Curbside Classic – When Honda's Mojo Was Working: 1980-1983 Honda Civic

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic when honda s mojo was working 1980 1983 honda civic

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.

More new Curbside Classics here

Join the conversation
2 of 63 comments
  • Navanafti Navanafti on Jan 15, 2012

    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.

  • Jmmz Jmmz on May 20, 2013

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

  • 28-Cars-Later I'm actually surprised at this and not sure what to make of it. In recent memory Senator Biden has completely ignored an ecological disaster in Ohio, and then ignored a tragic fire in Hawaii until his handlers were goaded in sending him and his visit turned into it's own disaster, but we skipped nap time for this sh!t show? Seriously? We really are through the looking glass now, "votes" no longer matter (Hillary almost won being the worst presidential candidate since 1984 before he claimed the crown) and outside of Corvette nostalgia Joe doesn't care let alone know what day it happens to be. Could they really be afraid of Trump, who AFAIK has planned no appearance or run his mouth on this issue? Just doesn't make sense, granted this is Clown World so maybe its my fault for trying to find sense in a senseless act.
  • Tassos If you only changed your series to the CORRECT "Possibly Collectible, NOT Daily Driver, NOT Used car of the day", it would sound much more accurate AND TRUTHFUL.Now who would collect THIS heap of trash for whatever misguided reason, nostalgia for a much worse automotive era or whatever, is another question.
  • ToolGuy Price dropped $500 overnight. (Wait 10 more days and you might get it for free?)
  • Slavuta Must be all planned. Increase price of cars, urbanize, 15 minutes cities. Be poor, eat bugs
  • Sid SB Not seen a Core without the performance pack yet. Prefer the more understated look of the Core vs the Circuit, but both are great fun to drive.