Third Research Section: A Starting Point for Product Development

The XA170 test car being brought into the repair shop at Fujiyoshida during a test run. During test drives outside the Honda premises, engineers were prohibited from wearing work clothes. Instead, they had to work undercover, like secret agents. (Photograph courtesy of Motoo Nakajima)

<< 1. The Concept of a “People’s Car”
<< 2. Third Research Section: A Starting Point for Product Development
<< 3. Building an Industry through Open Competition
<< 4. Nothing Is Impossible
<< 5. Promoting Entry into the Car Business
<< 6. Production Encompassing Every Factory
<< 7. Building Honda’s First Dedicated Auto Plant

Nearly fifty engineers were hired by the Shirako Plant’s R&D Center from the end of 1957 through 1958, all of whom had prior engineering experience. Then, in September 1958, the Third Research Section emerged in preparation for car development. This section was to be responsible for all aspects, from product design through vehicle testing. In June of the same year, Motoo Nakajima of the Body Design Section, who was heading the group in charge of steering and suspension system design, received a rather unexpected call from Yoshihito Kudo, the general manager of the R&D Center. It was then that Nakajima was given an unofficial order of transfer to the Third Research Section.

“Honda has decided to develop automobiles,” Kudo said, “and I want you to be involved in development. This plan will be handled in strict confidence, for the time being. We can only assign a few people to the project, so be prepared to do more than just body design.” With that, seven young engineers joined the new section. Their combined experience, though varied, was consistent with Honda’s goal as a new producer of automotive transportation. Some of the engineers were experienced in airplane development, while others had worked on three-wheeled vehicles during their employment at other companies.

Thus, did the Third Research Section become the prime force in car development at Honda.

The section’s initial task was to develop a mini automobile that would meet the “People’s Car” concept requirements. Drawings were issued in October 1958, and a prototype vehicle was completed the following January, going under the development code “XA170.”

The XA170 made use of Honda’s renowned expertise in motorcycle racing with a forced-air-cooled, four-cylinder OHC V aluminum powerplant. Moreover, the FF car adopted a semi-monocoque structure with a flat floor so that it could be transformed into a sedan simply by adding rear seats. Since the prototype had been constructed specifically for test-drives, the fenders and hood were made with formed sheet steel. Patches of fabric constituted the sections where the roof and doors should be.

In the middle of the XA170’s test series, however, the team received an order from Mr. Honda himself for the development of a sportscar. Therefore, in the fall of 1959, the second prototype of XA190 two-seater was completed. Subsequently, the team took up the development of a truck, this time at the request of Senior Managing Director Takeo Fujisawa. It was an effort that ultimately led to the development of Honda’s XA120 mini truck.

Soichiro Honda had given the order to develop a sports car, because he thought it was better to create new demand rather than compete against more established manufacturers that already had a share of the market. He also believed that, as was the case with motorcycles, Honda should develop racecars and test them in actual competition in order to obtain as much expertise and knowledge as quickly as possible. This, he said, would elevate Japan’s automotive industry to a level of expertise and influence equal to the international manufacturers.

Fujisawa, on the other hand, suggested that the team develop a mini truck because he knew from society’s needs and market data that the demand for automobiles was mostly in the category of commercial vehicles. Furthermore, he had considered the fact that Honda would be selling its automobiles through motorcycle dealers.

An initial mini truck prototype was completed in the summer of 1960, after which it went through repeated tests in order to enhance the specifications. These changes resulted in the 2XA120 and 3XA120 units that followed. Therefore, while the development team’s main focus of research was the truck, the team members could not abandon their work on the sports car that Soichiro had requested. The two model developments continued through testing, and the specifications for each underwent considerable refinement.
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