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Kurt Antonius - Behind Closed Doors

American Honda’s first PR man reveals 28 years of Honda history

Aaron Bonk
Aug 9, 2013
Photographers: American Honda, Courtesy of Kurt Antonius
Kurt antonius Photo 1/3   |  
Antonius welcoming fans to the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio 2009.

Kurt Antonius never made a nine-second pass that forever changed the scope of import drag racing. He didn't invent the engine swap. He's never even owned a modified Honda. But, chances are, there's a Civic parked inside your garage right now because of him. For nearly three decades Antonius spearheaded Honda's public relations efforts, helping make cars like the CRX and Integra something Honda followers are proud to own nearly 25 years after their introduction. He even played a role in development of the NSX name. Antonius joined Honda's ranks--a company devoid of any sort of public relations department-in 1983 following a 12-year stint at General Motors. Now retired, his tenure at Honda began before the birth of the Acura brand, before the company's IndyCar efforts, even before the idea of VTEC had been jotted down. From his perch at American Honda's Southern California headquarters, Antonius watched as the Honda performance movement began to grow, admittedly remaining hands-off at first, allowing it to nurture itself. The following is Antonius' story.

HT: Tell us about your role at American Honda. When did you start with the company?

KA: I came to Honda in November of 1983. I was hired from General Motors, where I'd spent 12 years in the PR and communications business. Essentially, I was hired to start a PR operation at Honda. I was their first employee in public relations.

HT: American Honda had no public relations department prior to your being there?

KA: Not really. They had a gentleman at the advertising agency that kind of knew the press and talked to them from time to time, but there was nobody in-house. I was employee one, so to speak. My career ran 28 years. When I retired, I was responsible for Honda PR, Acura PR, auto shows and exhibits, motorsports, and the Honda museum.

HT: When you arrived at Honda, were you immediately the head of PR, by default?

KA: Yes, because I was the only one [laughs].

HT: It's been said that, prior to your retirement, you were the longest-running PR person in the auto business. Is that accurate?

KA: Yeah, that's probably true. I wasn't the oldest, but I was the longest-running head of one single major brand's public relations [department] in the industry.

HT: How did your role change over the course of 28 years?

KA: I held the same position but, of course, my responsibilities expanded considerably over the years. I remember in 1985 the executive vice president of sales pulled me into a conference room and said, "Kurt, I've got a big secret, and it's something that you've gotta start getting ready for from a PR standpoint. We're gonna start a whole new automotive division. We don't even have a name for it. It's code-named Channel Two. It's going to sell cars with V-6 engines and leather seats." When he told me this, I just about died. My God! A Honda with a V-6 and leather seats? Holy Christmas!

HT: Wow. Acura was internally known as Channel Two at first?

KA: It didn't have a [official] name. Later on we laid out the PR plan for announcing the Acura name and a whole series of communications. It was a big, big, big news story when Acura was formed. It wasn't just an automotive story; it was a business story because Honda was doing something very gutsy. It was moving into the territory of Volvo and BMW. It had the interest of Good Morning America and The Today Show. We were going to introduce a car that was around $20,000, and that was unheard of for Honda. Leading up to the launch of Acura was a lot of fun.

HT: Talk about those first Acuras.

KA: [Those were] the Legend and the Integra. The press were just blown away. [The Legend] really wasn't a super-luxury car. The first Legend didn't even have leather seats. It had cloth seats, and not even electric. It was a mechanical seat. I think it was the second year that we added leather and power seats, and then added the Legend coupe, which became an instant hit. Those cars were just fabulous. Those V-6 engines were so smooth-spinning...just beautiful cars, like the Hondas, but the switch gear was jewellike. Every switch felt like it had greased ball bearings behind it. They had that wonderful tactile feel that Hondas had, but they took it another step.

HT: Despite being the first V-6 and first DOHC four-cylinder from Honda, those weren't necessarily Honda's first performance cars, though, were they?

KA: I think we already had some good-performing cars. The CRX was out in '84, and we had CRX Si's by the time Acura was launched. Performance has always been a part of Honda's DNA and always will be, even though some years we've taken a little bit of a hiatus.

