Mr. Honda’s lively spirit found in vintage 1972 Coupe 7

Thick, white, oily smoke billows up from a 10-foot-high bonfire to ooze out across the highway; like the incense you might find burning in a Japanese temple, it’s both a purification and a blessing.

For a moment, this little Honda is shrouded in smoke. But only briefly – on the other side of the fire, the road stretches on ahead into the mountain passes, mostly empty, bright and dry, endlessly climbing.

It’s a pilgrimage of sorts, a trip to understand a dead man better in the only true way possible: by seeing something he made, the last thing he crafted. This modern Civic coupe is on its way to pay respect to a far-off ancestor; I am on my way to meet Soichiro Honda.

Soichiro Honda was born in a small village near Mount Fuji on November 17, 1906. His father, Gihei, was a respected blacksmith, and his mother, Mika, was a skilled weaver and artisan. Somewhere between the creativity inspired by the loom and the technical mastery required by the forge, Soichiro would find his calling.

Honda Coupe 7

This 1972 Honda Coupe 7 is the only such car in all of North America.
Brendan McAleer, Driving

His inspiration, on the other hand, came as part of a chance encounter. One day, while out playing, the young Honda saw a wheeled vision, sputtering and clattering along through the streets of his tiny village.

His jaw dropped. What was this? He sprinted after the car as it rumbled off into the distance, running in the all-out way that only the very young can manage. His nostrils smelled the tang of the exhaust. His ears filled with the noise of internal combustion. When he finally stopped, utterly winded, he saw a patch of oil and knelt down, rubbing it between his fingers. It was the beginning of an obsession.

Nearly a century later, the company that bears his name is the largest manufacturer of small engines in the world, and a global powerhouse in the automotive sphere. It makes luxury crossovers with trick torque-vectoring rear differentials, plug-in hybrid sedans that actually work for a full-sized family, an upcoming hybridized supercar that uses electric engines up front to control its power, and efficient little urban runabouts. And also a humanoid robot. And a jet. And lawnmowers.

Probably most familiar to the average Canadian is the car I’m travelling in, the ubiquitous Honda Civic. We love these things, specc’ing options sparingly on our first new car out of college, picking up a gently used one for our kids on the cheap, downsizing to a fully loaded model when retirement means so-long minivan. Heck, even our less-ethical citizenry loves the Civic: older versions without alarms and immobilizers constantly make the most-stolen list.

Honda Coupe 7

2014 Honda Civic Coupe
Brendan McAleer, Driving

This one is a coupe, one trim level up from basic. It’s refreshed for 2014, with a new front end that’s a bit more aggressive – as is the modern trend – a bit more stiffening to the rear suspension, and the addition of paddle-shifters and a CVT transmission. The 1.8L engine isn’t exactly a powerhouse at just 143 hp, but the car zips past the semi-trailers and claws its way up the mountain passes, while wind whips dust up from bare patches between dirty drifts of snow.

If you’re expecting Soichiro’s story to take the usual path of discipline and rigorous study, it doesn’t. In fact, his first recorded creation was a hand-crafted rubber stamp bearing his family name, used to forge his parents’ signatures when he brought home terrible report cards from school. It became a cottage industry of sorts for Honda, and he was soon cranking out stamps for his schoolmates.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before the jig was up: Soichiro didn’t realize that the stamps only produced mirror images – fine for his symmetrical family name, a problem for others. His father punished him more for the design error than for the cheeky transgression.

At 15 years old, Honda left his village for an automotive garage in Tokyo. He was armed with a broad array of mechanical skills as his father had branched out into bicycle manufacture and repair, and the dexterity and craftsmanship of both his parents practically hummed in his veins.

Honda Coupe 7

A rare 1972 Honda Coupe 7.
Brendan McAleer, Driving

The garage was called Art Shokai, and it fixed and serviced pretty much anything. This being the 1920s, cars were very much unique and customized affairs, so Soichiro was exposed to a huge variety of what different engineers thought a car should be.

He also assisted in the building and repairing of the racing cars that Art Shokai produced, notably a Mitchell chassis into which was swapped the engine out of a Curtiss A1 biplane. For his work, Honda received food, lodging, and little else. The real value was in learning things no formal education could impart.

In contrast to other Japanese companies, where leadership came in a natural progression through higher learning, Honda tended to bullhead his way through problems. Like many geniuses who would go on to see their names emblazoned on a grille, he relied heavily on his creativity and sheer determination. Most of the time it worked, but sometimes it wasn’t enough.

At some point, Soichiro had found further refinement of his obsession, slaving over an improved design for the piston ring. He hoped to sell these to Toyota, already a well-established company, and spent hours and hours refining the metallurgy and design. He submitted thousands of the things for approval. Toyota accepted 50, and then returned all but three based on poor quality.

Honda Coupe 7

Old brochures for an early Honda Coupe 7.
Brendan McAleer, Driving

The blow came as Honda was recovering from a brutal racing crash, where he had fractured his arm and dislocated his shoulder. Rather than giving up, he returned to school, forcing himself through a challenging program of constant study at a gruelling pace. It is said that the combination of work at the garage, his personal projects, and the constant pressures of learning actually changed his face, adding years. In an interview with any Honda employee, you will hear him referred to as the Old Man.

