Honda Australia is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The company's journey from a modest South Yarra apartment to the thriving company it is today is detailed in the story below.
Words and Pictures: Honda Australia
The year was 1969, John Gorton was the Prime Minister of Australia, a dairy farm hosted a festival called Woodstock and Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, declaring it “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.
Meanwhile in Melbourne, working in a modest South Yarra apartment, Hidehiko Shiomi and David Morwood were making a giant leap for the Australian car industry by creating what we now know as Honda Australia.
Honda Australia’s early start-up range of quirky microcars, the 360cc and 600cc-engined Scamp, were quickly followed by the Life and Z360 models. These simple but reliable and beautifully built small cars set the scene for a broader range of bigger, more sophisticated cars.
The Hondas that changed the game
The Coupe 7 and Coupe 9 models, with their air-cooled 1.3-litre engines, showed Honda meant business, while the critically acclaimed Civic that debuted here in 1973 proved that Honda was indeed a genuine player in the local market.
The Civic launched here initially as a two-door sedan priced at just $2,199 but it was also available with a popular and practical hatchback option for an extra $70! It was fitted with a 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine and was a major turning point for the company, going on to become one of Honda’s most enduring model lines.
Over the next decade, Honda Australia went from strength to strength. The bigger, more luxurious Accord hit the market in 1977 and almost immediately won the Wheels Car of the Year award, the first Japanese car to do so – but not the last Honda to claim the prestigious title.
Since then, the innovative Prelude 4WS sports coupe, NSX supercar, Odyssey MPV, Accord Euro sports sedan and CR-Z hybrid sports coupe all won the coveted Wheels COTY crown, with Drive Car of the Year, Australia’s Best Cars, Wheels Quality Awards and Australian International Design Awards trophies joining them in Honda’s display cabinet.
Meanwhile, the motorcycle market in Australia in the early 1970s enjoyed the much anticipated and hyped release of the CB750, the model that revolutionised high performance bikes across the world. The CB750 was the first bike to offer a front wheel disc brake, electric start and an inline-four engine as a mass-produced product, all at an affordable price.
The CB750 quickly became a well-established model down under, amassing a cult like following that still exists today. It ultimately then paved the way for the high performance, mass-produced Superbike movement that ultimately resulted in Honda’s famous CBR Fireblade dynasty.
In the off road scene, Honda released many key models that revolutionised their respective market segments, including but not limited to: the XL and XR ranges, the CR range and kids fun bikes, like the QR50, XR50 and CRF50.
Models like the Z50 and Honda Dax became household names right through the ‘70s and now reimagined versions of these classics have been released, with the new 125cc Monkey hitting showrooms in July 2018 and C125 Super Cub in January this year, further highlighting Honda’s continual appeal to Australians of all ages.
The evolution of the Honda range
As the car range grew in size and popularity, Honda Australia’s operations base also grew to meet the demand. A new national headquarters building, the company’s current power base, was opened in Tullamarine, Victoria, in 1981.
Not long after, Honda continued to move upmarket with the arrival of the flagship Legend in 1986, a true large luxury car powered by a sophisticated 2.5-litre V6 engine. The Legend was soon joined soon by the sports inspired twin-cam Integra and then later, the Civic-based CRX sports coupe – both capitalising on the engineering success that Honda was enjoying in field of Formula One.
The advent of VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) was one of Honda’s most well-known technological advances. It was an entirely new approach to engine design, solving the dilemma that had plagued engine design for over a century – where improvement in one area (performance at high engine speeds) could only be achieved at the expense of another area (drivability at low engine speeds).
The 1989 Integra was the first global model powered by a VTEC engine – it combined superior everyday drivability with a specific output of 100 horsepower per litre of engine capacity, at the time an unheard of feat in a production engine. The NSX supercar was the first Honda model in Australia to be equipped with VTEC, when it launched locally in early 1991.
“Honda Australia is part of one of the most diverse mobility portfolios in the world, with Honda products covering a broad spectrum from generators and lawn mowers, through motorcycles and cars, to jet aircraft,” said Honda Australia Managing Director & CEO, Mr. Hiroyuki Shimizu.
“Over the past 50 years, well in excess of five million Honda products have been purchased by Australian customers, which is a huge accomplishment for our business.
