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The Honda Private Collection

We get a peek inside Honda's secret Southern California museum.

By Blake Z. Rong | Photos By Blake Z. Rong, Keith Buglewicz | November 06, 2012
The first thing you see inside the Honda Private Collection is the signature of Soichiro Honda himself, etched into dark backlit glass, and mounted onto a frame seemingly honed from a single chunk of aluminum. It contains one kanji character, messy and uneven in the manner only handwriting can produce. It's not surprising that Honda put a focused effort on getting it right. "We first played with backlit LEDs, but it was too bright, and it was a struggle to get right," said Dave Heath, the unofficial curator of the museum. It's not Honda-san's name, but the character for "dream," which seems rather fitting, to say the least, given Honda's "The Power of Dreams" motto. That is, if you can visit in the first place. The American Honda Private Collection, as it's formally known, is not open to the public, and Honda is mum on giving away its location -- its staffers even told us not to take photos of the exterior, lest it get raided by legions of VTEC worshippers. It's located mere minutes from Honda's impeccably-manicured North American headquarters, tucked away in a thoroughly nondescript office park in Torrance, a city filled with thoroughly nondescript office parks. When it opened 10 years ago, the company -- like most enthusiasts and owners -- didn't pay attention to the notion of Honda actually having any heritage to speak of. A few vehicles were squirreled away in some warehouses, but it took the dedication of Heath and a select handful of other executives to assemble them in one building -- even recreating the front facade of American Honda's first ever storefront on Pico Boulevard in 1959. It's easy for Ferrari and Lamborghini to beam about their heritage, but in the case of Honda, it's no simple task. "Check this out," says long-standing, recently retired PR chief Kurt Antonius, waving us over, "It's my baby. 1983 Accord that we fished from a dealership in Muncie, Indiana. Guess how many miles are on it?" Eight thousand. The car is pristine, still with gleaming original burgundy paint and crushed velour interior, a window sticker, and a sticker from Bradburn Oldsmobile-Cadillac on the trunklid -- "that's gonna have to go," Antonius ruminates. Almost the entirety of Honda's collection is met with the phrase, "I used to see these everywhere!" After all, one would think a bunch of Civics would make for less than compelling secret museum fare, but it's only their gradual absence from the neighborhoods and parking lots of our youth that they gain some rose-tinted nostalgia. "It used to be that you could walk on the roofs of these and you'd never touch the ground," said Antonius, perhaps employing some figurative speech. Honda doesn't condone walking on their products, as it might leave unsightly dirt stains on the sunroofs. Up front and center is an N600, Honda's first car sold in America. The Takata Corporation donated it "because we buy a lot of seat belts from them," says Heath. Indeed, the airplane-style lap belts inside do bear the T logo. Looking like a dorkier, wheelbarrow-tired caricature of the Mini Cooper, the N600 was first sold in small batches in Hawaii in 1969, and after 40,000 models proved to be a sales success, it washed ashore on the mainland in 1970. People would stop on the streets and gawk; they couldn't believe how small it was. Back then, it sold for $1,395, and weighed 1300 pounds, or as Heath observes, "about a buck a pound." Wish you could score a fat deal like that on an Escalade. Fun fact: the N stands for "norimono," or Japanese for "vehicle," which has to rank up there with "Quattroporte" for truth in automotive advertising. Who knows what the "Z" stands for in the Z600 -- zaftig, perhaps? The Z600 was the sport model to the N600, and resembles one of Wilt Chamberlain's Chuck Taylor hi-tops. It's unofficially nicknamed the "snorkel," due to the rear window's resemblance to the eponymous diving mask. Rarer than poultry dentistry, the Z600 lives on in any number of dubious motorsports events. Witness the Lemons team, the aptly-named Angry Hamster Racing, that championed a forlorn Z600 with a V-4 engine from a VF1100 Magna motorcycle shoehorned somewhere next to the driver's seat. Or the yellow-flamed, world's quickest Z600, which set a land speed record for its class at 103.978 miles per hour. Its name? Evil Tweety. But of course! Eventually, the dice on wheels gave way to actual cars. And Honda's most famous product, of course, is the Civic; the company has five examples here, including a rare 1988 Si hatch; a wonderfully beige-on-beige wagon, resplendent in its inherent dorkiness; possibly the world's last unmolested fifth-gen Civic Coupe, which once belonged to an executive's daughter; and a 1973 version of the original, which wears its CVCC badges with pride. Looking at them in a museum setting is possibly the oddest experience of the entire