Humans have been building cars in quantity for well over a century, and in that time there’s been many, many interesting, unusual, and often downright freaky experiments and variations and concepts, but I feel pretty confident in saying that Honda’s former annual Idea Contests may have been one of the greatest incubators for truly bonkers concepts. I’m pretty sure at least one of these concepts became the folding Motocompo bike and another became the only vertical-driving car ever.
The vehicles featured in these contests were built by Honda employees as opposed to being something officially built by Honda. That’s because it was part of an incredible thing Honda used to do back in the late 1960s to the 1980s, the Honda Idea Contests.
The Honda Idea Contests were, unsurprisingly, the idea of the amazing Soichiro Honda, who saw a parade featuring a giant ball with a Honda N600 engine on top at a sports festival, and it gave him an idea for a “sports festival of dreams and brains!”
That started the Idea Contest, which sounds like it was a really spectacular event, and not one that was just designed to wring out some R&D ideas from employees. According to Honda’s history site, here’s how the Idea Contest was framed:
“What I remember most is Mr. Honda’s words, ‘We’re not holding I-Con for the sake of technological development.’”
I-Con is not work; it is play. When one is at play, one does not feel as though one is being “made to do something.” It is truly a human feeling, as well as a situation in which one’s own initiative is important.
At Honda, work and play have equal significance. When you work, you concentrate on the job at hand, and when you play, you play all you want. As a result, play becomes a good means of working, and work becomes a good means of playing, thus creating synergy. This kind of thinking is apparent in the following address given by Mr. Honda at the fourth I-Con, held at Asaka Tech, an amusement park, in September 1973:
“Thank you for letting me have so much fun all day, today. Now, at the end of I-Con, I can’t keep from smiling. I can’t help thinking how great it would be if one could quietly retain such a sensation and level of excitement throughout life.
So, yeah, it’s all about play! As a result, some really bonkers stuff ended up being made for the Idea Contests over the years, like vehicles with oval or square wheels, a number of strange watercraft, colossal monowheel whatevers, updated takes on ancient Japanese sedan chairs, and so much more.
I want to focus on two vehicles that came out of these wonderful, strange contests. First, there’s the only automobile ever built designed to freely drive in a vertical plane of operation as opposed to a horizontal plane: the Aero Spider.
The Aero Spider, which seems to have been an entry from the 1974 Idea Contest, was described as a “reverse hovercraft,” which meant that it used a fan to move air, but, unlike a hovercraft, which pulls air from above and forces it below the vehicle to create a cushion of air to ride on, the Aero Spider sucks in air from the underside of the vehicle and expels it out the other side to create a suction effect on whatever surface it’s touching.
It’s sort of like the famous Chaparral 2J “fan car” that used ducted fans to help “suck” it down onto the track for better grip, only the Aero Spider is doing this against a wall.
I’ve only been able to find that one image of the Aero Spider from a 1974 issue of Popular Science, and from what I can tell, it looks like the Aero Spider was a likely fibreglass(?) bodied machine, sort of bathtub shaped, that seemed to house its engine and fan in a central spine area that looks to be padded with some kind of diamond-pattern upholstery.
There may be two small engines in there, one for the fan, and one to drive at least one pair of those little wheels at the corners.
The driver stood upright on a little platform on the vehicle (if it was sitting like a conventional car, the driver would be laying on their stomach) and I guess is controlling throttle, gearing of some kind (forward/reverse?), and some manner of steering (?) with their hands. I think.
The picture shows it on the side of a wall, and I suppose it could drive up and down and maybe laterally along the wall? I have yet to find any video of this crazy thing, but I’d love to see it in action.
I don’t think it exists anymore. Not so much because goons sent by Big Elevator destroyed the competition, but because it seems all entries to the Idea Contest were scrapped afterwards, by policy.
The one entry that I think actually did turn into a real product is this one, from 1970:
This “Portable Motorcycle” looks like it was the direct ancestor of the legendary folding motorcycle, the Motocompo, which was built between 1981 and 1983. It appears to fold up into a roughly rectangular volume like the Motocompo, and seems roughly the same dimensions.
I have not found any statements from Honda confirming the Motocompo’s lineage to this Idea Contest entry, but it looks pretty hard to deny, at least to me.
Honda cancelled the annual Idea Contests in 1993, though there seem to be references to recent Honda Super Idea Contests, but they don’t appear to be the all-in-one-place mechanical free-for-alls of the past.
That’s a shame, because Soichiro Honda’s realisation of the value of contructive play I think is as important today as ever, and a modern take on this sort of thing I suspect would produce some really exciting and wonderfully strange results.