The California dealer who risked everything to sell the first American Honda cars

Laurie and Bill Manley saw their first factory Honda in Suzuka, Japan, in 1967. They won a trip to Japan from American Honda, a compliment of sales volume at their eight-year-old motorcycle dealership, Honda of Santa Rosa, an hour north San Francisco. “We sold a lot of motorcycles,” says Laurie Manley, now 88.

The car, the Honda N360, was unlike anything on American roads. It weighed just over 1,000 pounds. It had a transversely mounted, air-cooled two-cylinder metal engine under the hood of the small car, driving the front wheels through a four-speed manual transmission. It had 10-inch wheels. It took nearly 20 seconds to accelerate to 60 mph. With just 118 inches of vehicle between its chrome fenders, it was three and a half feet shorter than a Volkswagen Beetle. In fact, it was a foot shorter than the wheelbase of the contemporary Cadillac Coupe Deville.

This story originally appeared in Volume 4 of Road & Track.

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Bill and Lori with one of the first N600s sold in America. The owner traded it; Keep it Manley.
The Manley family

Honda 600

The Honda N600 was a primitive little predecessor to the revolutionary Civic. Almost too small for American roads, yet it showcased the engineering prowess and attention to detail that would make Honda a success in the US market.
Kelsey McClellan

Bill and Laurie were smitten. “My dad was an amazing mechanic and a car lover,” says Brian Manley, who now runs the family agency. “I think he gravitated toward the quality of the Honda brand. He can recognize the quality. He told my mom, ‘If it’s anything like their motorcycles, I bet it’s a very good car.'”

Manley immediately began a campaign to sell the Honda minivan to their customers. The following year, they got word that Honda of America was considering bringing the new N600, a slightly more powerful version of the N360, in the United States. “Because Honda decided to show a car in the US, they went to their friends and family first, and those were the California motorcycle dealers,” says Stephen Center, current vice president of vehicle sales at Honda. “They were chosen because of their culture, concern for consumers, service and quality.”

Manley was among those selected, but Bell had a special request. “My dad asked me to be the number one dealer,” says Rita Manley Case. Raised in a family business, it now operates one of the largest privately owned car dealership groups in America. He said, ‘Someone has to be the number one dealer, and I want him to be me. “

Honda asked the 32 new franchisees to set up their car dealerships separate from their bikes, so the Manlis family bought a former boat dealer nearby and moved the motorcycles there. “And on the side of the alley there was a small car showroom,” says Rita, who was only 16 at the time. “That was where I sat. So I was literally the first Honda salesperson.”

Because of bureaucratic hurdles, it took two years for the first cars to get in. (“We didn’t have any cars, so we set up a pool table,” Lowry told a local reporter.)

“The Japanese Ministry of Industry and Trade ruled with an iron fist, and they required Japanese manufacturers to cooperate with and sell through an American company,” Center says. General Motors has a history with Isuzu that dates back to the 1920s, Ford has recently started its partnership with Mazda, and Chrysler has been in deep talks with Mitsubishi. The ministry told founder Soichiro Honda that the Big Three were full. “But he was a lively guy who didn’t take no for granted. He found a way to do it,” says Center.

Finally, in 1970, the first N600s arrived at the local port. Manley had received an assignment for exactly one car. They sold it before any other California dealer made a sale. “So we were the number one seller of cars in the continental US for Honda,” says Lowry.

Bill and Laurie Manley did not set out to become leading Honda dealerships. Bell married in 1950 when he was 22 and Laurie at 17, both thrill-seekers. Bill grew up steeped in the hot stick culture of SoCal. “We had a model named — two-door, four-door. We went to all the hot stick encounters,” Lowry says. “Cars have been a huge part of our lives.” Race the Bonneville Salt Flats. They flew old planes.

They also sought a chance. When European cars started showing up at the races, Manellis saw business as potential. They opened Foreign Automotive in the mid-1950s, maintaining and repairing machines from Germany, Italy and Britain.

In 1957, Cotati Raceway opened in an old naval airport. The San Francisco area of ​​the Saudi Center for Commercial Arbitration held events there, and as hobbyists and owners of a local store, Manelis attended, worked on customer cars and published their names to potential customers.

One day in 1959, they were on the track as a support crew for a Triumph driver. “A pickup truck got into the hole area, and the driver said they were looking for us,” Laurie says. The driver was from the newly formed American company Honda, which had just opened in a storefront on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. Offer to gamble Manley.

Honda factory 600

The Manley family

manly laurie

Laurie Manley racing her Honda S-90 at the Cotati Raceway in 1964.
The Manley family

Honda was looking to bring a new motorcycle experience to America, the handsome, affordable, and easily accessible Honda 50. It would entice enthusiasts but would also appeal to casual riders. Honda didn’t want to associate its product with the noisy, noisy, tough bikes from Harley-Davidson, BSA or Triumph, so it sought franchisees outside of the regular channels. They wanted to sell Honda motorcycles through sporting goods stores, feed stores, or. . . Maybe a garage for foreign cars,” says Brian.

