Honda Heritage Center Captures Triumphs, Challenges
Honda’s brand-new, $35 million dollar Heritage Center opened across the street from its Marysville auto factory on January 5th. A recent return to Ohio let me reunite with my mentor, a man recently known for his acquisition of an Accord Coupe, to test Honda’s curatorial abilities. How many company rarities and wall placards filled with corporate agitprop can one get for eight figures these days? Hit the jump to find out.
We had an appropriate steed for this jaunt, still rock solid after 18,000 miles in ten months. That layer of salt didn’t do it any favors, but it still looked appropriately aero-modern next to the Heritage Center’s steel and glass façade. The building itself isn’t terribly adventurous in its design, but it is eminently practical. The gallery area is flooded with natural light, thus avoiding one of my biggest pet peeves as a historian: dimly lit museums. I’d venture so far as to say that it captures a little bit of the design ethos of the company that funded it.
The Center is free to attend, but currently requires that you phone ahead and make a reservation. Exactly why is unclear. On the phone, the company rep indicated that we could take a guided tour at nine or noon, so I signed us up for a noon timeslot. Upon arrival, however, we were told to show ourselves around. I asked the polite front-desk worker if there were brochures available, and was informed that there weren’t any yet. No matter, as everything in the museum is presented alongside an abundance of information.
Before entering the gallery proper, you can peruse a couple landmark bikes and cars. There’s an example of the scooters that first brought the Honda corporate name to the States, as well as one of the dirt bikes that became the first Honda product manufactured in America. The two cars in the forecourt echo the same idea: the diminutive N600, followed by the historic 1983 Accord. The first provided the consumer beachhead, and the other put Marysville on the map as the new headquarters of American automotive manufacturing excellence.
That Accord is worth ruminating over a little more; that unassuming, three box sedan that changed everything. This was the make-it-or-break-it product for Honda’s American manufacturing operation. If the U.S.-built Accord had tanked, Marysville would have gone the way of Volkswagen Westmoreland. To that end, it’s easy to understand why Honda played it safe with the exterior. Accord customers in 1983 got a few straight-line body creases, and that’s it. The lack of embellishment one-ups even the unrelenting blandness of the Fox platform Ford sedans of the era. But the blandness was part of the sublime genius of it. It was an economy car in a positive sense: it was economical in size and weight, economical in consumption, economical in price (minus the dealer mark-ups) and economical in style. The second-generation Accord wouldn’t make sense in today’s market, but it was the right product at the right time in a way that few other models have matched.
The main gallery area is a big, airy room centered on an engine display. In the middle, there’s an exploded V6 of the type found in Jack’s Accord. Other powertrains can be found in a ring around the edge of the exhibit, including many built in Anna. The rest of the exhibits are organized in a loose chronological format. There’s a copious display dedicated to bikes, as well as a memorial to the end of motorcycle production in 2009. Sadly, there was no Rune on display- my favorite 2-wheeled Marysville product. Even so, there was plenty for Honda motorcycle enthusiasts to appreciate, with a lot of handy background information included.
The car selection is eclectic, with a number of Marysville-built products on display. There’s an ’88 Accord Coupe, the milestone car that became the first Honda product exported from the United States to Japan. There’s a gift to wagon fans, in the form of a fifth-generation Accord AeroDeck in right-hand-drive with a manual transmission. Other highlights include a CRX Si, a Civic CVCC, a first-generation Legend, a first-generation CL, the One Lap of America Odyssey, and NSX Rolex Cup car, and the new NSX prototype. Those hoping for oodles of rare Hondas are going to be disappointed; there’s the single first-generation NSX and no Type R’s or other factory specials. The large display on Hondajet is a reminder that ambition is not always an asset. There’s an exhibit with an Asimo robot prototype that is supposed to be able to mimic human movements, but he was broken when we visited. In general, the historical parts of the exhibit are far more interesting than the contemporary ones; those feel more like platitudinous corporate sloganeering than the promise of a great tomorrow.
It’s not a large space, and one gets the feel that it’s meant to be more of an educational experience than a warehouse of exotic treasures. In the end, that’s what this museum does best: provide a nice narrative of the Honda story in America, with some neat cars and interactive exhibits thrown in for good measure. It’s certainly worth a visit, if not necessarily a pilgrimage. As it stands, the Heritage Center is just fine for its intended purpose; much like that ’83 Accord in the forecourt.
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