The Japanese automaker Honda Motor Company took its biggest step since the company’s 1948 founding to begin exporting its motorcycle lineup to the United States in 1959. The modestly priced small bikes created a new niche in the motorcycle market once reserved for big touring bikes. By 1963, Honda launched its first three automobile models in Japan, although sales in North America didn’t begin until the Civic debuted in 1973.
Honda originated as the Honda Technical Research Institution founded by Soichiro Honda 13 months after the end of World War II in the Pacific Theater. Honda developed two-cycle motorbike engines. By November 1947, Honda produced its first motorcycle, the Honda A-Type, and put it on sale. The following year Honda formed the company. The A-Type was an unremarkable, lightweight bike with a teardrop cast-aluminum fuel tank and two-cycle engine fitted to what was essentially a bicycle. The much heartier four-stroke engine for the E-Type appeared in 1951, followed by the F-Type in 1952. Honda used a direct mail campaign to Japan’s 50,000 bike dealerships to develop sales outlets for the F-Type. With more than 5,000 responses, Honda established a wide distributorship.
The success of Honda motorcycles in Japan encouraged the motorcycle maker to set its sights on the United States. Honda considered Southeast Asia and the U.S. as its two options to expand operations. Southeast Asia had a ready-made market since motorcycles were the common mode of transportation. On the surface, the U.S. was less appealing because Americans used motorcycles for recreational purposes and not for work. There appeared to be little market for a 50 cc-engined motorcycle. Honda also recognized that big motorcycles, such as Harley-Davidson, ruled the motorcycle market. However, bikers of the era had a poor reputation due to the influence of outlaw motorcycle groups. Honda chose the U.S. for precisely these reasons. The manufacturer wanted to create a new niche.
Establishing its U.S. headquarters in Los Angeles in 1959, Honda sold the 250 cc and 350 cc Dream, 125 cc Benly and the Honda 50 motorcycles. In 1959 and 1960, Honda had sold 1,000 units, which wasn’t a bad start in a country that had an annual sales rate of about 50,000 motorcycles. In 1962, Honda U.S. sales skyrocketed to 40,000. Honda contracted Grey Advertising for a media blitz. Grey’s campaign slogan was “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda.” It targeted the teen and young-adult demographic. It presented an image of clean, wholesome fun and countered the negative stereotypes associated with the big motorcycles. In 1966, Honda’s first off-road bike, the 90 cc Hunter Club, arrived as an answer to owners modifying their Honda 50s for mountain riding.
In the late 1950s the motorcycle maker began its quest to build a compact, economical car first for domestic use and then for export. In 1962, it displayed a pair of two-seat sports cars, the Honda Sport series S350 and S500, and the T360 subcompact truck. Honda followed with an intense program to establish a JDM sales and distribution network, used cars operations and customer financial services. North American sales didn’t take off until the 1973 introduction of the Civic.