By on November 24, 2009

the FWD hatchback revolutionionary

How often does a truly revolutionary car appear? Let’s disqualify uranium powered flying cars on the cover of Popular Science and other quirky eccentrics from consideration, but focus on mass production cars that profoundly and permanently changed the autosphere. Narrow the field further to the small-size end of the US market post WWII, and the number of candidates is all of…two. The VW Beetle completely turned the US car market (and careless drivers) on its head, both in its technical specifications and in creating a mass small-car market. The Beetle had a brilliant twenty-year run, and just as it was running out of compression, it handed the baton to that other revolutionary, the Honda Civic.

The Civic appeared here in 1973, and immediately recreated the VW cult phenomena of the mid-fifties: drivers waving to each other. That was only diluted (like the Beetle’s) when rampant Civic-mania made waving tedious. It didn’t take long for that to happen, arriving as it did on the cusp of the first energy crisis. The Civic was an instant hit: forty miles per gallon, a $2200 price tag ($10k adjusted), and a blast to drive. The thin-skinned Civic weighed barely 1500 pounds, which made it feel a ton livelier than its 52 hp 1200 cc engine would suggest. Don’t think I’m exaggerating either: Ford’s new 1975 “compact” Granada weighed 2000 lbs more and sported 75 horses from a 3.3 liter six. The Civic was the Mini Cooper of that slothful era.

I conquered; now I restIts super-compact FWD two-box hatchback package was revolutionary in these parts. OK, that wasn’t exactly new in Europe, and a gaggle of minis, Austin 1100s and Simcas 1204s had made their way stateside. But none of them were significant sellers, and all of them had weaknesses that kept the concept out of the mainstream. The Civic finally put FWD two-box cars up and down Main Street, Anytown, USA. And not just for its innovative design, but the way it all worked together. The Civic was truly greater than the sum of its tiny parts.

While the baby Honda broke some serious new ground in the US, its revolutionary impact was perhaps even greater in Japan. Even more conservative than the US, the small car sector there was totally dominated by conventional RWD three-box sedans. The Civic was as radical in its design as was Honda’s aspirations to build a popular, cheap mass-produced car. Up to that point, Honda was strictly a low-volume producer of niche four-wheeled vehicles: the sporty kei N600; the sports cars series 500 – 800; and the brilliant but prohibitively expensive 1300.

The Civic’s name announced its intentions: to be an everyman’s car, a Japanese Volkswagen. And Honda was certainly not encumbered by the inertia and tooling that kept Toyota building RWD Corollas until 1987. Four wheel independent strut suspension, smooth and rev-happy OHC alloy four engine, slick-shifting transmission, hatchback, ultra-lightweight construction, and attention to detail defined the formula. And if that weren’t enough, Honda gave a slap in the face to the industry big guys with the CVCC (compound vortex combustion chamber) engine that appeared two years later in 1974.

The EPA standards for ’75–’76 called for a 90% reduction in smog-forming exhaust components. The Big Three had managed some delays, because they needed time to ramp up the catalytic converters they needed to meet this standard. And here comes Honda with the first engine to meet the standard, and without any catalyst. Since the CVCC could run on cheaper leaded gas, its fuel costs were unbeatable.

Japanese noodles and germanic sparseness

The Civic hooked a large swath of Americans to a whole new automotive dimension: Japanese reliability crossed with European-style driving fun. One literally wears these diminutive Civics like a snug yet reasonably-comfortable pair of pants. The sparse dash design is brilliantly clean, handsome and timeless compared to the typical Detroit mid-seventies wood-grained-vinyl Baroque dashboard confabulations. And everything works just so on the Civic, like just about every Honda since. This is it, the prototype of the Honda way; the formula for the company’s lasting success.

I assume these early Civics must have certain weak spots other than their cancer-attracting thin sheet metal, but none that I’m particularly aware of. In 1977, a co-worker in LA had one of these, an early small-bumpered ’73 1200. He had taken it back to the Midwest for just a year or so, and was already fighting the curse. He actually stripped the interior of his four year old Civic in a heroic effort to track down and attack the sources of the rot. I suspect it was only a delaying tactic at best, because once they started to go, it was inevitably terminal. Yet none of the examples in Eugene show any signs of visible rust. Salt is obviously the enemy, not rain.

ready for the descent into the underworldDo you perceive an aura of death surrounding this particular Civic? It was palpable when I found it washed up like flotsam on a busy corner. It sat there for weeks, forlorn, abandoned and unlocked, and every time I passed it I started mentally composing its obituary. And not just for this one, but for all gen1 Civics, because this is the first and only one I’d found since starting Curbside Classics six months earlier.

