December 25 – Honda Headquarters, Aoyama, Tokyo
As the people responsible firstly for my purchase of a branded winter coat, secondly for my very busy November and thirdly for my rapidly expanding workload in 2010 due to their production of cost-efficient rally cars, Honda have a lot to answer for. So much so, in fact, that I decided to pay a visit to their head office at Aoyama in the heart of Tokyo the other day. Not to furiously march up to the president’s door and demand that he give me all the hours of my life back, but just to have a look at the place where all these fast yet bulletproof cars come from.
With the exception of the Eiffel Tower, the Honda Head Office is perhaps the hardest building in the world to miss. Climbing the steps out of the Aoyama underground station, the ceiling gives way not to blue-grey sky, but to the uncompromising white and black facade of the Honda tower. As one carries on up towards street level, the company’s familiar red lettering comes into view on the side of the building, followed by long, high glass panels and eventually a rank of SUVs and people carriers at street level. The Honda building is on the other side of a busy crossroads, but there is no doubt whose territory this is. The billboards for two hundred metres either way display exclusively Honda produce, suited businesspeople zip to and from the station with red and black lanyards swinging from their necks, and Accords with tinted windows mysteriously disappear and reappear from a concealed gap in the hedges.
Unusually for the head office of such a big corporation, there is no guard on the ground floor sitting behind a desk and no row of airport metal detectors. Instead, passers-by are encouraged to come in to a light and airy hall filled with the latest Honda cars and bikes and sample the produce first-hand. As the curved glass sliding doors part I am greeted with big bows and even bigger smiles from two air hostess-like figures dressed entirely in white. A couple of petrol pump attendants, still in their work overalls, sit on top of a pair Goldwing touring bikes by the window, chatting and laughing as they point out the new features on the latest model to each other. Immediately in front of me, a Honda Insight Hybrid car rotates sedately on a turntable, showing off its Japan Car of the Year trophies.
Before I have a chance to take a good look around the ground floor, my petrolhead instincts kick in and I make a beeline for the jet black Civic Type-R stationed in the middle of the exhibition hall. Now, we’ve all seen hot Civics before, but this is not a Type-R as we know it. From the front it looks fairly similar to the European Civic albeit with slightly bigger headlights, but instead of curving down behind the front doors to form a neat little hatchback, this model’s roofline stretches onwards to accommodate two additional doors and, wait for it, a boot. Sounds pretty unappealing – not to mention heavy – when you read the description on paper, but in reality it works quite well. Extremely well, actually. The end product is something like a three-quarter size Evo 6, a squat, stocky saloon as opposed to a compact hatchback.
Crucially, however, the information panel sprouting out of the floor in front of the car tells me this has roughly twenty horses more than its EU equivalent. Those that have driven both models also inform me that the extra length of the saloon lends it some extra stability, but unfortunately the four-door – or FD2 as über-nerds like me prefer to call it – is only available in Japan, Malaysia and I believe Singapore.
Just as I’m about to go and ask if it’s okay to clamber inside these things or take a peek under the bonnet, a primary school kid charges at the Type-R, vaulting into the air and torpedoing himself through the open window of the Civic before bouncing off the passenger seat and coming to rest against the steering wheel with a disconcerting crack. The air hostesses at the desk don’t so much as bat an eyelid as the boy’s father jogs across to join his offspring in the cockpit. Nor are the staff bothered when a husband and wife hoick open the R’s bonnet and have an extensive poke around the 220bhp motor. The answer to my question would be yes, then.
Having had a good look round a Civic rally car before I’m not too fussed by the inner workings of the saloon model, but what I am extremely interested in is the adjacent Insight Hybrid. The fantastic thing about the Insight is that it looks exactly like a standard car, with no aesthetic modifications or concessions to accommodate the electric power. Inside is a similar story, the Insight to all intents and purposes feeling like a Civic or Accord apart from the little dial on the dash that tells you how much electricity you’re using in relation to petrol and the small voltage graphic on the start button. I know hybrid cars aren’t the perfect solution to our energy worries, but to think how much the Honda Insight has come on since the weird two-door thing with the massive battery in the back hit the roads in the late 1990s really does make me think it is possible to make non-petrol powered vehicles work if we want to.
