The power of dreams: 60 years of Honda in North America

As American Honda celebrates its sixtieth anniversary, we take a look at the vehicles which have helped define the brand in the USA

American Honda 60th Anniversary

2019 has been a special year for Honda, with the company achieving six decades of selling vehicles in North America.

With Honda set to celebrate this achievement at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show, what better time to look back on some of the key moments and vehicles in the life of American Honda. Los Angeles itself also has a special meaning for the company, too.

Where it all began – Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles

American Honda 60th Anniversary

American Honda Motor Inc. was founded in June 1959, with the first store opening at 4077 Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. American Honda was an overseas subsidiary of Honda Motor Co., which had only been founded eleven years before in Japan.

Kihachiro Kawashima was in charge of managing the store, signing up motorcycle dealerships to take Honda products. Early sales were relatively small, but the company still managed to sell 1,700 motorbikes in the first year.

Honda Super Cub 50 and Honda CB160

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Two of key motorbikes sold by Honda were the Super Cub 50 and the CB160. To transport these bikes to dealerships, Honda made use of Chevrolet half-ton pickup trucks. Earlier this year, American Honda restored a Chevy truck to create a replica of those used in the 1960s.

Honda continued to expand its motorbike sales throughout the 1960s, hitting a milestone of 1 million bikes sold by 1968.

The first car – 1970 Honda N600

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Introduced in 1969 for the 1970 model year, the Honda N600 was a compact city car powered by a 2-cylinder engine. US-market models could only achieve a top speed of 81 mph, but their diminutive size and impressive gas mileage were the main attractions.

This particular pictured N600 is VIN 1000001, making it the very first N600 to be sold in the United States. In 2016 Honda tracked down the car, and restored it to original condition as part of an online series.

1973 Honda Civic

American Honda 60th Anniversary

With the N600 having made a positive impression, Honda launched the first-generation Civic for the United States in 1973. Built on a lengthened version of the N600’s chassis, the Civic used a range of more powerful four-cylinder engines.

With the oil crisis gripping the American car industry, the 1975 release of the optional 1.5-liter CVCC engine really proved the worth of the Civic. The enhanced fuel economy of this 53 horsepower engine made it a winner in a country experiencing temporary fuel shortages.

However, not everything was perfect with the original Civic. Rust became a major issue, with American Honda forced to replace body panels and suspension components affected by corrosion.

1979 Honda Accord Sedan

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Honda’s second model for North America was the first-generation Accord, which debuted in 1976 as a three-door hatchback. Larger than the Civic, this was Honda attempting to claim a chunk of the compact car market.

Sedan fans had to wait until 1979 for the first four-door version of the Accord, sold with a 72 horsepower 1.8-liter engine. Features like air conditioning, power steering and a digital clock helped the Accord stand out as a luxurious offering.

Honda begins motorcycle manufacturing in United States

American Honda 60th Anniversary

September 10th 1979 saw Honda produce its first vehicle in North America. The new factory in Marysville, Ohio was responsible for manufacturing the CR250M Elsinore motorcycle. This marked the first time a Japanese manufacturer had built motorbikes in the United States.

Although the Marysville plant started out small with just 64 employees, the company clearly had a plan for progress. Permission to start work on an automobile plant in Ohio was granted several days after the first bike left the production line.

1982 Honda produces first vehicle in America

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Honda invested more than $250 million to build an automobile factory in Marysville, Ohio. It took only two years from breaking ground in 1980, until the first car left the line on November 1st 1982.

The second-generation Honda Accord would prove to be another major success for Honda, becoming a best-seller for a number of years. Although broadly similar to the previous model, the second-gen Accord benefitted from a more upmarket interior. Honda even offered an early in-car navigation system known as the electro Gyrocator.

1984 Honda CRX HF

American Honda 60th Anniversary

The importance of the North American market to Honda’s global operations was hard to ignore. In developing the compact CRX coupe, American Honda gave input on what factors needed to be considered.

The result was the CRX HF, which became the first car to receive a fuel economy rating of more than 50 mpg. The CRX would also see a performance Si version launched, setting the scene for Honda’s association with driving enthusiasts.

1986 Acura Legend launches the luxury brand

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Predating Lexus and Infiniti by several years, in 1986 Honda became the first Japanese manufacturer to launch a dedicated premium brand for North America. Acura was intended to offer both luxury and performance models, tailored to American customers.

Part of the initial launch range was the Acura Legend executive sedan, becoming the first Honda vehicle to offer a V-6 engine. Other early Acura offerings included the compact Integra, sold in three- and five-door body styles.