Sure enough, after about a month of sitting there, it was gone; undoubtedly to the great impound yard by the River Styx. But Lo! Lazarus arises, proclaiming: “the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”. It was suddenly back on the street, and shortly thereafter I started running into more gen1 Civics. Did this black Messiah release the souls of other Civics in its trip to the underworld?

At last count, there are about a half-dozen of these revolutionaries still at work in Eugene. For someone documenting the disappearance of endangered auto species, this is akin to the reappearance of the passenger pigeon. Well, Eugene is home to numerous old revolutionaries of many stripes from the early seventies. And they often stay undercover until they’re exposed. But these old Civics deserve immortality, not the wrecking yard. Please put an air cleaner on this one, and keep these little old Hondas on the road, alongside all those Beetles. They’re a living history lesson in the American revolution.

[N.B. The five cars in this series are not appearing in any specific ranking or chronologically]

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46 Comments on “Curbside Classic: Five Revolutionary Cars – No. 1 – 1973-1979 Honda Civic...”


  • avatar
    geeber

    Another great write-up. I had a 1977 CVCC hatchback in college that was bought used in 1980. It was a great car, although rust was a problem here in Pennsylvania. Handy size, suprising room and a sprightly character made it a joy to drive. My father had a 1973 AMC Gremlin at the time; the contrast between the two cars was unbelievable. Even my mother said she could tell why Detroit was in trouble after driving both cars. I believe that the car pictured is a 1978 or 1979 model…Honda changed the grille, taillights and both bumpers for the final two years of the first-generation Civic.  

    • 0 avatar
      paul_y

      Never mind Detroit, what about poor Kenosha?

    • 0 avatar
      wagnerism

      (late to the game here, just found this great site)
      I had a white ’77 1200 that I got for free with a blown engine – taught myself how to fix cars and drove it for years.
      Yes, that’s a ’78 or ’79 1200.  Seems that 1200s were rare compared to the CVCC model.  I did convert a 1200 into a CVCC – the only snag was the fuel pump went from mechanical to electric.
      The book How to keep your Honda Alive was one of the best and funniest auto maintenance novels I have ever read.
      I still miss that car.  I had a white Del Sol and it wasn’t the same.

  • avatar

    Passenger pigeon is extinct not Carrier pigeon.  Otherwise great article. I had the luck to drive one of these in North Carolina when visiting a friend there back in 1988 or so and it was a hoot, and even though beat, still managed to feel like a rally car.

  • avatar
    oldowl

    With a then growing family, I bought new a Civic CVCC five-door wagon, the least expensive wagon then available in the U.S. I believe it was a 1975 model; it did have the turn signals in separate enclosures mounted ahead of the grille. It was a good car, though it needed a clutch replacement at about 50,000 miles. Sold it to some Asian guys who apparently had established a business refurbishing Civics in Northern Virginia. The Civic’s color? Yellow, of course.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Thanks; fixed.

  • avatar
    gottacook

    I’m a fan of Ann Beattie’s early novel Chilly Scenes of Winter (1976) and the movie made from it a few years later. Throughout, the main character Charles’ stepfather (Kenneth McMillan in the movie) enthusiastically, almost uncontrollably, talks about the virtues of his new Civic. I never had a first-generation Civic myself, but I did own the last of the second-gen cars, the one that resembled the early ones the most: a 1983 Civic 1300 with the 4-speed manual, 12-inch wheels, and no armrests. It was a hand-me-down from my brother (who had bought it new and put 90K miles on it in 4 years). We donated it to a charity auction when it was 14 years old, and still running fine, because such a lightweight car is no place for a new baby to ride.

  • avatar
    gottacook

    Technical problem: I had italicized only the movie title in the first sentence, and then saw that much else had also been italicized. When I try to edit the comment, the screen gets stuck while displaying the message “Loading…” (I’m using Safari for Mac.)

