Honda Almost an `American' Company

`I truly believe [Honda] is an American company in substance,'' says automaker Soichiro Honda, the 82-year-old Japanese legend who founded the company bearing his name amid the rubble of the second world war. And not without reason. The United States market is now Honda Motor Company Ltd.'s largest market, larger even than Japan. Though Honda trails Nissan and Toyota at home, it leads them in passenger vehicle sales (not including light trucks and vans) in the US.

During the past decade, Honda has invested more than $2 billion in the US. A second Honda manufacturing plant will open before the end of the year in East Liberty, Ohio, next door to the Marysville plant where the company builds automobiles and motorcycles and where Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc., has its headquarters. Honda also makes engines in Anna, Ohio.

When the East Liberty plant becomes operational before the end of the year, Honda will have a US work force of 13,000.

Honda even exports American-made cars to Japan. By the end of the year, 10,000 Accord Coupes - made only in Marysville - will have been shipped there. US-made Accord Sedans are exported to Taiwan, and small number of Accords are sent to South Korea. American Honda expects to add new foreign markets.

It was fitting, then, that ``Honda-san'' this month became the first figure from the Japanese auto industry to be inducted into the US Automotive Hall of Fame in Midland, Mich., taking his place alongside Ransom E. Olds, Louis Chevrolet, and Henry Ford.

In fact, Ford deserves some of the credit for inspiring Mr. Honda's career in the auto industry. The Japanese mechanic, tinkerer, and businessman was only six when he first saw an automobile, a rare Model T Ford, passing through his village.

``I still remember vividly the kind of enjoyment I had smelling that oil slick which that Model T Ford left on the ground,'' Honda says. ``It was then I dreamed of manufacturing a car myself some day.''

It would take him another half century to realize that dream, and in the process, Honda took on first the Japanese automotive establishment, and then the US auto industry.

In his teens, he began racing cars he built himself. But the career was cut short in 1936 when, after setting a Japanese speed record and heading toward a first-place finish in the All-Japan Speed Rally, his car went out of control and flipped over.

Undaunted, he devoted the same dedication to his new business, living hermit-like on a tatami mat in his factory, and struggling to find new ways to make low-cost, high-quality castings.

When the war ended, Honda sold his business - which had been all-but ruined by Allied bombs and an earthquake, and took a year off. But then he resurfaced, building motorcycles at a ramshackle plant that had barely survived the war.

His devotion to quality became all-encompassing. One time, he rapped a worker on the head with a wrench because he wasn't tightening bolts properly.

``I'm so quick-tempered,'' Honda admits.

Honda had to struggle to distinguish his products from those of his many competitors. And he successfully turned back to racing to get his name out to the public.

But his biggest challenge came in 1962. The nearly omnipotent Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) had just created a master plan for the Japanese auto industry limiting the number of manufacturers. But Honda wanted to start building cars.

Rather than fight through the labyrinthian bureaucracy, he took his case to the public, winning enough support to force MITI to bend its rules.

Today, Honda is the world's 11th largest manufacturer of passenger vehicles, producing about 1.9 million cars a year. Mr. Honda retired from his company in 1973, but he does retain the title of ``Supreme Advisor.''

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