“Honda Australia started with just one employee, but today we have over 300 associates, are represented by 106 automotive dealerships and more than 800 motorcycle and power equipment distributors around the country, so we are extremely proud of the contribution we have made to Australian society.”
The product diversity in the world of Honda
Honda Australia continued to expand, not only with its model offering but also in capability for local production. In 1986, a small team explored the concept of starting a lawn mower assembly and production line to produce mowers for the local Australian market. By late 1987, Japanese engineers arrived in Australia to assist with setting up the assembly line and soon after HMA (Honda Manufacturing Australia) was born. The original assembly line team consisted of seven workers – two of those workers still work at Honda today.
On February 17, 1988, the first Australian made lawn mower rolled off the local assembly line, a HRU194PU (push mower). Staff were tasked with naming the new mower and settled on ‘Buffalo’, a name that is still in use today across the expanded mower range. In May 1989, the first self-propelled mower, the HRU214SU, rolled off the production line. Australian Honda mowers quickly gained a strong reputation for their quality and reliability, to the point where Honda had an 80 per cent share of the commercial mower market.
Mowers were not the only top seller for Honda in the Australian market, with quality Honda engines powering products since the 1970s. The ‘GX range’ of engines came to market in the early 1980s and are still found on virtually every type of Australian made product of commercial and domestic capacities – including pumps, generators and construction equipment in Australia.
With this growth and diversity in the product line up, it was clear Honda Australia needed to expand. In late 1991 the Honda Motorcycle and Power Equipment Company, known as Honda MPE, was created as a subsidiary of Honda Australia, supplying equipment to industry, private users and motorcycle riders.
Almost every Australian home was touched by a Honda on a daily basis – every time the ubiquitous red Honda CT110 ‘Postie Bike’ delivered the mail, in fact. It has proven to be such a popular machine that a Postie Bike Grand Prix is held each year in the NSW town of Cessnock, while the Variety Club uses the diminutive bikes for an annual charity fundraiser.
Over the last 50 years, Honda has continued to produce a motorcycle for every Australian, from enthusiastic kids and commuters, to fully-fledged Supersport fanatics and agricultural four-wheeled product, purpose built for farmers. If there is a need, Honda will build it and build it well, garnering an enviable reputation for quality and reliability no other brand can boast.
Safety and training are also a big part of Honda’s history globally and in Australia, with HART (Honda Australia Rider and driver Training) opening its doors locally in 1989. HART is considered the leading motorcycle trainer in the country, training over 25,000 students each year.
“Our customers are just as passionate about our products as we are – we would not have been the No.1 motorcycle brand in Australia consecutively for over 15 years if this wasn’t the case and that is something we are really proud of. Honda is a brand many Australian consumers truly rely on and have done so for the last 50 years,” said Honda Motorcycle and Power Equipment Managing Director, Mr. Robert Toscano.
“Our products fit so well into daily life, be it our motorcycles, our two and four-wheeled farm products that help power the Aussie farm industry, right through to our industrial, domestic and commercial customers that use our engines. It’s been a very successful and rewarding 50 years for Honda in Australia and we are certainly looking forward to the next 50 years.”
Striving to be a company that society wants to exist
Honda Australia also showed it had a social conscience to parallel its technical, sporting and corporate achievements when, in 1992, it founded The Honda Foundation to help fund and empower disadvantaged Australians and organisations that are focused on helping others.
Funded by contributions from Honda Australia, private donors and more than 100 dealerships across the country – for every new Honda vehicle sold in Australia, the dealership donates $5 and Honda Australia donates $10, taking the total to $15 per vehicle.
Over the past 27 years, The Honda Foundation has donated close to 11 million dollars to hundreds of worthy causes, charities and organisations, including providing relief for victims of natural disasters and supporting the development of new technologies and research to fight disease.
During the tenure of Honda Australia’s third managing director, Mr. Kazuo Shimizu (father of current Honda Australia Managing Director, Mr. Hiroyuki Shimizu), Darwin was devastated by Cyclone Tracy. The Federal Government asked Honda Australia to supply as many generators as possible to alleviate the shortage of electricity in the city.
The company supplied every generator in stock and they were flown by C-130 Hercules to Darwin. Honda Australia also donated $50,000 worth of small generators, which were used for single-person accommodation.
Honda Australia has also provided funding over the years to the Bushfire Appeal in Victoria, while most recently it donated $100,000 to Rural Aid Australia, via The Honda Foundation, to assist farmers in drought-affected communities.