  • avatar

    My mother bought one of these when they first came out and owned it for several years.  Hers was bright orange; she was into the CB radio scene, so her car also had a long orange whip on it.  She says it made it easy to find in parking lots, because there were so many around in those days.  She says the only problems with it were that it had a black and white plaid interior design (very 70s!) and the top of the back seat rotted in the Georgia sun.  She loved that car, and even though it was sold before I was born, I remember her talking about it all the time I was growing up.

  • avatar
    obbop

    1975 CVCC  hatchback yellow 5-speed and later, as the wages fell and rents rose and Espanol became the majority language and Sonora, Oaxaca, etc. became the primary culture sources for the area the critter was converted to be my bedroom for night-time sleeping (a full-time job wouldn’t pay for a months rent for the cheapest apartment thanks to the competition for resources from a tidal wave of ahem “immigrants”).
    Was driving down California 99 on the way to work when John Lennon’s death was announced on the radio.
    40 mph freeway and 30-plus in town when driven carefully.
    Previous owner a doctor who meticulously recorded every gas fill-up, mileage, mpg attained and every service including washes and waxes.
    Incredibly reliable with nary a rust problem in a snow-free part of California.
    Small death-trap size at least partially alleviated by small death-trap size, great maneuverability, defensive driving and the excellent reflexes of a youth in his prime.
    First owner (doc) had added an air horn suitable for an ocean-going vessel.
    Broken cylinder valve in 1983 or so may have been related to use of the old Slick-50 scam that wasn’t readily learnable about due to the lack of disseminated Web knowledge in that “ancient” era.
    Said goodbye and grabbed a crash-repaired 1978 Toyota pick-up that, along with an added camper shell, greatly increased sleeping space as wages continued their fall (que lastima) and rents rose much faster than inflation (que lastima).
    Still hoping a growing number and percentage of Americans are forced economically downward so as to compete with those who should not be present to exert their enormous pressure on the supply/demand equation  (Viva!!!!!!).

  • avatar
    Slow_Joe_Crow

    I drove one once in the early 80’s, with the Hondamatic 2 speed. The thing that stuck in my mind was that it sounded almost exactly like a VW Beetle and was nowhere near as fun to drive as my mom’s 77 Accord 5 speed. In some respects the 1st gen Accord is more significant since that little bit more room, power, and refinement opened the floodgates.

  • avatar

    I laughed out loud with the comment about revolutionaries in Eugene following on the heels of this revolutionary car.  Soichiro (sp?) Honda probably would have fit in well in Eugene; he lacked the stereotypically conformist Japanese character, and alas, that influence over the company seems to be fading (I do believe he’s at least a decade gone, but maybe someone else knows for sure). I’d bet we’d still have the Integra if he were still around.

    • 0 avatar
      tech98

      Soichiro Honda retired from the company in 1973 and died in 1991. A truly remarkable individualist, especially considering the conformist culture in which he lived. The company could use more of his spirit.

  • avatar

    obbop: you can help deal with taht problem by joining numbersusa.com

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    In 1974, my mother bought a new Pontiac LeMans.  Whenever the Pontiac needed to go into the shop, the dealer provided a loaner.  The dealer had taken on an odd little sideline of selling Hondas.  For our loaner, we would get a bright yellow 1st gen Civic.  Although I was a year or so away from a drivers license, I could tell that the car was a hoot to drive even from the passenger seat.
    In early 1976 I cracked up mom’s LeMans.  For the next 2 weeks we had a bright yellow Civic 5 door wagon.  I was driving by this time, and drove that Civic A LOT.  This one, unfortunately, had that oddball Honda Matic transmission, a 2 speed unit that you had to shift for yourself.  None of the convenience, none of the performance.  And believe me, I tried.  I have often felt sorry for the poor person who bought that wagon after I got done with it.  A friend and I thrashed that car within an inch of its life during the time we had it.  But if anything could take that kind of abuse with no adverse effect, it would have been that Honda.  I am sure that the northern Indiana rust got it fairly quickly.
    Funny, nearly 35 years later and I have a Honda Fit, which is even more fun to drive.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Very nice, IMHO this car gave the Detroit collectively a bigger slap in the face than the Beetle.  Imagine, many American automotive engineers had been working on practical FWD engine trans combos since the 50s but hardly anyone would listen to them.  A great article for any of you to read would be the one on the birth of the Tornado over at http://www.ateupwithmotor.com.
     
