Driving Honda: a book review

Major Waffle Honda
PetrolBlog reviews Driving Honda, a new book by Jeffrey Rothfeder, which goes behind the scenes at Honda - 'the world's most innovative car company'.

We had such high hopes for Honda at the turn of the millennium. Pick up a copy of Autocar, poignantly dated 1 January 2000, and check out the new car price guide. It reads like a Honda-sponsored dream garage.

Honda Civic VTi, Jordan VTi, Accord Type-R, Legend, Integra Type-R, Prelude, S2000 and NSX. It's little wonder Honda is PetrolBlog's favourite Japanese carmaker. Let's not forget the MK1 Honda Insight was a mere three months away and it wouldn't be long before the Civic Type-R would arrive in a scream of VTEC. Good times.

Turn to the Honda website today and things have changed. Sure, you'll find references to the forthcoming Civic Type-R and NSX, but the new car list does little to stir the soul. Today's range is worthy, verging on the dull.

Fortunately, Honda has generated enough goodwill for us to bear with it. The world's most innovative car company shows signs of promise and we're prepared to be patient. For now.

I've just finished reading Driving Honda, a fascinating look into Honda's history and corporate culture. It's not a book you'll pick up to read driving impressions of the Integra Type-R or how it feels to enter the VTEC zone, but if you're looking to launch a new car company and harbour ambitions of taking on the world, you simply must read this.

Honda S500

I'll be the first to admit that - at times - the book's frequent references to Honda's management style and operational principles saw me drifting off into thoughts of S500s and the Honda Super Cub, but by the end of the book I had an increased level of respect for Honda and a deeper of understanding of what makes the brand so special. So hats off to the book's author, Jeffrey Rothfeder, for this.

Driving Honda serves as a useful reminder of the genius of Honda's founder, Soichiro Honda. He was to Honda what Steve Jobs was to Apple. A visionary, a pioneer, an inventor and a dreamer. But not a dreamer from a whimsical, flight-of-fancy perspective. Soichiro dreamed of doing something greater, constantly searching for a better alternative. Dreams run through the very heart of Honda. The Power of Dreams strapline is not a throwaway statement.

Soichiro Honda

The book details the life of Soichiro, from the moment when - as a ten-year-old growing up in Japan - he caught sight of his first Model T Ford. He ran after it, bending down to smell the oil. The encounter would change his life.

Twenty years later - having previously left school without any qualifications - he started making pistons for Toyota. Soichiro Honda didn't believe in qualifications, arguing - with some justification - that certificates aren't worth the paper they are written on. What matters is the actual learning. Hands on experience was far more important than sitting an exam.

The Second World War left Japanese industry in ruins, but Honda managed to salvage something from his piston-making company by selling it to Toyota. With the proceeds he founded the Honda Technical Research Institute.

What followed would be a lifetime spent challenging convention and striving to do things differently. He turned the motorcycle world on its head, with the book detailing how Honda and his sales team conquered America. Along with the ad agency, Grey, Honda is credited with changing the image of motorcycling in the US, with its famous 'you meet the nicest people on a Honda' ad campaign.

Soichiro Honda with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna

Rothfeder charts how Honda took on the Isle of Man TT, and won. How its first foray into Formula One led to failure and an embarrassing rollicking for the engineer in charge of the failed piston rings. That same man would later be part of the team that helped Honda record its first F1 win at the Mexico GP in 1965. That same man would also go on to become president of Honda of America from 1975 to 1992.

The book also tells how Honda engineers would follow women in supermarket car parks, eager to discover how they were finding their new Hondas. And how these engineers would hire rival products to take on camping weekends, giving them the chance to really get to know their strengths and weakness. The book is full of such nuggets.

Driving Honda also manages to go deep into the soul of Honda, getting to grips with a corporate culture which has seen the firm fail to record a loss in its entire history. You'll see frequent references to 'waigaya', which in English would roughly translate to 'blah, blah, blah'. From the factory floor to the boardroom, nothing happens without a waigaya. Employees are encouraged to argue about the smallest of details, with assembly lines often shutting down whilst arguments are settled.

Driving Honda book review

Honda uses a flat organisational structure, to the point where all employees wear the same uniform - a crisp, white shirt with a red Honda logo. From janitor to CEO - there are no exceptions, although a green baseball cap is permitted. Honda also actively seeks out new employees from outside the automotive industry, arguing they bring fresher ideas and a more open mind.

Innovation is central to Honda - whether it's the world's first hybrid and fuel cell cars or a passenger airbag that deploys upwards rather than at the passenger, the Japanese company is constantly look at new ways to evolve. You can't image any other carmaker developing and launching a light business jet when even the likes of Cessna and Learjet were finding the market tough. But in the HondaJet - which has recently completed its first public flight - Honda has done just that.

At times, Driving Honda can feel like a 300-page advertisement for Honda. Rothfeder clearly has a fondness for Honda and this is evident throughout the book. That said, it does chart the hostilities between Japan and China, along with how Honda's famous localisation strategy has struggled in China. It tells stories of how Honda was faced with fierce patriotism in the US, with American carmakers employing horrendous anti-Japanese tactics to fight the rise of Honda.

First Japanese car built in US - Honda Accord

Having read this book, you will emerge with a deeper understanding of Honda and a greater appreciation of the company. If you don't get the appeal of Honda, read this, as it may just open your eyes. And managers from all industries will find nuggets of inspiration they'll be able to recount at the office water-cooler. Yes, it's very US-centric, but then Jeffrey Rothfeder is an author based in New York.

I'll leave you with this question? What was the first Japanese car to be built in the USA? Yup, a Honda. And a MK2 Honda Accord at that. PetrolBlog's Accord stands amongst giants. Of sorts.

Driving Honda is available in all good bookshops and some dodgy ones, too. Further information can be found on the Penguin website.