By on December 9, 2010

Yesterday’s piece  about Honda’s slippage left little doubt that its mojo ain’t quite what it used to be. But there was a time when Honda was on fire, and could do (almost) no wrong. The gen 1 Civic was like a little cherry bomb lobbed into a Weight-Watcher’s convention. Tiny, tinny, rude and crude as it was, the first Civic already embodied the unique qualities, if in somewhat embryonic form, that would revolutionize the American small car market and establish Honda’s meteoric rise. And this gen2 Civic was huge step forward; now instead of wearing a Civic like a badge of honor, one could now actually step into it and think of it as a legitimate car. How civil and civic-minded. But the best was yet to come.

Unlike the usual CC randomness, I set myself the task of documenting Honda’s rise chronologically from the beginning. I already blew that by a year, running the 1981 Prelude ahead of this Civic. Although even the gen2 two-door hatchback was a genuine improvement space wise, the real breakthrough was with the four door sedan and wagon that sat on an extended wheelbase. A young family with two kids could actually make this their car, like mine.

In 1983, Stephanie developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and she blamed it on the Peugeot 404 wagon I put together for her for $100. It was an awesome car, but it obviously lacked power steering. But in my new job, I had access to perks including a trade-out with a long-term rental outfit in LA. So the Pug sadly went away to good home, and Stephanie found herself behind the wheel of a Civic wagon just like the one at the top. I’m 99% certain it didn’t have power steering either, but it must have felt like it to her.

Just goes to show you how times change: if it was today, it would undoubtedly have been a Pilot or Odyssey. But in 1983, this was the biggest and only wagon Honda made, all 1900 lbs of it, 40% of what an Odyssey weighs. So what do I remember about it? Since it was replaced with a brand new 1984 Civic Wagon (Wagovan/Shuttle) within a month or so, my impressions are rather overshadowed by its much more memorable and fun to drive gen3 successor. That’s still more than Stephanie can muster; she swears she doesn’t remember driving this car at all. Was it that forgettable after a month?

OK; I’ve transported myself back behind the wheel of the gen2 Civic wagon: it’s adequately big enough even for me, but then I’ve always done fairly well in small cars. The unassisted steering is light (as soon as it’s rolling) and accurate, and the whole car has that distinctive old-time Honda feel: delicate yet robust. It’s the remarkable synthesis of these two opposing forces that were the brand’s hallmark.

The gen2 Civic was not an overtly sporty car, especially the longer sedan and wagon, yet it wasn’t un-sporty either. There’s that Honda juxtaposition again. Honda certainly knew what it took to make wild and screaming small sporty cars, sports cars (and even trucks) back then, but chose to export relatively mild-mannered cars, at least for the first some years. The gen2 1500cc Civic engine generated 67 hp at a modest 5,000 rpm. But it was smoother than any inline four (of the same size) at the time, and had a decent torque curve to keep Americans from having to exercise their right arms too much, since the overwhelming majority back then were sticks. Honda was out to capture the mainstream buyer before it could be troubled to introduce new variations, as that kept production simplified.

The specs of Honda motors explains their torque curve and low redline: these were massively undersquare motors; their 2.91″ bores much smaller than their 3.41″ stroke (almost the same as a 5.7 L Chevy V8). Actually, all Honda fours except the S2000 engine were and still are significantly undersquare, which makes the later DOHC, 16 valve and VTEC engines all the more remarkable for their high revving ability. Some of these fours have strokes close to 4″. That’s getting impressively close to one of the all-time long-stroke champs, the 4.2 L Jag XK engine, which I remember off the top off my head to have a 4.2″ stroke.

The point of that digression departure was the Civic’s lack of overt sportiness. Yet it was always fun to drive, given the alternatives of the times. The main reason I decided to run this Civic CC today was to provide a counterpoint to the late seventies Cougar and its ilk, which so predominated American roads at the time. Compared to them, a Ford product in particular, any Civic felt exceedingly sporty indeed.

Before I forget, Honda’s first overtly sporty Civic variant, the S model, arrived for the 1983 MY, the last year of this generation. I haven’t seen one in ages, but here’s one from the web (above). The best I can tell though, is that it didn’t actually have more power, but some external and internal displays of sportiness, a firmer suspension and bigger tires. But it was just the first mild preview of ever hotter coming attractions.

The other Civic hatch variant was this 1300 FE, which was Honda’s mileage queen with (old) EPA numbers of 41/55.  That probably adjusts to about a 40 mpg average in today’s numbers, not bad for a carbureted motor without any electronic controls.

This generation Civic was really the breakthrough version in terms of mainstream acceptability, at least on the coasts anyway. In LA, these Civics were massively popular, practically the default car to buy if in the market for a compact economical car with stellar reliability to boot. These were the days when if you wanted one, you put $500 down and awaited a call from the dealer when your car came in. There were probably half a dozen in the parking lot outside my office window. The younger women went for the hatch, but what really sent Civic sale skyrocketing was the sedan, which arrived one year later in 1981.

Quite the smart move by Honda, especially since it arrived in the heart of the second energy crisis. I assure you that a whole lot of fat Cougars and T-Birds were being traded in on these cute baby sedans during that massive run-up in gas prices. And not all that much interior space was given up in the process of tripling or quadrupling mileage. The rear seat in the Civic was undoubtedly easier to get at and more commodious than the wretchedly cramped back seats of the personal luxury coupes.

I know if I mention the reliability and durability of these little Hondoos, I’m going to hear it from our rust-belt contingent: “they all succumbed to the tin worm twenty years ago”. So be it. But there’s plenty of these now thirty-year old Civics running around of the streets in daily front-line service here, and as is all too obvious, if kept on a low-sodium diet, they hold up very well indeed.

Ironically, that does not seem to apply to the thin velvety mouse fur upholstery Honda used in the sedans. The vinyl used in the wagons and most hatches seems to survive ok. But the rest of these Civics were doing their best to cultivate the rep for longevity that Hondas quickly developed.

