Thirty years ago, the first Accord rolled off the line at Honda's Marysville, Ohio, plant, the first car a Japanese automaker assembled in the U.S., changing the competitive landscape of American automaking forever.
From an underdog carmaker known in Japan as a cadre of engine geeks, Honda established a trust with young American consumers not unlike the way today's Millennial generation flocks to Apple stores. "They were seen as dirty-fingernailed motorcycle mechanics and got no respect in Japan," said Dave Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research. "So they decided to grow elsewhere to become a strong international company."
Since those early industrial seedlings nurtured in what used to be Ohio cornfields, Honda's North American manufacturing network now spans seven auto plants in the U.S., Canada and Mexico with more under construction, in addition to its motorcycle and power equipment operations.
Honda has invested $12.3 billion in the U.S. -- $8 billion in Ohio -- employs more than 26,000 Americans and has never laid off a worker. Workers were retained and paid for months when Ohio plants cut production following the tsunami in Japan.
The original silver-gray 1983 Accord that rolled off the line Nov. 1, 1982, with a blue and white Ohio license plate "USA 001" is on display at the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn.
Though its world headquarters remains in Japan, Honda makes and sells more cars in North America than in any other continent. The seven plants can produce 1.63 million vehicles a year now and will boost annual capacity to 1.92 million vehicles when a new$800-million plant in Celaya, Mexico, starts production in 2014.
"It has had the most profound effect on the industry," said Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive Consulting in Northville. It wasn't just the introduction of Japanese culture, but philosophies and practices that helped establish new benchmarks for engineering, manufacturing and quality.
The competition made everyone's cars better.
"Honda showed a Japanese company could go into the American heartland and establish a non-union facility with unique and foreign work practices and suppliers and be successful and continue to expand over a quarter century," Robinet said.
Amid tremendous skepticism, "they showed American workers could build vehicles as well as other countries," he said. Workers were recruited primarily from rural communities, where many applicants tended to their farms before or after clocking out from the factory.
Honda will invest another $2 billion by 2014 in the U.S., Canada and Mexico and the roughly 900 engineers at Honda R&D Americas in Ohio are charged with developing global vehicles such as the next-generation Civic for 2016 and a new NSX sports car.
But the company's resolution to do everything itself when others outsource and form partnerships has raised questions about whether the strategy will continue to be a winning one.
Recently industry observers have attacked Honda's styling, which has never been particularly daring, as too bland. The new Civic is getting a hasty redesign.
Honda's three-decade journey began with former Ohio Gov. James Rhodes and Honda founder Soichiro Honda. Rhodes convinced Honda-san to start making motorcycles in Marysville in 1979. That led to a $3.9-billion investment and the car assembly plant that launched three years later.
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