Touring The Honda Heritage Center

Celebrating 40 years of vehicle production in North America.

Honda Heritage Center
Twins and Wings: A sporting ride up to the Honda Heritage Center in Ohio for a behind-the-scenes tour.Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.

The first "real" car (manual transmission) I learned to drive was a Honda Accord. I bought my first street-legal motorcycle, a clapped-out Honda CB650, several years later. Big deal, right? Neither of those things struck me as particularly significant at the time (except for the smoked clutch on the Accord; sorry Pops) when I was more concerned with figuring out how to pay for a new apartment and a looming college tuition bill. But 1980—in all its post-OPEC, Reagan-era glory—came crashing back at me when I found myself staring at a photo of that Accord last month at the Honda Heritage Center.

Super Cub
Honda reminds you of its heritage the minute you step into the lobby. The Super Cub wasn’t the first motorcycle Honda sold in America but it was the one that put the company on the map in the US, changing the public perception of motorcycling along the way.Andrew Cherney

Actually, the photo was of the 1983 Accord, the first car Honda produced in America (in 1982) at its Marysville, Ohio, factory, but it served as an excellent reminder of all the Honda products I'd been exposed to over the decades without realizing the company's reach in the US. We probably all know somebody whose dad owned a Dream or starting riding on a Monkey or Trail 70, but the point is you just take it for granted that it was a Honda. A month ago, Honda marked the 40th anniversary of vehicle production in America, beginning with motorcycles in 1979, followed by automobile production in 1982.

Honda engine
Early on Honda was an engine company, and today, as one of our guides pointed out, “We're a relatively small car company but we're the world's largest engine manufacturer.”Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.

But they’ve been doing business in the US since 1959, and touring the Honda Heritage Center (HHC) served to give those foggy memories some context, and this peek into the company’s de facto museum in the Ohio heartland reminded me of Big Red’s influence on motorcycling as well as industry in general. I’d never even heard of this place before this trip, but the Heritage Center was built four years ago near Honda’s manufacturing plants and R&D facilities outside Marysville, Ohio (taken together, a stretch of acreage known as Hondaland), and serves as a visual CliffsNotes of the company’s hits in North America over the last half century.

1980 Elsinore
In September of 1979, this 1980 Elsinore became the first Honda product to roll out of the Marysville Motorcycle Plant. It would be the last of Honda’s air-cooled two-stroke CR250R models. | Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.

Now, we figured we'd be force-fed a pretty rosy view of the Honda brand over the next couple of hours, but in truth, the info presented turned out to be an entertaining, inspirational look at the company's trials and tribulations over the years. The HHC space stocks several airy, light-filled rooms with an array of historical, current, and future products and throws in a smattering of interactive displays, moving robots (Asimo!), and video clips. It's not a sprawling collection, but a well-curated assembly that shows the range of the company's 60-year history in the US through its products. You get to see everything from a CBR1000RR superbike to an American Le Mans Series (ALMS) Honda-powered ARX-03a Muscle Milk Racing car, to a GL1200 Gold Wing engine (Honda's first American-built mill), to an actual Honda Jet and even posters from the famous "You Meet the Nicest People" ad campaign for the Honda 50.

Gold Wing
Seven months after production began at the Marysville Motorcycle Plant, Honda started building the Gold Wing in America as well and by 1982 it was being produced exclusively in Ohio in naked, Interstate, and Aspencade versions. The naked model sold for $4,250.Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.
Five-time Daytona 200 winner Miguel Duhamel rode this CBR1000RR for Team Honda in the 2007 AMA Superbike Series.Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.

But before even reaching the HHC exhibit halls, a stroll through the lobby puts you face to face with the first product produced in America by Honda. It’s a shiny example of the 1980 CR250R Elsinore which rolled off the line here at the Marysville Motorcycle Plant in 1979. Right next to it is a mint Super Cub, the biggest-selling motor vehicle in history, and the motorcycle that put Honda on the map in the US, creating a whole new market along the way.

Honda 50
The pioneering 50cc Super Cub had to be called the Honda 50 in the US due to Piper Aircraft already owning the Super Cub trademark. Fifty years after it arrived here, the Honda 50 has sold more than 60 million units and is still manufactured in 15 countries on three continents.Andrew Cherney

PR or not, the whole Big Red story is fascinating, and its American division’s origins even more so. When American Honda Motor Company first hung that shingle over a small storefront in Los Angeles in 1959 as the company’s sole US operation, most wouldn’t have thought the first non-US OEM to tackle the American market stood a chance in hell. To save expenses, the eight men stacked motorcycle crates by hand in the company's Pico Boulevard warehouse and used a modified Chevy pickup truck for dealer deliveries. The first Honda Dreams weren’t quite up to snuff for the American market, but the 50cc Super Cub the associates were using for errands somehow managed to generate interest. Since Piper Aircraft had already snagged the Super Cub trademark, Honda's first big product for the US market wore the less-than-dynamic Honda 50 nameplate. From a small company trying to sell small-displacement motorcycles in Southern California to a global engine and vehicle manufacturer in 60 years—not bad.

1961 Chevrolet pickup
This 1961 Chevrolet pickup Honda’s touring around the country is a faithful reproduction of the delivery trucks used by American Honda Motor Company in 1959. A vintage Honda 50 and 1965 CB160 are packed in the back, as they would’ve been back in the day.Courtesy American Honda Motor Co.
2009 Gold Wing
A 2009 Gold Wing was the last motorcycle to come off the line at the Honda Marysville Motorcycle Plant in June of 2009. Although Honda ceased motorcycle production in the US, motorcycling still factors heavily in the company.Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.

Although Honda ceased motorcycle production in the US when the last Honda Gold Wing rolled off the Marysville assembly line in 2009, motorcycling is still a huge factor in the company's American roots.

Honda line
The sheer breadth of ground-breaking motorcycles Honda has produced over the years is even more impressive when you see them lined up next to each other.Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.
Soichiro Honda
Soichiro Honda firmly believed in racing as a measure of success, both to sate his own passion as well as a way to keep innovating at the company level.Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.
Marysville auto plant tour
We were also given a separate tour of the Marysville auto plant, though no photos were allowed. The complex, multidimensional level of organized chaos on an automobile production line is breathtaking to watch, with the synchronized dance between machines and humans coming together to assemble an incredibly sophisticated final product. Recommended. Some 4,700 people work there to produce nearly half a million autos (Accords, CR-Vs, and Acuras) a year.Jen Muecke / American Honda Motor Co.
Honda 50
A bit of self-promotion but, hey, this initiative for the Honda 50 was one of the top ad campaigns of the decade. Plenty of copycat moto ads surfaced afterward.Andrew Cherney
2019 Gold Wing
Riding the smooth, seamless 2019 Gold Wing through the Ohio countryside was an excellent bonus for this event.Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.
1969 CB750
The sight of some of Honda’s best-known and most popular bikes of the ’60s and ’70s (a stunning 1969 CB750) up close is worth the price of admission.Jen Muecke/American Honda Motor Co.
Yep, the “world’s most advanced humanoid robot” was there too, with a fully interactive display that let Asimo mimick your actions. Kinda creepy, actually.Andrew Cherney

If you ever find yourself in Ohio (maybe for AMA Vintage Days, or visiting the AMA Hall Of Fame), you owe it to yourself to check out the Heritage Center—it's free, it's extremely well organized, and you can tour the facility yourself. Snag an auto factory tour too while you're there. Even if it is partly corporate propaganda, at least the corporation being talked about makes some amazing stuff.