Honda exports 1988 Accord Coupe back to Japan

American Honda 60th Anniversary

American Honda’s manufacturing output grew throughout the 1980s, with the company achieving a key milestone in 1988. Built exclusively at the factory in Marysville, Ohio, the Coupe version of the third-generation Accord launched for the 1988 model year.

Accord Coupes made in Ohio were exported back to Japan, becoming the first cars built in the USA to be exported there. Honda would also go on to become the leading exporter of American-built cars to Japan.

1991 Acura NSX

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Japan’s first supercar debuted for the 1991 model year, with the mid-engined Acura NSX taking aim at established rivals like Ferrari and Porsche. Launched with a 3.0-liter V-6 engine producing 270 horsepower, lightweight aluminum construction allowed the NSX to focus on handling ability.

Legendary Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna was noted to have helped develop the NSX, whilst styling inspiration was taken from the F-16 fighter jet. The NSX established a reputation for being a supercar that could be used everyday, just like a normal Honda.

1991 Honda Accord Wagon

American Honda 60th Anniversary

With the third-generation Accord having become one of the best-selling cars in America, Honda revealed the Wagon version for the 1991 model year. What made it significant was that this represented the first Honda to be designed, developed, and built in North America.

The Marysville, Ohio factory was responsible for the global production of the Accord Wagon. Along with exporting finished vehicles to Japan, the U.S. factory also produced cars for the European market.

Honda enters CART Indy Car racing in 1994

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Keen to demonstrate the performance of American Honda products on the race track, the company entered the CART Indy Car series as an engine supplier in 1994. Honda Performance Developments had a tough start initially, but working with Chip Ganassi Racing would prove successful.

Ganassi driver Jimmy Vasser claimed the Drivers’ Championship in 1996, with Honda the winning engine manufacturer. Honda engines would also help land another five Driver’ titles, including Alex Zanardi in 1997 and 1998, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya in 1999.

1994 Honda Odyssey

American Honda 60th Anniversary

As Honda was taking to the track, it was also launching the first-generation of the Odyssey minivan in 1994. Recession in Japan, and the effects of the ‘Chicken Tax’ import tariff meant Honda had to be clever about producing their first compact minivan. This included innovations like the third-row of seats which folded flat to the floor.

Later versions of the Odyssey would be built in North America, with the current fifth-generation produced in Lincoln, Alabama. The current Odyssey actually ranks as the second ‘Most American’ car to buy, with more than 90% of its parts and components being made in the USA. 

1997 Honda CR-V

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Revealed in 1995, and introduced to North America for 1997, the CR-V represented Honda’s major entry into the growing compact crossover market. The first-generation CR-V was produced at factories across the globe, but not in the USA until 2007.

The CR-V has become another American winner, with more than 5 million examples sold to date. It has also held the record of being the best-selling crossover in the U.S. across the past 22 years.

1999 Honda Civic Si

American Honda 60th Anniversary

It may look unassuming, but the 1999 Civic Si demonstrated how seriously Honda would take the compact performance segment. Offered for just two years, the two-door model was fitted with the famed B16A2 VTEC 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. It may have had only 160 horsepower, but the VTEC system allowed this to be produced at an impressive 7,000 rpm.

The 1999 Si would form part of a special Honda Challenge, which invited competitors to produce the best modified example with a budget of $10,000. It cemented the sixth-generation Civic Si as a car for the import tuner scene, with Honda maintaining the Si name to date.

2000 Honda S2000

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Announced to help celebrate Honda’s 50th anniversary, the S2000 was inspired by the range of roadster models built in the 1960s. A four-cylinder engine was installed to send power to the rear wheels. Peak power of 250 horsepower from the 2.0-liter unit was made at an eye-watering 7,500 rpm.

American customers were offered a bespoke model for the 2008 model year, with the track-orientated Club Racer. Just 2,000 examples were built, with upgraded suspension, a special aero kit, and a custom tonneau cover replacing the soft top hood.

2000 Honda Insight

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Looking like something from outer space, the Honda Insight became the first hybrid car to be sold in North America when it  debuted in December 1999. The combination of 1.0-liter gasoline engine and electric motor allowed it to obtain an EPA fuel economy rating of 61 mpg.

Its fuel economy was so impressive, that it held the record for being the most fuel efficient gasoline-powered car sold in the USA until 2015. Whilst global sales only totalled 17,200 units, it marked Honda’s intent on using fuel efficient technology.

2003 Honda Element

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Developed for the USA, and built in East Liberty, Ohio, the Element crossover was intended to appeal to young consumers. The styling was apparently inspired by a lifeguard station, and featured rear-hinged suicide doors at the rear. Front-wheel drive was standard, with all-wheel drive available as an option.

