The 2015 Isle of Man TT has come to a close and as usual, the Senior TT was won on a Honda. Also this month, Honda unveiled the production version of the RC213 V-S, a $180,000 MotoGP replica meant to represent the company’s pinnacle achievement; a beacon guiding consumers to their brand.
As exciting as this news has been, there are also clear indications of something pretty awful. Hidden in plain sight we see the death of risk by a motorcycle brand that once stood as the very embodiment of innovation and bold leadership.
The Honda Motor Company was founded by a man who’s singular vision and passion for exceptionalism were for half a century the lode star of the motoring universe. Soichiro Honda was by all accounts a gruff, self-motivated perfectionist who steered his tiny company from piston ring supply to the top-tier of global automotive giants, mostly by sticking to his guiding principles.
He believed in competition in industry and on the track; he sought the company of exceptional people and listened to them (most importantly Takeo Fujisawa, his indispensable business partner); and he dared to be the best, to take on the world and not be held back by fear.
Honda, the company, was for decades the leading light of motor transportation because it strove to operate at a higher level. Their products were the most refined, the best made, and cost efficient.
Honda systematically invested in radical innovation even when markets were fat and sales plentiful. Honda was not afraid of risk. From the 1970’s until the late 1990’s, the company unleashed a staggering array of unparalleled developments that blew the competition away.
Motorcycles like the EXP-2 and NR750 introduced advanced new technologies unseen on two wheels, while products like the Goldwing, SH “Scoopy” scooter family and VFR invented new categories that influenced the entire industry. Other experiments failed, such as the four-stroke Grand Prix racers of the 1980’s or the Hondamatic, but this never deterred the brand from trying again and again to raise the bar.
Honda’s fate, indeed its posture and taste for risk are inextricably linked to its fortunes as a car maker. During the same period that they ventured boldly in motorcycle engineering and design, Honda auto enjoyed stratospheric success.
The Honda Accord was the first foreign nameplate to become the best-selling car in America, while the Civic was entrenched as the performance and design leader in its class. Honda powered cars won Formula 1 world championships, the Indy 500, and it was the Honda NSX (Acura NSX in North America) that blew the European exotic sports car industry sideways. Honda was the brand of the young and the forward thinking.
Today the picture is radically different. While still strong, the car company is a distant third among Japanese brands, selling about a 40% as many cars as rival Toyota, and it has long lost its glow of youthful brio and engineering leadership to brands like Kia and Tesla. In China, the world’s largest car market, Honda is struggling, beleaguered by labour problems and stained with a reputation for arrogance in a culture that already holds an antipathy towards anything Japanese.
On two wheels Honda is still the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer but that position is under threat not from Yamaha, but Indian brands like Bajaj, Hero and Mahindra, who possess a lock on the vast Indian domestic market while advancing in design, engineering and marketing at a geometric rate. Modern India places great value on developing indigenous technological expertise, while also possessing an underlying entrepreneurial spirit. It is worth noting, for example, that Hero is the second largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world by volume, and that Bajaj own a 47% stake in KTM. This does not happen without both ambition and talent.
The new RC213 V-S revealed this month does not reflect the old Honda spirit, but rather the tepid, fearful meanderings of a corporation treading the middle ground in an increasingly uncertain sales position. While the regular street offerings by Honda are in every way superior products, exceptional in quality, value and capability, the overall brand message seems threadless.
The RC213 V-S is special but not brilliant. A detuned MotoGP street bike was pioneered by Ducati ten years ago. Unlike the halo products of Honda’s guilded past, such as the oval pistoned NR750, the RC213 V-S pioneers nothing and comes a full decade after rumours first surfaced of a Honda MotoGP replica. The project seems wrought with indecision and half measures, from the stuck on design of its lighting and mirrors, to its public debut a year ago when no clear answer was provided about its production potential.
Similarly the lack of official participation at the Isle of Man TT, the very venue that Soichiro first ventured into the global arena, and where Honda first cemented its reputation for excellence, shows how little Honda Corporate understands their own brand. Where once Soichiro would have flung resources and demanded nothing less than factory Honda domination in all classes, today we see an officially supported but privateer run effort with little to no global marketing presence. Instead of innovation and intent, we get a long winded web series that no one watches.
Similarly, the TT Zero effort by Mugen (a company founded by Honda’s son and dedicated to providing tuning products exclusively for Honda vehicles) should be a fully supported factory effort. The company of Soichiro would never have turned down the opportunity to demonstrate strength in an emerging area of motorcycle technology, even if at risk of losing. He would also not have let his brand run an uncompetitive World Superbike team, invisible World Endurance Championship operation, or let a regional specialty brand like KTM walk all over it in off-road racing.
“If Honda does not race there is no Honda” said Soichiro.
He understood that a company from a defeated former enemy nation, to be taken seriously must win hearts and consumer wallets by competing openly against the best in the world and be seen doing so. Victory was only part of the marketing appeal. The struggle, presenting Honda vigorously challenging the world was the gold. People love stories of struggle, so when brands are seen in the fight of their lives they become more than commercial entities. They are humanized. They win your heart.
“The value of life can be measured by how many times your soul has been stirred.”
Honda cannot afford not to shock and awe the small core of enthusiasts who, as every marketing expert will tell you, disproportionately influence the consumer masses. Honda must, as the stickers say on their Repsol MotoGP bikes, win over motorcyclists with heart. Put another way, the company that proclaims to deliver The Power of Dreams must actually provide some, because owning an ultra reliable, cost efficient motorcycle is not a dream. It is today’s reality.
As I have said on record many times, racing is a money pit that can, and has, spelled doom for many motorcycle brands in the past. However for a healthy brand it can and must serve the dual purpose of stamping technological and spiritual authority on its business domain. The cost to benefit ratio of a well produced promotional campaign built around the relentless pursuit of victory is clearly understood. The only limiting factor is budget, and that it not impede the operational needs of the manufacturing business.
The Honda Motor Company, once named by 5 of the most influential automotive CEO’s as the most inspirational brand in transportation, is now a brand driven only by the need to satisfy short-term shareholder value. Of course all corporations are, but the key difference is, in the ultra competitive auto and motorcycle sectors, only the innovative brands survive. Today’s Honda brand occupies the same place in the consumer mind as Dell Computer and Toyota. Safe. Reliable. Anonymous.
The spirit of Soichiro Honda is alive, but it resides in India instead of Minato, Japan. Somewhere in south Asia is a leader, perhaps several, who understand that in a world where excellent motor vehicles are commonplace commodities, only the brave, bold and aspirational will thrive long term.
To the many dedicated, professional and highly experienced persons working at all levels of the Honda Motor Company I say ask yourself: “What would Soichiro do?”
Persons interested in the true history of Honda should read “The Honda Myth : The Genius and his Wake” by Masaaki Sato. The artwork in this post’s featured image is by the author, a version of which originally appeared in Hellforleathermagazine.com in 2012.