But Honda was just getting their mojo warmed up with this generation; what followed in the subsequent two generations was perhaps the pinnacle of the Civic, in relation to the their competition and the standards of the times, if not forever. Check back before long.

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63 Comments on “Curbside Classic – When Honda’s Mojo Was Working: 1980-1983 Honda Civic...”

  • avatar

    In the US from the 1950s to the early ’70s, if you wanted a truly small, economical car that was a bit on the rorty side and genuinely fun to drive, you probably bought a Fiat. The make sold very well in the US for a long time. However, Fiat lost its luster as the ’70s wore on and people got tired of the rust and problems. That’s where Honda stepped in. They offered the same basic qualities of the Fiats but with a difference of reliability and build quality. By 1982, Fiat was all but gone in the US and Honda took their place and then some.

  • avatar

    Dumb question? How does this compare, in size, to the first Accord? I know the Civic came first and I know the first Accord was still small (petit when compared to the current car with the same name).

    • 0 avatar

      The Accord was around a foot longer.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      It was still smaller than the gen 1 Accord: Civic hatch length: 148″, Accord hatch length: 163″; Civic sedan/wagon length: 161″, Accord sedan length: 172″
      The gen2 Civic hatch wasn’t that much longer than the gen1 hatch, about 10″, but its interior space utilization was better. Still a very small car by today’s standards.
      Edit: I see someone beat me to it.

  • avatar

    My early Honda experience hits on either side of this car.  About 1978 my family spent a couple weeks with a 1st gen Civic wagon as a rental after I crashed Mom’s 74 LeMans.  It was an endearing little car and the whole family fell in love with it.  Later 2 different in-laws bought nearly identical 85 Civic wagons that were both fabulous little cars.  But this generation was always my favorite, even though I never drove one.  This may be one of the best looking cars of its era – there is something about the lines on this Honda – it looks just right.  This was not always something you expected from Japaneese styling of that era.

    The tendency towards rust was these cars only real fault.  But it is hard to dish on Honda for this, when GM and Ford were only 10 years out from the Vega and Pinto (and these were companies who had been building cars in the rust bowl upper midwest for eons).  Another 10 years and Honda had largely whipped the rust issue.

  • avatar

    These are pretty boss, tinworm be damned. While not as sporty as the 3rd and 4th gens, these are lots of fun to drive, “sedate” isn’t a word I would use.

    Also, the sawbones don’t point out that the K-Car, J-body,Alliances(AMC built these) and Escorts rotted away a LONG time ago too, and the VW’s were not much better in that regard.

  • avatar

    The only thing I remember about driving a friend’s ’82 or so Civic hatchback was that at one point I pulled out to pass someone and discovered I already had it floored.

  • avatar
    Jack Baruth

    I think I’ve told this story before, but in 1983 my mother decided to trade-in her 1977 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, which had the 403 engine and an astounding, only-possible-for-a-stay-at-home-mom 7,800 miles on the odometer, on a Civic wagon.

    We went into the dealership. They had a beige wagon for $6995, and a black 1500S for $6495. I held my breath, figuratively speaking, until Mom bought the hatch, plus $350 or so for an utterly pathetic two-speaker cassette player.

    Paul is correct. The “S” had nothing mechanical to recommend it. Wikipedia sez:

    ‘The sport-oriented Civic “S” was introduced and replaced the 1500 GL in 1983 and was fitted with firmer suspension (with rear stabilizer bar) and 165/70R13 Michelin tires. A red accent encircled the S and set it apart from other Civics as well as a black grille and blackout paint around the windowframes.’

    When the Civic was about three years old it was struck from behind by a woman driving a deVille. My brother and I were at home. His Bible had been sitting on the back seat. The back seatrest was jammed into the front seats and the Bible was literally shredded. No prizes for guessing what would have happened to him, had he been in the car.

    I haven’t seen a running second-gen Civic in Ohio for a decade, easy. I’m fairly sure ours was already rusting when it was killed, but we had no mechanical issues with it.

    • 0 avatar

      Heh.  My mom traded in her 1980 Toyota Corona for a new ’85 Camry with only 13,000 miles on the clock.  I think she drove maybe 5 miles a day to work, and my dad had a series of unbelievably craptacular GM X-body company cars we used for everything else.
      Of course, all-vinyl upholstery of the unairconditioned Corona was already starting to crack by ’85 and the tinworm had already set in after 5 Chicago winters.  I’d be surprised if that car wasn’t scrapped by 1990.

    • 0 avatar

      I also had a black ’83 Civic S. It was the first of a long string of Hondas and then Acuras for me. Not an exciting car, but completely competent in a way that sent quite a few tens of thousands of dollars from my bank account to Honda over the next couple decades. My exciting cars all seemed to have temperamental habits regardless of origin (various US, English, and German makes), and I got quite used to having my daily transport start every time I turned the key. When one has a steady job, this can be quite addicting.

      However, this string is at an end. I don’t see anything in the Honda line that I like, and I see nothing coming. Twenty years ago if you’d told me that I’d be looking favorably at Korean cars today I’d have thought you were nuts. It sure looks like Hyundai is occupying the market position once held by Honda: affordable cars built by engineers, rather than consumer products built by marketers.

  • avatar

    My first car was an ’82 Civic much like that 1300FE (mine was a 1500GL, IIRC). The girlfriend who later became my wife had an ’84 Civic hatchback, which was rear-ended and replaced with an ’87 wagon, which was also later rear-ended. That ’87 was the vehicle of choice for many a road trip; I still miss it. But nothing Honda makes now really has the same character (maybe the Fit?).

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    These cars, and the next 2 gens of civics were amazing in that they always appeared to me to be so solid, as if the entire car itself was cast out of a single solid piece of metal….the lines were so tight.  And I thinke the metallic paint colors of these generations, the blue, green, tan, strawberry colors in particular…always contributed to that sensation for me….

    Lately, I think Honda has lost the plot a bit, allowing their cars to blow up in size faster than Kirstey Alley in a donut shop….I KNOW that if Honda were to return to their roots and make a SEDAN the size of the FIT…with the same fit, finish, and quality and engine/mechanical simplicity of design and performance….they would sell millions and be profitable worldwide….