    http://ateupwithmotor.com/model-histories/luxury-and-personal-luxury-cars/95-out-in-front-the-front-wheel-drive-oldsmobile-toronado.html
     
    Now I know the Tornado predates the Honda but I’m using it as an example of GMs attitude toward FWD.  I mean my grandmothers Chevette was RWD for god’s sake!

  • avatar
    Maverick

    Fond memories!
    My parents purchased a 1978 Civic and my older brother allowed to me to drive it (when the parents were gone) around town when I was 13 YO.  Nothing like being able to use a little leverage with an older brother who I had to goods on.
    Still have dreams of that and how cool it was.  Too bad car companies can’t make a good, simple, lightweight, high-quality car like that again.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    When I was a kid, a family friend had a Gen 1 Civic with a 2-speed automatic.  I had never heard of a 2-speed automatic in a mid-seventies car.  It was a very impressive vehicle until it rusted away in the Pennsylvania winters.

  • avatar
    Bruce from DC

    Never owned one of these, but owned 1st gen Accord (’78) also with slightly larger and more powerful CVCC engine and 5-speed.  This car was fun to drive and, of course, reliable.  Some of the CVCC engines (and other Honda motors) fell victim to worn valve guides, leading to oil consumption and blue smoke.  We kept this one for 6 years, and I don’t recall any rust, even in partial snowbelt DC.  Ours had red paint, which oxidized ferociously.  Interestingly, the current generation Civic is bigger than my Accord was, n0t to mention the Civic that you are featuring.
    It was not as fast or as fun as the Mazda RX-2 rotary that it replaced, but it used a lot less gasoline.

    • 0 avatar
      UnclePete

      I had a college friend whose girlfriend bought one of these Civics (in orange). Was a nice little car. Pretty peppy since it was so light, and very maneuverable for its time.
       
      I know about the early Accord problems because I had a ’78 also (the first car I ever bought new). The top end was replaced at 12,000 miles, then the whole engine at 25,000 miles because of the valve guide/oil contamination problems. I sold it at 35,000 when the engine started to smoke again. While I have a lot of admiration for Honda, and have owned a few of their motorcycles, I’ve only ever owned that one Honda car. It’s the same irrational fear that keeps people from buying another (insert you favorite hated car marque here).

  • avatar
    CyCarConsulting

    I remember restoring and selling used VW bugs from 67-72. When that early CVCC starting hitting the used car market, it single handedly destroyed the Bug market, and it never returned.

  • avatar
    wgmleslie

    I inherited my father’s 78 Accord (5 spd) which made it to 130K, at which point the Connecticut salt had eaten about 20% of the bodywork.
    One big problem for a teenage hoon was the Japanese radio which had the volume and tuning knobs (remember those analog things?) reversed.  Inevitably during a late night cruise, my copilot would spin the right-hand knob to change the station, only to raise the volume to 11 and blow the fragile speakers.

  • avatar
    Nutsaboutcars

    “The thin-skinned Civic weighed barely 1500 pounds, which made it feel a ton livelier than its 52 hp 1200 cc engine would suggest.”
     
    I would believe this, as I have, since 1992, driven the Civic 1.35lt 5-speed hatch my parents bought new over in Europe, and its 75 Hp are more than enough to pull its very light for its size 1,875 lb curb weight. We still own the car, use it in the summer, with less than 45k miles. It is great around town, but not at home at high speeds on the highway desptie its low height and areo design.
     
    The old small civics could have been made much bigger inside by raising their very low roofline and keeping length and even width the same, but it would probably screw up the slender profile etc.

  • avatar

    What was this car’s predecessor; the one with the big black rubber bumper around the rear hatch window?
    I remember those much more, as they were so weird. The 1st gen Civic lacked in visual flair what it had in usability, so to me they were invisible on the road.
     

