Honda, one of the world’s largest-volume producers of internal-combustion engines, is a famously multifaceted organization. Even as it launches the vitally important new Civic (page 70), the company is celebrating a milestone in its mission to become the only automaker to manufacture airplanes (but far from the first; see next page). After several delays, the first FAA-conforming example of the $4.5 million HondaJet has begun test flights, achieving a top speed of 489 mph and moving a step closer to production.
The radical design was imagined long ago by Honda Aircraft Company CEO Michimasa Fujino and claims structural and aerodynamic advantages. The lightweight composite fuselage features natural laminar flow, and the wings are aluminum with single-piece skins. The engines are perched above the wings, as on the unsuccessful 1970s VFW-Fokker 614 regional airliner, which reduces structural weight, protects against debris ingestion, and allows for shorter, lighter landing gear. Honda expects as much as 20 percent fuel-efficiency superiority versus conventional jets. Power will come from two of Honda’s own 2050-pounds-thrust turbofan engines, which were developed in collaboration with General Electric.
Honda’s work on jets began in 1986, when the company worked with Mississippi State University to build the MH-02 — the first-ever all-composite light business jet — which took flight in 1993. Lessons learned have been applied to the current, quite differently shaped airplane. A proof-of-concept example first flew in December 2003 from Honda’s base at the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, North Carolina, a hundred years after the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk.
The jet will be produced in a newly completed Greensboro factory at an anticipated rate of up to 100 per year. There are more than 100 advance orders. As it did with motorcycles, and then with cars, Honda is starting this adventure with a carefully thought-out, well-engineered, and thoroughly tested product that we expect to have an influence on the aircraft industry disproportionately larger than its modest production volume.
Back Roads to Blue Skies
Planes and cars have long since gone their separate ways, but they were once two sides of the same industrial coin. Here’s a rundown of many dalliances, both successful and otherwise, between automakers and airplanes. — Robert Cumberford
Alfa built aircraft engines of its own design in the 1920s and 1930s. It produced Daimler-Benz V-12 engines under license during World War II.
Rolls-Royce Group, the second-largest builder of aircraft engines in the world, has been estranged from the car company since 1973 (including Bentley, which itself started as an airplane-engine builder during WWI). However, it retained rights to the Rolls-Royce name and logo until it sold them to BMW in 1998 — a nasty surprise to Volkswagen, which had bought Rolls-Royce Motor Cars earlier that year.
Bavarian Motor Works started out as a manufacturer of aircraft engines and branched out into cars after WWI. BMW has maintained some involvement in jet engines, including a relationship with Rolls-Royce, which helped in the acquisition of the Rolls-Royce name and logo.
No Bugatti airplane ever flew, but sixteen-cylinder engines built by Ettore Bugatti for aircraft use are on display at the Smithsonian Institution and at the Air Force museum near Dayton, Ohio. Bugatti also worked on a speed-record plane. Its aerodynamic wooden frame currently resides in the Experimental Aircraft Association museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Hopes for production of a Citroen helicopter were quashed when the company was acquired by Peugeot. A prototype was displayed at Retromobile a few years ago.
Among myriad aviation exploits, Fiat powered the fastest propeller-driven seaplane ever built, which hit 424 mph in 1933.
Ford mortified auto-industry insiders when it named Boeing engineer Alan Mulally CEO, but the automaker was itself a leading producer of airliners in the 1920s. The corrugated-aluminum skins on those Jazz Age aircraft seem to have made them immune to metal fatigue. Many are still flying today.
Responding to Great Britain’s desperate need for fighter aircraft during WWII, GM’s North American Aviation designed, built, and flew the P-51 Mustang in an incredible 150 days. In 1985, GM purchased Hughes Aircraft for $5.2 billion, only to unload most of it by 2003. However, it absorbed much of Hughes Electronics, whose expertise played a critical role in the development of the EV1.
Lotus developed an engine for small sporty aircraft in the early 1980s. It ran well but was never put into production, presumably because of company founder Colin Chapman’s death.
Most WWII German fighter planes were powered by Mercedes-Benz 600-series V-12 engines. The firm also built engines for Zeppelins, including the ill-fated Hindenburg.
“A car from the wonderful folks who brought you the Zero” wouldn’t have made for much of a U.S. advertising campaign. After the war, Mitsubishi built the MU-2, an exciting turboprop with a horrendous accident record.
Efforts to certify 356 and later 911 engines for aircraft use proved to be expensive failures.
Louis Renault was extremely interested in the pioneering French aviators and established an aviation department in 1907. Renault built V-12 aircraft engines until the 1950s for French military transports.
The “born from jets” slogan is simple bull — Saab’s first products were prop planes — but there were vestiges of aeronautical practice in its cars, at least until GM made them into near-clones of Opels, Chevrolets, and Subarus. The now-separate Saab AB, meanwhile, continues to thrive as an aerospace company.