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Sometimes, it seems like Honda has been around forever. In reality, the popular Japanese-brand automaker started building cars in 1962, and U.S. sales began seven years later. Many Americans got to know Honda through the company's motorcycles, not its automobiles.
Founder Soichiro Honda developed his auto-mechanic skills by rebuilding vehicles damaged in the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. Before World War II, he manufactured piston rings. Then, after the war, he got into production of motorized bicycles and motorcycles.
Soon, Honda began to produce his own engines: first two-stroke, then four-stroke. By 1958, Honda motorcycles were trickling into the U.S. American Honda Motor Company was established in 1959.
In Japan, automobile production started slowly, growing from 136 cars in 1962 to 186,560 in 1968. The first Honda car was the S500 two-seat sports roadster, whose 531-cc engine breathed through four carburetors. Chains sent power to the rear axle, as in motorcycle configurations. An S600 edition followed; then, an 800 Sports convertible and coupe. The two-passenger S800 used a conventional driveshaft rather than chains.
In the mid-1960s, Honda delved into Formula One competition with an open-wheeled racer. By 1966, a front-drive N360 sedan with a two-cylinder engine was available, but Honda cars did not reach the U.S. until 1969, and then only in small numbers. Starting on the west coast, Honda imported a 600 sedan with an air-cooled two-cylinder engine and an optional Hondamatic transmission.
Honda launched the Civic in the U.S. for 1973. Soon, Civics were available with a four-cylinder CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) stratified-charge engine. The CVCC engine had an extra intake valve for each cylinder, plus an auxiliary combustion chamber. With CVCC, Honda's Civic met U.S. emissions standards before the 1975 deadline. By now, all Civic engines were water-cooled.
Sedans and a station wagon made up the 1975 Civic lineup. A year later, Honda introduced the larger Accord hatchback, followed by a sedan. In 1979, the sporty Prelude coupe joined. Both Accord and Prelude used variants of Honda's CVCC engine. Riding a Civic platform, the little two-passenger CRX reached the U.S. in 1985, capturing the attention of sporty small-car enthusiasts.
Honda spun off a new Acura division for 1986, but continued to expand its own lineup during the 1990s. Civics and Accords were redesigned every three to five years. In 1993, Honda introduced another two-seater to replace the CRX: the Civic del Sol.
For 1994, Honda entered the SUV market with a Passport then launched its Odyssey minivan a year later. Accord-based first-generation Odysseys had sedan-like doors rather than the usual sliding doors, but later minivans switched to the sliders. Following the lead of Toyota's new RAV4 compact SUV, Honda introduced its CR-V as a 1997 model.
Honda's Prelude sport coupe went through two final generations in the 1990s. For 2003, a new Pilot SUV replaced the prior Passport. Honda's sole sports car in modern times came for 2000: the S2000, highlighted by a high-revving 240-horsepower engine. S2000 sales halted in 2009.
Meanwhile, Honda was among the first automakers to introduce a hybrid (battery/gasoline) car to the U.S. market. While Toyota marketed a five-passenger Prius, Honda turned to a two-seater: the 2000 Insight. That Insight faded away in 2006, but Honda unveiled a completely different hybrid under that same name for 2010: a conventional, larger hatchback.
Seeking a car smaller than Civic, Honda released its first Fit subcompact as a 2007 model, in hatchback and sedan form. Meanwhile, the Ridgeline pickup truck debuted in 2006, ready to attract an audience that differed from those who ordinarily bought big Ford, Chevrolet, and Dodge pickups. Honda's squared-off 2003 Element, with back doors that opened rearward, attempted to capture the youth market, but lasted only until 2010.
Redesigning of the Civic for 2012 brought some unfavorable publicity, due to a negative review by Consumer Reports. Other reviewers disagreed, but Honda's top management wound up apologizing for not making the latest Civic better. Honda continues to rely on its reputation for reliability, which is more than enough to satisfy its loyal customers.