By on September 2, 2011

Back in the Malaise Era, why did anyone buy a Corolla (or an Omni or GLC or any other miserable underpowered econobox) instead of a Civic? Somehow, Soichiro‘s little car managed to be economical, reliable, and fun to drive. Most of the second-gen (1980-83) Civics have long since been crushed, not being as solid as their successors and also not attracting a following of collectors willing to do any sort of restoration, so you don’t see many of them in the junkyards these days. Here’s one that managed to hang on for more than 30 years before taking that final tow-truck ride.
I’ve owned a couple of examples of this generation of Civic, and it’s startling how Honda made 67 horsepower (the base 1300 made just 55) feel like (nearly) enough. Even the Chevette had more power than this thing!
Thing is, if anything went wrong with the nightmarishly complex emission-control system on the carbureted CVCC Hondas, you were screwed. This diagram is dirt simple next to the CVCCs of the mid-1980s.
This one is pretty well beat, but should have had a few years left in it. Blown head gasket? Bad suspension?

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44 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1980 Honda Civic 1500 GL...”

  • avatar

    You gotta love those pink chenille seat covers.

  • avatar

    My earliest memories of these were staring at them wondering how they held together with all the rust, or waiting to see if the seats would fall through the floor. I never saw it happen but I am sure it happened to a few. Midwest winters were not kind to these, not that the big 3 metal fared any better. It is rare to see older Japanese cars in my part of the country as most were claimed early by the cancer.

  • avatar

    I don’t know if it’s still true or not, but one area where Hondas were known to be deficient was the longevity of the front brakes. I had a 1985 Accord (for which I paid, brand new, over MSRP). The front rotors were warped at 10k miles and had to be replaced (at my expense). It was traded in not long after and was the one and only Honda I’ve ever owned.

    • 0 avatar

      Now the issue is the (Accord) rear brakes. Mine required new pads at 15k.

      • 0 avatar

        The funny thing about those Accord rear brakes is what they tell their customers when they complain. I’ve heard things ranging from it’s because you are a woman, don’t know how to drive, and must have driven with the parking brake on. The rear brakes do 90% of the stopping so they wear out first. To it’s the stability control the gov’t makes us put on them that causes it. But when people have them replaced with aftermarket pads somehow they will last twice as long or longer.

    • 0 avatar
      30-mile fetch

      Hondas in recent years are still struggling with brakes.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks for the update. Along with poor reviews of recent Honda products, that pretty much squelches any thoughts of a new Honda in my future (if they ever built one in which I was interested). It’s a pity, too, since a new Honda dealership just opened not more than a mile from my house.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    “why did anyone buy a Corolla (or an Omni or GLC or any other miserable underpowered econobox) instead of a Civic?”

    From what I’ve heard over the years, you had to pay over MSRP and wait six months to get a Civic in those days. The fact that people did so anyway is a testament to just how unpalatable the alternatives were.

    • 0 avatar

      @bumpy: Back in summer of 1980, my brother decided to sell me his 1969 Torino GT and purchase a commuter car. He looked at everydamnedthing, but most of the Japanese dealers back then knew they had something desirable, and they were going to get their pound of flesh along with ADP and any other crap they could think of.

      Then, there was that line of thinking that said anything Japanese=good, which wasn’t always the case. Folks were so freaked out over the high fuel prices at the time, they would just dump whatever they were driving and jump into anything small, believing it would save them lots of money.

      After getting ridiculous quotes from the local Honda, Toyota, Nissan and VW stores, he finally found a Plymouth Champ (Mitsubishi Colt) to his liking and the price was only slightly exorbitant. IIRC, he only waited a couple of months for his to arrive. Long story short, the Champ was something of a turd, but was tolerable. These days, we’d never put up with the issues the car had. Back then, it was normal.

      • 0 avatar

        +1 on the Mitsubishi Plymouth/Dodge Champ/Colt twins. It was the best compromise between paying through the nose for one of the top-tier Japanese makes (Toyota or Honda) or the much cheaper (but much poorer built) domestic POS like a Chevette or Escort.

        The Mitisubishi-built, Chrysler imports were definitely a foreshadowing of how, just a scant few years later, clever car buyers would figure out that buying a NUMMI Chevy Nova would be the equivalent of getting a Toyota Corolla at a much lower price, simply because it had a domestic badge affixed to it.