HT: Would you have considered yourself a Honda enthusiast when you began working for the company?

KA: I was an enthusiast of the company when I first joined Honda because I'd sat from a perch at General Motors and watched Honda with great interest--this small company being formed in the U.S., [which grew]. I wasn't necessarily a Honda vehicle performance enthusiast. I think when I had my first company car, which was an '84 Accord, I got in it, and all the switch gear just felt fabulous. The car just felt fabulous. It was fun to drive. Even though I had driven much faster cars at General Motors--I had a Z28 for a company car--there was something about Honda's cars. They were driver's cars, and they gave you a lot of feedback without being rough. It wasn't long before I quickly became an enthusiast for every single detail of Honda products. Every time a new Honda came out, we just relished in the improvements and were amazed at the miracle workers at Honda R&D who could come up with more power, better fuel economy, and something more fun to drive.

HT: What specific Honda technologies surprised you or overwhelmingly impressed you upon hearing about them?

KA: Well, everything about the NSX knocked me out of my chair. The number of engineering innovations in the NSX will fill a small chapter. I mean, [it was] just profound--VTEC, titanium connecting rods, all-aluminum body, forged-aluminum suspension, and much more. The car said so much about Honda's engineering abilities. It really made a profound statement to the automotive world.

HT: Do any other technological achievements particularly stand out?

KA: I have a great story about a Honda technology. When we introduced the '87 Legend coupe, that was our first product with airbags. We did the press event for that in Arizona, and Honda R&D wanted to demonstrate the airbags to the news media, so they asked me to sit in the car. I sat in the driver's position, and there was an R&D guy with the hood open who essentially connected two wires and set off the airbag. And this was not a slow-fill airbag. This was a full-frickin'-speed airbag. It was really noisy. It was like a 12-gauge going off inside the car. Boom! I think it was the first time most of the press had ever seen a real-time airbag deployment right under their noses. They did it twice actually. I'm sure I lost a little bit of my hearing for the good of the automotive media! That was pretty amazing technology. Honda also did its own design of antilock brakes, and those were pretty cool, even though the original antilock brakes had a lot of pumping feel to them.

HT: So Honda was going its own way, developing its own parts like antilock brakes rather than sourcing them elsewhere early on?

KA: We went our own way. We could've bought antilock brakes from outside suppliers, but Honda wanted to learn, and the best way to learn is to design and develop it yourself. So many of the technologies were designed and developed by Honda R&D.

HT: What went through your mind the first time you saw the NSX?

KA: The first time we actually showed the NSX concept was at the Chicago Auto Show in February of '89. I had not seen it with my own eyes before that, other than renderings. It was brought over in tremendous secrecy. We held the press conference at the Drake Hotel in this tiny, little conference room. Word had gotten out that Honda was going to introduce some sort of sports car. I remember the day before, Mr. Kume, who was the president of Honda, came over for the press event. We wanted to go through a little rehearsal. We came into the rehearsal room and Kume decided that he wanted to check out the car. He sat in the car and started it up. He started revving it-full rev. He didn't know that right next door [there] was a Ford press conference going on, so we were like, "Kume-san, shut off the car, please!" He shut off the car and we went through the rehearsal.

The car was just drop-dead gorgeous. I mean, it just took your breath away. We didn't announce all the details of the car at that point in time. It didn't even have a name! It was just "N, S, hyphen, X"--New Sports eXperimental. In fact, Tom Elliot, Mike Spencer, Yasu Wada, and I sat in a conference room, and we were the ones who picked the NSX name. We decided that that was a good placeholder until we announced the actual name. Japan had given us a whole bunch of different names, and we liked this one the best. After the press conference, it got instant global publicity. Massive publicity. In the meantime, they were having struggles trying to come up with a proper name for it. Finally, it got to the point where there was so much equity in NSX, we said, "Why don't we just keep NSX?" The ad agency loved it, it sounded good, and it was sexy.

HT: Interesting. What else can you tell us about the NSX?

