30 years in “Little Japan,” Honda’s second home

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Jack Baruth racing in a Honda in the rain courtesy of RTF Racing

They called it “Little Japan.” It was a square-mile postage stamp of a neighborhood, an accidental creation from years of internecine squabble among Ohio municipalities, city taxes and suburban schools. Just two stoplights and thirty mindless minutes on a four-lane freeway from Honda’s brand-new Marysville Assembly Plant. Everything in-between was either a trailer park or part of the fashionably, and fashionably expensive, Muirfield Village golf course community, so the executives and senior workers sent from Japan to get “MAP” up and running in the first few years all naturally settled in this single affordable place.

The idea of North American assembly seems so logical, and so widely practiced, nowadays that it’s hard to remember just what a massive risk Honda took in Marysville. They were trying to do well what Volkswagen had done quite poorly in Pennsylvania—and Honda was a fraction of Volkswagen’s size. The disaster of American Rabbit production was a minor line on VW AG’s balance sheet; the failure of Ohio-built Accords could have shuttered Honda for good. There would have been no governmental helping hand. Unlike Toyota, Nissan, and Mitsubishi, Honda was definitely not too big to fail. The cheerful fathers from Japan in their brand-new white overalls must have slept restlessly when they came home to our little neighborhood. They’d placed their fates, and the fates of their families, in the hands of freshly-minted line workers in a country where plenty of the men sitting on every stoop could still tell stories of fighting hand-to-hand on Iwo Jima or flying in the belly of B-29s above cities which stank of burning flesh.

My younger brother’s elementary school classes of 1985 buzzed with the staccato phrasing and rapid, affricate-free rhythm of Japanese. His best friend was named Suzuki, something which struck my teenaged self as hilarious. “You’re named Suzuki and your dad works for Honda?” I asked.

“Oh, look, you make joke. First to do that.” Then Suzuki fired off a series of vividly-shouted directives to his mother, who served us multiple courses of painstakingly-prepared snacks as we played Donkey Kong on his Nintendo Famicom game system. “When my father is not here, I’m the boss,” Suzuki said. “When he is here… I am nothing.”

Our lives felt closer to Tokyo than they did to New York City. The only grocery store within walkable distance was Japanese, selling tiny snap-together model kits of Honda Integras bundled with chewable gum of tremendous intensity but no describable individual flavor. The sidewalks would fill in the afternoons with women in actual kimonos, pushing strollers bursting with chattering infants. There were a lot of fender-benders as men who had grown up driving on the left learned to drive on the right— and as their wives found themselves behind the wheel for the first time, period.

By the time I left for school in 1989, Little Japan had been largely disbanded. Honda had arranged the construction of various housing developments closer to the plant. Almost overnight, most of the residents disappeared. The neighborhood fell into 20 years of disarray. Only recently has it reinvented itself as an enclave to serve the tens of thousands of tech workers imported from overseas to work at Chase, Nationwide, and other H1-B consumers in northern Columbus. The old Koyama Shoten is now India Grocers. The more things change, and so on.

Which is not to say that Honda did not maintain considerable influence in our part of the state. For years, you could rely on always having an Accord or Civic within a few feet of you in traffic; today it’s a Pilot or CR-V. The automaker is massively over-represented on our roads and parking lots. My 88-home neighborhood, just five miles from where I grew up, has two Acura RLXes, which is statistically equivalent to having 30 Lamborghini Huracáns at the homeowners’ association meeting. Three of the five homes in my cul-de-sac have at least one late-model Accord in the driveway. I have two, which I’ll discuss more in a moment.

When the country was introduced to “import street racing” via the original Fast and Furious movie, those of us in Central Ohio shrugged our shoulders. We’d had Honda street racing for years, and a massive cottage industry of people who worked at the assembly plants by day, then disassembled those same cars at night to make them faster. The only difference was that we didn’t bother to paint the Civics or put stickers on them, because we knew they’d be rusted and gone in a few years. The spiritual home of North American Honda production is extremely cruel to its creations. My 2014 EX-L V-6 coupe is already displaying corrosion everywhere from the radiator support to the control arms.

It seemed inevitable that I would eventually find myself putting on the nametag-free white coveralls of a Honda contractor, and so I did—for six months in 2006, and then again from 2010 to 2012, maintaining some of the production infrastructure at various plants across the state. I parked my Porsche 911 in a lot that was mostly filled with full-size Ford pickups. Honda didn’t offer its rural employees a discount program, so they bought trucks. If you saw an Accord, it was likely driven by one of the managers who got a new “pool car” every six months or so.

I hated working for Honda, largely because of the commute and the horrifyingly early first-shift hours of operation, but I grew to respect the company and its processes quite a bit. The rather disastrous ninth-generation Civic arrived during my time there, and although I had nothing to do with the product side of the business, I saw how quickly those folks were working to fix the problem. I liked the three-minute standup morning meetings, which have unfortunately been cargo-cult corrupted into the interminable and endless “huddles” beloved of modern tech companies. Most of all, I enjoyed Honda’s rigorous approach to problem solving, as seen in its infamous “4-Block” and “5P” failure analysis tools.

Two years after leaving Honda for greener pastures, at the age of 42, I knuckled under to societal pressure and bought my first-ever car from the firm. (I’d had a few Honda motorcycles, about which nothing bad can be said.) It was a six-speed V-6 coupe, and it proved to be an exemplary choice. So much so that I bought a second one last year, this one with a roll cage installed. I won a NASA regional title with it, then I took it to a Pirelli World Challenge race where I picked up a few awards as well. I’ve turned into quite the Accord bigot, which is either hilarious or pathetic given how many megabuck German cars I’ve owned over the years.

Yesterday was the 71st anniversary of Honda’s founding. Sounds like a long time, and it is, but I’ve been around the firm, in one sense or another, for half of it. The past decade or so has seen a somewhat justified backlash against the Honda hype foisted on us for so long by auto magazines and a media culture that liked Honda less for what it was (a small company making great stuff) than for what it wasn’t (part of the UAW Midwestern culture). To write an article praising a Honda feels much like predicting that the sun will rise tomorrow. There’s not much clickworthiness in it. Nor would it be reasonable to ignore all of Honda’s mistakes over the years, from paper-thin and rust-prone body panels to inexcusably delicate automatic transmissions. Even my cherished Accord coupes have pathetically under-specced brakes and certain mechanical components which appear to have been cast by a chocolatier rather than at the Anna Engine Plant.

That shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Honda has done a lot of good work, both in the business and for the business. Without the Accord, we wouldn’t have the Camry; without the Civic, the competition wouldn’t have had to rethink the way they measure and insure quality. Without the original Ridgeline, we wouldn’t have nearly as many scrap-metal recycling opportunities as we do. You get the point. Happy 71st, Honda. It’s been a great run. And though you’ve strayed a bit over the years, from Alabama to Ontario, your true second home will always be here with us in the Buckeye State.

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