        I wonder if anyone at Toyota or Honda has ever realized that their US dealer network’s total butthead policy of gouging as much as they could during the high-flying years of the eighties was very likely the very thing that put the ‘lesser’ Japanese brands (like Mitsubishi, Mazda, and Nissan) on the map.

    • 0 avatar

      The complexity of the CVCC system was reason enough not to buy one.

      Besides, the Omni/Horizon was just out in 1978-ish, and there was a resurgence of ‘buy American’ back then.

    • 0 avatar

      Charging over MSRP for Hondas was part of the reason why cars that were MUCH crappier sold, but there was another reason that motivated people in equal measures to buy garbage. When I was a kid, I knew quite a few “adults” who would, “never buy some Jap or Kraut piece of Sh**.” People who bought foreign cars were “idiots who didn’t know what a real car was.” “Foreign cars are made to fit midgets, and not American sized people.” “People who buy foreign cars are anti American, and probably communists.”

      Even to this day, my 83 year old neighbor refuses to believe that a foreign car could be the equal of an American car and sticks to Cadillacs….his current ride assembled in Mexico, mostly out of foreign sourced parts.

  • avatar

    There was a great orange example around Clemson circa 2005. I like the styling better than the next gen.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    My friend’s Dad had one of these.

    I used to look at them as deathtraps incarnate. One good smash and you were pretty much done. He was a hippie teacher in NYC. His subject was English. But to my knowledge he never let go of his beard and ponytail.

    Maybe his Hondaphile orientation rubbed off. I now drive an Insight these days that is even smaller and lighter than this one. However an aluminum body and modern day technologies can go an awfully longer way these days.

  • avatar

    I have one of these. Mine was the 83 1500DX version, with the rear window wiper/washer/defogger and intermittent wipers.

    A great vehicle and yes, even at 67 horses, these cars felt zippy enough to motivate you along with loads of FUN!

    Mine was the more pedestrian Oslo Ivory with the tan/beige interior. My parents got me the real sheepskin seat covers for both front seats.

    I even drove it from Tacoma to Medford OR twice, once for the interview and then for the job itself and it did surprisingly well going over the mountains into Roseburg and then down into the Rogue Valley and yes, mine had AC though mine had the factory mono AM/FM radio which I replaced with a nice Kenwood shaft mount radio/cassette unit. Had it from 1992-1998 and being that it originated in Texas, but lived up here a good portion of its life, it was a pretty rust free example. Sold it with just shy of 183K miles and was rear ended, still running well and quite driveable, just had a bent rear and/or side rails and a very cracked rear bumper for $500 with water in the passenger seat floor as their fairly new HOnda was stolen just before Christmas 1998. :-)

    I miss that car, drove it like a mad banschee too!

  • avatar

    What yard is this in? It seems to have less rust than most 2nd gens in Northern Colorado. One of my many dream cars for some time has been a 2nd gen with a b16 or 18… whichever I can find cheaper. Then rallycross the snot out of it.

  • avatar

    For many years I drove an ’83 base Civic 1300 3-door (4-speed, 12-inch wheels, no armrests) that a sibling had bought new for $4000 and gave me after 4 years and 90K miles. Lasted another 9 years before it was donated; an 1800-pound car and a new baby don’t belong in the same family.

    Honda did a real refresh on the 1982-83 Civics versus the 1980-81s: not only a new ventless hood that was actually lower at the front (made possible by new rectangular headlamps), but also better-integrated bumpers and a much nicer dashboard and steering wheel than shown in the photo here, even on my base 1300.

  • avatar

    A very fashionable auto fad of 1980. Folks who bought them told everyone who had ears how brilliant they were for buying one.

    The car itself is very clever. Too bad those of us living back then had to listen to Civic drivers tell us how stupid we were to not drive a Civic. It gave the car a bad image, which it did not deserve.

    But it was a nice car.

  • avatar

    My parents went to test drive one of these in 1983, just before the 1984 model came out. Turns out they could pre-order a 1984 model sight unseen for less than the outgoing 1983 model on the lot, so thats what they did. Never even saw one before, dad knew it would be a good car. And it was, the ’84 was a revelation compared to the ’83, and lasted just as long. It was a base 1300cc with carbs and a 4-speed manual, and wow was it fun too!

    Eventually it rusted away after about 10 years of never being washed or waxed. They gave it to me in 1992, I paid $200 to have it bondo-ed and painted… it looked liked brand new. I eventually sold it for like a grand or so when I bought my new Civic.

