Fifty Years of Honda in America

Don Sherman

To woo that business, Grey Advertising executives pitched to Honda management a campaign - created by a UCLA student as a class assignment - refuting the sinister black-leather biker's image. Photos of fashionably dressed suburbanites toting their kids, cargo, and even a pet on Honda 50s ran with the tagline, "You meet the nicest people on a Honda." The ads ran in Life, Look, the Saturday Evening Post, and during the Academy Awards TV broadcast. In 1964, the Beach Boys chimed in with their "Little Honda" pop tune extolling the simple joys of riding a Honda 50.

Throughout the 1960s, Honda tortured the British brands with a flood of increasingly more sophisticated sport bikes. The coup de grâce arrived in 1969; Honda's CB750 was the seminal superbike, with a front disc brake, a four-cylinder overhead-cam engine, and a $1495 price. By 1983, the entire British motorcycle industry was through.

Motorcycle success whet Honda's appetite for expansion into automobiles. Here, the initial frustration came not from technical or marketing challenges but rather from the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI). Government bureaucrats within MITI intended to block Honda from joining the ten enterprises already slicing up the local car and light-truck pie. In 1963, before legislation could be passed that would give MITI the power to enforce its directives, Honda rushed a mini-truck and a 500-cc sports car into production.

Ripples from that disturbance reached American shores in 1969, when the Honda 600 minicar went on sale in Hawaii, followed by the three West Coast states a year later. The irony of Honda's simultaneous introduction of the world's most sophisticated motorcycle and a tiny, underpowered car was lost on Americans preoccupied by Vietnam, the breakup of the Beatles, and the demise of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix.

The Honda 600 ripple finally touched the East Coast in 1972, where I was a budding car tester. By that time, two variations were offered: the original foursquare $1473 (N600) sedan and a $1610 (Z600) coupe shaped like a ski boot. A noisy, 598-cc SOHC two-cylinder engine sent 36 hp to the front wheels through a four-speed manual transmission or an optional two-speed automatic. Unlike Honda's first four-wheelers, this one was air-cooled and fed by a single-throat carburetor.

I clocked the run to 60 mph in 20.8 seconds and observed a top speed of 75 mph. Barely ten feet long (three feet shorter than today's Honda Fit), the Honda 600 rolled on ten-inch tires and weighed in at 1355 pounds. In spite of its safety shortcomings, the 600's combination of affordability, maneuverability, and 30-plus mpg lifted Honda's annual U.S. car sales to more than 20,000 units.

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