Curbside Classic: Five Revolutionary Cars – No. 1 – 1973-1979 Honda Civic

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

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.

Its 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.

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.

Do 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]

More new Curbside Classics here

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

More by Paul Niedermeyer

Join the conversation
2 of 46 comments
  • Trashmaster Trashmaster on Dec 01, 2009

    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.

  • Slyall Slyall on Dec 11, 2009

    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.

  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.
  • NotMyCircusNotMyMonkeys dudes off the rails on drugs and full of hate and retribution. so is musky.