Honda became a classic American success story in the '60s. In this single, crucial decade, Honda transformed itself from a domestic supplier to an international corporation, and planted a firm foothold on American soil. Honda began the '60s with 50cc step-throughs, and created a displacement escalator that carried the motorcycle market up to the incredible CB750 four by 1969. U.S. sales skyrocketed from a mere 3200 units in 1960 to an amazing 345,000 units by the end of the decade--more than 50 percent of the U.S. motorcycle market.
Having established itself with a sizable market share, a full line of machines, and a clean-cut image that bucked the hell-raiser Hollywood stereotype, Honda entered the '70s prepared to flex its creative muscle and take off in directions no one else could.
The company's success in the '60s had been based on the proven air-cooled, two-valve engine and tube-frame technology that found its maximum expression in the CB750. And that technology started the decade off with Dick Mann's 1970 Daytona 200 win on a race version of that very motorcycle. But then, Honda broke that familiar mold with a flurry of innovative products that introduced riders to new ways to enjoy motorcycling.
An important element of Honda's strategy has always been innovation, offering completely new products that create new market segments. The ATC™90, introduced in 1970, is a classic example. It single-handedly created the ATV market. Honda also pioneered evolution in existing markets. For example, taking the place of the CL off-road twins of the 1960s were new lines of highly functional single- and multi-cylinder four-stroke SLs, and single-cylinder XLs. The TL125 introduced motorcyclists to another new sport: trials riding. In 1973, Honda parried the two-stroke thrusts of its rivals with the radical CR250M Elsinore™, a purpose-built two-stroke motocross racer that won the National championship its first year out. That same year, Honda's concentrated efforts in the off-road area had helped the off-highway segment grow to 25 percent of the total bike market. Into this thriving market, Honda launched a proliferation of enduro and trail MTs, XLs and SLs, including the hugely successful XL350 in 1974.
Honda was at the same time expanding its automotive efforts, and exploring the idea of producing some of its products in the United States. What's more, a fascinating struggle began to take shape within the company, one that would redirect design and unlock new possibilities for a long time to come. Mr. Honda strongly believed innovative engineering could produce air-cooled auto engines as good as or better than the liquid-cooled competition, so 1960s Honda cars as well as bikes were air-cooled. But Honda's younger engineers strongly favored liquid cooling, both for performance and market appeal. Mr. Honda initially resisted, but after a showdown with company vice president Takeo Fujisawa, he eventually accepted liquid cooling as the key to future development.
Honda's new liquid-cooled direction led first to the CVCC clean-burn auto engine, introduced at the 1972 Tokyo show. This was the first production auto engine to meet the 1975 EPA standard without a catalytic converter, and it demonstrated Honda's research capability to the world. The Honda Civic auto, with this and other liquid-cooled engines, immediately became popular in the U.S.
Such thinking and research led to the creation of yet another new market segment--though not even Honda knew it at the time. The 1975 GL™1000 Gold Wing® was Honda's first thorough synthesis of automotive and motorcycle technologies. The temperature stability of liquid cooling allowed the GL to develop high power, yet lose none of Honda's customary reliability. Gold Wing engineers had envisioned it as the ultimate performance bike, combining 1000cc power with flat-four smoothness and liquid-cooled silence. Indeed, the Gold Wing posted the quickest quarter-mile of its day, but buyers saw its greatest value as a long-distance machine. In a unique partnership with Gold Wing owners, the GL created a whole new category of motorcycle: the dedicated touring bike. Its evolution continues to this day.
However, not all of Honda's innovations gained widespread acceptance. Hondamatic™--a torque-converter-based automatic transmission for motorcycles--was a successful technology that didn't catch the public's fancy. Electric starting had brought a lot of people to motorcycling, and Honda wondered: Would an automatic do the same? The 1976 CB750 Automatic and 1977 CB400A were remarkable machines, but riders chose high-performance over this convenience. Honda also launched two other wildly diverse products in 1977--the NC50 no-ped, an ultralight, minimalist motorbike, and the FL250 Odyssey® four-wheeler, a natural evolution of the ATC90.
By 1978, Honda had prepared to close the decade with a barrage of innovative machines. The first shot came in the form of the CX500. A significant new direction in engine design was packaged into the unusual CX500, whose liquid-cooled V-twin engine was set sideways in the chassis. With four valves in each cylinder, the CX500 was a high-performance pushrod V-twin in a sea of overhead-cam inline-fours. Its radically oversquare bore and stroke of 78mm by 52mm made it the forerunner of all modern short-stroke, big-bore sport bike engines.
Air cooling wasn't finished yet, though. Two stunning new machines used it to probe the future of sports motorcycling in 1979: the 16-valve, twin cam, transistor-sparked CB750F, and the technologically astounding 1047cc six-cylinder CBX. The 750F was a production outgrowth of Honda's successful twin-cam endurance racer, and beckoned the company deeper into sport bike territory. As the first CB750 had realized the legend of Honda's racing fours in the showroom, so the six-cylinder CBX grew naturally from the heritage of Mike Hailwood and the 250cc and 297cc six-cylinder racers of 1964 through 1967. The 1979 CBX became an exotic signpost to the future.
Honda closed the decade by opening a motorcycle manufacturing plant in Marysville, Ohio, designed initially to produce the Gold Wing. This 260,000-square-foot plant introduced production versatility not found in other Honda plants, giving the company the ability to respond quickly to changing tastes, and to satisfy new and expanding markets. This plant, like Honda's innovative machines, defined a decade marked by classic, hallmark Honda thinking: That anything was possible. From the many new elements discovered and created in the experiments of the 1970s, Honda synthesized new directions for the 1980s. These would lead in turn to new surprises and opportunities.