Head of U.S. Honda to leave air bags behind, turn to gin and vodka

The U.S. head of Honda is retiring to make gin and vodka with his sons.

John Mendel, 62, executive vice president for the Japanese carmaker at American Honda Motor Co. in Torrance, told a group of dealers Monday night that he’s retiring.

He goes out on a high note: Honda sales in the U.S. last year were up 3.2% to 1.64 million vehicles. The highly regarded Mendel joined Honda in 2004 and was credited with guiding the parent company away from sales duds and focusing more tightly on vehicles U.S. customers wanted: the Civic, the Accord, the Pilot and the CR-V.

He also helped the company through several crises, including a 2011 earthquake in Japan that caused parts shortages and production cuts, and the Takata Corp. air bag recall scandal, which hit Honda especially hard.

Next up for Mendel is a micro-distillery he’s setting up with his sons at Mammoth Lakes. Called Devil’s Creek Distillery, they plan to start out with “clear spirits” first, including a corn-based “moonshine product,” Mendel told Bloomberg News.

They’ll be “putting up some bourbon and rye” for future release as well. “I’ve learned a lot about the distilling business lately,” he said.

Mendel will be replaced by Jeff Conrad, senior vice president and general manager of Honda’s U.S. auto division.

In December, another Asian automaker lost its U.S. head when Dave Zuchowski resigned in a management reshuffle. Hyundai sales in the U.S. lately have disappointed top executives at the South Korea company.

russ.mitchell@latimes.com

Twitter: @russ1mitchell

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