This week, Japan announced a stunning rise in GDP, with a growth rate of 5.9% for the 1st quarter of 2014. While that rise is probably short-lived, as it reflects consumers who were spending as quickly as possible before Japan’s impending sales tax increase, it is still good news for a nation that has been struggling to regain the momentum that was once considered unstoppable.
Of course, that momentum was the work of great individuals, both leaders and workers, and one of those men was Soichiro Honda, the founder of Honda automobiles. Honda was an extraordinary leader but also, at heart, a gifted and revolutionary engineer. Honda started his corporation in 1948, just after the end of WWII, by selling a motorized bicycle that featured an engine of Honda’s own design. The next year, he released a motorcycle that would lead Honda’s rise to the best-selling motorcycle manufacturer in the world. By 1973, Honda was ready to release its Civic, featuring another Honda-designed engine, the Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion, or CVCC, engine. This engine was revolutionary because it was able to meet strict new US emissions standards without the use of heavy, power-robbing, expensive catalytic converters. Ford and Chrysler had already licensed the technology.
However, GM would have none of it. Instead, the CEO of GM at the time called it a “little toy motorcycle engine” and mocked its usefulness for American automobiles, declaring that it was unfit for a GM car. When Honda heard this claim, he saw it as a challenge, one that he was ready and happy to accept.
Honda purchased a 1973 V8 Chevrolet Impala and had it shipped to Japan. He then directed the design of an all-new engine for the Impala that took advantage of his CVCC design. He then flew it back to the United States and set it up, face to face, with GM’s Impala for a US Government-run test. The result? Honda’s design retained the original horsepower while passing the new EPA emissions standards without a catalytic converter. Plus, it was more fuel efficient.