A what-if scenario: Bob Lutz, Honda dealer

To relive his days as a Marine pilot, Lutz purchased a military jet from Czechoslovakia and occasionally patrols the Michigan skies.
In the summer of 1958, Marine Lt. Bob Lutz and Lt. Pete Defty were trying hard to come up with $100,000.

The two pilots, both stationed in Japan, wanted to start importing and distributing an up-and-coming motorcycle brand, Honda, in the United States. By 1958, Honda was the world's largest motorcycle maker, but it had not begun exporting to the United States.

Company founder Soichiro Honda, in a meeting that the 26-year-old Lutz somehow managed to set up, had agreed to sell exclusive North American distribution rights to the two Marines. Defty does not recall whether the $100,000 — equivalent to $730,000 in current dollars — was the proposed franchise fee or the total going-in investment.

Lutz and Defty had been burning up phone circuits asking their parents to back them. Lutz's father, a wealthy and connected Swiss investment banker, could easily finance a deal. Defty's family wasn't so well-off but also could raise seed money.

Both sets of parents refused.

"Well, motorcycles, fighter pilots and parents ... you know right away that's not going anywhere," the 73-year-old Defty, a long-retired pilot for Pan Am and United, said in a telephone interview.

What if ... ?

What if the families had backed the venture? What if the nascent product and marketing ace Bob Lutz had been a key part of Honda's growth and diversification in the United States, and the world, from the beginning?

Who knows? What is always trumps "What if?"

But Defty, tongue firmly in cheek, thinks he knows how things would have turned out.

"I doubt that Honda would be the great company it is today if we had done the deal," he quipped. "We definitely would have screwed things up royally."

Lutz's brush with what-might-have-been began in early 1958 with a visit to the sprawling Osaka Trade Fair, where he was drawn to the Honda stand and its rows of gleaming bikes.

One in particular riveted him. The motorcycle, a glistening red one-off model called the 305 Dream Scrambler, was the working concept for a bike that would go into production in 1962. Lutz bought it off the floor and took it back to his base at Iwakuni, near Hiroshima in southern Japan.

Not long afterward, Defty flew down from his base at Atsugi, near Tokyo, for a weekend visit with his buddy.

"We rode double on the Scrambler into Iwakuni several times and around the area, and he kept talking about what a great business the bikes could be back home," Defty recalled. "So just like that, we decided to go for it."

Smooth talker

In June, Lutz and Soichiro Honda met in Tokyo. The two hit it off. Honda, possibly impressed by the polished young Marine's ability to speak so knowledgably about motorcycles and cars, offered him the opportunity to buy the U.S. franchise.

Despite Lutz's inability to follow through, the meeting began a life-long mutual admiration.

Lutz returned to the United States in the fall; Defty followed in 1959. The two flew together in a reserve fighter squadron based at Alameda, Calif., until Lutz left in 1963. They remain in touch.

Honda set up American Honda Motor Co. in Los Angeles in September 1959 to import and distribute its motorcycles in North America. It was a factory-owned operation; the possibility of franchising the business had passed.

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