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

    • 0 avatar

      As noted below, they do.  It’s a sharp looking car.  In Thailand, they are marketed and contented slightly upscale from the Jazz (Fit).  I only had a brief ride in one, but thought it was a nice, competent, attractive car.  Given that everyone thinks Americans don’t want hatchbacks, I don’t understand why Honda isn’t marketing it over here.  If the Fiesta sedan sells well, I suspect we’ll see it in a couple of years.

    • 0 avatar

      Honda has the City, and they give us the Crosstour? I think the worst thing about the current Honda is how insultingly they treat the customer. Just when others are starting to teach Americans the benefits of being compact and agile and efficient, Honda decides to pander to the worst instincts for gaudier and bigger.

  • avatar

    How I miss the days before Honda lost its way. I had an 87 Civic S that was frugal and sporty. It had some of the best seats I have ever sat in and the car was ergonomically perfect. My favorite feature was the manual choke. When most cars had to be boosted leaving work in Quebec City at -40C I would just pull the choke all the way out, tap the gas a few times and turn the key. She would start every time. Now it seems that Honda is run by a bunch of geeks who believe in using technology for its own sake and not because it enhances the driving experience. The feature I hate the most is the by-level dash on the Civic with the electronic speedometer…why??? Because we can is not an answer. Back to your roots Honda or plunge into oblivion.

  • avatar

    Exactly: “Delicate yet robust.”
    My brother bought a new ’83 3-door Civic 1300 for about $4000, drove it for 4 years and 90,000 miles, then gave it to me when he bought an ’87 Accord LX 5-speed hatchback (also a great car). I kept it another 9 years. The base ’83 1300 (4-speed) had painted-metal interior door tops and no armrests, a 4-speed, and 12-inch wheels that were like roller-skate wheels in retrospect. It was metallic blue, as in these photos. It didn’t even have a rear window defogger, although it had one dealer-installed option, the right-side mirror; the outside mirrors were much more substantial than in the closely related 1980-81 cars.
    This was the car that weaned me from my other car – a ’66 Bonneville that I’d had since ’74 and eventually sold in ’91. I learned that a tiny engine, 1800-pound mass, and sitting low to the ground provided agility that was more fun than the Bonneville’s brute force and barge-like steering. Also, replacement 12″ tires only cost $20 or so.
    I kept the Civic until our first child was born, then donated it because I would never want to place a baby seat in a car that tiny – it still ran fine; I only ever had to replace the radiator, which is likely the last under-hood job I will ever be able to do myself; there was plenty of room to work under the hood. In 1990 it took me and my cat to the top of Mt. Evans, CO with no trouble at all, although it began and ended as an East Coast car.

  • avatar

    The Civic wagon was one of the truly original cars of its day. A friend of mine kept his until a few years ago because it was so practical.

  • avatar

    This brings back memories. I grew up with a 1981 Civic wagon. Dark brown exterior and light brown/beige vinyl interior. It had round headlights, I think they went to square in ’82. My parents bought it new for about $6000 if I remember correctly. I think it had the optional 5 speed manual (I believe a 4 speed was standard). It had zero options when new. Not even a radio. But it did have a choke since it was a Canadian model. It had the 1.3 litre engine in it. My parents transported me and my brother to Florida and many other places in that car several times from Southern Ontario. We also used it to pull a Bonair tent trailer. Looking back, I don’t know how it managed to pull a tent trailer. My parents replaced it with a new Tercel in 1991 because it was rusting apart.
    Maybe my brother will reply with his experiences of it since he drove it for a few years. (I wasn’t old enough to have a license in ’91 when it was sold.)

    • 0 avatar

      Being five years older than my brother, I earned my Ontario driver’s licence in 1988, and learned to drive on the Civic Wagon described above.  It was a Canadian-spec car with a 1335 cc engine, and the aforementioned manual choke.  The car was resplendent in Levana Brown metallic over two-tone brown-beige vinyl.  My mum and dad bought the car brand-new for $5995.00 (plus $20.00 for rubber floor mats) in January, 1981 from Honda House in Chatham, Ontario (located in a former Canadian Tire store).  At that time, most Honda dealers were full-line (cars, motorcycles, and power equipment), so it gave a 9-year-old car nut and his 4-year old brother lots to climb in and on.  The Accords, Civics, and Preludes were downstairs, the Goldwings and the like upstairs at Honda House. 

      Mum and dad picked up the car the same day that the American hostages were released from the embassy in Tehran (and Ronald Reagan was inaugurated).  When they shopped for the car, they had a choice of the brown over beige interior, or the opposite.  They chose the brown, perhaps because it matched my grandfather’s 1978 Buick Regal.  By the time I got my licence, the car was well-used, having been a daily commuter for seven years, and a family hauler for many a long family vacation (including trailer-towing duty as mentioned above).  I treated the car like it was my own, waxing and polishing, vacuuming and scrubbing.  My parents were pretty frugal, and had never bothered to install a radio in the car, so I installed a 2-speaker Audiovox cassette deck.  I also spent many hours at the local Canadian Tire trying to squeeze more performance out of the non-CVCC 58 hp engine, to no avail.  The car ran out of steam pretty quickly, and with no tach, I had no idea what the engine was turning.  Despite its meagre output, I saw an honest (and scary) 160 km/h on flat Southern Ontario two-lanes.  It was a great car to learn to drive on.  Not enough power to get into any real trouble, a manual transmission to teach me how a real clutch works, and enough room to jam in five of my delinquent friends on our way to the pool hall or beach.

      Thanks for this, Paul.  This is the first CC that really resonated with me on a personal level.  The 80s Hondas had something special that the current models sorely lack.  As an adult, I have never even considered a Honda, because they just don’t make ’em like the used to.  

  • avatar

    I learned to drive stick on a friend’s beat up old ’79 Accord hatch, back in the day in the mid 80’s…then soon after drove another friend’s ’83 Civic 1300 hatch several times…yeah ‘delicate but robust’ is just about the perfect description for that classic early Honda feel. That Civic 1300 was about as bare-bones as could be, but it felt like quality, precision machinery honed to near perfection and even with over 50K miles on the clock it drove like new.