It is at this point an elderly Japanese gentleman approaches me, smartly dressed in a suit jacket, tie and cravat. He asks me why I like Hondas so much, and so begins a lengthy conversation that covers every aspect of the Japanese marque’s history and draws on all of my limited Honda knowledge. This is Kosugi-san. A lifelong employee of Honda until he retired six years ago, Kosugi-san now divides his time between lecturing in business management at a number of Tokyo universities and tending to his personal collection of memorabilia housed in the Honda building.
In a stroke of good timing so well orchestrated you could accuse me of having staged it, an ASIMO display commences not long after I meet Kosugi-san. If Kosugi-san is the embodiment of Honda’s past, so ASIMO is the perfect illustration of Honda’s future. A frighteningly developed robot capable of walking, moving its arms, grasping objects, sensing changes in incline, negotiating obstacles and recognising human faces, ASIMO is arguably the Honda corporation’s flagship product. Following a short pithy film about the evolution of humankind, the little white robot pumps and squeaks its way out onto the stage, waving at the assembled crowd before proceeding to run, jump and dance during a fifteen-minute display of human engineering prowess. All the time a video plays in the background showing ASIMOs carrying trays of drinks, helping secretaries carry folders and documents around their offices, walking hand in hand down corridors with humans and undertaking all manner of other tasks Joe Public is not allowed to see them perform in public yet.
Whist it is very impressive, two things strike me about ASIMO. One is that it serves to hammer home just how complex and finely honed the human body is. It has taken Honda at least ten years and goodness knows how many millions of pounds to produce a five-foot being that walks like it’s been shot in the kneecaps and occasionally keels over when tackling challenging series of steps. A standard Scottish person, by contrast, can be transformed into a machine of similar capabilities with only £20 worth of alcohol from the nearest off-license. The second is the potential of this technology to be used for malicious means. As I watch a section of the backing movie showing a wide-eyed ASIMO waving at a human it recognises while it carries a tray of water cups into a boardroom meeting, a shiver runs down my spine as I realise that if one of these things can grasp objects and recongise faces, it is only a short step to replace the tea tray with a gun. Maybe that’s just me being a bit too deep and depressing, but with the great possibilities that this kind of technology opens up I can’t help but feel there also comes great responsibility.
Philosophising aside, the Honda robot is still mightily impressive and draws a hearty round of applause from the audience. I know it’s only an exercise in showing what can be done with new technology, but this drive for innovation surely has a part to play in making Honda one of the world’s few car companies to be posting profits at the moment. The trophies clustered around the front bumper of the Insight on the turntable and the performance figures squeezed out from the Type-R’s modest two-litre, four-cylinder engine attest to this.
Before I leave, Kosugi-san shows me his memorabilia, which is plastered along one of the walls by the entrance to the Honda HQ. This is a man who has seen all of Honda’s motorsport history unfold around him during his time in the company. “Soichiro Honda, the company’s president, went to the Isle of Man, saw the TT Races, and said that within five years Honda would win. The first year the Honda bikes came, everyone laughed,” he says, gesturing towards a frame containing five pin badges and a gold plaque as if to cue up the twist in his story’s tale. “Five years later, Honda bikes won all of the main races.”
We continue to look at Honda’s first F1 cars, pictures of Ayrton Senna, plaques marking MotoGP successes and, curiously, badges marking each of Takuma Sato’s years in F1. It is an impressive collection, but I notice something is missing. Rallying. Honda has excelled at the top level in just about every motorsport discipline that exists apart from rallying, but if the showing during November’s Rally of Scotland is anything to go by that could be about to change. As I exchange business cards and leave with a strong bow, I think back to what we’re doing in Scotland with the Honda Civics. There’s a long way to the top of rallying from the Civic Challenge, but in a few years I’d like to think that one of our crews might be doing something in a Honda that earns them a place in Kosugi-san’s collection.