The Honda A-Type, Honda’s First Product on the Market (1947)

The first product to carry the Honda name was this Honda A-Type auxiliary bicycle engine. With a view to achieving mass production, the company started manufacturing the engine parts by die casting. (Photograph by courtesy of Honda Collection Hall)

With the chimney engine development suspended, Honda had to hasten the work of coming up with the next plan. This turned out to be the Honda company’s first original product to be sold on the market, the Honda A-Type. Compared to the radically innovative chimney design, this appeared to be a rather orthodox 2-stroke engine. However, as Kawashima explains:

“The intake assembly didn’t use the piston valves you saw elsewhere. Instead, it had rotary disk valves attached to the side of the crankcase. Therefore the carburetor was also attached to the crankcase rather than next to the cylinder. At this time, this was revolutionary. I thought the Old Man was incredible to come up with an idea like that.”

Furthermore, the manually-operated belt transmission mechanism that also was used for the clutch was patented. This was just one of the ways in which this product showed itself as a true Honda Motor Co. product. The A-Type engine has not attracted much attention for anything other than its distinction in being the first Honda product. However, looking at it from another angle, it was this A-Type engine that suddenly brought out the extraordinary characteristics of Honda Motor Co.

From this time, in Kawashima’s words, Honda was already beginning to talk about it. “At our shop we used die casting. Unlike sand casting, we had to make metal dies for die casting. This costs money. At the rate we were producing our machines at that time, this couldn’t possibly turn a profit, so ordinary people wouldn’t dream of taking such an approach. They would make do with sand casting. But the Old Man insisted, ‘No matter what, we go with die casting!’”

Thus, the characteristic Honda quality of the A-Type was not in its mechanism so much as in its manufacturing method.

Converting to die casting means producing in volume. Its crude little neighborhood machine shop, no matter how you looked at it, was far removed from a mass-production factory. Regardless of that, and fully aware that in choosing this production method the company might be accused of illusions of grandeur, Honda started out on what it knew was an adventure.

The Honda’s Seven-Year History contains the following passage:

“It was a method of going straight from raw material to the product that did not generate metal shavings, that used less material, that cut down on the number of processes, and resulted in an attractive product. This was the President’s firmly-held view.”

Isobe relates the hard work at that time:
The ideals were ambitious, but we didn’t have the money that was the first consideration. We consulted a metal die fabricator, and found that one die would cost us as much as ¥500,000. We had no choice but to try doing it ourselves. Well, at that time we had the President’s younger brother Benjiro and some others in the company who were able to make do with the poor tools we had and fabricate the metal dies by hand. That’s why we could do it. I gave all the help I could, too. Even if we had asked a major die fabricator to do the work for us, they probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to an unknown company like Honda.
He went on:
The initial models were only partially die cast. We did a gradual conversion so that the majority of parts in the later models were made that way. The cylinder heads, the cylinders, the crankcases, and parts you can’t see, like the connecting rods and the rotary valve seats–we die cast them all. The Old Man would say, ‘If we have to meet hardships, we might as well get it over with first.’ And, ‘In a country that doesn’t have resources, people shouldn’t do work that generates shavings. Take your pains with the front-end processes. If the back-end processes don’t require more work, then you won’t be wasting resources. If we can get the precision we need at this stage, then we won’t need the time and labor and machinery later, will we?’ When I think about it now, I see that he was foreseeing a time like today, when plasticity processing is having its heyday. We were having this kind of thinking well and thoroughly pounded into us fifty whole years back.
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