    • 0 avatar
      kalspeed

      The predecessor was the Honda 600 Coupe with the big black rubber bumper around the rear hatch window.

      http://www.honda600coupe.com/photos/drivers_side.jpg

  • avatar
    Dave Skinner

    The one with the big black rubber bumper around the rear hatch window?

    The scuba mask was mounted on the Honda Z600, a sporty (?) version of the N600.

  • avatar
    TonUpBoi

    The Civic’s predecessor was the N600 and Z600 (600GT in the states?).  Both cars were about 3/4ths the size of the first generation Civic.  A buddy of mine who owned a bicycle shop where I helped him get started owned a Z600, and I probably put as much mileage on it as he did.  Ran D-Sedan SCCA autocross, rallied it, and it really looked insane with a roof bicycle rack and a pair of 10-speeds on it.  The engine was an air-cooled 600cc V-twin (if one plug fouled, you couldn’t start it), and it had a four speed transmission (I think, it may have been five) coming out of the dashboard.
     
    Said buddy ended up getting rid of it (too environmentally unsound) and bought a Sebring Vanguard CitiCar, which I also drove as much as he did.  Which probably puts me near the top in practical mileage experience in EV’s on this list.
     
    Yeah, said buddy was a screaming eco-freak.

  • avatar
    Hank

    Fond memories, indeed.  My first ever test drive (as a passenger, I was 3) was in a bright yellow ’74.  My grandfather was looking for a fuel-sipping commuter.  He ended up in a red Mazda RX-3.  He loved that car so much he kept until he died in ’87.

  • avatar
    wulfgar

    Owned a primary grey 1976 “coupe”. Yes, a coupe – this was actually the first Civic and had a small trunk instead of the open room of a hatch.  Roughly the same dimesions of storage area but not as easily accessible. Honda quickly introduced the hatch and the rest is history…..

    Stil the best 600 bucks I ever spent.  

  • avatar

    Road & Track tested an early Civic at the time and got 0-60 mph in 14 seconds, which was comparable to a lot of six-cylinder American intermediates. (An automatic Dart or Valiant with the 225 was a bit quicker, perhaps 13 seconds to 60 and a top speed of around 95.) Not fast, but mid-pack for economy cars of its time.
     
    The distinction, of course, was that the Civic was a lot more fun. When I was in college, I spent a couple of weeks one summer blitzing around Marin County in a somewhat later 1300DX, which was, as they used to say, a gas. With skinny little tires and about 60 hp, its limits were not high, but it would give you everything it had to offer with chipper “Yes sir, right away, sir, may I have another, sir” enthusiasm. Interestingly, around the same time, I spent some time with a mid-sixties Valiant V-100, which was considered the most nimble of the American compacts of its time. With the base 170 slant six and manual shift, it was about as quick as the Civic, but its steering (manual, 5.3 turns lock-to-lock) was slow and utterly numb, its brakes were dangerous, and driving it briskly would have taken a lot more chutzpah than I had. Finally, its shift linkage came off in traffic, and I discovered that since it was pre-’68, it didn’t have four-way flashers. The Valiant was sort of entertaining, but more in its vintage feel than any actual verve.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    I remember these little turds. I don’t think there wasn’t really anything comparable to it except for the original Ford Fiesta, and that came after the Civic was launched (and they were just as rusty as the Civics).
    Coming from the rustbelt, I really remember these things as little biodegradable boxes with trannies of iffy characteristics. I helped a friend (actually tried to) get one of these things unstuck from a snowbank, but you couldn’t ‘rock’ the Hondamatic, some pinion or something broke and rendered the tranny useless. He ended up having to get it towed AND the tranny fixed, too. What an evening for him.
    Additionally,  a girl I used to date was given a first gen Accord by her parents as a graduation present. Within two years the front fenders were gone, and the motor was a smoker. You can understand my lack of respect for these earlier models. 

  • avatar
    mountainman

    My neighbors had matching ’73 or ’74 Civics – and they loved them (as did I).  Unfortunate that they both survived a hail storm that dented them very badly.  I really liked those cars.  Even with all the dents, I would have loved to have schnarfed one of these up.  I was only 15 at the time though.  Oh what could have/should have been.  Great Classic – keep up the good work – you can really bring out the memories with these articles….

    Great

  • avatar

    Thanks for sharing with us it will be fun to see cars .