KA: I'll tell you another funny story: We did what we called a super-long lead in Japan. We brought over the three buff books, [Motor Trend, Car and Driver, and Road & Track], to Honda R&D to test-drive an NSX mule. It didn't actually have VTEC. Even though we knew it was coming, it wasn't ready, so there was another V-6 in there.

HT: What was in there? A Legend engine?

KA: No, I think it was just an earlier derivative of the NSX motor. The emblem was also different than the Acura emblem that you know now. After we had the press event, they presented the car to Mr. Honda, [who] wanted to slightly change the emblem-the calipers. He wanted to connect the calipers so that there was kind of an H look, but not totally H-looking, so he had the crossbar added. If you look at the original news stories that came from Japan from that super-long lead, all those stories had the original emblem on it. When they shipped the cars for our national press launch in the U.S., the emblems had changed.

HT: There are stories that the NSX wasn't necessarily profitable for Honda. What can you tell us about that?

KA: I couldn't answer that. I don't think it was a cash cow for the company at all. There was too much in the car. I don't think it was a big money-maker for the company, but it was a massive image builder.

HT: The Honda enthusiast movement really began to take shape in the early 1990s. Do you think cars like the CRX and Civic Si were responsible for that, or was it just a coincidence?

KA: Part of it was luck, I think. Also, kids started modifying Civics because they were their parents' cars, so they were hand-me-down cars. Those motors were just bulletproof, they were easy to work on, and there were lots of them. And it was a cool brand, so we just were at the right place at the right time. We're certainly not responsible for that movement, but we were certainly a huge part of that movement. It wasn't anything that we nurtured. It was a grassroots effort that happened with kids modifying and tricking out Civics and Accords.

HT: Did you or other executives at Honda ever find it bizarre what enthusiasts were doing to their Hondas-swapping engines, turbocharging them, that sort of thing?

KA: I think there was a slowly increasing awareness of this movement. I think that as the movement grew, everyone in the company, and certainly the guys who were responsible for the auto division, were realizing this amazing movement. It wasn't necessarily driving new-car sales, but it was certainly driving the image tremendously. In those days we just had an amazing image by journalists and the media. Most of them drove our cars. They really loved our products because they were driver's cars, they were no-nonsense cars, they were fun to drive, and they were quick and they were nimble--all the wonderful things that made up a Honda.

Kurt antonius interview american honda private collection Photo 2/3   |  
Antonius amid American Honda’s Private Collection, the company’s discreet assortment of its most poignant cars and heritage.

HT: Honda fans were ecstatic when the Integra Type R became available in the U.S. Were there ever any serious efforts for a North American Civic Type R or NSX-R?

KA: I don't know. I wasn't privy to those conversations of product planning. I'm sure it was looked at. The Integra Type R was such a fabulous car, but it didn't blow off the shelves. I think we made 500 the first year, and they did not blow off of dealers' lots. Later on it became even more of a cult car than it did initially. I think it wasn't such a runaway success that the company said, "We've gotta start bringing in Type Rs left and right." I think, more than anything, the Type R reflected Honda's performance heritage, what it can do with a car, it's racing heritage, and then apply that to a production car.

HT: Talk about your first experience with the S2000.

KA: I took a group of journalists to the Tokyo Motor Show in 1998, and as part of that trip to Japan, we took them over to Honda R&D to see an all-new roadster along with other vehicles and technologies. The S2000 was a surprise. Honda R&D would not allow them to drive it, but they allowed them to photograph it. The press said, "We really need to get some action shots. Can somebody just get in the car and go back and forth?" I was the PR guy there, so I did, and my picture ended up on the cover of Road & Track magazine. That absolutely floored me. The S2000 was designed by Mr. Uehara, who also designed the NSX, and was just a wonderful man. The S2000 was just like the NSX; it was such a pure, beautiful roadster. It was good looking, it was quick, it was nimble. It was everything an enthusiast wanted in a roadster. It didn't have a lot of cotton candy on it. It was a driver's car. The gearbox was just so magnificent. It had a high-revving engine, was a ball to drive, and reasonably priced. I think it will always be a collector's car, as will the NSX.