    As Paul did though, be reminded that you PAID for this engineering excellence…usually sticker price or higher at the dealer, and waaay more on the used car market than other craptastic econoboxes. Excellence didn’t come cheap and it’s not like your choice was this Civic or a Chevette for the same money, Hondas always cost significantly more.

    I had an old ’79 Mustang with about 75K on it, and it drove like a complete piece of junk in comparison, it had clearly given it’s best already. My family and extended family went on to own several Hondas over the 80/90’s…Civics, CRX’s, Accords, a Prelude, etc.

    There was a time when Hondas were truly something special on the market…with few exceptions, it’s unfortunately been a long time since that was true, and those days don’t seem to be returning anytime soon.

    • 0 avatar

      Here in Pennsylvania, you got a good deal on an early 1980s Honda if the dealer didn’t charge too much over the sticker. Discounts? Forget it!

      I had a 1977 Civic CVCC Hatchback (bought used) during the early 1980s. The nearest Honda dealer was a small dealership located in a small farming community near the Maryland border. At that time, the dealership itself was much smaller than the nearby Chevrolet or Buick-Pontiac-GMC dealerships.

      Today that Honda dealership has moved into a huge, brand-new showroom, while the Buick-Pontiac-GMC dealership closed, and the local Chevrolet dealership absorbed both Buick and GMC. And it’s still smaller than the new Honda dealership. How times change…

  • avatar

    What a blast from the past. My mom needed a replacement for the ’62 Dynamic 88 with a thirsty 394 and a leaky transmission seal, and she couldn’t drive a stick. Tasked with finding an economy car, the Subaru was a hoot to drive but only was offered in a stick, the Datsun B210 couldn’t get out of its own way, so off to the Honda dealer we went.
    It was an awesome little car. The 4-banger with the Hondamatic absolutely sang at highway speeds thanks to its motorcycle racing heritage, and it did everything she asked it to. I think it sold at 155K, and was well cared for by Nakatsu Brothers in San Jose, some really straight-up indies who were factory trained.
    It had a few quirks, like the tinny radio speaker that was louder outside the car than it was inside, and there was the master cylinder mounted on the right side of the firewall, but when you consider what else was out there, this was the right car for its time.
    And the dealer knew it. Mom only got 50 bucks in trade for the Olds.

  • avatar

    When the personal luxury coupe was the big craze, buyers got floating tanks with little bordello interiors. By 1980, younger buyers wanted nothing to do with them. After four years of Jimmy Carter, Americans weren’t in a mood to celebrate by driving around in a Hong Kong WHouse. When the second gas crisis hit, it came as no surprise after years of watching Washington flounder aimlessly. We knew it was just going to happen. What we had to do was dump the personal luxury coupe, and we did en masse.

    The Civic was on the road by 1974 and we all grew comfortable with them by the time the second generation was unveiled. Considering the times, it was easy to see them become the latest hot car craze.

    The Civic was everything the Cougar was not. It was the perfect anecdote. Younger buyers discovered that they did not have to give up much when they loss 2000 pounds of hood ornaments, shag carpets and Corinthian Leather in a Cordoba for a Civic. The Honda just seemed right.

    Honda advertised, “We keep it simple”. It was a refreshing change from watching Rex Harrison prance around a Chrysler product, singing about the car’s “Unbelievability”.

    Honda did a conservative second generation. It looked like a Honda, it held all the similar reliable features of a Honda, but it was a tad bigger so that the 20% inflated window sticker was justified. (Inflation was rocking at 20% annual during that great last Carter year – 1980.) The Honda was the perfect car for a country dreading it’s future. It caught the mojo of the US and made a heck of a lot of sense for millions of auto buyers who never before considered any Japanese wheels.

    While Detroit was unveiling yesterday’s bordellos on wheels, Japan was running it’s factories at full production in order to meet our demands for practical, and simple – automobiles like the Civic.

    Sure isn’t the Honda of today, is it? It is like the generation that bought the 1981 Civic never changed brands and are now tooling around with silver hair in Accords. Consequentially, Honda is an old person’s car, today’s Oldsmobiles.

  • avatar

    i had  a 80 civic 1300cc with 4 spd, in college, it was a very nice car, when they do skid u better pray fast. They do have much better handling than any RWD.
    I went back home and drove my bro’s spanking new 82 merc 300sd, after the week i sat back in my civic, i didnt felt the civic was such a cheap car at all, i mean mechanically. the steering is nice, so as everything. with 1.3 u wont win any stop light grand prix, neither the sd. At autobahn speed wasnt bad, i drove lots in it, a trip from toronto to calgary via USA, went out to the Rock ( New Foundland, land of the Screech ) and back to TO. Climb thru snow in NFLD just like a little mountain goat.
    The interior ofcourse has alot of plastics. But seat is not appalling at all, quite comfy.
    In the old days if u have driven an exp car, and go back to your clunker, u immediately feel the inadequacies. And wont stop saying the unholy words for next hours.
    The Honda did have everything down pact as slowly they took the N American market.

  • avatar

    can see many + ve feed backs. brought back many fond memories.
    Also had a road trip with my late Mom down to Baltimore , NYC on NY state thru way. back to Montreal, Ottawa upper canada.
    It was hot but had good fun with my Mom. Wish we went to Atlantic city for some one arm bandit.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    I remember being astonished early Honda engines ran so smoothly and quietly, like clock motors. Most U.S. car engines sounded like washing machines.

    Quality control was amazing, not an upholstery thread out of place. The thread count was perhaps double domestic cars.

    Unfortunately early Hondas were biodegradable. Not sure the Japanese knew anything about corrosion prevention.

