LeBARON: Manlys made history with sale of first little Honda

  • Bill and Lori Manly sold the first Honda in the continental United States in 1970. The couple, with the car Monday, bought it back 10 years later in a trade-in. (Jeff Kan Lee / PD)

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.

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