Bill and Lori Manly with the first Honda sold in the continental United States; they sold the car in 1970, and bought it back ten years later on a trade-in. August 20, 2012.

LeBARON: Manlys made history with sale of first little Honda

OK, here's the story. Man walks into a showroom on Santa Rosa Avenue. Pays $1,200 for a small, boxlike car, the like of which he has not seen before.

Has no clue that he has made automotive history and Santa Rosa history in one swoop.

And so has the car dealer.

That car was the first Honda automobile sold in the continental United States. And the neophyte dealership, owned by Bill and Lori Manly, was the first authorized dealer.

That was 1970; more than 40 years ago, but the car is still around, still drivable in fact.

Currently it occupies a place of honor in the newer, bigger, fancier showroom at Manly Honda on Corby Avenue.

THERE'S ANOTHER story here, as well. In this one, two car guys with an affinity for figuring out the combustion engine open a repair shop in a back alley off Petaluma Hill Road in late 1950s, a place they called Foreign Automotive.

It was a time when post-World War II prosperity was sending tourists off to Europe with money to spend.

Many of them returned, as Bill Manly recalled when we talked last week, with strange and wonderful new cars — exotics, like Porsches and Mercedes and Triumphs and Austin-Healeys and even odder creations like the Citroen and the DKW ("Only seven moving parts!") The care of these automobiles was a specialized field and Manly credits his then-partner, the late Bob Haley, for much of the modest success of Foreign Automotive.

"Haley was a genius," he said. "He could get into the engineer's mind and know how to make it all work."

So it happened that one summer day in 1959, at the old Cotati Raceway on the abandoned auxiliary air strip used by the Navy pilots in WWII, Haley and Bill and Lori were acting as the pit crew for a Triumph-driver customer when they met a man in a pickup with an unfamiliar word — "Honda" — painted on the door and a motorcycle they'd never seen before in the back.

It was a Japanese creation, a trail bike with a 55cc engine. The company was preparing to import them and was seeking dealers. Manly suggested he talk to Ang Rossi, the longtime Santa Rosa motorcycle dealer who sold, at that time, mostly Harley-Davidsons.

But the Honda guy said that the company wanted to avoid existing motorcycle dealerships. This was a smaller, more versatile "fun" bike, and they wanted to be clear of the Harley image.

So the Manlys signed on.

The first two arrived in pieces, in crates, Bill recalled, each with parts in a paper bag, a tool kit, and assembly instructions in Japanese.

Lori laughs, remembering the awkward translations in the owner's manual, like avoiding "skid demons" and "beware of oil on road for that will upset you."

They also came with a chrome antenna-like attachment that, according to instructions, was meant to "ward off evil spirits."

It worked for the Manlys.

Soon the bikes were all over the place, on-road and off. Lori and Bill led trail rides, teaching customers how to be safe.

NOW HERE'S where the two stories mesh. By 1967, they had sold so many motorcycles that Honda paid for a trip to Japan. There, in the Tokyo factory, the Manlys saw that the company was making a car. The N-600 was smaller and squarer than the Volkswagen, with a two-cycle engine.

There were future plans to export them to the U.S.

"We asked to be considered," says Bill.

In '68, they got word that their dealership had been approved. This new agency had to be separate from the motorcycle dealership, so they bought a building on Santa Rosa Avenue and outfitted it for a showroom. It was two years before the first Honda arrived.

"We had no cars, so we put in a pool table," Lori remembers.

In 1970, word finally came that their car — singular — had arrived and was ashore at Fort Mason. Bill hitchhiked to San Francisco and drove it home.

And sold it.

"I told the buyer it should be good for about 90,000 miles. I told him if it quit, just put the pink slip under the windshield wiper and leave it at the side of the road," Bill said.

He was kidding. I think.

Ten years later, after 90,000 or more miles, that first owner, whose name is lost to the ages, brought it back to the Manlys as a trade-in.

Bill kept it. He has been a keeper of cars ever since his first vehicle, a 1932 Stutz with no body and an apple-crate seat, which garnered plenty of attention in hot-rod-crazy Pasadena, where he grew up.

THE MANLYS sold some 20,000 motorcycles before they sold the dealership in 1988. The number of Honda automobiles sold is a work in progress.

Full disclosure requires that I confess that I drive a 2004 Honda Civic hybrid. And it's not my first Honda. In fact, I stumbled on this tale when I wandered into the showroom and saw the first car while mine was being serviced.

Brian Manly, the youngest of Bill and Lori's family of four, now owns the Honda dealership.

At 83, Bill is retired. Lori still goes to the office every day. They have been married 61 years, "We've had a good ride," Lori said.


UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.