Then, war broke out. Honda was spared military service because of colour-blindness, but many of his workers were drafted off. His piston-ring factory, now moderately successful, turned to wartime production. American bombers eventually reduced it to rubble.

When the war ended, Honda took his patents, sold his business to Toyota, and spent a portion of the proceeds on a giant distilling apparatus, which he kept in his backyard. In a time of despair, there was much drinking of homemade whiskey.

However, the Allies elected to rebuild Japan, and in the midst of that reconstruction effort, Honda founded the company that would grow to become the realization of his first obsession. At first, he adapted tiny, readily available military radio-generators for use on mopeds – these could run on pressed fir oil in gasoline-starved Japan – and later expanded into motorcycle production. Honda’s first proper bike was created in 1949: built of stamped-steel and painted a deep maroon, it was called the D-type, and also the Dream.

Honda Coupe 7

New and old. Hondas sure have changed over the years.
Brendan McAleer, Driving

I arrange to meet Lindsay Thachuk just outside Vernon, at a viewpoint overlooking placid Kalamalka Lake. You can see his car from a kilometre away as it gleams in the morning sun, snow-white and seemingly brand-new.

As luck would have it, a coach full of Japanese tourists is also at the lookout, snapping pictures of the glassy lake and the rocky hills, and more than one or two casts a curious eye at the 40-year-old machine. It is a 1972 Honda Coupe 7, the only such car in all of North America, and possibly the only one in the world that’s had just one owner since new.

“I saw it at the Melbourne auto show, and just knew that was the one I wanted.” Thachuk, shortish, silver-bearded, and with a quick laugh and an easy-going temperament, is clearly nuts about this little car. While teaching in Australia in the 1970s, he’d grown tired of the recalcitrant behaviour of his Mini, and wanted something a bit more reliable.

The Coupe 7, and its slightly more-powerful variant, the Coupe 9, was the last vehicle Soichiro ever personally touched. Intended to compete with pedestrian fare like the Nissan Bluebird and the Toyota Corona, it was Honda’s very first full-sized car, and the company’s first foray into the proper passenger car market. Truth be told, it was a bit of sales disaster.

Honda Coupe 7

The engine of the 1972 Honda Coupe 7.
Brendan McAleer, Driving

It’s a very odd car. The engine is air-cooled like a Volkswagen Beetle, but mounted transversely in a conventional front-wheel-drive layout. Front-wheel-drive wasn’t at all common in the 1970s, nor was this little Honda’s other innovation, a fully independent rear suspension.

Honda nearly killed his engineering team making this car. The production line would be continually stopped as a new idea or refinement popped into his head, and then the Old Man would be roaring and shouting to back the line up, do it over, make it perfect. At one point, senior engineers actually set up a desk intended to funnel Soichiro’s instructions so that the production team didn’t lose their minds from constant interruption.

It’s a car full of clever little touches and wonderment. There’s no sump – oil is fed through the engine by a pressurized oil tank, and a fan routes air past the engine for cooling. Flip a switch and that hot air comes directly into the cabin, making for a car that heats passengers up in seconds.

The wiring system is duplicated on each side of the car so a complete failure can’t happen. The fuel pump is electric, also an innovation at the time. In preparation for today’s trip, Thachuk lowered the car onto its tires after a winter spent on jack stands, reconnected the battery, turned the key one click and waited for the pump to prime – and then it fired right up. He drives it very rarely, but it’s always ready to go.

Isn’t it a pretty little thing? They were never sold in Canada, but space was found in a container when Thachuk moved back here.

Honda Coupe 7

This Coupe 7 is beautifully preserved and almost entirely original.
Brendan McAleer, Driving

Grabbing first with my left hand (it’s right-hand-drive), the Coupe 7 zips out of the lot, and onto the winding cliffside road. Just about 96 hp is available from the single-carb 1,300-cc engine, a power output that reportedly had Eiji Toyoda asking his engineering team, “Why can’t we do that?” For such a lightweight car, it’s plenty.

To describe the drive in a single word, it’s effervescent. Thachuk’s Coupe 7 is beautifully preserved and almost entirely original, and its planted, light, and thrilling to drive. You could zip to the corner store in one of these for a fun jaunt, or you could drive it straight to the Baja peninsula without discomfort. It’s more stable than you’d expect for an old car, zippier than its contemporaries, lively and lithe despite having the entry-level engine.

After the protracted birth and weak sales of the Coupe 7, Honda retired in 1973. His engineers had just produced the Civic CVCC, a car that would make his name a household world. He would live on to see his company flourish, competing at the highest level in Formula One, creating Acura and releasing the NSX. He died in 1991, at the age of 84.

These days, Honda has taken criticism for losing some of that originality once imparted by its thunderstorm of a founder. This new Civic is a bit livelier than previous efforts, and perhaps a step in the right direction.

But here, on an old road in an old car, I can feel Soichiro’s true spirit in the way his last car dances its way through the curves, that air-cooled four-cylinder humming away happily. You can see him, perhaps, a running boy, his legs windmilling, his laughing face, the shout of joy as he reaches out with hand outspread, and finally brushes his fingertips against the surface of his dream.

Honda Coupe 7

The new Honda Civic Coupe is a step in the right direction.
Brendan McAleer, Driving

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