RALPH KISIEL

Down the road and a continent away

GREENSBURG, Ind. -- The dark cloud that hangs menacingly over Detroit this week seemed light years away Monday as Honda Motor Co. CEO Takeo Fukui celebrated the opening of a new assembly plant here.

While the Detroit 3 set off to Washington D.C. to beg for a bailout package, about 1,000 new Honda employees clapped along to Van Morrison's "Bright Side of the Road" blaring from speakers.

Imagine that, an automotive celebration just a few hours away from Detroit in southeastern Indiana.

The celebration of Honda's sixth assembly plant in North America seemed a continent away from troubled Detroit, where each day seems to bring more bad news for General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC.

Festivities in the farmland

Honda Manufacturing of Indiana LLC stopped the Honda Civic assembly line Monday morning so that its employees could hear Fukui speak. When the line came to a halt, the employees, dressed in their white outfits and green caps, poured into the aisles and headed to the festivities in a corner of the factory.

Rather than shuttering assembly plants and laying off thousands of employees, Fukui dedicated Honda's new $550-million investment on what was 1,700 acres of farmland just two years ago.

Fukui, dressed himself in Honda whites, lauded the plant's "diverse team of associates" and spoke of "Civic Pride." He was referring both to Honda customers who are buying made-in-Indiana Civics and to the ability of Honda employees to meet the growing needs of consumers for fuel-efficient, four-cylinder automobiles.

As the Detroit 3 battle to try to remain in business next year, Honda's Fukui reminded employees and government guests that this gala was just a jumpstart on Honda's 50th anniversary of business operations in America, another celebration to look forward to in 2009.

Employees watched as Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels choked up as he recalled how he sat in a Tokyo hotel room on a spring night in 2006 waiting for the call from Honda with news that Indiana won the big prize.

They cheered as the Indiana plant's Japanese president Yuzo Uenohara drove a dark 2009 Civic up to the podium, carrying three beaming employees with him.

It was an automotive moment all too rare in these last few years.

"A challenging time"

In Fukui's only nod to the economic turmoil in the United States and his competitors' plight in Detroit, he noted that the new assembly plant has begun operation "at a very challenging time" with a "difficult economy and increasing competition."

But Fukui added that these challenging times also represent opportunity for Honda and its fuel-efficient Civic.

When the festivities concluded, Fukui was whisked away from a large contingent of newspaper, TV and radio reporters.

Fukui left perhaps the day's most important message to a corporate affairs officer attending from Honda's offices in Torrance, Calif.

The message: While Honda celebrates, it does understand the need by the U.S. Congress to examine some form of support for the Detroit 3. Honda supports measures that would maintain the short- and long-term viability and stability of the auto industry.

But Honda also knows, it's good to be on the bright side of the road.

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