Honda Motor is planning an unprecedented 13-day shutdown of its major North American car factories this summer in an effort to reduce a glut of unsold vehicles.

Japan’s second-biggest automaker, whose US sales have plunged along with those of rival producers, said it would also cut the pay of white-collar staff in the region and offer buyouts to idle workers.

The steps amount to a rare retreat for Honda in North America, its largest market for passenger cars worldwide. The company has steadily increased its production capacity in the region since it opened its first US motorcycle plant in 1979, and its local operations currently employ about 32,000 people.

Honda said the factory shutdowns, which will affect six plants in the US, Canada and Mexico beginning next month, would reduce output by 62,000 vehicles. Honda made 1.4m cars in North America last year but has not announced a target for 2009.

Honda declined to say how large the pay cuts would be or how many workers it hoped to shed. Most of its North American employees will be eligible for early retirement under the buyout scheme.

Honda entered the global recession in better shape than many of its peers, analysts say, due to its focus on small, fuel-efficient cars. But in recent months its sales have fallen nearly as sharply as those of other carmakers, many of which have resorted to steep discounts to clear unwanted vehicles off their lots.

Honda’s US sales fell 38 per cent in February against declines of 37 per cent for Toyota and Nissan, its main Japanese rivals, and an industry average of 41 per cent.

Honda is the only one of Japan’s three top automakers that has not warned of a net loss for the business year that ended on March 31. Yet even Honda has cut its earnings estimates four times since last July and predicted a big operating deficit for the latest quarter.

Honda has already pulled out of Formula One racing to cut costs. (Its long-struggling team, now under the control of a former manager, finished first and second in the Australian Grand Prix, in Melbourne, at the weekend.)

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