As with most everything Honda Motor Co. Ltd. does, there's a certain submerged subtlety. The manner in which quietly competent Honda conducts its affairs oftenputs the company in the position of leading from the background. It's this usually unassuming posture that leads us to forget that Honda essentially led the major Japanese manufacturers into the modern "world car" era.

The names are familiar -- Civic, Accord. Two cars that deserve disproportionate credit for changing the initial American perception of Japanese automobiles as shoddy products (they were, at first). When Honda's first car, the N600, came to the U.S. in 1970, virtually every small-potatoes salesman running anything resembling a dealership was eagerly signed on. Barley 10 years later, the winning of a Honda auto franchise was tantamount to finding the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

In that time, the Civic was hailed by Motor Trend as Import Car of the Year for 1974, as it began to establish Honda's reputation for technically advanced engineering. Signaling Honda's commitment to the "world" market, It's CVCC (compound vortex controlled combustion) lean-burning engine was the first engine to comply with newly adopted emissions rules for 1975.

By 1982, Honda's first U.S. production facility, Honda of America Mfg. Inc. (HAM), already had produced roughly 100,000 motorcycles -- and initiated ato production with the second-generation Accord. But the U.S. operation was a late-comer; Honda already had operations and production in Australia, Europe and Asia, some launched in the early '60s.

Honda's second-year car production, in 1983, was a modest 300 units per day. By the next day, output was doubled to 300,000 annually. Not long after, automobile and motorcycle engine-production facilities were added to the exponentially expanding HAM operations, and Civic production started off HAM's second auto production line in 1986.

By 1987, U.S.-built Civics and Accords were judged the equal of their counterparts produced in Japan. Honda announced that year that U.S.-built Civics and Accords were judged the equal of their counterparts produced in Japan. Honda announced that year that U.S.-built Civics and Accords would be exorted to Europe -- and, remarkably, back to Japan. It was a watershed development: Civic and Accord, Japanese cars whose technical specification had been adapted to suit the American market, cars whose Japanese-built quality sent U.S. automakers scurrying to make improvement, were now built in the U.S. to a quality level deemed appropriate for export even to their country of origin. No small thing for a proud company that struggled for credibility and earned it on ideas and products initially developed at home.

Civic and Accord have become unquestioned benchmarks in their respective classes, the Accord usually vying for the title of the U.S.'s best-selling car, while the Civic in 1995 became the best-selling small car in the country, snatching the wreath from the perennial winner, Ford Motor Co.'s Escort.

Including Civic production in Alliston, Ont., Honda will produce nearly 700,000 Civics and Accords in North America this year. The company says that by 1999, more than 150,000 will be exported to markets outside North America.

Civic and Accord also are built in the United Kingdom; last year, a total of a little more than 50,000 units, designed specifically for the European market, ran off the line at Honda's HUM facility in Swindon.