Make no bones about it, Honda Motor Company is an automaker led by engineers. This fiercely independent company is not led by teams of stylists all wearing designer eyewear and black turtlenecks nor is it led by cost cutting bean counters. At Honda, it is the engineers who are the rock stars.
These engineers are the people who brought us the NSX, the CR-X, the compact car redefining Fit, every generation of Prelude, Civic, Accord, the CR-V and most recently the 2011 Odyssey. With every unveiling of a new generation model, Honda almost always manages to snag “Best in Class” honors away from the competition. The proof is in the myriad “Car of the Year,” “10 Best” and sundry other awards that Honda has won over the years. I wonder where all those awards are kept?
Getting back to the main point here, I was presented with a unique opportunity at the 2011 Honda CR-Z press launch and that was the honor of interviewing Norio Tomobe who was the Chief Engineer for the project. In Honda terms, it was kind of like interviewing Mick Jagger.
And as I had seen that Mr. Tomobe (or Tomobe-san in Japanese) looked weary and no doubt was tired of talking about just CR-Z related issues, I decided to respectfully ask him questions that were totally off topic. What I wanted to find out was were his passions, past loves (most especially automotive), what he liked to do in his spare time and just genuinely be interested in trying to get to know the guy. Because when you understand the man, you will understand the car he built.
Oh yes, and did I mention that Tomobe-san doesn’t speak any English? Yes, this entire interview went on through an interpreter. It was odd to me, however, that through laughter, facial expressions and gesturing I could understand the gist of each of his answers before the interpreter even spoke.
Perhaps when you drive the 2011 Honda CR-Z you too will be able to see what led Tomobe-san to pursue certain goals during the development process. For example, I learned why he designed the CR-Z to have the lowest center of gravity of any hybrid car ever built. (Hint: He loves the Porsche 911 which has a very low center of gravity thanks to that low slung flat six cylinder which rides in the rear of that iconic sports car.)
Or you can just take this as an examination of what a very successful Honda “rock star” likes to do when he isn’t creating cool cars.
Q: What in Life Truly Inspires You?
A: “Right now I don’t have a lot of time to listen to music but when I was young, a teenager, I liked The Beatles, Soul Music, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross. Those were my favorites.”
Q: What was your first motorcycle? (The licensing age for motorcycles is 16 and for cars it is 18)
A: When I turned 16 I bought a Honda CB90 motorcycle and I loved that thing. Then, when I turned 18 I bought a much more powerful Honda CB350 motorcycle and had a very bad side impact collision where I flew off my bike and wound up going up and over the hood of the car I hit. I did not ride motorcycles after that.
Q: What was your first car and what cars do you own now?
A: My first car was a Honda 1300 coupe and it was used. My first brand new car was a 1976 Honda Accord hatchback. Right now in my driveway there is a red CR-Z, my BMW 323i sedan and a Honda Stream minivan that my wife drives.
Q: What was the car that you were first truly passionate about?
A: The Porsche 911. A friend of mine had one, say 23 years ago. It was cool because I got to ride around in it, I loved the noise that the engine made but the only drawback was that the clutch at the time was very heavy for city traffic.
Q: What is your favorite Honda or Acura model of all time?
A: My favorite is still the Acura NSX with the pop-up headlights but when you get older you realize the value of something that is a little more practical.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
A: I love golf. I love playing it and watching it. I love Tiger Woods, I love Jack Nicklaus. I love how spirited the whole game feels especially when I am playing it.
Q: If you don’t mind me asking, how well do you play?
A: My golf handicap is 8 and I have had 3 holes in one. But in Japan your golf caddy has to see you make the hole in one for it to count. If you are just playing with your buddies you are out of luck.
Q: Don’t you need to have “Hole in One Insurance” in Japan because you have to throw a big, expensive party for everyone you know if you get one?
A: Yes, I do have it now but I didn’t have it for the first and it cost me dearly. Or at least it seemed very expensive at the time.
Q: What did you think of the Tiger Woods scandal?
A: I think his personal life has nothing to do with the scale of his talent at the end of the day. What he does in his personal life is no business of mine.
Q: Have you seen any good movies lately?
A: The last movie I saw was “The Blind Side” with Sandra Bullock. That was a very, very good movie. I always enjoy her films.
Q: Do you have any favorite actors and actresses?
A: I love Michelle Pfeiffer and all of her films. I also love Harrison Ford. But most especially I love watching all of the Indiana Jones movies. Those are excellent.
Q: Have you seen the fourth Indiana Jones movie that came out last year called “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?
A: No, I haven’t.
My reply: Don’t bother.
Tomobe-san’s reply: hearty laughter (without the interpreter saying a thing).