  • avatar

    Lovely motors, unless you crash into something bigger. Most of these are rusted away now, and I think one of the reasons they disappeared so fast is that the sheetmetal was so thin that what would have been just surface rust on a 70’s Cougar was a hole on one of these. When I was a teen, my dad bought a 10 year old 1983 Quint(et) (5-door hatch, predecessor to the Integra, mostly a mix of Accord and Civic/Prelude parts) ending his long line of Fords, and it was the first car I drove, which may explain my devotion to Fords and Hondas, as different as they may be. One thing I still remember is the remarkable bottom-end torque from the 1.6 carbed 90hp engine. It was a 5-speed (not average for an early 80’s car) and you could drive it anywhere at almost any speed using mostly 4th or 5th gear when you were alone in the car (and it averaged 30-35mpg). And the sheetmetal, after hitting the guardrails I could fix most of the bigger dents with my bare hands, just bending it back. A friend of my brothers had a blue 82 Civic hatchback like the one pictured in the article, and at 220k it was still almost as good as new.

  • avatar

    Had an ’83 wagon just like the one pictured.  What a great little runabout that was.  The Singer sewing machine sized 4 banger w/5-Speed could hang at 80 mph all day getting 33 mpg no sweat.  Rock solid reliable at 185,000 miles.

  • avatar

    I had an 82 5 speed sedan handed down from my father.  Blue on blue which looked really good on the car.  Probably put almost 200K miles on it.  No leaks ever.  The fuel filler was a major problem, as it was wrapped  in a weak plastic that trapped moisture, causing rust which fell into the gas tank later clogging the uber complex keihlin(?) carb.  Those fuel passages were small for the 3 bbl.  Adding a Fram filter resolved it.  The exploded view of the carb resembled the Apollo capsule.  A million parts!  Also 20 miles of vacuum lines.  I loved the car though.  A nice touch, an extra taillamp bulb was included in the housing, a nice touch that would never happen today.  I also liked that the fuel tank was bolted in, very easy to remove and drain rust from.  It also had a drain plug, though I think was added after purchase.  A lot of great memories, a good car in the snow too.  Fun to buy tires at the advertised price, they were so small!

  • avatar
    beach cruiser

    Ah the memories, we bought a new Civic hatchback in 1979. It had a 5 spd manual and a cool luggage rack. It was our first Honda car and we drove it to 275,000 miles. Since then we have owned many Hondas, including our fave a 1987 Accord that went 345,000 miles. Currently we have a real POS Odyssey that just went over 200,000 miles last week. It is on its’ third replacement transmission however. I will admit that Honda has paid for two of those. But replacing a transmission every couple of years gets old. A month ago we got a notice from American Honda that our 2007 Civic will get an extended warranty to cover a problem Honda is having with cracking engine blocks.
    My wife will be looking elsewhere for her new ride and we will ditch the Civic at the end of the extended warranty period. Still it was good while it lasted.

  • avatar

    Those of us familiar with Honda motorcycles from the early 60’s where well aware of the engineering and mechanical abilities of Honda. I recall dismantling my Honda 50 when I was 12 and my father was astounded at the fact that all the bolts and washers where plated. When I put the bike back together it ran like a top and that dinky 50cc engine would rev to unbelievable rpm’s. When I told him that the racing 50’s where revving into 5 digits (18,000 rpm I think) he became a believer in Honda’s technical ability. The bigger bikes just got better.He’s owned a whole slew of accords, civics and currently has a blast banging around town in my sister’s 25+ year old CRX which lived on the east coast for a decade before moving wes to the Pacific coast…amazing.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a succession of Japanese motorcycles and you are right. Compared to the relatively crude two stroke Yamaha and Suzuki engines, the four stroke Hondas looked like Swiss watches inside. The CB-175 that was my college commuter easily went to its 11,000rpm redline almost every shift. My brother and I bought a 305, disassembled in a box, at a garage sale for $50. We put it together and it ran great. Those early engines had a roller crank that was like a piece of mechanical art.

  • avatar

    I forgot just how badly Honda upholstery used to disintegrate after any exposure to sunlight.  The horribly tattered cloth in the back of that sedan was not an uncommon site.
    The towel on on the seat also obscures the fact that this was a true four seater; there was a plastic tray between the two rear seats.  That’s actually one of my earliest automotive memories, riding in the back of my aunt’s ’82 Civic sedan.  When my dad came home one day with an ’88 Civic DX hatchback seemed roomy and futuristic by comparison.
    Come to think of it, the whole family got hooked on Hondas in a very big way starting in the ’80s.  My parents went through a series of Accords and now have a CR-V, not to mention my dad’s old CB350.  Despite the rust and flimsy upholstery, that ’82 sedan held on for a decade and finally got replaced by a ’92 and then a CR-V. aunt had an ’84 Civic Si, followed by an ’89 Accord LX-i that’s still in the family and a ’93 del Sol.  My uncle had an ’85 Civic sedan until the wheels pretty much fell off.  Even my grandfather, once a diehard GM man, bought a ’90 Civic LX that he drove for 18 years.
    Today, I’ve got an ’02 Civic sedan, arguably the most inspired Honda of the whole lot, as my DD.  But it’s still such a solid little car, despite everything I’ve put it through.  It’s still got just hint of that “delicate yet robust” flavor that makes it surprisingly pleasant drive, despite the 412-horse Mustang in my garage.

  • avatar

    Also, the sawbones don’t point out that the K-Car, J-body,Alliances(AMC built these) and Escorts rotted away a LONG time ago too, and the VW’s were not much better in that regard.
    None of those cars rusted as bad as a Honda product, but none could run as long either.  If anybody gets the chance, check out places like Palm Desert, CA.  My friend got married there and I was amazed at the amount of old cars there that were all in one piece.  Seeing  full/medium size American cars intact was not uncommon but seeing cars like this in complete rust free condition was pretty damn cool. Paint and interiors were another thing, with the beating the sun really taking their toll.  The GM car interiors didn’t seem to do much better than those Hondas…

  • avatar

    How timely, I was just thinking about my 1982 Civic 1500 GL today and recalling how great a commuter car it was.  I kept meticulous records and know it never got less than 32.9 mpg (imp) and recorded over 60 mpg on a few occasions.  It was fun to drive, too, with a 5 speed manual and gearing that placed the 3,000 rpm torque peak right at 75 mph.  It came with cloth seats, a tach and an AM/FM radio!  How I miss it.