Honda made serious marketing efforts for the Element, including TV commercials and even a MySpace profile. Initial sales started strongly, but tailed off before it was discontinued in 2011. A total of 325,000 Elements were sold, but Honda opted not to replace it.

2006 Honda Ridgeline

American Honda 60th Anniversary

After several decades selling cars in the United States, Honda made a move to capture the heartland of the light truck market with the first-generation Ridgeline. Not intended to directly compete with established manufacturers, Honda wanted to offer its own customers a pickup option.

It won the coveted truck category in the 2006 North American Car of the Year Awards, but sales were slower than Honda anticipated. Being only able to two 5,000 lb meant the Ridgeline was at the lower end of hauling capacity, but it did demonstrate that Honda would consider all options in the USA.

2008 Honda FCX Clarity

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Just like Honda pioneered hybrid technology with the Insight, the launch of the FCX Clarity brought American customers an early opportunity to experiment with hydrogen power. The company had previously experimented with hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, having brought small amounts of the 2002 FCX to the USA.

Honda offered the FCX Clarity on a lease deal, with Southern California the only area supported by hydrogen fuel stations. A total of 48 cars were leased in the USA, with the limiting factor to further expansion being the lack of filling stations. This did not stop Honda launching another version of the Clarity in late 2016, however.

2015 Honda HA420 HondaJet

American Honda 60th Anniversary

Acting as a reminder that Honda produces far more than just cars and motorbikes, the company began pursuing the idea of a light business jet in the 1980s. Whilst design and development was undertaken in Japan, manufacture of the HondaJet takes place in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The over-wing location of the engines allows for greater cabin space, with room for six passengers inside the HondaJet. Since production began in 2015, Honda has supplied more than 105 examples of the aeroplane to customers around the world.

2016 Acura NSX

American Honda 60th Anniversary

The return of the NSX supercar saw strategic importance placed on the United States. The second-generation version was developed in the USA, and is produced at the Honda Performance Manufacturing Center in Marysville, Ohio. Even the exterior styling was created by American designer Michelle Christensen.

The $160,000 NSX features a twin-turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 engine combined with three electric motors for hybrid performance. A total output of 573 horsepower allows the AWD second-gen NSX to accelerate from 0-60 mph in under 3 seconds, and on to a top speed in excess of 190 mph.

2017 Honda Civic Type R

American Honda 60th Anniversary

After years of being denied access to the hottest Civic, North American customers finally got the chance to buy the Type R model in 2017. Waiting until the fifth-generation Type R means U.S. customers do at least get the product of 20 years of development.

The Type R hatchback uses a 306 horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, sending power to the front wheels. All versions use a six-speed manual transmission, along with a limited-slip differential. The performance offered by the new Civic Type R was enough to see it set a new lap record around the Nürburgring-Nordschleife circuit in Germany.

Honda produces 25 millionth automobile in USA with 2018 Accord

American Honda 60th Anniversary

February 2018 saw Honda achieve an impressive milestone in the United States. After more than 35 years of production, Honda built its 25 millionth vehicle. The car in question was an example of the tenth-generation Accord, finished in Obsidian Black Pearl.

American Honda now has five manufacturing facilities across the United States, having invested some $14 billion to create them. From the company which started with 64 associates building motorbikes in 1979, more than 20,000 people are now employed across the country.

It represents an incredible transformation, from the small dealership in Los Angeles to a company that makes twelve different cars and trucks in the USA.

2020 Honda CR-V ready to launch at the LA Auto Show

LA Auto Show 2019

Honda is keen to help celebrate the past 60 years at the 2019 Los Angeles Auto Show, with an exhibit that details key achievements in the history of the company. However, Honda needs to keep selling new cars, and the updated 2020 CR-V will be making a debut.

With sales of the CR-V having surpassed 5 million units, Honda will want to keep it as the best-selling crossover. One of the stars will also be the new 2020 CR-V Hybrid, which can achieve fuel economy 50% higher than the regular non-hybrid model.

After six decades of innovation and expansion, American Honda looks set to keep doing more of the same for the future.

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John Redfern
U.S. Editor with a love of all things Americana. Woodgrain-clad station wagons and ridiculous muscle cars a speciality.

1 COMMENT

  1. Nice article, I have been a Honda guy for years, love em. The Power Of Dreams. I now own a 2006 Honda CR-V-SE and a 2011 Honda Ridgeline RT/L. Gary Flint did a fantastic job designing the Ridgeline, hats off to you Gary.

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