Made in the USA: The American history of Kawasaki and Honda

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard US President Donald Trump has been at the focus of some controversy this summer. You might even have heard about him sparring on Twitter with Harley-Davidson.

When the Motor Company talked about ramping up overseas production to avoid potential European tariffs, Trump fired back via a tweet that partially read, “Now that Harley-Davidson is moving part of its operation out of the U.S., my Administration is working with other Motor Cycle companies who want to move into the U.S.”

Other motorcycle manufacturers want to move production to the US? Sounds hard to believe, but we have heard faint hints of at least one European OEM considering assembling knock-down kits in the US, if things get bad. And why not? This sort of thing has happened before in the States, and it worked out pretty well at the time. Starting back in the 1970s, both Kawasaki and Honda had significant motorcycle manufacturing operations in the US, and both ran through the 2000s.

The Kawasaki KZ400 wasn’t just the first Japanese motorcycle manufactured in America, it was the first Japanese vehicle of any kind to be built in America, including automobiles, trucks and ATVs.
The Kawasaki story

Kawasaki broke the ground here as the first Japanese manufacturer to make vehicles in the US. Toyota and the rest of the gang weren’t even building cars in the States when Kawasaki opened its plant in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1974. It was Kawasaki’s way of dealing with tariffs and international currency fluctuation, just like you’d figure. The first bike produced was the 1975 KZ400.

Humble beginnings, for sure, but that beginner bike was an important part of Kawasaki’s line in the 1970s, and it paved the way for the production of the KZ900 LTD in 1976, one of the most important models to ever come from a Japanese OEM.

As the first Japanese factory cruiser, the KZ900 LTD was built to take Harley-Davidson’s US market dominance head-on, and to a certain extent, it was successful. While the KZ900 LTD model only lasted in the lineup for a few months before the KZ1000 came along, it set a precedent. By the end of the ’70s, all the Big Four were making American-style cruisers, and many of Kawasaki’s were made right in the USA. At some periods, Kawasaki was actually making more motorcycles in the US than Harley-Davidson.

The 1976 KZ900 LTD drew heavily on American styling influences, and was the first Japanese cruiser.

While production of some of those LTD models moved to Japan, where they copied the made-in-America custom bits (Morris wheels, Jardine exhaust), it was the revolutionary Kawi plant, dropped straight into the American heartland, that was really behind the boom.

As a result, some of those early made-in-America models are actually collectible to the in-the-know enthusiast, particularly that KZ900 LTD, due to its single-year production run and importance in history, says Larry L’ecuyer of Niagara Racecrafters. And he would know. Although his focus was more on the later KZ1000 models, he’s been working on Kawasaki machinery and making it race-ready for decades, and even visited the Nebraska plant himself in 2005. In his words, “The American plant blew my socks off — it was phenomenal.”

L’ecuyer couldn’t remember which bikes he’d seen at the plant’s assembly line, if any, because by then the plant was just about finished with motorcycle production and focusing on other machinery. Motorcycles are just a tiny part of Kawasaki’s huge empire, and along with the bikes, Kawasaki also made ATVs, personal watercraft, heavy machinery, railcars and other equipment at the plant, and still does, although the bikes are now long gone from the assembly line. But all in all, 36 models were made there, including the KZ400, KZ900, ZX-11, ZX-6, Ninja 600R, ZG1200 Voyager, ZG1000 Concours, and maybe most famously of all, the KZ1000P.

Although Kawasaki built a lot of cruisers in the Nebraska plant, sportbikes also had a place on the assembly line. The ZX-6, Ninja 600 and even the ZX-11 pictured here were built in the US.

Some of those models made it to Canada, but many didn’t; Canada got made-in-Japan motorcycles for many of those years, with the US-built machines staying in the American market. And that’s okay. A lot of the bikes made in the US conformed to American emissions regulations — regulations we didn’t have in Canada until the late 1990s. The machines we got were open-spec, while American-bound bikes were choked up to save the environment. (Ever wonder why you hear about American bikes barely idling when cold, while the same bike ran fine in Canada as soon as you pressed the starter? Now you know.)

However, one made-in-America Kawasaki that did come to Canada was the legendary Dan Gurney-designed KZ1000P police bike, an air-cooled inline four that Kawasaki sold to law enforcement agencies starting in 1982 (there were similar models made earlier under different names). Built to compete directly with Harley-Davidson’s highway patrol machines, the KZ1000P handled its mission well. Early versions of the bike even nabbed the starring role in CHiPs.

The cruisers Jon and Ponch took down the California Freeway were made-in-America Kawasakis (the first couple of seasons showed the Z1-P and KZ900-C2, the last season starred the KZ1000-C1, all made-in-America models), not the Harley-Davidsons that many viewers assumed.

The KZ1000P was popular in Canadian PDs as well — L’ecuyer remembers hearing about some Ontario Provincial Police officers being bummed out when their beloved Kawis were traded in for Harley-Davidsons.

