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Honda Founder Is First Japanese in Auto Hall of Fame

October 10, 1989|JAMES RISEN | Times Staff Writer

DEARBORN, Mich. — A man who helped devastate Detroit has come to be honored and enshrined by it tonight.

At a dinner in downtown Detroit, Soichiro Honda, the original Mr. Honda of the Honda Motor Co., will become the first Japanese auto executive to be inducted into America's Automotive Hall of Fame.

He will thus be immortalized alongside the legends of the U.S. auto industry, whose names still ring down through the ages: Henry Ford. Walter P. Chrysler. Ransom Olds. Alfred P. Sloan. And now, Soichiro Honda, the last living founder of any of the world's major auto companies.

He will be only the first of what Hall of Fame officials say will be many Japanese industry pioneers to be inducted.

Honda's election to the hall is, of course, fraught with painful irony.

After all, Honda's company and his cars have brought nothing but headaches to Detroit. For nearly two decades, Honda Motor has been in the vanguard of the Japanese invasion of the American car market, taking millions of sales and tens of thousands of jobs away from the domestic auto makers. Indeed, Honda is now vying with Toyota for import sales leadership in the United States and may soon sell more cars in this country than Chrysler.

Yet the car business is an increasingly global industry in which the lines between import and domestic are rapidly blurring. General Motors has linked up with Toyota, Ford with Mazda and Nissan, Chrysler with Mitsubishi--and Honda now builds hundreds of thousands of its cars in Ohio.

So Detroit seems willing to forgive and forget.

'Significant Individual'

"The industry has become so global that we will be looking for more Japanese to include in the future," said Donald Richetti, the president of the Hall of Fame, which is based in Midland, Mich. "We want to be an international organization.

"And it was appropriate that Mr. Honda be the first Japanese," Richetti added. "He's a marvelously significant individual who has increased the customer's expectations of quality."

Thus, the 82-year-old Honda, who founded his company in 1948 amid the rubble of postwar Japan, was given a royal welcome when he arrived in the Detroit area Monday.

In this moment of vindication and triumph for a man who never expected to challenge the giants of Detroit when he first started making small motorcycles, Honda remained effusively gracious--and very diplomatic--as he talked to reporters Monday.

"My greatest achievement," he said, when asked to look back over his career, "was in imitating American cars."

And, when asked how he would compare the quality of American and Japanese cars today, he was slightly cryptic.

"Japanese and American cars are like humans," Honda said. "Some are good in some aspects and some are bad in some aspects."

Honda, who stepped down from active management in 1973, also admitted that he still is somewhat awe-struck by the enormous success and global stature that his company has enjoyed since he retired. Asked whether he foresees a merger between Honda and one of the major auto companies of Detroit, he said, "I know in my generation, it would never have happened."

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