Honda's Massive Ohio Plant Rose As General Motors Fell

In 1976, at a Wendy’s in Columbus, Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes sat down with some Japanese government officials for burgers at 10:30 a.m. Rhodes wanted one thing: for Honda to build its first American plant in his state. The Wendy’s meeting was the latest in a series of overtures Rhodes had made to get the company to come in what had become a personal mission he’d been pursuing for years.

It was in 1968 that Rhodes had first gone on a trade mission to Japan and met Soichiro Honda, founder and president of the company. Two years later, Rhodes would be back in Tokyo during a National Governors Association trip, and the two went golfing together.

“I pointed out that Ohio was the nation’s distribution center, located within 500 miles and two-thirds of the population and buying power of the U.S.,” Rhodes said. Honda at the time was best known for motorcycles in the U.S., but its ambitions were much bigger than that.

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Photo: AP

Six years later, Rhodes again found himself pitching his state at the restaurant chain founded by Dave Thomas in Columbus.

“There was definitely a cultural chasm,” says Tom Diemer, who covered Rhodes for the Associated Press and the Cleveland Plain Dealer and later co-wrote a biography of him. “They were sitting there, bewildered eating cheeseburgers at 10:30 in the morning.”

Somehow, it worked. A year later Honda confirmed it would build a motorcycle manufacturing plant in Marysville, just outside of Columbus.

“Marysville was nothing” back then, Diemer says. “It was rolling fields. Honda went out and walked around the grounds and said, ‘We could build a plant here.’”

The deal itself was classic Rhodes. Known as a “smokestack-chaser” his ambitions across two stints as Ohio governor boiled down to attracting more manufacturing to the state, at almost any cost. Rhodes, a Republican, also believed that profit was not a dirty word, perhaps foremost for himself, as he was dogged throughout his gubernatorial career by allegations of financial dealings that were less than above board.

The land Honda built its factory on, for example, just happened to be owned by a friend of Rhodes, and the brother-in-law of his former business partner. Even the photo-op lunch at Wendy’s was questionable since he was a significant stockholder in the Columbus-based fast-food company.

Rhodes is probably best known outside of the state for ordering the National Guard to Kent State University in 1970, ending with four students shot dead. But a less well-known legacy—and the attendant effects still felt in the state today—is Rhodes’ push for manufacturing.

“He was particularly interested in heavy manufacturing in big cities,” Diemer said. “He wanted companies to come in and build plants. He wanted factories, places that would employ 1,500, 2,000, 3,000 people.”

Image for article titled Honda's Massive Ohio Plant Rose As General Motors Fell
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In 1964, Rhodes also secured more than $2 billion in investment by General Motors, including expansions of GM’s Ternstedt plating plants in Elyria and Brooklyn, Fisher Body plant in Mansfield and Packard Electric in Warren. Plans were also revived for a new auto plant on 905 acres of farmland in Lordstown in Trumbull County in Northeast Ohio.

Fast forward to today. All those plants are gone. The Honda plant in Marysville, though, is still there, almost as healthy as ever, even as Honda announced it was slowing down production this April, temporarily idling the plant’s second shift beginning in August. That’s part of a retooling as the plant shifts to building electric vehicles and partly as a reflection of buying habits, since sedans like the Accord and Civic aren’t as popular as they once were compared to crossovers and SUVs.

Months before, GM announced it was “unallocating” its Lordstown Assembly Plant, 185 miles away, between Youngstown and Warren, effectively ending car production there. The plant was left without a car to manufacture as GM drastically reduced its automotive offerings, focusing on trucks and SUVs.

The last Chevrolet Cruze rolled off the line in March, and was sold this spring at a local United Way auction for $35,000. Lordstown remains idle, and a plan much-touted by President Donald Trump to sell to an electric truck startup seems murky at best. A labor deal currently being voted on by striking UAW members will confirm Lordstown’s closure, if it’s ratified.

The closure was the latest in a series of blows to the plant whose fortunes rose and fell with small car manufacturing since the days when Honda began selling cars in the United States. Meanwhile, the Honda news was treated as little more than a speed bump.

The two plants opened a little more than a decade apart, both making similar products and both ostensibly affected by the same market forces. Both were, and are, vital parts of the local economy, staples of American auto manufacturing. 

But one’s been mothballed, and one keeps chugging along, a situation that in itself has mirrored the rise and fall of American automaking.

