Another contrarian example was the N600, the automaker's entry into the United States in 1969. The small, underpowered N600 competed with American family sedans and muscle cars — a seemingly futile effort.
But the N600 quickly morphed into the small-engine Civic just in time to capitalize on the U.S. consumer's demand for fuel efficiency after the 1973-74 oil crisis.
Deciding in 1979 to manufacture cars in the United States appeared to be another dubious notion. Like other Japanese manufacturers, Honda relied on its close-knit Japanese suppliers, none of which had a U.S. plant.
Moreover, Honda's Japanese workers were trained to do multiple jobs, unlike American auto workers. The company had no engineering resources in North America. And anti-Japanese public sentiment was simmering as Ford, General Motors and Chrysler laid off workers because of market share lost to Honda and other Japanese competitors.
Honda's president in the late 1970s, Kiyoshi Kawashima, summed up the decision this way: A U.S. factory probably didn't make sense for a relatively small foreign carmaker with meager resources. But it was a risk Honda needed to take.
Now, the United States is Honda's largest, most profitable market.
Scott Whitlock, who was executive vice president of Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. in the 1980s and 1990s, says: "There was a larger philosophy behind this decision, and behind many of our decisions.
"We refer to it as 'the Honda Way.' Some of it is confidential, although it is well-understood inside Honda. It was a commitment to make products of the highest possible quality at an acceptable cost.
"And that probably sounds very simple. But when you accept it as your direction, it begins to drive the way you make decisions."
The Honda Way also meant that while other U.S. automakers plowed investment into booming V-8 engines in the 1990s, Honda refrained. Instead, it extracted more power from four- and six-cylinder engines, a strategy that is paying dividends as consumers seek green products.
It meant that while automakers merged and acquired competitors in the 1980s and '90s, Honda flew solo. It even lost a fledgling partnership with Britain's Rover Cars when a more aggressive BMW AG stepped into the picture to buy Rover.
Honda's strategy proved prescient when many of the industry's biggest mergers, such as Daimler and Chrysler's, proved to be financial fiascos.
It meant that while other automakers set up new U.S. ventures by recruiting big talent away from other auto companies, Honda did not. It preferred to train its own personnel.
It meant that while others spent heavily on new production capacity to go after U.S.-dominated truck segments, Honda added capacity in smaller numbers and kept most of it focused on safer product segments, such as the Civic.
When Honda finally produced its first pickup truck, it would be the low-volume Ridgeline, based on the chassis of the Odyssey minivan.
Most automakers locked arms to resist congressional efforts to raise U.S. fuel economy requirements in 2007. Honda broke ranks to say it would have no problem reaching the tougher requirements.
"The Honda Way shows up in a lot of different experiences," says Chuck Ernst, senior vice president of Honda Manufacturing of Alabama LLC in Lincoln, Ala. "The point where all these things come together is that we try to focus on the customer," he says. "Even here, at the plant, there is not a day that goes by where someone will ask the question in a meeting, 'What would the customer want us to do?'
"And we'll stop to consider it."