We Must Build this Dream by Ourselves

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Perspective view of the torque converter. The stator’s reactive force is harnessed via the arm located on the right.



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It was late in 1964. Torao Hattori, who was developing the CVT for the T360 mini truck, was in the hospital after falling ill due to stress. Development had not been moving as he had expected, which brought on an anxiety attack.

Hattori had a visitor at the hospital one day. It was Hideo Sugiura, the general manager of Honda R&D. Greetings were exchanged, after which an anxious Sugiura began to speak:

“We want to develop an automatic transmission for use in an automobile,” he said, “and we want you to be in charge of it.” Such unlikely words, coming from a colleague paying a get-well visit, were as much a surprise for their power of encouragement, and Hattori felt his spirits lift considerably. Hattori had designed semi-automatic transmissions for Mikasa when he was with the Yokohama-based Okamura Seisakusho. Since joining Honda he had been involved in the development of Patalini-type continuously variable transmissions for the Juno M80 and M85 series. However, his original intent in joining Honda was to design automatic transmissions for cars.

Hattori was excited about the prospect of realizing a dream, but he was also thankful that Sugiura made a trip to the hospital to give him the good news. Even as he lay there in bed, he soon began conceiving ideas for a new automatic transmission. He was too anxious to wait until he could leave the hospital.

The new year arrived, and soon Hattori returned to the R&D Center with his AT concept in hand. It was 1965. In those days, several more-or-less practical AT specifications were available, based on different combinations of parts. The automatic transmission Hattori had in mind used a hydrodynamic torque converter and a transmission device. He came up with this combination because the torque converter was associated with good clutch performance and very smooth starting characteristics. Many U.S. models employed the system, and the general specifications were believed to be most appropriate.

Honda, however, had no experience with hydrodynamic torque converters, though some previous models had used hydraulic mechanisms. Moreover, the development and commercial implementation of a new technology would require that all departments involved in the process—from development through production—have a degree of relevant engineering expertise. To develop an automatic transmission that could accommodate the characteristics of its models, Honda also needed to obtain data on actual vehicles. For these reasons the development team decided to start by building a prototype car. This, they believed, would help them discern the basic facts. As for the automatic transmission itself, they decided to ask BW to develop a prototype. This approach was a natural choice, since Honda possessed little of the technology. And in light of the aforementioned difficulties, the environment surrounding AT development did not promise a positive result.

Hattori quickly contacted BW with specifications he had drawn up based on the S500. Contrary to his expectations, however, BW replied that they would not be able to satisfy Honda’s requirements. Citing a displacement of only 500 cc, not to mention the required maximum engine speed of 8,000 rpm—twice that of a conventional engine—BW claimed they couldn’t find any AT specifications that accommodated those conditions.

Hattori’s dream was shattered. He had been planning all along to increase development efficiency by using an existing AT specification as the basis and refining the details to satisfy requirements. The unexpected reply from BW was a wake-up call for Hattori and his colleagues. He recalled the words of Soichiro Honda, then president of the company: “Success is the one percent supported by 99 percent failure.” He realized that ultimately there was no other way than to give the concept a concrete form. They must correct the problems they find, test them again and make corrections, and repeat the process. There was no way anyone could get an excellent result at the very beginning. This was especially true, given the fact that automatic transmissions were known to be less efficient with engines displacing 1500 cc or less.

“We decided that if there was no automatic transmission we could use, we had to build one by ourselves,” Hattori recalled. Yet, this unexpected turn of events rekindled the pride Hattori and his colleagues had as engineers. So, driven by the spirit of challenge, the development staff tasked with the creation of an AT began moving in a new direction.
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