  • avatar

    My first new car was a 1983 1300FE.  You really had to row the gears going up hill.  On one interstate only trip, I got 59 MPG.

  • avatar

    I look at these and I ache for what used to be. To my eye, these “old” Civics still look sharp. I like to think our Fit Sport is a spiritual successor to them.  Truly, this is back when Honda was at, or near, it’s best.

    • 0 avatar

      You beat me to it. I see my 2010 Fit is the modern version of that Civic wagon, except that the Fit (Jazz) is not styled for the US market. This is my first Honda automobile and the torque characteristics of the long-stroke engine make even the manual transmission version easy to drive in LA commuter traffic.

  • avatar

    LOVE these. Even better: the 1984-87 and the 1988-91. Looking forward to the CC on those! A friend in college had a 1987 Civic DX Sedan that had a jewel-like quality. The crisp lines like a toasted loaf of bread were just perfect, and they were so space-efficient! The “Keep it Simple” ads and commercials featuring Burgess Meredith were icing on the cake. Honda really could almost do no wrong in the ’80s, as far as I’m concerned. How times have changed!

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    I had a 1981 Civic two door.  One of the best cars I ever had; ran almost perfectly until a tree totaled it at 250,000 miles.  A wonderfully versatile, throwable, well-engineered econobox.
    When I think of Honda I think of this car.  I wish they’d get back to basics but it ain’t gonna happen.  The people who understood how to design a car like that are long gone.  The best we’ll ever get is one of those retro designs that tries to look like the original but fails to capture the essential character.
    Think Beetle 2.

  • avatar

    I’d like to mention one more thing about why this car was so successful. It wasn’t ugly. While it didn’t have styling that stood out – it wasn’t what Americans usually saw coming from Japan at this time.

    If you want to see when Toyotas and Hondas started looking boring, look to this car.

    Before this time, Datsun/Nissan and Toyota were selling Japanese styled cars. They were often pretty damn weird looking. They looked too narrow, too tall, had embarrassing Detroit fashion cliques screwed upon them, and offered no shoulder room and often nothing but a flat vinyl interior door panel, in order to prevent you from bruising your ribs when you closed the doors. Their dashboards were too high, the seats were too low and the window sills were too high.

    This might have worked in Japan during the era these cars were engineered, and was at that time their dominant auto market. These cars were imports to the US, not US designed cars.

    The Civic eliminated the styling quirks of Japanese cars. They did this by making the car unobjectionable. The Civic is pretty unremarkable looking.

    Success followed. Today, we see the bland nothingness of Japanese cars and question why they are so dull. Sure, they still do weirdo things like the Scion xB, and that square Nissan box, and the Honda Element, but their bread and butter cars are as exciting as, well, bread and butter. By dropping what made their cars visible on the market, they discovered they could sell to more than one market in the world without a problem.

    The Civic was the first Wal-Martification of Japanese styling so prevalent today.

    • 0 avatar

      I can’t agree with this. While the 1980-1983 Civic wasn’t very exciting to look at, the next-generation 1984 models were almost revolutionary. Short, low, angled hoods. Very low beltlines and cowl matched with large glass areas and thin pillars. Long roof on the hatchback models – almost a shooting brake. A polarizing tall-wagon model. A very pretty tiny coupe (CRX). Lines that were almost Italianate in their cleanness and cohesion. I’ve always wondered if an Italian styling house such as Pininfarina was secretly involved with the 1980s Hondas. They seem “unremarkable” today only because they’ve been a common part of the auto landscape for a quarter century.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr Lemming

      I agree with Tonyola.  Honda was always the most European of the Japanese automakers; its American products never devolved to the sci-fi weirdness of Nissan and Toyota.  The second-generation Civic was also a pretty evolutionary design compared to the original; it was a bit larger and squarer but used almost all of the same styling cues.
      When I think Walmart I think cheap happy-face products.  The Civic had too much German-style gravitas to be lumped into that category.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming


    VanillaDude, the Japanese did ditch the space alien look in the early 1980s, but I don’t particularly miss the likes of the Datsun B-210, and I certainly wouldn’t blame the second-generation Honda Civic for the Walmartification of Japanese styling.
    Throughout the 1970s Honda was far and away the most European of the Japanese automakers in both its styling and engineering.  The first Accord was lauded as almost German in its clean and well-engineered look and feel.  The original Civic had a decent family resemblance.
    The second-generation Civic was an evolutionary design.  Most of the basic design cues of the original were carried over, but the overall shape was a bit larger and boxier.  So if you thought this version was bland, I think you’d need to make a similar criticism of its predecessor — and of the Accord, for that matter.
    My recollection is that NIssan and Toyota drove the Walmartifcation of Japanese styling.  They had to do SOMETHING different because Japanese glitziness just didn’t play very well in the US and Europe.  The result was too ofter rather bland.  However, to my eyes Honda’s styling in the late 1980s was often pretty good, e.g., the third-generation Accord is commonly viewed as a breakthrough design for a family sedan.


  • avatar

    Oh man! You made me smile today! This is the exact car that i spend my most of my teenage in. My friend had a 1983 silver wagon and he use to beat the living hell out of it, the thing would not give up or break. You brought back so many memory of screeching tire, stoplight racing, alcool fueled party, girls…(Seriously, don’t drink and drive kids!) this car was incredible, the last time i saw it, my friend was trying to break to cv joint because they were knocking(the car was going to th junk). He tried his best but they holded…seem like the more you try to kill it, the more it laugh at you …rust finally got to her…oh yeah she was a delicate but tough lady! R.I.P.

  • avatar

    Holy cow I haven’t seen one of these in like forever. Brings back bad memories of swapping out autmatic transmissions and carburetors with 1000 vacuum lines. Can you say “all nighter”? I swear they made the bolt locations for hands the size of 2 year olds. The only thng that saved us were custom made swivels, jack stands to move the engine up and down to get at the various bolts and lots of patience and colored tape to mark each vacuum line. Thank god cars aren’t made like this today. These were the cars that introduced cheap looking colorless, austere plain interiors to America and sadly that still hasn’t changed on the color front.