The years after World War II were great ones to be connected to one of the big American automakers. American consumers, who had saved their money or invested in war bonds during World War II, had plenty to spend after working to keep “the Arsenal of Democracy” going. And after resuming car production, GM, Ford and Chrysler were more than happy to sell them—even buying peace with the United Auto Workers, whose members had a path to a middle-class lifestyle and retirement with generous benefits.

Flush with cash and potential buyers, American automakers were looking to expand. They were also looking to build new plants for a variety of reasons, said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at the Henry Ford in Dearborn, Michigan.

“Many Detroit-area buildings were becoming obsolete in the 1950s, whether due to the age of the buildings or changes in production methods that required single-story structures rather than multi-story buildings,” he says. “There was also a desire to move closer to the markets. Locating plants in the middle of the country reduced shipping costs (or, at least, spread them more evenly).”

One of the biggest beneficiaries was Ohio, Michigan’s neighbor to the south. In the 1950s, Ford built three plants in the Cleveland area—in Lorain, Brook Park and Walton Hills—and additional ones in Lima and Maumee in Northwest Ohio. General Motors added plants in Toledo, Parma, Mansfield and Moraine and started to make plans for one in the Mahoning Valley. It would take a decade for them to come to pass.

In the meantime, the Mahoning Valley’s economy continued to hum along, thanks to the steel industry. But a national strike in 1959 opened the door for imported steel, and leaders in the area saw the need for diversification. An auto plant was as close to a sure bet as there was at that point.

The first car, a Chevrolet Impala, rolled off the line on April 28, 1966, a year and a half after the groundbreaking for the complex that at its peak would include a Fisher Body plant as well as a van plant and employ a total of around 15,000 people. They were heady times for Ohio and the Mahoning Valley, with more than a million manufacturing jobs throughout the state and a per capita income that outpaced the nation’s, but bad times were around the corner.

All those cars that had been sold after World War II? They ran on gas and lots of it. American oil production peaked in 1970, and the nation had been relying on imports as well. An oil crisis, combined with a recession in the early 1970s, turned the trend toward smaller cars—including those made abroad.

The first Volkswagen Beetle was imported into the United States in 1949, and for the better part of the next 20 years, it held a significant portion of the small car and import market in the United States—almost by default. For a long time in America, when someone said “import car” they generally meant the Beetle.

But in the 1960s, Japanese cars started to appear on American roads, including models from Toyota, Nissan (known as Datsun, at first) and Honda, which started out as a manufacturer immediately after World War II of motorized bicycles. In the 1960s, with the famous ad campaign, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” the motorcycles were touted as alternatives to the violent image of bikers people got from Hunter Thompson’s book on the Hell’s Angels and movies like The Wild One.

Honda established a United States affiliate in 1959, and sold its first car in the country a decade later. They were determined to have a manufacturing presence in the U.S. as well. California seemed like the obvious choice.

But Ohio? It was the ideal choice for at least one person: Rhodes, who dominated Ohio politics for most of the second half of the 20th century.

A native of southern Ohio coal country, Rhodes went to Columbus and rose from ward committeeman to mayor, presiding over the city’s postwar expansion with what became known as the water gun: Adjacent municipalities could get “city water” from Columbus, but would be annexed into the city. He was then elected state auditor and, in 1963, became the first governor elected to a four-year term.

Rhodes was pragmatic (or unethical, depending on who you asked) and liked to say, “Profit is not a dirty word in Ohio,” a phrase resuscitated by John Kasich when he ran for governor in 2010. He acquired a reputation early on as a “smokestack chaser,” trying to keep Ohio’s industrial base vibrant.

Rhodes was mentioned as a possible running mate for Richard Nixon in 1968, but was term-limited as governor two years later, so he ran for U.S. Senate, eventually losing the Republican primary.

That meant Rhodes was out of office in 1971 for the first time in his adult life, but not for long. He was elected governor again in 1974 after a court battle over whether he could even run again. This time, he was up against a Democratic legislature, and really needed a political win.

Enter Honda. Columbus as a city didn’t “have a lot of an automaking culture,” Diemer says, but for Honda that was probably part of the appeal.

An Accord wagon built in Marysville in 1980.
An Accord wagon built in Marysville in 1980.
Photo: AP

“Japanese automakers consciously located their plants far from the traditional Rust Belt cities,” Anderson says. “They generally chose rural communities in the south (or, at least, south of the Great Lakes), where unions weren’t particularly strong. From the start, Japanese plants in the U.S. took a collaborative approach to management, with workers given more authority. In general, Japanese labor-management relations were more harmonious in nature than confrontational. American-owned plants tended to have a more adversarial relationship between managers and workers.