Manley had never heard of a Honda before. At the time, the term “Made in Japan” had a negative connotation for many Americans. But the bikes piqued their interest and they quickly said yes. “We took the units, took our sports car customers, and arranged weekend rides,” Lowry says. “And they loved it.”

Kids love it too. “I remember going on these walks when I was six or seven,” Brian says. “I was sitting on a rack in my Honda Trail 50 while my mom and sister got on the knees.” Customers tore through the Napa Hills on Sunday, then came to the store to buy $250 bikes for themselves and their family.

To push the product further, Manellis held bike races during lunch breaks at Sharjah Administrative Control Center events. They soon helped found the Honda Motorcycle Racing Series and competed with themselves. “My mom was the first Honda car racer. She raced from 1963 to 1965,” says Rita. “I raced at Sears Point, Laguna Seca, Riverside, and with great success.”

Honda has launched a major print and television campaign: “Meet the Most Beautiful People in a Honda”. The Beach Boys wrote a hit song, “Little Honda”. The bikes became a sensation, with over 100,000 of them sold annually. “As it grew, and the customer base increased, we decided to get out of the repair business and take advantage of these motorcycles,” Laurie says. They ditched Foreign Automotive, bought a building, and traded Honda bikes full time. As one of the first Honda dealerships in the United States, they even had a direct phone line to Japan.

Manelis was able to move his first Honda N600 in the United States, but it wasn’t an easy sale. “People took advantage of the car. They said, ‘This little thing? We’re going to run over on the highway with every Cadillac and Chrysler,'” Lowry recalls. Rita agrees. “All the other traders were laughing at my dad in those early years,” she says. “People called the sleds load-bearing cars.” “A Honda 750 motorcycle with mirrors sat higher on it, and I think it cost $100 more,” he says.

But Manley persevered in his search for a $1,395 car market. “We decided to pay it to college kids as a cheap form of transportation for young people,” Laurie says. Rita was one of the unexpected victims of this strategy. She drove the N600 in her last year of high school. “The kids would pick up the thing and flip it sideways in the parking lot so you couldn’t get out,” Brian says. In the first year of the N600, Manlys sold just 10 cars. “The entire United States has never noticed the Honda N600. They thought it funny,” said Rita.

Inexpensive but disposable, the N600 wasn’t a huge success. Most of them had a service life of about 65,000 miles before they needed a main engine rebuild. But the people who bought it are champions of the brand. The Manley family gave many people their first look at a Honda badge on a car. When the capable and more perceptive Civic arrived in the middle of the 1973 fuel crisis, thousands flocked to buy a Honda hatchback. “It was like a cult,” says Center. “[The customers] I did all the selling, like today’s Tesla.”

Honda n600

Kelsey McClellan

The customers were not wrong. “When I compared them to American cars at the time, 60 or 70,000 miles was a lot to put on a Chrysler,” Lowry says. “On a Honda? I’ve got over 100,000 miles, and then people bring them in for the barter.”

Manley embraced this practice. In 1980, one of their original customers brought in his N600, with 90,000 miles on the clock, looking to replace a newer model. Honda has had great success with the Civic subcontractor. Its rootstock CVCC was able to meet the stringent emissions requirements of the 1970 Clean Air Act without a catalytic converter, and it sipped gasoline that quadrupled in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo. And the automaker had just released the Accord, a sporty and efficient family sedan.

Both cars were complete collisions. “Once Civic came out, that was a completely different ball game,” Lowry says. “We had a waiting list of nine months.” In 1970, Honda sold just over 4,000 cars in America; In 1980, more than 375,000.

Suddenly, everyone wanted to sell the Civics. But Honda chose to work exclusively with those dealers who invested in a separate facility to sell N600s back in the day. For their loyalty, and to continue to take a chance on Honda, the automaker made Manley a part of its success story.

Manleys accepted that the N600 was on trade, but they did not resell it. It’s still there in their showroom, reminding them of where they started with Honda. Bell passed away in 2017. Laurie still comes to the office every day. “She’s been driving a motorcycle to work for years,” Brian says. Now she is driving an S2000. “I love it. It handles beautifully, and has a lot of mobility and mobility,” she says.

When asked why she and Bill were drawn to this little-known and unproven brand 60 years ago, Laurie paused. “We looked at it and thought, ‘This looks fun.’ We were looking at the fun side more of looking for something to sell,” she says. “We had a great time.”

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manly laurie

Laurie Manley still comes to the office every day, although she recently switched from a motorcycle to an S2000 for commuting.
Kelsey McClellan

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