  • avatar
    Nutsaboutcars

    http://automobiles.honda.com/mile-makers/owner-stories.aspx
     
    For every disgruntled Honda owner there are thousands with 300,000 and 500,000 and 700,000 happy miles stories to tell.

  • avatar
    Mr. Soul

    I was a teenager in the late seventies when a neighbor brought home one of these, bright yellow, with a black-and white checkered top!  It was unlike anything else, cosmetically and otherwise.  He liked it so much he bought another.  Soon thereafter, the neighborhood was dotted with Hondas.  This car’s significance cannot be overstated.

  • avatar
    Sigsworth

    Thank you for the Curbside Classic series. It makes me interested in cars that previously I had never really bothered about. I can’t help but worry that in a relatively small city like Eugene you will eventually run out of cars to write about. You know that eventually readers will disagree with a car on this list, or say “why didn’t you include such-and-such.” When that happens, please cancel my subscription immediately (I sincerely hope you recognize that for what it is).

  • avatar
    NickR

    I assume that that is a blue example, repainted in … rustoleum?

    From what I recall, these came in two colours. Light metallic blue (90% of them) and orange (for that daring 10%). They were funky little cars though.

    Sadly there is an orange example sitting in a driveway close to where I used to live slowly being welcomed back into Mother Nature’s warm embrace.

  • avatar
    Billy215

    In the early 80s, my cousin’s girlfriend had a dark green first-generation wagon and I would sit in the “way back” when we would ride around — not quite like the Custom Cruisers our parent had! Good times.
     
    Our local dealer has an immaculately preserved hatch in the bright yellow metallic. Not a hint of rust; not sure how that happened  in Toronto!

  • avatar
    tuckerdawg

    I had a 94 toyota tercel, although its not a hatchback it had a similar spirit to its design and I kind of miss that car now…

  • avatar
    ConejoZing

    “This is it, the prototype of the Honda way; the formula for the company’s lasting success.”
    Props, Honda.  Remember, simple.  Simple, useful and Japanese.  Don’t try and make the interior into Star Trek.  You don’t need annoying imitation Disney frustratingly not anime looking “Mr. Opportunity.”  You don’t have to move wayyy upmarket (allowing Hyundai/Kia to swipe your former customers) and bloat out your cars.  The cars should almost sell themselves with only simple advertising.
    Anyway – original Civic – Nice, simple car!

  • avatar
    Canucknucklehead

    There is something about being #1 that makes others want to pick on you. Honda makes a fine car for the money and Honda owners gush over their cars and what is more important, go out and buy more of them. I am on my fifth.
    I remember the first Civics well. At the time, anything small was considered slow and cheap. Honda and to a lesser extent Toyota changed all that. They made good, cheap cars that were a hoot to drive and that didn’t fall apart from the day you bought them. For these reason people snapped them up like crazy and still do. Detroit never got with the program, not even to this very day. Civics and Corollas go out the door like hotcakes and Detroit still has nothing to compete with them. Detroit apologists will tell you, well, the new Zapterflax that comes out next year will smoke the Civic but it never actually materialises. See the Cobalt for that one. The Civic is still a great car for the money. I have a Fit and it really does hold true to the roots of the first Civic, it is an absolute blast to drive.
    As for rust, all 70’s cars rusted like crazy, not just Hondas.

  • avatar
    dulcamara

    I bought a 78 5pd new in 78 (duh!) and kept it until the clutch/paint/anything not metal started to go in 85. I loved the damn thing.

  • avatar
    Civarlo

    The model that picked up the econobox craze where the original VW Bug left off. Love it. I remember in 1973 when the Big Three took a look at the gen-1 Civic and promptly pronounced it as “too small” for the American market. OOPS. Shows what they knew!

  • avatar
    Trashmaster

    I remember a friend of mine with a new 1979 Civic paying out over $500 for brake repair work on one of these puppies because the warranty did not cover brakes on a 6 month old car. $500 in 1979 dollars was a culture shock for me at the time.

  • avatar
    slyall

    This made me remember a 1980 Dodge Colt RS I had with a 1.6 motor and 8 speed twin stick, bright yellow with black stripes and a sunroof, what a fun little car to wind out that was.


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