December 29, 1980 12:00 PM

His blacksmith father may have dreaded the advent of the horseless carriage, but Soichiro Honda was enthralled when he first saw a Model-T putt-putt into his village of Hamamatsu in central Japan. “I dropped everything each time an auto came by,” Honda recalls, “and gave it chase, running and panting!”

Today, more than 60 years later, the Honda name is renowned throughout the motoring world, and Soichiro, 74, is revered as the Japanese Henry Ford. The global industrial empire that Honda created almost literally out of the scrap heap of World War II now manufactures more motorcycles than any other company. It is the third largest Japanese carmaker (after Toyota and Nissan-Datsun) and will be the first to build a U.S. auto assembly plant. Located in Marysville, Ohio, it will begin operation in 1982.

Though Japanese auto companies have profited from Detroit’s woes, Honda is sympathetic toward his American competitors. Whatever mistakes they made, he would have made too, he says. “There are historic and geographic reasons for the large car,” Honda observes. “There was a tradition of sturdy transcontinental stagecoaches. Cars had to be big to span great distances. And, of course, the profit ratio in these autos is very high.” Honda insists Detroit will rebound “because it has the best engineers, plant managers and salesmen. What more do you need?”

A limit on Japanese imports is Detroit’s answer. Honda, which sends 40 percent of its cars to the U.S., hopes to forestall American quotas by building the Ohio factory. Like other Japanese automakers, the company balks at self-imposed restraint, insisting that Detroit’s shortsightedness and the credit squeeze caused the present crisis, not imports.

Despite the economic tensions, Soichiro Honda was awarded the coveted Holley Medal from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers last month. He is the first automotive engineer to receive the honor since Henry Ford in 1936.

Like the Flivver King, Honda was smitten by the internal-combustion engine and quit school at 15 to become a mechanic. By the age of 21 he had his own auto repair business. During World War II his piston ring factory was destroyed by U.S. bombers.

In 1948 Honda started over with 20 employees, this time making motorcycles, in part from military surplus. He insisted that “the thinking for the corporation be done by everyone,” including assembly-line workers: “An industry cannot last long where human beings are equated with automatic machines.” At the plant Honda wore a white mechanic’s coat just like his workers, ate in the company cafeteria and was always approachable. Employees fondly called him Oyaji (Pop). “We thought together, suffered together, celebrated together,” he recalls. That custom endures, though the company now has 33,400 employees and worldwide sales of $5.2 billion.

In 1973, declaring “There is one thing in life that is unbeatable, the impact of age,” Honda stepped down as president. He remains a board member with the lyrical title of Supreme Adviser. “Because I love the company,” he says, “I occasionally allow myself to say a thing or two about its operation.”

He lives quietly in retirement with his wife, Sachi, in a spacious Tokyo home. He paints, plays golf and flies his own plane, but his chief interest is now the Honda Foundation, established in 1976 and endowed with $5.6 million from his own pocket. The foundation sponsors international seminars involving various disciplines, such as philosophy, medicine and sociology. Surprisingly, Honda has concluded that “technology is no solution to many of our problems. But I’m a born optimist,” he adds. “I trust the abilities of humankind.”

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