Dean Adams Paul Dean Dave Despain
Tosh Konya Dick Lepley Steve McMinn
Mark Mederski Bill Silver Randall Washington

The Honda experience: A dealer’s perspective

By Dick Lepley

Dick Lepley

I’ve been a motorcycle dealer in Northwestern Pennsylvania for over forty years, but I suspect my love of gasoline powered two wheeled vehicles was implanted in my DNA long before that…perhaps even before birth.  I don’t remember ever not wanting to ride a motorcycle.  In fact, one of my current radio commercials has me sitting at curbside in the summer of 1953 waiting for Harley riders to pass by on their way to the dealership up the street from where I lived. 

Our dealership is quite unique since we sell Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Polaris, and Kymco products.  We also represent Honda automobiles.  But, let me back up a few decades to 1963.  I was nineteen, and it was time to leave home, with one of my main motivations being the ability to buy a motorcycle, which was not allowed while living with my folks.  I landed a job at WKBN in Youngstown, Ohio, and with my first paycheck in hand, trucked down to Gollan’s Honda on Market Street and put a down payment on a mono-white 305 Superhawk.  How I wish I still had that bike today.  A buddy of mine and I traveled out west that year, and man I was hooked in spite of mechanical difficulties and a rather spectacular crash my friend and his Yamaha were involved in, forcing him to return home via Greyhound.  Fast forward to 1965: I was working in radio and TV at WAKR in Akron, doing a teen TV show that was sponsored by Worden’s Cycle Shop.  I lived in an apartment attached to Worden’s Honda store, and I began doing simple tasks around the dealership, such as new unit set-ups, and converting CB 160s and 450s into CL scrambler models.  I also got heavily into riding dirt bikes. 

By 1967 I was married to my lovely wife Joanne, a lady who still shares my passion for all things two-wheeled.  I was becoming very jaded with the broadcast biz, and I had a longing to return to Pennsylvania.  I had a gut feeling that a motorcycle dealership would be a good addition to my home town.  My father-in-law was also looking for a change.  He had a few bucks to spare, and Joanne and I became the labor force for our new venture, so in 1968 we returned to Pennsylvania.  We rented an old gas station in a dot on the map called Hartstown, secured a Yamaha franchise, added BSA and Rupp mini-bikes to the mix, and then proceeded to wait for the crowds to appear, all the while living on the fifty dollars a week that Joanne was earning as a medical secretary.  Two things became immediately apparent.  The crowd didn’t show up, and the only thing I did with any degree of proficiency was ride motorcycles.  In fact, I had no idea how to sell bikes, and knew even less about turning wrenches on them. 

Interestingly, folks kept showing up at my front door on new Hondas.  They did so because the local Honda dealer was telling them I would take care of their warranty problems.  As a result, I began placing calls to Honda’s California headquarters requesting to become a Honda dealer since the local franchisee seemed to have no interest in the type of riders who owned them.  Business finally began to pick up, and we moved to an abandoned drive-in restaurant not far from our original location.  Joanne’s folks joined us, and a riding bud of mine signed on as a technician.  Rupp rode into the sunset, and BSA, Triumph and the balance of the British brands lost their second revolution fought on American soil.  And, in 1971 we finally became a Honda dealer. 

The era proved to be one of the most exciting times in my life.  I vividly remember the first truckload of Hondas arriving at the dealership.  The first one to come off was a CB750K1, and its owner was standing there with us, eagerly awaiting its arrival.  And he wasn’t the only one.  The motorcycle business exploded, and we were there with the right stuff at the right time.  We couldn’t put motorcycles together fast enough.  I was young, tireless, and had embarked on a lifelong love affair with Honda. 

The 1972 dealer convention, held in Washington, D.C., was our first with Honda.  Honda conventions back then were incredibly exciting, with loads of new product, lights, smoke, mirrors, stimulating speeches, pounding music, all mixed with chrome, rubber, and steel.  But, the big surprise of this convention was an appearance by Mr. Honda himself, who by that time, he was firmly implanted in the “one of my favorite genius inventors” section of my brain.  He appeared on the convention floor and was immediately surrounded by hundreds of admirers including yours truly.  I eagerly pushed my way through the crowd, and was able to look him in the eye, tell him how much I admired what he had accomplished, and shake his hand. I can still see the moment like it was yesterday.

    
That same year, we acquired 25 acres of land and erected our first building, and we continued cranking out a growing line of motorcycles.  In 1975 the motorcycle industry peaked at over one million units, but by 1976 dark clouds were appearing on the horizon. A slump began that held the industry in its grip for a long time.  This is the era when the phrase “bold new graphics” was coined, which were used for years to identify the latest version of the same old thing.  However, in 1975 we also became part of the Honda automotive family, putting up a second building to accommodate what has certainly become the finest car on earth.