HT: Was there a sadness within Honda's headquarters when the NSX and, later, the S2000 were canceled?

KA: Definitely. Especially from the enthusiasts within the company who wanted to have a full model change for both of those cars. Originally, the S2000's plan was to just have a very short run. It was just planned for a couple of years, actually. It was so successful that it was extended. When both of those cars were ultimately discontinued, it was sad. It was very sad. I am so delighted that the company's coming out with a new NSX. I hope it does what the first one did.

HT: When VTEC was developed and ultimately unveiled in the U.S. through the NSX and then the '92 Civic Si and '92 Integra GS-R, did you have any idea what an impact that technology would have on enthusiasts?

KA: It was pretty mind-blowing. Keep in mind, we were used to so many miracles coming out of Honda R&D. What they could do with engines was nothing short of amazing. VTEC technology was very cool, and when we learned it was going to be rolled into many, many powerplants in the future, it made it much more of a substantial technology. Of course, the NSX was our first VTEC. When the cams switch over in that car, you can hear it, you can feel it. It's a moment of joy when that happens.

HT: Any other stories about any particular Honda technologies?

KA: In the late-'80s, Larry Crane at Car and Driver thought it would be a great idea to have Mr. Kawamoto, the president of Honda R&D, who later became the president of Honda, fly with the Blue Angels. It was an amazing experience for him. I didn't know at the time, but he was very interested in fly-by-wire, and the F-18 is fly-by-wire. We had the guys open up the access ports in the plane, showing Mr. Kawamoto some of the electronics. He got to experience it firsthand; he flew the plane, of course, under the guidance of the pilot, but they allowed him some stick time, and he got to experience the feeling of fly-by-wire. Little did I know but he had the R&D guys working on throttle-by-wire and all sorts of other technologies that we now take for granted. Larry got a bunch of shots, but that story never ran. But Mr. Kawamoto never forgot that experience.

HT: That's interesting that drive-by-wire technology was a consideration so early on. Did the fact that commuter cars like the Civic were being transformed into 11-, 10-, and 9-second drag cars surprise you and your colleagues at first?

KA: We were just amazed and flattered that people were doing it in our cars. We were absolutely astounded. And that was a complete grassroots effort. There was nothing that Honda did to nurture that movement. In fact, we wanted to leave it alone so that we wouldn't screw it up. We didn't want the factory intervening. We just wanted to let it be this viral movement, which is what it was.

HT: Was there a conscious effort to remain hands-off?

KA: I think so. Later on, as the market changed and evolved, that thinking changed a little bit, but in the early days, it was like: let's not screw this up. It was happening virally, so let's not interfere with the growth of this.

HT: Honda's always been very conservative with the racers it chose to sponsor. Tell us about that philosophy and why that was.

KA: It was always very subtle. Even when we started racing with Parker Johnstone and Doug Peterson--probably the first unofficial racers for Honda. Tom Elliot really nurtured that development with Comptech Racing. Tom sponsored them through the back door. There was not a big R&D effort. Tom helped them out with engines and prototype cars in the early days. That was really the first unofficial factory team, so to speak.

HT: Honda's IndyCar efforts were anything but subtle, though. Tell us about that.

KA: One [experience] that was particularly special to me was the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. I remember Barry Green had come to Honda to have a meeting with me and Tom Elliot and said there was an opportunity for a sponsorship where they were going to have a race in St. Petersburg, Florida. Tom and I flew down to St. Petersburg and looked at the layout of the track, [which] was partly on the airport runway, [partly] through the city streets, and went along the water with its beautiful marinas. We had visions of having a Monaco setting with mega yachts that could park at the docks. Tom and I saw that and said, "Absolutely. This is a complete winner." We signed on to be the primary sponsor and have been since day one. That race has just grown, and grown, and grown. That first year we actually built docks and invited mega yachts to come in like at Monaco. It added so much to the aerial broadcast on television when you saw those 140-foot yachts backed up to the racetrack. All the parties and soirees on the boats, it was just amazing. It's still one of the crown jewels of the IndyCar racing series, that St. Petersburg race, and I feel particularly responsible for that along with Tom Elliot.

