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Big 3 autos improved after Honda began U.S. production in 1982

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By Mark Phelan
Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, 5:18 p.m.
 

Everything changed Nov. 3, 1982, when the first U.S.-built Accord rolled off Honda's brand-new assembly line in Ohio.

It was a hugely disruptive moment, though no one in Detroit realized it at the time. The first Japanese “transplant” factory on U.S. soil was intended to replace imports from Japan, but it began a fundamental remaking of the U.S. auto industry.

The Big Three's dominance was doomed.

As shocking and painful as some of the changes were, Detroit's automakers build better cars, run safer and more efficient factories and serve their customers better today because of what Honda started 30 years ago.

“Competition is always ultimately good for the customer,” said Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics. “If it's recognized and addressed, it leads to better products.”

The Big Three's 1950s and '60s post-World War II dominance of American automaking was bound to end. For a couple of decades, Chrysler, Ford and General Motors reaped the benefits of a booming domestic economy and a lack of foreign competition as Europe and Japan rebuilt industrial cores that were battered during World War II.

Chrysler, Ford and, particularly, GM soared to unsustainably high market shares because the potential competitors had been bombed to dust and were scrambling to meet demand at home. That began to change in the 1960s, when a few imports caught a minority of American eyes. The process accelerated when the 1970s oil crises created unprecedented demand for small cars.

Suddenly, fuel efficiency mattered to Americans, but the American auto industry couldn't meet that demand. Japanese automakers filled the void, shipping unprecedented numbers of cars across the Pacific.

Detroit went into denial, then concocted a side order of conspiracy theory. Automakers and unions said Japanese automakers had unfair advantages: Japanese government subsidies, lax environmental regulation, complacent workers who were more like cattle than individualistic Americans, trade barriers, currency manipulation, you name it.

Honda's assembly plant in Ohio forced the Detroit Three to quit whining and start competing. Their excuses went out the window when U.S.-made Accords proved to be every bit as good as those from Japan. The difference lay in the cars' engineering and how the factory made them.

“One of the things Americans had to look at was how the Japanese built cars,” Hall said. After an initial, misguided and expensive infatuation with robots, U.S. automakers learned the key was designing cars that are easy to build and listening to assembly workers when they said something wasn't working.

Chrysler, Ford and GM refocused on quality, design and innovation because Honda, Nissan and Toyota's U.S. factories and growing sales forced them.

Mark Phelan is the auto critic for the Detroit Free Press; mmphelan@freepress.com.

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