Honda realized the difficulties in the industry, and one of the tools it developed to work through a tough time was the Honda Motorcycle National Dealer Council.  It was a great program and a great communications tool that created a better understanding between AHM and the dealers, and is still being used today by the Honda Auto Division.  I was fortunate to serve as the National Dealer Council chairman.  The experience gave me a much broader view of the motorcycle industry and resulted in a number of opportunities that I never dreamed of when I opened the door to the dealership for the first time in 1968. 

For example, one day in 1989 I received a call from Rod Anderson at American Honda.  He asked if I had plans for a particular period, and I answered, “It sounds like I might.”  That call led to another trip to Los Angeles for two days of meetings, then a group of us boarded a Japan Air Lines 747 for two weeks in Japan.  There were only two dozen of us and many of those on board were long time friends.  My good friend Art Ridgeway, who recently retired from AHM, had clued me in that Honda had an amazing collection of motorcycles beneath the bowling alley at the Suzuka circuit.  During the flight, I asked Anderson if we could see the collection.  He was surprised I knew about it, but told me he’d see what he could do.  We began our journey in Osaka, then went to Hamamatsu where Mr. Honda’s great adventure began.  We visited the home office in Tokyo then went to Tochigi, which is now the home of the Honda Collection Hall.  There were NR oval piston engines and other neat stuff on display everywhere.  We also spent time at Honda R&D and entered the hallowed shrine of Honda racing, HRC.  I had to keep pinching myself to make certain it was really happening.
 
We topped off the trip by spending two days watching the Suzuka Eight Hours endurance race at the Suzuka Circuit.  There were thousands of people, gaggles of those world famous Japanese “umbrella girls,” and motorcycles everywhere.  We couldn’t wait to get to our box seats, but suddenly we found ourselves following our guide down a set of stairs.  We entered a doorway and found ourselves staring straight at a race car built and driven by Mr. Honda himself.  Rod Anderson had gained us access to a world which at the time was known only to a few.  I entered a second door and my eyes were met with a row of ‘60s era GP road racers.  The names of Redman, Hailwood, Taveri, and Surtees were affixed to a number of them.  There were also early Formula One cars, including the Mexican Gran Prix winner that was driven by Richie Ginther to Honda’s first F1 victory 1965.  There were benchmark Honda motorcycles everywhere you looked, including a lot of stuff I never knew existed.  They simply turned us loose, and let us wander around for about an hour.  I do believe I died and went to motorcycle/race car heaven for those sixty minutes.  This then-secret stash of Honda history is what now fills the hallowed corridors of the Honda Collection Hall at Twin Ring Motegi. 

Mr. Honda greets Joanne Lepley at the opening of American Honda headquarters in Torrance.  Left is Silvio Carerra.  Right is Dick Lepley.

Sooner or later, things seem to come full circle, and in August of 1990 Rod Anderson called to extend an invitation for Joanne and me to attend the opening of American Honda’s new facility in Torrance, California, and to attend a special dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Honda.  The date was October 10, 1990; I’ll never forget it.  We gathered at six for cocktails, and it wasn’t long before Mr. and Mrs. Honda arrived.  By this time, Mr. Honda was 84, but he was as bright and animated as a teenager.  We dealers formed a queue, and were introduced to Mr. Honda and his wife, photos were taken, awards were presented to Mr. Honda, and then we sat down for dinner.   And then an amazing thing happened.  Mr. Honda rose from his table, borrowed a jacket and towel from one of the waiters, and proceeded to serve wine to all of his guests.  Here was this incredible man who defined the world of modern motorcycling, and so much more, and he was honoring us for helping him achieve so much.  It was a humbling experience, and I know I’ll never see anything like it again.  I had remembered to bring along my copy of “Honda, The Man & His Machines” by Sol Sanders, and I asked my friend John Petas if Mr. Honda would autograph my book for me.  There was a bit of discussion, and then Mr. Honda waved me over to his side.   He signed my book, and once again I told him how much I valued what he had accomplished and what he stood for, and then I shook his hand.  The circle was complete.  Mr. Honda’s 1990 visit was his last.  In less than a year he would pass into history, but the company he founded lives on, and Joanne and I proudly continue to carry his banner as Honda dealers.

About the author:
Dick Lepley is president of Street Track ‘N Trail, Inc. in Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania.  He is a life member of both the American Motorcyclist Association and the National Rifle Association.  He is active in the National Off-Highway Vehicle Conservation Council, a former board member of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, and a member of the Pennsylvania Off-Highway Vehicle Association.

To contact Dick Lepley, click dlep@zoominternet.net.  To access his Street Track N Trail web site, click here.