It would be incorrect to refer to Nobuhiko Kawamoto as Sir Nobuhiko, because as a Japanese citizen he does not have the right to use the title Sir – despite the fact that he is a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – and is allowed to put the letters KBE after his name.
Kawamoto was born in Tokyo, early in 1936. One of his first memories was watching Japanese warplanes taking off for a bombing raids in China. He became fascinated by machines. The war ended with Japan’s defeat when Kawamoto was nine, and his teenage years were spent with Japan occupied by U.S. forces. As Japan recovered, he studied engineering at Tōhoku University in Sendai and, while there, he won a scholarship, using the money to race a second-hand motorcycle, while his family continued to send him funds for tuition and to live. Later, when he had a good job, he repaid his father. At the same time, he was the leader of a club which was founded to rebuild the cars the Americans had left behind when they departed in 1952.
After completing his Masters, he joined Honda’s research and development division in 1963, having become a big fan of the company when Soichiro Honda decided to take on the world in motorcycle racing, trying to win the Isle of Man TT. Kawamoto was soon sent to Europe as a designer and development engineer for the Honda F1 programme, writing long technical reports about each race and mailing them home to Japan. The team learned quickly and started to winning, but withdrew from the sport in 1968 after Jo Schlesser was killed driving one of the Honda F1 cars at Rouen.
Kawamoto moved over to production vehicles in Japan, working on the design of the Civic, which appeared in 1972, and the advanced CVCC engine. He became head of Honda R&D in 1981. This led to the company returning to racing with a successful Formula 2 engine programme with Ralt, which resulted in three European F2 titles between 1982 and 1984. In 1983 the Honda board decided to return to F1 as an engine supplier and over the next nine seasons won a string of F1 titles with Williams and then McLaren, the company enjoying unprecedented success.
The company tradition had always been have to racers at the head of the firm: Soichiro Honda was followed in 1973 by Kiyoshi Kawashima, who had led the Isle of Man TT team. When he retired in 1983, Tadashi Kume, who had designed engines for the TT and F1 programmes, took over. And in 1990 Kawamoto became the fourth president of Honda. The company was then facing a hostile takeover by Mitsubishi, had an ageing product range and was not paying enough attention to what the market wanted. Unpalatable though it was to him, Kawamoto ended Honda’s F1 programme in 1992. In the years that followed he focussed the company on its technology and products and turned the business around, restructuring and increasing profits from $540 million in 1990 to $1.78 billion six years later.
Kawamoto the racer remained. He quietly oversaw the development of a Honda-Honda F1 test car in Japan. He even drove it. He was keen to have Honda back in F1 and in 1998 moves began to have a Honda team, with a prototype designed by Harvey Postlethwaite and built by Dallara, but Kawamoto was then pushed out by other factions at Honda and the project died. Honda engines would return to F1 with BAR in 2000 and the firm would later take over the team and run a factory programme from 2006 to 2008, but without Kawamoto, the ethos – and the level of success – were different.