Driving Honda: 'A car crash of a book'

A great subject is ill served by a credulous and ungifted author, who barely seems to know what Formula One is, says reviewer Stephen Bayley.

by Stephen Bayley
Last Updated: 02 Sep 2014

There are some toxic emissions from this book. On page 90, we are told that the development cost of a new vehicle at Honda is $250,000, a figure said to be less than half what General Motors would budget.

Yet last time I had knowledge of the situation, working on a project with Ford in 1982, the cost of a new car was about one and a half billion.

Either Jeffrey Rothfeder is wrong by a factor of approximately 3,000 and the book is sloppily edited ... or I can sell my little investment property in south London and create my own VSTOL SUV.

I have a feeling Rothfeder is wrong.

But Honda is an interesting subject. Its '50' moped can be seen as the most successful vehicle in history. Along with the 1964 Olympics and the Shinkansen high-speed railway inaugurated the same year, Honda was, like Sony and Pentax, one of the outstanding symbols of the new Japan. It became an byword for precision, ingenuity and quality.

Only Honda survives in good shape. Sony's inventiveness died with its founder, Akio Morita, and it faces humiliating calls to abandon manufacturing altogether. Pentax has been overwhelmed by more adroit exploiters of digital technology.

I remember seeing Honda's first car, the S600. Even as a child, I recognised the extraordinary achievement: beautiful, miniaturised engineering, tangible physical quality and an intense aura of covetability.

Later, at school, a friend had a Honda bike with (incredibly) an electric starter. In the days when firing up a British bike involved a brutal kickstart executed in clouds of oily smoke, this seemed like an extra-terrestrial revelation of a superior existence.

Soichiro Honda was, like Sony's Morita, an exception to the Japanese corporate norm of anonymity and consensus. Instead, he was articulate about the primacy of creativity in business, being especially good on the necessity of making mistakes, an oriental version of Beckett's failing better.

Unfortunately, this reputation tempts the unwary author into oozing corporate hagiography and dimly repeated creation myths. Rothfeder, whose CV includes being editor of PC Magazine, is unwary.

The subtitle's claim that Honda is the 'world's most innovative car company' would be contested at Mercedes and BMW - and by anyone who knew the subject. But Rothfeder has his evidence! He cites the two-axis tailgate on the US-made Ridgeline truck as a masterpiece of engineering innovation. But tailgates that hinged both vertically and horizontally were common on American station wagons in the 1950s.

Cleverly, Honda has always used motor-sport as a shop window; first with invincibly clever and screaming bikes, then with Formula One. The RA272 F1 car of 1965 made people gasp with its glorious, tiny transverse V12, but was not successful. It was Ron Dennis's McLaren that gave Honda its achievements in Grand Prix racing. Rothfeder's grasp of the subject may be inferred from his explanation that Formula One is the 'non-US version of Nascar'.

Only the worst kind of myopic, dim-bulb American journalist could write such rubbish. Rothfeder is that journalist.

Honda is not quite the success Rothfeder and his publishers want us to believe. There used to be a joke that the most boring conversational gambit in the world was 'I have just been for a test drive in a Honda'. These are cars that do not much excite people.

I thought Six Sigma went out of fashion with Jack Welch, but Rothfeder is still rather engaged with mumbo-jumbo. Students of management archaeology will be fascinated to read the bullet points on page nine. Honda believes in 'perpetual change' while 'freely learning from the past'. Its systems aim to generate 'innovative discontinuity'.

This is utter bollocks and reads as if Honda paid for this book.

There are some good passages on welding, but nothing can help this book escape the powerful gravity of its conceptual and literary mediocrity.

Driving Honda is a docile, even supine, treatment of its subject. Rothfeder is still stuck in the reverential awe of the 1980s, when Japanese companies were inspiring. But since then we have had the Olympus scandal and the degringolade of Sharp and Sony.

I love books and hope they continue to exist, but this is not a good argument for them. There must be 10,000 bloggers with more interesting things to say about Honda.

- Stephen Bayley is the author of Charm: An Essay and a contributing editor to MT

Driving Honda - Inside the world's most innovative car company

Jeffrey Rothfeder

Portfolio Penguin, £25

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