He added: “The idea of stopping the production line in an American-owned plant at that time was near heresy, with the authority to do so given to only a few people.”

The Big Three’s confrontational relationship with workers had been toxic from the very beginning, thanks to violent anti-union campaigns carried out by management at Chevy, Ford, and Chrysler in the 1930s and early 1940s. But all three were eventually unionized by 1941, after a decade of sometimes literal battles.

By 1972, after decades of on-and-off labor peace, unrest at the Lordstown plant grew, leading to thousands of grievances and a month-long wildcat strike following reductions to the workforce after a corporate reorganization.

Production had been sped up to turn out more Vegas—a necessity for GM’s razor-thin profit margin. The car sold well (more than 2 million in its seven-year existence), but was beset by quality control issues, from haphazard rustproofing to leaking, melting and even fires in the aluminum engine. It was a disaster that would stain for years to come not just the reputation of General Motors, but the American auto industry in general.

Lordstown in 1998.
Lordstown in 1998.
Photo: AP

Honda, meanwhile, took advantage, with central Ohio getting the spoils as industry in northern Ohio sputtered. The steel industry was bottoming out, for one thing. Youngstown Sheet & Tube, one of the largest steel producers in the country, ceased to exist. U.S. Steel closed its mills in Ohio. Republic Steel was swallowed up in a series of mergers and acquisitions (it emerged again in the 1990s following an ESOP, albeit on a much smaller scale).

Further, with the Accord, Honda was making a car at Marysville that pretty quickly developed a reputation for reliability and became brand-making for Honda, while Chevy, with its relatively mediocre stable of sedans like the Cavalier, Corsica, Malibu, and Lumina, was continually faltering.

More broadly, Chevy was in the middle of a long decline that eventually bottomed out at the Great Recession, while Honda was going the opposite direction. Sometimes, the product really is the difference.

The Accord was first made at Marysville in 1982. By 1990 it became one of the best-selling cars in America, a streak that would continue for decades, the fortunes of the plant rising with it.

“It was relatively small at first, but there was no reason it wouldn’t get bigger—and it did,” Diemer says. “Rhodes was constantly bragging about how thousands of jobs were coming, and as it turns out, he was right eventually.”

Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the 1980 census was the first one in which Columbus eclipsed Cleveland as the most populous city in the state, a status it still retains today. It’s also still gaining population, which makes it unique among Ohio’s big cities, and stemming the “brain drain” that plagues Ohio and other states in what’s now regarded as the Rust Belt.

Columbus is now not only the most populous city in Ohio, but the biggest in terms of land. Franklin County is now the most populous of Ohio’s 88 counties, and the metropolitan area is the biggest entirely in the state of Ohio (the biggest metro area is Cincinnati, which includes parts of Indiana and Kentucky).

This wasn’t all caused by Honda. But the company helped, or at the very least saw it coming.

“There was this question even at the time of why Rhodes didn’t get Honda to go to Toledo or Akron or Cleveland,” Diemer says. “Well, Marysville is where Honda wanted to go.”

A year after Honda started making cars, Nissan built a plant in Georgia and Toyota arrived in Kentucky shortly thereafter, beginning a surge of foreign manufacturers building plants on American soil, and all like Honda, eschewing unions quite deliberately. Today, Subaru has a plant in Indiana; Hyundai is in Alabama, along with Mercedes and (soon) Mazda; Kia is in Georgia; Volvo is in South Carolina, along with BMW; and Nissan is in Tennessee and Mississippi.

Honda was in many ways the vanguard, and while the jobs they brought paid less than union work and were less secure, building on American soil did help changed perceptions of foreign automakers in intangible ways.

“In the end,” Anderson says, “their U.S. plants actually turned public opinion in favor.”

Vince Guerrieri is an award-winning journalist and a son of the Rust Belt.

(Correction, Oct. 29, 2:19 p.m.: The first paragraph has been amended. Rhodes met with Japanese governors, not Honda officials, at the Wendy’s.) 


Mark Longoria

Time to post this up again:

A car plant in Fremont California that might have saved the U.S. car industry. In 1984, General Motors and Toyota opened NUMMI as a joint venture. Toyota showed GM the secrets of its production system: How it made cars of much higher quality and much lower cost than GM achieved. Frank Langfitt explains why GM didn’t learn the lessons—until it was too late.