling out of the sport in 1968. The RA300 is on the 3rd floor of the museum amidst many of Honda factory formula cars as well as those powered by their engines, but we'll get to them later.
Bigger ambitions on the road
In the 1970's, Honda turned their focus from racing to engineering better road cars. With an eye on better fuel efficiency and improved emissions, Soichiro Honda, prior to his retirement, introduced the CVCC; an engineering solution that achieved more complete combustion by varying the air-fuel mixture within the cylinder.
This clever bit of engineering allowed them to meet U.S. emissions standards without resorting to a catalytic converter. These engines can be seen in the CVCC badged models at the museum which, incidentally, were the first generations of two of Honda's most popular nameplates: the Accord (1976) and the Civic (1973).
The success paved the way for more Honda nameplates, and you can see them on the second floor of the museum such as more Accords (including the AeroDeck), more Civics, the Prelude, and others. At the museum however, what stood out were 1981 Honda City hatchback with a matching Moto Compo minibike as well as the Honda City Cabriolet.
But it really was the 90's that made Honda very popular, especially with the tuner crowd. The reason for that was the wider application of their new VTEC technology; a variable valve control system that is able to alter an engine's performance depending on the RPM. What you get is a normal, easy to drive car at low revs and a quick and aggressive driving machine at high revs.
VTEC allowed for the rise of Honda's SiR and Type-R machines in the hall such as the 200 PS 1995 Honda Integra Type-R (DC2), the 185 PS 1997 Honda Civic Type-R (EK9) and, of course, the 1992 Honda NSX-R.
Back on the track
Of course Honda's involvement in motorsport didn't stop with the termination of their works Formula One project in the 1960's. In the 1980's, the company got involved in F1 as an engine supplier as evidenced by the many F1 cars that were powered by Honda, many of which went on to win races... and championships.
In the far corner of the race car hall of the museum sat the 1984 Williams Honda FW09 that was driven by 1982 champion Keke Rosberg (father of current Mercedes GP driver Nico Rosberg). The FW09 with the twin-turbo engine marked Honda's first win as an engine supplier in F1. In the same row was the 1987 Williams Honda FW11B that was driven by Nelson Piquet proved consistent, and won him his third drivers' championship and another one for Williams. The most hallowed car of all in this section, however, was the #1 McLaren-Honda MP4/7 that was driven by Ayrton Senna. The car here may not be the championship winning one, but its three predecessors -the MP4/4, MP4/5B, and the MP4/6- won Senna all three of his drivers' titles.
Even Honda's more recent F1 cars were neatly arranged at the Honda Collection Hall. The 2002 Jordan Honda EJ12 that then-rookie Takuma Sato took to P5 at the Japanese GP, the 2004 BAR Honda 006 also driven by Sato to his first podium at Indianapolis, as well as the 2006 Honda Racing F1 RA106 in which Jenson Button took his maiden GP win in Hungary. These, along with the 2004 Indy Reynard 96I Honda of Jimmy Vasser that won him rookie of the year, the manufacturer's title, and the PPG Cup (drivers' championship) and the 2004 Panoz G-Force GF09B Honda of Buddy Rice that took the win at the 88th Indianapolis 500, make up the notables of Honda's open wheel racer collection.
Mostly what we remember are the liveried 80's and 90's Honda VTEC touring cars, the same ones we got a chance to “drive” on Gran Turismo on the Sony PlayStation.
Cars like the 1983 Honda Civic in Motul livery followed by the Japan Touring Car Championships with the 230 PS 1993 Honda Civic SiR-II (EG6) in the colors of JACCS, the H22A-powered 290PS 1993 Honda Castrol Mugen Civic sedan, as well as the 290 PS 1996 Honda Accord JACCS. Our favorite, however, had to be the 2000 Honda NSX in Castrol livery, the car that took the team championship and drivers' championship in the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship or JGTC, the precursor to the Super GT of today.
Seeing these cars in the metal will make any Honda fan swoon, especially if you get a chance to see the Mugen-built engines they have on display at the landing of the 3rd floor.Honda also arranged several of their race cars as well as the cars of their competitors from Toyota and Nissan in grid formation, giving visitors a glimpse of what seeing these great 90's race cars must have been like back in the day.
The Honda Collection Hall may be a museum full of their former glories and achievements, but it really shows visitors the character of the company when it comes to innovation.
Towards the end of the tour down at the ground level is a smaller hall dedicated to their capabilities in engineering and development. Cars like the 1999 Honda Insight hybrid and the hydrogen-powered 2002 Honda FCX are all there, displayed like they were new.
And there was Asimo, but not as we knew him. In that same room, Honda not only showed the final robot, but the many stages of his development. It actually looked like a scene from Terminator or RoboCop with the many versions and prototypes that Honda made to study and engineer bipedal mobility. Some even looked like small refrigerators with mechanical legs, all to develop a little robot that can mimic human motion. The Power Of Dreams may sound like some cheesy line coined by the marketing guys, but after looking at this collection full of their advancements and achievements, Honda really do make their dreams come to mechanical life.
Today, Honda is at a very challenging point in their history, what with the problems brought about by their (now-former) airbag supplier and the limited development afforded by the rules for their Formula One engine. But dreams and challenges always go hand-in-hand and judging by the achievements on display at the Honda Collection Hall, the company that has been driven by their founder's dreams will forge, research, engineer and build their way through it.