    • 0 avatar

      Ahhhh…  But you don’t have to keep track of all them thar’ vacuum hoses.  Simply unplug the control boxes on the firewall, remove the three or four main vacuum supply hoses, (easy to keep track of), and remove the entire engine/tranny/vacuum system as a unit.  BTW, these engines can be either removed from the bottom or top.

      I drive Gen II Civics every day and my current driver is an ’82 1500 DX automatic. I also have; 1982 1300 Standard, 1981 1300 DX (future project), and a 1983 Civic FE which is being restored.

      I love the simple yet elegant engineering and for the most part, these cars are easy to work on, maintain and enjoy.  Best part is that I paid $100 each except for the Standard which was $200.  Parts are cheap and plentiful and here in TX, emissions are no longer a factor.

    • 0 avatar

      Parts are cheap and plentiful? Does that include for a 1979 Accord? I have been searching for a year for a shift link cable for my Hondamatic transmission. It doesn’t seem to exist.

  • avatar

    Now THIS was one of my favorite cars, I owned an 83, 3door 1500DX version of this car w/ 5Spd manual between 1992-1998 and put around 70K miles on that lil’ bugger.

    Since this was the DX grade car, it came with either the 1300CC or the 1500CC motor, I had the larger 1500 in mine and was I think the 3rd owner of it, came with armrests on the doors, intermittent wipers, trim rings, rear defogger, rear wiper/washer and an AM/FM radio, A/C was optional but I had it in mine as well. By 1983, all Honda motors were of the CVCC design as California had outlawed the non CVCC based 1300 around that time so only the CVCC based 1300 was available in 1980 when this gen came out,

    I’ve always loved the looks of this car’s lines, a slightly squarer, more grown up version of the original and yes, I agree, the styling cues of the original remained, but updated and a tad bigger. That said, I’ve ridden in friends old ’79 Civic hatch in the back and it wasn’t bad at all for a small subcompact, not THAT car looked like shit due to the badly weathered silver metallic paint, but it ran, and ran, and ran, like mine.

    I had the non metallic beige (Oslo Ivory) paint, which would not have been my choice w/ the 2 tone beige interior, pleasant, but safe but I drove that thing everywhere, even 2 trips to Medford Oregon from Tacoma Washington where I lived. I live in Seattle now, though, an hour’s drive roughly north of Tacoma and spent many a time shlepping may way back and forth between the 2 cities up and down I-5 the whole time I drove it when not going to the Wa coast or wherever.

    This car had the 155/85 R13’s if I recall and when I had to replace the tires on it, I bought Michilen X radials at Costco and paid $50 each, I think installed, they were an excellent buy and were STILL decent when I sold it in Dec of 1998 and had been on the car several years by that point.

    I found the car just fine on the freeway, never felt unsafe or anything, even when blazing along at 75-80MPH in 5th gear w/ the RPM’s at roughly 3000 or so while zipping along, AC or no AC and got great mileage with it. The car was such fun to drive, I drove it like a mad ban gee much of the time, great in Seattle traffic as I zipped my way around town with aplomb. While not the sportiest, it WAS fun to hoon, just don’t take ultra sharp curves too fast or it’ll slide, I almost ended off the on ramp when the ramp, a cloverleaf suddenly angled sharply to tighten up and I almost lost it going too fast, oops.

    The car got rear ended and leaked water, this was its second hit, the first was with the original owner years before so when I got hit, one or both side rails got bent, the rear frame rail definitely so, the bumper plastic cracked butt good and later developed water leaking inside, this was in 1997 and that fall, the AC finally quit, I sold the car the following Dec for $500 to a young couple who’s car had just been stolen at just shy of 183K on the clock, still running great, but body integrity was suspect.

    Some basic facts:

    Car originally was from Texas, I the third owner.

    Bought the car for $1500, put another $880 into it for the clutch was badly in need of replacement, so was the clutch cable, while at it, did the timing belt and water pump, Honda had just gone to the new 90K mile timing belts and I had no idea if it ever had been replace since 60K and once I got it back, it was like a new car, very clean for just shy of 113K when I bought it.

    Previous owner advertised it on Auto Trader for $3000, I bargained it down for the repairs and still stayed within budget ($3000), reliable as hell other than expendables and oil changes, had to replace the CV boots but even that was not exorbitant.

    Engine DID sound like a well oiled sewing machine (I know, my Mom sewed A LOT w/ a Singer and that’s just how that little 4 pot sounded like. I’d just stand there and listen to it idle after an oil change, checking for any leaks and just listen, it was like music, for a car.

    Miss it A LOT.

    I ended up replacing it with a 1988 Honda Accord LX-I, a great car until I could not keep up on the maintenance due to lack of funds and then it got rear ended in 2005 and then let in water like a sieve inside, causing havoc w/ the electrics, especially the door locks and the moonroof (discovered this when I went to close it one day and had to actually crank it shut). Sold that thing with 180K on it in running but anything but stellar shape, sans muffler, no working AC, needing a new clutch most likely, new tires etc for $900 on Craig’s List, what we’d asked for it in less than 24 Hrs, not bad, to a guy who had the same car, same color, but it had a blown motor…

    I now drive a 1992 Ford Ranger truck with 230700+ miles on it and is uber reliable so far that I’ll have had 5 years this coming February.

  • avatar

    It’s so funny I came across this article because me and my Dad just picked up an 83′ Civic sedan. It looks amazing! Honestly it has only 13k on it. It was garaged for it’s entire existence. Looks fresh right out of the Honda factory. It has a Hondamatic 3 speed transmission, working A/C, a tachometer, and even a digital clock! It’s truly a blast from the past. The seats look like they haven’t even been sat in yet. The interior overall looks brand spankin’ new! It maybe small but this car is no joke. It runs so smoothly but it is definitely a far cry of what modern cars are like today. Its engine hasn’t been pushed the tranny shifts perfectly. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. I really hope I get to use it. Solid overall car. It’s got character and spunk for it’s size :)

    Fragile yet robust is exactly how I would describe the driving experience I felt in this soon to be 28 year old Honda. It was such a laugh for me when I saw it because its 8 years older than me. Even though I wasn’t raised around this car’s era I still get a nostalgic feel to it don’t ask me how but something about the non-powered steering, 80’s blue interior, and tiny am/fm stereo makes me feel like I knew this car in another time.