Honda’s environmental desire: To leave blue skies for our children
In 2001, Honda introduced the world’s most fuel-efficient petrol-powered production car to Australia. The pioneering three-door Insight coupe was first petrol-electric hybrid car to be achieve compliance for the Australian market.
It used a highly efficient 1.0-litre three-cylinder VTEC ultra-low emission (ULEV) engine in concert with an ultra-thin electric motor. Called Honda’s Integrated Motor Assist (IMA), the petrol-electric powertrain was the key to the Insight’s revolutionary fuel efficiency, which achieved a world-best 2.8 litres per 100km on the highway cycle and 3.6 litres per 100km city cycle – about half the fuel consumption of a Honda Civic.
To prove its efficiency, one of the first Insight vehicles to arrive in the country was driven from Brisbane to Melbourne on less than one 40-litre tank of petrol, using just 37.75 litres for the 1,700km journey and setting a new Australian fuel consumption record in the process.
A second-generation Insight, in a new five-door hatchback design, arrived in 2010 and was followed by a number of other hybrid models, including the multi-award-winning CR-Z sport hybrid, Civic hybrid, Jazz hybrid and Accord hybrid.
The cutting-edge, second-generation NSX is the latest hybrid model in Honda Australia’s model lineup. It was the world’s first supercar to utilise hybrid electric motors to enhance and elevate every element of its dynamic performance: acceleration, braking and cornering.
A technological tour-de-force, the NSX is Honda’s flagship model and the ultimate expression – in series production form – of the company’s vision for sporty and advanced vehicles. It represents a critical step in re-establishing Honda’s passion for performance enabled by advanced technologies.
In a bid to ensure impact on the environment was minimised in as many engines as possible, Honda lead the motorcycle industry by being the first manufacturer to stop production of the two-stroke engine due to concerns about their environmental impact.
Furthermore, all Honda marine and power products sold in Australia have only ever contained four-stroke engines. Mower manufacturing in Australia also saw positive change following an edict by company founder, Mr. Soichiro Honda, to utilise powder-coated parts in place of chrome plating, as the latter impacts people just as much as the environment.
Without racing, there is no Honda
Since the days of its founding, Honda has been engaged in various motorsports activities in the pursuit of being the best in the world. By competing in various types of racing, Honda has been refining its technologies and human resources, and sharing the fun, joy and inspirational experiences with many fans and customers.
Honda has been involved in Formula One, either as an entrant, constructor or engine supplier, for various periods since 1964. When the Australian Grand Prix became a round of the FIA F1 World Championship in 1985, the race was won by Keke Rosberg in a Williams-Honda.
Locally, Honda Australia has most recently been involved in the Australian Rally Championship, claiming both the driver and manufacturer championships in 2012 and 2013 with Eli Evans in what was affectionately referred to as the “world’s fastest Jazz”.
Australian riders Wayne Gardner, Mick Doohan and Casey Stoner became household names after winning eight 500cc GP and MotoGP World Championships between them onboard Honda’s famed NSR500 and RCV211. Seven-time Grand Prix motorcycle world champion, Marc Marquez, currently races the latest RC213V.
Honda has also achieved great success in the Australian Superbike Championship, holding the most titles of any manufacturer with 11 crowns, including the current 2018 title with Tory Herfoss on board the CBR1000RR SP Fireblade. In the Australian Supercross Championship, factory Honda Racing has won the last three championships, as well as five titles in a row across the 250cc and 450cc classes on board the CRF250R and CRF450R.
The next 50 years
The future for Honda Australia will be one focused on advancing the joy of our customers in their daily lives through mobility. Honda will continue to develop and bring to market advanced technologies, creating value and mobility like no other brand.
“We are striving to be leaders in the areas of environment and safety, and will continue to invest heavily to become a company that leads efforts to realise a carbon-free and collision-free society,” said Honda Australia Managing Director & CEO, Mr. Hiroyuki Shimizu.
“What is crucial to us in the midst of the technology evolution, however, is that we don’t lose the human touch. Electrification, connectivity and autonomous developments are all in the future, but we must always ensure that we connect with our customers and deliver an experience that reflects the heartbeat of Honda.
“Delivering joy and connecting with our customers will always be a priority for Honda Australia.”
Lofty goals, yes, but Honda has always believed in the power of dreams.