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Japanese Celebrate 35 Years of Manufacturing in the U.S.

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Honda celebrates the first Japanese automobile fully assembled in the U.S.—an Accord sedan—on November 1, 1982, at their Marysville, Ohio, plant. Images courtesy of Honda.

There was a time when buying an import, particularly a Japanese import, was seen as an affront to American workers. But since the early 1980s, Japanese automakers have become a significant force in American manufacturing, each year employing more and more Americans not only on the factory floor, but also in engineering, design, sales, marketing, distribution—just about any facet of the car business you can imagine. Chances are pretty high that buying a Japanese car today means buying a car made by American workers.

To collectors, that means there’s also a growing chance that, as long-lasting Japanese cars stop being used cars and enter the collectible/vintage market, more and more of them will have been created at these so-called “transplant” factories. Lest you think this notion sounds far off in the future, at the Bonhams Amelia Island auction this past March, the company sold an amazingly well-kept 1990 Toyota pickup truck. (Really, it was perfect—you should have seen it!) Expect to see more of that action.

This November 1 marked the 35th anniversary of Honda automobile production at its Marysville, Ohio, plant. It should be noted that the company began making motorcycles there in 1979; CR250R stroker dirt bikes were the first products to roll off the assembly line. But it was a gray Accord sedan that marked the beginning of a steady flow of Japanese transplants in the U.S.

On the Marysville Accord assembly line circa 1984.

Nissan followed with the 1983 opening of its Smyrna, Tennessee, plant dedicated, at first, to making pickup trucks and Sentra sedans and coupes. Honda opened an engine factory in Anna, Ohio, in 1985 to supply the Marysville operation. Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, assembly plant opened in 1988, initially to build Camry models for the U.S. Three more plants followed in 1989, including Subaru’s in Lafayette, Indiana. Presently, there are no less than 11 automobile assembly plants, seven engine plants, and a bunch of other parts plants run by the Japanese automakers. This list doesn’t even include the transplant parts makers and their suppliers.

But the Japan Automobile Manufacturing Association, which maintains a U.S. presence supporting its members, recently released a report highlighting just how intertwined with the U.S. economy and even U.S. parts suppliers, the Japanese automakers are. The report touts 90,041 U.S. employees, including 64,139 in manufacturing, at the end of 2016. It also highlights the 4-million vehicles made and the 4.7-million engines made, along with being very precise regarding the 412,281 cars exported from these shores.

Accord second-generation engine install.

Today, Japanese factories make nearly all types of automobiles in the U.S, along with conducting a ton of research and design work, as American tastes vary from Japan, Europe, and the rest of the world. For example, Toyota and Nissan both build V-8-powered full-size trucks in the U.S., and the Acura NSX, Honda’s 600-hp, hybrid supercar, was designed and engineered in the U.S. and is produced solely at Honda’s Performance Manufacturing Center in Marysville, Ohio, for sales in the U.S, and the rest of the world. Fifty years from now, when an NSX rolls across the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach, it will be interesting to see what people think of a car with a Japanese nameplate, that was designed, engineered, and built in these United States.

The auto industry today is a far more global business than ever before, with design, engineering, parts sourcing, cross-ownership, and manufacturing often spread across multiple countries. Japanese collector cars have been with us a for a while and now we are looking at a potential flood of American-made Japanese vintage machines.