  • avatar

    I bought a 1982 Honda Civic 1.5L sedan in 1987.  Ran very smooth high revving CVCC engine with 12 VALVES in it.  The extra valve is for a pre-combustion mixing chamber.  This car had zero transistor chips as far as I could determine.  The entire fuel and emissions system was controlled by mysterious vacuum valves inside two black boxes.  For 12 years never had to mess with them.  Perfect car for Tom Cruise in ‘War of the Worlds’ post EMP blast.
    This carbureated engine averaged 35mpg – 30 city, 39 highway.  Moved on to heavier VW with more power and 28mpg.  For years I have wondered why Detroit could not produce 40mpg cars using sophisticated electronics and fuel injection, even with an extra 750 pounds for comfort, A/C, etc.
    Winter driving actually a blast due to front wheel drive.   Zipped all over Chicago in it, so the car can take it.  New owner should invest in high grade seat padding.

  • avatar

    Thanks so much for this post, it brought back many great memories of my first new car, a 1980 Honda Civic in Frisian Green. I was still living at home with my folks at the time, I had just started my first job out of college, and the new Civic (“DX”?) was advertised on special at $4875 CDN. I had really wanted the station wagon but my dad didn’t think it was worth the extra few hundred, and he was after all co-signing the loan!  The 1980 hatch looked so much better to my eyes than the first-generation Civics, and I prefer the round headlights of the 1980 model year to the new-fangled rectangular ones that followed in 1981. I remember still mastering the manual choke and 4-speed standard on the maiden voyage home from the dealership, stopping off to buy floor mats, and a few months later getting an AM/FM radio installed (radio not included) and applied my own vinyl “pinstriping” and body-side moulding in the driveway one sunny afternoon. And that wonderful new-Honda smell, very different from the smell of new domestics my dad would buy every 3-4 years. After my very first car loan came through I remember laying awake all that first night while the enormity of the financial commitment finally hit home ($5000!). I wish now I had taken more photos of that car and all the cars my dad had over the years. Too bad digital photography wasn’t around then. I do still have the original Honda brochure I used to spend hours poring over, I have scanned the cover and attached it here. There was something about the Civic being good honest basic transportation that really appealed to me, it did not try to pretend it was anything else. Somehow the silver painted steel wheels did not look out of place, we may have become spoiled in the last 30 years as to what “base model” really means – safety equipment aside of course. I’m sure my Civic was a tinny bucket like its contemporaries, and thank the car-gawds I did not have a serious accident. Funny thing now, I cannot seem to get a good driving position in any car unless I fiddle with seat height and telescoping/tilting, but somehow I never had a problem driving for hours in that little car while enjoying the thrill of the personal freedom of the road. The driveway photo attached here is from around 1983 I think, and shows a little of my dad’s Ford Granada parked across on the street in the background – it had “landau” vinyl roof and opera windows. I have been trying to think of what a modern-day equivalent of that base Civic would be and so far I can only think of maybe the Versa. I sold “Kermit” 7 years later when I had a financial crunch while living on my own and then went carless for several years, but those first years were such a happy time I will always cherish. Now I drive a 2008 V6 RAV4, which has an identity crisis and doesn’t know what the hell it is (Wagon? Trucklet? Hatchback?) – but that 1980 Civic hatchback was honest, unpretentious, stylish, practical, thoughtful and economical transportation with a spirit all its own. Thanks again for the chance to share and reminisce.!/photo.php?fbid=118523014886517&set=a.114671138605038.18320.100001864585003&theater&pid=138135&id=100001864585003

  • avatar

    it has a twin here

  • avatar

    I bought a 1983 Honda Civic Sedan 5 speed manual in Oct. 1983. I loved that car! Of all the cars I have owned, it was my favorite. I was in a Honda dealer showroom with my Dad, looking for an Accord Hatchback (w/out much luck, as it was the end of the model year), when my Dad said, “hey Bill look at this one” It had a sign on the window, $600 off. I believe the price came to $7200 before Tax (or maybe that was with tax). It was very much like my friends wagon, but a sedan. What I loved was that it was a manual. It was light blue with a slightly darker blue cloth interior. It had a little digital clock in the middle of the dash, a tach plus the speedometer. I loved the way that car drove. It had great pickup for a small engine. I always changed the oil myself, it was easy to change, the oil filter was accessed from the top. The hood was hinged from the front. I had the car from the day I drove it home, until late Fall 1995. I unfortunately got into an accident with the car in Lincoln, NE, and rolled it. I managed to fix it enough to limp home (I was driving back to Chicago from Seattle), then sold it for $100, as the passenger side was all crashed in. A sad end to a lovely little car. I now drive a ’98 Nissan Sentra auto, which I have never loved in the same way, despite it being a good reliable car. I took the Honda on a few long trips, it always got great gas mileage on the highway, 35 MPG plus. I put a really nice Alpine stereo cassette in it, with 4 excellent speakers, so the sound system was great. I may go back to Honda again w/my next car.

  • avatar

    Hey, funny story I’ve got for you. One of the cars you have on this page is my car. The brown sedan with the shredded interior is my baby. :) Same license plates, and the pictures are taken in the parking lot of my old work.

    I googled images of the 82 civic to show my friend what I drove back home, and was surprised to see MY car, not just my make/model, but my actual car, on your page. I LOVED that car. My brother took over it when I went off to the Army, and it was attacked by a couple teenagers with skateboards, so now it’s got busted out windows and dents all over it, which is very depressing.

    I love the look and feel of that car.

  • avatar

    I still have my blue 1983 Honda DX automatic Hatchback and it is going strong. Super fun to drive.

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