HT: You've implemented some interesting marketing strategies over the years to help transform Honda from a small carmaker to one of the largest, most respected brands in the U.S. Which ones stand out for you?

KA: Over the years, we did so many amazing press launches. Whether they were unorthodox or not, they were events that some journalists still talk about. The first MDX--that was a very important car for Acura, and we wanted to do something really special. It was designed and developed in the U.S., and we just didn't want to go to Sedona, Arizona, and do a typical event. As we were thinking about it, I recalled that I had 10 years previously chartered a sailboat in Belize, and I thought, "God, that would be a great country to do an MDX press event in." Our executive vice president at the time was like, "Argh. You're going to Central America for a U.S.-designed vehicle? I don't know..." I finally convinced him it was going to be worth it because it was a unique destination and, photographically, it was outstanding.

We flew all the press to Belize. We flew all the cars there. The fuel was so lousy in Belize that we brought down our own fuel. We had this amazing launch, driving through the jungle and going into unexplored caves with 2,000-year-old Mayan pottery inside. We put the MDXs on hand-cranked barges and crossed rivers and went to see Mayan ruins. It was just amazing and, of course, the MDX performed flawlessly. There are many journalists today who went on that trip who still count that as one of their best trips ever. That was a great, maybe unorthodox, launch.

HT: You even brought a pack of dogs to an auto show once, didn't you?

KA: Well, we introduced the Dog Element at the New York Auto Show. It was kind of an aftermarket package that our parts division sold. We got in touch with the Humane Society there and got some rescue dogs and--I think we might've stolen the New York Auto Show that year. It was quite a launch. The S2000 launch in Southern France was pretty cool, too. I mean, overseas press trips aren't all that unusual, but we'd coupled it with taking the press to an F1 race at Monaco. I had a lot of great trips to Japan where we took journalists to R&D where they had a chance to drive a lot of the Japanese-market vehicles.

Kurt antonius original NSX acura badge Photo 3/3   |  
Among some of Antonius' Honda collectables is the NSX's original Acura badge (right), which was removed from all U.S.-bound NSXs following then-president Kume's request for the small crossbar to be added. Note the missing crossbar to connect the two calipers.

HT: The first Insight was a truly revolutionary car. Do you think it was ahead of its time?

KA: It was a car ahead of its time, and it was a huge first for Honda. The hybrid technology was an innovative technology, and the car was pure Honda: It was tiny and had great fuel economy. It had those aero skirts, if you recall; the car, aerodynamically, was very slippery. It got 68 mpg, which was pretty unheard of. We had the CRX HF, which got 50 [mpg], but getting 68 mpg was pretty amazing. Honda was first with that technology, and then Toyota followed with the Prius.

HT: What were some of the more challenging cars for you PR- and marketing-wise?

KA: The 4WS Prelude, which came out in '88, was an amazing car. The first four-wheel steering system was purely mechanical, very simple, very elegant, and pure Honda R&D. It wasn't a difficult sell to the media, but it was something that was quite foreign, and most journalists had never even driven a four-wheel steering car, so there was a fair amount of education at our press launches. The car never took off tremendously as a sales success. I think we maybe could've done a better job marketing it. I think a lot of people didn't understand the technology.

HT: And now Honda's introducing four-wheel steering once again.

KA: Yeah, that's interesting. A similar system but far more sophisticated.

HT: Was Honda officially trying to push the CR-Z as the next CRX, or was that something that was blown out of proportion by the media?

KA: No, it wasn't. I mean, there were some styling cues, obviously, so I think some people thought of it that way. It was not our intention to position this as a CRX reborn. It certainly took some styling cues from it and, I think, in its own way, it was as innovative as the CRX because here was a car that was a fun-to-drive, sporty hybrid, and that was not what hybrids were perceived as at that time.

HT: In light of the enthusiasts who complain about the CR-Z's unexciting powerplant, is the CR-Z still considered a success but among a different base?