visit. It's also a great chance to note the evolution of the H badge, which over the years goes from impossibly narrow, to wide, to merely square-shaped, kind of like Oprah. The 1990 Accord wagon, finished in that bluish-seafoam green color that marked seemingly every car from the decade, is the first Honda designed entirely by an American team -- it was built in Ohio and exported to Japan. And speaking of Accords -- Honda built 1.4 million Accords from 1994 to 1997. The collection's cherry red example's the first -- its VIN plate reads 000001, which will surely make either Barrett or Jackson salivate. It's also the first car designed specifically for the U.S. market, which means it's larger than its European counterpart and comes with a stack of Jimmy Dean bratwurst coupons in the glovebox. Honda has three Preludes there; the first model, its mid-80s replacement, and a mid-90s example. Before the NSX and the S2000, the Prelude was the sporting flagship of the Honda brand. Like Toyota's Celica, it's hard to fathom how it started off as a sportier Civic -- the Z to the N, if you will. But charting the three generations of Prelude, one can see the automotive industry's reflection of its affinity for wraparound dashboards, digital gauges, dour black interiors and the idea that an integrated radio up by the instrument cluster the size of a Tic-Tac box maybe isn't conducive to aftermarket modification. Acura is well-represented here, but especially its earlier models. It's hard to imagine that it's been 14 years after the Legend name passed on, yet the original Legend didn't even bear Acura badges -- just conspicuous "V6" logos on the front, reflective of the 1980s culture of relative excess. "So I'm testing the Legend sedan in Japan," said Heath, "and it's one of the first ones we're testing with a driver-side airbag. And so I meet one of the other engineers who's there driving the Legend coupe, which was the first Honda with a driver's side airbag standard. And I tell him, 'oh yeah, I'm driving the sedan, we have the airbag in it now.' So he says, 'please crash. Please crash it.'" The NSX debuted in 1990, and with it came VTEC, aluminum construction, the idea that exotic cars can actually function on a daily basis, and the now-ubiquitous Acura "caliper" badge. Honda has two: a 1990 model and a 2005, parked on opposite ends of the building as if bookending the entire Acura experience. Both are bright red. The 2005 model has -- and this is probably why Honda wishes the collection to remain hidden -- zero miles on it. It's a catalog car with a targa roof and a tan interior, and perhaps unsurprisingly, as we're allowed to climb into the cars like hyperactive children, only the driver's seat is scuffed. Placed on bright red racks in the sort of setup anyone with a vast Hot Wheels carrying case will recognize, Honda has a few CART and Indycar open-wheeled racers on display: Team Penske's Marlboro Reynard; Michael Andretti's Team Motorola Reynard; Gil de Ferran's all-white Acura ARX-02A Le Mans Prototype car. All are there, along with the world's fastest (and meanest-looking) Civic. Given Honda's illustrious beginnings as a purveyor of motorcycles, it's a surprise that the motorcycle section is an afterthought -- there are no Honda Dreams, no Superhawk and "Black Bomber," or no 1969 CB750, the bike that ushered in the modern superbike era. There's a warehouse attached to the building, in back, that contains all of those motorcycles and more, but we're not allowed inside it -- "for liability reasons," Heath assures us, "and besides, the motorcycle guys would know more about them anyway." Remind me to get good with those folks sooner than later. Honda is entertaining the idea of opening the private collection slowly to the public. But even if their fortunes fall, they don't need to. Here in this tidy, well-lit room -- more art gallery than warehouse, with tidy placards that fall upon nobody's eyes -- the cars seem humdrum and mundane, seemingly unworthy of their preservation. Yet these cars serve as a reminder. What may seem like a cute evolution of Honda's models is actually a grounding in the company's history; where it came from, and how it got to where it is in the first place. And nowhere does this resonate more than with Honda's own employees. Here's a recruiting tip, Honda: Walk every new recruit through this hall, watch the flood of memories come rushing back. My mom used to own one of these, they'll say; I used to see these in my neighborhood all the time. That's the cleanest Prelude I've ever seen! By sheer fault of its familiarity, a Civic shouldn't be preserved. Yet when it's taken out of the side streets and cul-de-sacs and onto its own stage, it can be appreciated in an entirely different context. And nowhere is Honda's context more noticeable than the teensy, fragile N600 and the slick NSX -- as technologically different as a Ford Tristar and a Concorde -- separated by a mere twenty years. Soak it in, Honda recruits. Then, get to work building cars.

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