The Appearance of a full-fledged Motorcycle, the Dream D-Type / 1949

The Appearance of a full-fledged Motorcycle, the Dream D-Type / 1949

The Appearance of a Full-fledged Motorcycle, the Dream D-Type

The new machine seemed to have gotten off to such a fine start. Why, then, did it stop selling?

The Appearance of a Full-fledged Motorcycle, the Dream D-Type

The conveyor belt mass-production process for the D-Type at the Noguchi and Tokyo Plants was the subject of an article in the December 1956 issue of Science Asahi (Kagaku Asahi) magazine. The article said: "There is a company that has achieved a production increase unthinkable in our time, producing 876 units in fiscal 1950 out of the national production total of 3,439, and then leaping to 700 units a month in fiscal 1951. As the reality of free trade approaches, the first thing people talk about is the cost problem. But costs are difficult to cut in any sector, and the greater difficulties faced by larger companies are well known. It is not easy to streamline a business without taking some kind of special measures. This is what the Honda Motor Co. has been exploring in actual practice. With a mere 150 employees, they have been using die casting methods not found even in European motorcycle engineering, and manufacturing all their own engines. Perhaps the key to increased unit production is to be found in this direction."

In 1949, when the D-Type was put on the market, the U.S. government and the General Headquarters of the Allied occupation forces issued orders for anti-inflationary measures. The Japanese government was forced to implement deflationary policies that year. All of a sudden, a recessionary storm began to ravage the economy. The business recession was not the only reason for sluggish sales. From around this time, the motorcycle market was shifting, and people were turning away from the 2-stroke engine with its high-pitched exhaust sound and selecting instead the quieter 4-stroke machines with deeper sounds. In addition to that, the D-Type’s unique mechanism was having the reverse effect of hampering sales.

"I think that the Old Man wanted to make a motorcycle that was different from the ones before," speculated Kawashima. "The part of riding a motorcycle that needs the most technique is working the clutch, just as with a car that has a manual transmission. If you don’t engage the clutch just right, the engine might stall or the bike might lurch forward. In any case, it’s hard for a beginner. That’s why he wanted to eliminate this problem. One of his points was to make it so anybody could ride a motorcycle easily, without having a particular ability or needing to develop the knack for it.

"On a proper motorcycle, and this is still the case today, the clutch is engaged manually. It’s mounted on the left handlebar and you operate it by squeezing the lever just the right amount by hand. Once you’re used to it, there’s nothing to it, but I think that in the Old Man’s view, this kept it from appealing to everybody."

In other words, the Dream D-Type was a revolutionary motorcycle aimed at eliminating the manual clutch operations that required rider familiarity. Thus, it constituted a bold challenge to the accepted notion of the motorcycle at that time.

Motorcycles ordinarily have the clutch lever on the left handle bar, but on the Honda machine the lever on the left was for the front wheel brake instead. The short lever on the right-hand side was a decompression lever used to make kick-starting the engine easier, or to stop the engine. In other words, there was no clutch lever.

That is why operating the clutch on the D-Type was so easy. Pressing down and forward on the change pedal with the front of the foot would put it in first gear. Letting go would return it to neutral, and pressing down and back on the pedal with the heel would put it in second gear. This was the first motorcycle in Japan to have a semi-automatic clutch system with a cone clutch mechanism.

Smiling wryly, Mr. Kawashima recalls: "It was extremely popular at first as a very easy-to-ride motorcycle. But then, after a while, people started to complain. The D-Type had two gears, low and high. The way it was made, though, in order to keep going in first gear, you had to keep your foot pressing down on the change pedal. If you were going up a long uphill road, for example, your toes would get tired from keeping the pedal pressed down. It was good not to have a clutch, they said, but this was no good. That was why the sales suddenly dropped. We just got too far ahead of ourselves with the idea of what would be good for the customer, so I guess this was another failure. Coming on top of the economic slowdown, this was real trouble. It was the Honda company’s first business crisis."

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