Another former Kawasaki service manager tells a similar story from his days working on the east coast, wrenching on bikes for the local cop shop. “All the officers on the force liked the Kawasaki,” he recalled, “because they could actually go out on the highway and do pursuit with it.”

But in 2005, the KZ1000P ran out of road and Kawasaki canceled the bike. Kawasaki had been building motorcycles in the US for 30 years, but wanted to move on to other things. Now, the plant builds rail cars, but it’s still open to factory tours, if you want to visit. We suggest you do so, if you’re in the area. What else is there to do in Nebraska?

The 1979 Honda Elsinore CR250 kicked off motorcycle production in the US for Big Red.
The Honda story

Honda started building bikes in the US after Kawasaki began production, but not by long: Big Red’s US motorcycle production started with the 1979 CR250 Elsinore, built in a facility in Marysville, Ohio. From there, things took off. In all, Honda made 40 different motorcycle models (counting on-road and off-road models) in the Ohio plant, shipping them all over the world.

Although there was likely some consideration of the financial side of things when the Ohio plant opened, a big part of the reasoning was Honda’s internal policy of trying to build products near their market. American demand for motorcycles was rising, and Honda decided it made sense to make the machines where they’d be sold. That explains the specific machines made there: along with the Elsinore and other dirt bikes, the Marysville plant built cruisers (Magnas, VTXs, Shadows) and plenty of ATVs (which are more popular in the US than anywhere else in the world). More than a million motorcycles were made in the plant, with peak production  of 183, 032 vehicles coming in 1997.

The Ohio plant built all sorts of Hondas, but tended to focus on cruisers like this Shadow ACE.

Although the plant was originally built to serve the American market, it eventually shipped machines all over the globe. While many parts were imported from Japan at first, then assembled in the US, the plant actually ended up sourcing many of the components for motorcycles locally as production moved on. These really were made-in-America motorcycles as much as any other machines.

More than anything else, the plant is best-known for building Gold Wings — lots and lots of Gold Wings. The Ohio plant started building Gold Wings in 1981, and the machines were produced there for almost 30 years, ending in 2010. It was the last made-in-the-USA Honda motorcycle.

Unlike the made-in-Nebraska Kawasaki models, which weren’t always marketed with their American origins as a big selling point, at least not in Canada, Honda made a point of promoting its Ohio-built bikes as American-made motorcycles. For a while, there was even an annual homecoming rally for those bikes at its Marysville factory. Some Canadian readers might remember the VT1100 series called the American Classic Edition (ACE).

The Gold Wing was build in Ohio for more than 25 years, and exported all over the globe.

Whether that sold more bikes or not, it’s hard to say. Officially, Honda’s US office says the company takes pride in its products meeting the same quality standards, wherever they’re built: “Geography of production while important and acknowledged, is not over-emphasized.” In other words, Honda wants you to buy a Honda because it’s a Honda, not because it’s a made-in-America Honda, although that only applies to ATVs and other vehicles now that the company’s bikes are all built back in Japan.

Depending who ask, you’ll hear different reasons why Honda brought Gold Wing production back to Japan. Some online naysayers claim it was due to problems with frame welding in the US plant, but officially, according to a rep from Honda’s US office, “The move reflected a global Honda strategy to consolidate production of larger displacement motorcycles to one central location at the historic Hamamatsu Factory in Japan for advancement of technology and modern production methods which benefited our customers worldwide.”

Unofficially, another source close to Honda told me there was no problem with the quality at the plant, but Honda needed the capacity to expand its auto production: “The issue was not the size of the building, it was that they had hired every available person they could within a sizable radius of the factory and were in fact busing people in from some distance away. To expand auto production, they had no choice but to steal staff from motorcycle.” So motorcycle production was moved back to Japan.

Still, depending who you ask, some industry insiders will tell you there is a difference between the made-in-America Hondas and the made-in-Japan Hondas. One longtime Honda salesman told me he could tell the difference in the welds on ATVs — not that there was anything weak or wimpy about the welds, as the naysayers used to claim about the Ohio-built Gold Wings, but they just weren’t as nicely finished as the Japanese machines.

The VT1100 line was another made-in-Ohio series for Honda.

But that salesman’s personal bike? Surprise, surprise, a made-in-the USA Gold Wing. He’s owned eight of them over the years, and they’ve all been up to the task. He told me, “I keep records of all my Gold Wings, and when I go back through the files, what’s in there are tires, maintenance, the odd battery and regular oil maintenance. There’s nothing in my files about an engine overhaul or top-end replacement or any of that stuff.”

And countless other Wing owners would say the same. Given the long miles those bikes put down, year after year, there may be no other greater compliment to the Ohio plant’s staff than to say they built Gold Wings, and they built them well.

One thought on “Made in the USA: The American history of Kawasaki and Honda”

Join the conversation!