KA: In my opinion, the car was successful because it showed that you could have a fun-performing hybrid. It doesn't have to be a slow, highly efficient car.

HT: Most Hondas typically undergo new styling and model changes every four or five years. The third-generation Integra lasted eight years. Was it just that successful of a model, or was there any other reason behind its longevity?

KA: I think it was successful, and I think that resources were also being applied into other areas at Acura. I think it had to do with deployment of resources.

HT: You'd met Mr. Honda on more than one occasion. Tell us about the time he visited for the dedication of American Honda's headquarters in Torrance.

KA: That was a very special event, the dedication of our corporate campus in 1990. Mr. Honda flew over the campus in a helicopter, and we had all of the associates out on the lawn, forming a big H as a welcome for him. He planted a tree, which is behind our building on the associates' side, which now is about 60 or 70 feet [tall]. His signature is still in the concrete. Anyway, Mr. Honda was going to speak, and I had the privilege of being the master of ceremonies. We were going to present Mr. Honda with an Anasazi Indian vase that was a gift from all of Honda's associates. We also had on the stage that day the longest-running Honda associate at that time and an associate who'd just started that day, and they were going to present Mr. Honda with the vase. Mr. Honda, who was about 83 at the time and was on a stage about five feet high, picked up the vase and walked toward employees with the vase over his head to thank them. He was [saying], "Domo, domo," and didn't even see the edge of the stage. He was walking toward the edge of the stage so I lunged from the podium and grabbed him by the waist and steered him away from the edge. He would've walked right off.

HT: What a story. If there was one overseas-only Honda that you would've liked to have seen available in the U.S., what would that've been?

KA: Well, two cars: The NSX-R, of course, and, I don't know, there's something about the original Beat that I love. I actually brought one over on a bond and loaned it to journalists so they could test drive it. There was something about it that was awfully fun, and it was a cool-looking car. For that car to be sold in the U.S., it would've had to have been modified. It was too small for the U.S., but it was still a cool car. I drove it on the freeway, and when you're running down the road at 70 mph and there's an 18-wheeler next to you, you feel a little small.

HT: You've since retired from Honda. Tell us about what you're up to today and your involvement with Honda's private museum here in Torrance.

KA: Tom Elliot started the museum a number of years ago. He kept it very low-key and under the radar. Tom had stashed a few cars in warehouses-old advertising cars and so forth--because he wanted to keep them. At some point in time there were enough cars stashed around that Tom thought it would be a good idea to put them all in one place. We found a place and put them there, and Tom started developing the museum. We had another great guy from Honda who'd just retired, Lou Staller, who helped do much to the original museum infrastructure. I took over, as part of my responsibilities, and kind of nurtured it along some more.

The guy who's in charge, officially, for the museum is Dave Heath, who's also in charge of auto shows and motorsports. When I retired, since I'd launched so many of these cars and have a lot of history with the cars and a fair amount of history with the company, I've been able to help out on a few projects. There's no full-time employee working at the museum, so I help out with hosting events when Dave can't do that. I've also bought a few cars for the museum.

HT: So you've retired but are fortunate enough to still be involved with the company?

KA: Yes, it helps them and it helps me. I still have a little bit of connection with the company. I have a lot of pride in the facility, and we have big growth plans.

HT: Anything you'd like to say as we wrap up?

KA: I had the best job at Honda. I really did. I was at Honda in those very magical years, in that explosive growth [period]. I had the opportunity to know most, if not all, of the presidents and the presidents of Honda R&D. I got to grow with the company. I mean, who gets a chance to launch a car division like Acura? That's once in a lifetime. Who gets a chance to launch an Indy racing effort? That's a once-in-a-career opportunity. I had to go out and buy motor coaches, hire hospitality crews, and develop a whole dealer communications program as well as press and media activities. It was a huge opportunity. It was just a magical experience. I was at Honda at a wonderful, wonderful period of time. I'm deeply grateful for my 28 years, and the experiences I've had, and the people I've met, and I'm still keeping those relationships because that's what it's all about.

By Aaron Bonk
405 Articles

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