Honda Hits a New High

January 10, 2008

It’s high times for Honda. The Japanese maker’s U.S. assembly plants set their third yearly record in a row, production notably topping 1 million cars, minivans and crossovers, in 2007, for the first time ever. If you add in Honda’s Canadian operations, total North American production surged past 1.4 million. All told, 76 percent of the vehicles American Honda sold here were locally produced, including the new, 2008 Civic, one of the finalists for North American Car of the Year.

Considered another way, that’s nearly half as many vehicles as Chrysler produced on our shores last year, and underscores the dramatic transformation of the American automotive landscape. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of Honda’s first U.S. assembly plant, in Marysville, Ohio. Back in 1982, it was considered a major risk.

For one thing, there was the disastrous failure by Volkswagen, which was the first modern foreign maker to open a U.S. operation. But virtually everything went wrong at that factory, in Westmoreland, PA, which VW ultimately closed. Honda insisted it had learned from that disaster and would avoid its mistakes, but nontheless, skeptics were left wondering how the Japanese automaker would be able to transplant its vaunted production methods, while maintaining high quality levels, using American labor.

Of course, that hasn’t proved a problem, even as Honda’s North American plants get ready to roll out their 20 millionth vehicle. Its so-called “transplant” assembly lines have proved as productive as any back home, and those barometers of quality, from J.D. Power and Associates to Consumer Reports magazine, continue to find Honda’s products among the most glitch-free on the market.

Those transplants have served many purposes, over the years. In the early days, they permitted Honda to sidestep the supposedly “voluntary” limits on Japanese imports that were in effect during much of the 1980s. And they softened political opposition from Washington down to the grass roots level. These days, many U.S. buyers would likely list Honda if you asked them who the American car companies are.

And Honda’s not alone. A current TV spot, produced by one of its Asian rivals, takes pains to refer to “Subaru of Indiana,” highlighting the contributions the company has made here, even setting up a wildlife sanctuary on the factory site.

Perhaps no Japanese maker has been more aggressive – or effective – in billing its American “roots” as Toyota, which has set up so many factories here it’s hard to keep up with them. All told, they produced a whopping 1.3 million vehicles in the U.S., last year, and 1.6 million in all of North America.

Virtually every Japanese maker now operates a plant in the U.S., Canada and/or Mexico, and collectively, they account for roughly half the vehicles they now sell in the States. Measured another way, those transplants today account for about a quarter of total U.S. new car, truck and crossover sales, and employ hundreds of thousands of local employees, at least indirectly, making up for a sizable chunk of the workforce that Detroit has cut in recent years.

But it likely wouldn’t have happened if things hadn’t gone so well in the small farming community of Marysville, Ohio.

2008 Honda Pilot Concept Details coming on new Honda in Detroit. by Marty Padgett (12/11/2007)

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