Soichiro Honda may have been the genius engineer behind Honda Motor Company, but brains alone can’t sell products. For that, Honda-san relied on his friend and business partner Takeo Fujisawa (from left to right: Kiyoshi Kawashima, Soihciro Honda, Takeo Fujisawa), a brilliant marketing and sales strategist. Together, they were able to bring Honda from a tiny motorcycle outfit to one of the most recognizable brands in the world. The Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Michigan has announced that Fujisawa will be among their 2023 inductees.
In 1989 Soichiro Honda became the first Japanese auto executive to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. That Fujisawa’s honor comes 34 years later is in no way indicative of his impact on the company. Fujisawa was born in Tokyo in 1910. He didn’t have much in the way of formal schooling, but while working for a steel company his talents as a salesman became evident, and he quickly became the firm’s best dealer. He later went solo and started his own company for manufacturing industrial cutting tools.
Through his cutting tool business he became acquainted with Hiroshi Takeshima of Nakajima Aircraft (later in part spun off into Subaru), who told him of an engineering whiz in Hamamatsu making piston rings by the name of Soichiro Honda. In 1949 Takeshima finally set up an in-person meeting between Fujisawa and Honda, who had just launched his first motorcycle, the Dream Type-D.
Legend has it they immediately hit it off, seeing in the other the talents each lacked. Honda was a brilliant engineer but was a notoriously difficult man to get along with. Fujisawa had the people skills and marketing know-how to build relationships and get Honda’s products into customers’ hands.
Over the years Fujisawa made key moves that grew Honda into the multinational juggernaut it is today. In 1959 he pushed the company to enter the American market, where the Super Cub became a surprise hit. In 1960 he fulfilled his long-held dream of establishing a standalone R&D arm. At the time an independent research division was unheard of in Japanese industry, but Fujisawa was convinced that giving engineers the freedom to innovate would pay Honda dividends in the long run, and he was right.
By the 1970s Soichiro Honda’s iron grip on the company began to reveal weaknesses in the system. Honda-san’s insistence on developing air-cooled engines rather than water-cooled ones had threatened to set the company back in the face of new emissions requirements. It was clear that new blood needed to ascend within the company. Fujisawa put in his resignation in 1973. “I can’t be the president without Takeo Fujisawa,” Honda-san said. “If the executive vice-president is quitting, then I’ll quit with him.”
By then, Honda had evolved from a small regional business to a global juggernaut. Thanks to the duo of Honda and Fujisawa, it had become the biggest motorcycle maker in the world and was on the brink of launching game-changing automobiles. It’s well-known that employees fondly referred to Soichiro Honda “the Old Man,” but to Takeo Fujisawa, they affectionately called him “Uncle.”
Fujisawa joins General Motors CEO Mary Barra, five-time Formula 1 champion Juan Manuel Fangio, auto designer McKinley Thompson, and long-time Hot Wheels designer Larry Wood as 2023 inductees into the Automotive Hall of Fame.