  • avatar

    My sister had one of these in silver/burgundy which I have fond memories of riding around in as a very small child. I remember not totally understanding why it said “5 Speed” on the back, but thinking it was awesome.

  • avatar

    Probably a stupid question but why are all of these “Junkyard Finds” always propped up on wheels? My only thought is to drain fluids but I woudn’t want to get under it with round jack-stands holding it up.

    • 0 avatar

      Because that’s the way that the companies who run the self-service junkyards do it. Most of these yards prohibit you from bringing in any type of jack (for liability reasons), so they use old steel wheels welded together to make stands which keep the cars high enough in the air that you can get under them if you need any parts from underneath.

      And most of these large yards drain all (most) of the fluids prior to the cars going out into the yards, which means that they often have cut brake and power steering hoses (sometimes the lower radiator hose also), and punctured oil and transmission pans and gas tanks (the puncture is sealed with a small rubber plug, but it kind of ruins the part!).

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve been in junkyards where years of ground contact appeared to cause the lower sections of the bodies to dissolve. The most painful example was a Ford Skyliner in a junkyard in Maine.

  • avatar

    My father bought an 82 four door as a winter car. It was light blue metallic with a blue interior. I still recall some things about it – the handy tray in the middle of the dash for pens, the shifter and its rubber boot, and the nightmarish carburetor. I had 2 throttle cable break on me, leaving me at idle on the road. Solution? Turn the idle speed screw (equipped with a handy grip) up and drive it home! Main issue was with the fuel filler. It was wrapped in bad plastic which caused it to rust and fill the tank. That clogged the carb easily. A replacement part was worth as much as the car. Solution? Exhaust flex pipe of course. Had to be careful not to overfill or take too many high-g right turns, otherwise fuel would leak.

    One nice item – the taillights were equipped with an extra bulb! I went to replace one and found it in a holder. No way would anyone do that today, saves 5 cents/car.

    Rust finally claimed the car, though it was running great up to the end, no leaks, though I did go thru a few alternators. With Murray’s lifetime guarantee, they saw me often. I could change it in 5 minutes. Oh, and the metal slot holding the driver’s window rusted, so I had to leave it up (of course) or risk losing in the door.

    Also, I was one of the few that could actually buy those 4/$99 tires! Great memories.

    • 0 avatar

      I had an ’82 1500GL in high school, without A/C, in Tennessee (last car I ever owned without it). Mine was that same metallic blue with blue interior. I think I was the third owner. It was a lot of fun, although I don’t know how long it would have lasted. Never got the chance, as my brother inherited it when I went off to college and wrecked it.

      My wife had an ’86 in high school that her mom had bought for her new; six months later someone rear-ended it, and she got a new ’87 Civic wagon. She kept it all through college, and the summer after graduation, someone rear-ended that one, too. Last Honda either of us has owned.

  • avatar

    It amazing what a difference a few years make… I had an two tone (red over grey) ’85 “S” 1500 Civic Hatch and it was light years better then this example. A laughable 90HP but oh so fun due to a silky smooth Honda 5 speed. Boy that little car could tear around the bends with its double wishbone setup.

    Our current Volvo C30 feels like a modern day version of my old Civic hatch – except this time we got 227hp of torque filled turbo power :)

  • avatar

    These cars are becoming collectible and you might be able to make some money just selling some of its parts. (not the red seats)

  • avatar

    These cars were quite profitable for me, can’t count how many head gaskets, axle shafts, strut and engine replacements I’ve done on them. You almost always had to get “on the list” for the “low mileage imported from Japan” replacement engines for these. By the time they were a few years old the drivers seat was always shot, something that Honda held onto well into the 90’s, so it was the norm to see a small pillow at the junction of the base and the back to prevent the pain of the frame of the seat back.

    I never got the desire for these things, pretty much the definition of penalty box. About the only thing they had going for them was MPG.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr Lemming

      Really? I had a 1981 Civic that had virtually no problems up to 250,000 miles, when a falling tree totaled the car. The Civic was rather noisy on the highway, but the hatch was quite handy and the car was fun the throw around. Seats were fine.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes they really were that profitable to me. Sure a lot of it was due to owners that didn’t understand that they couldn’t be treated like the American cars they were used to. So they never watched the temp gauge, oil level or had the oil changed nearly as often as they should have.

        So when the water pump failed or the thermo fan sw or it’s crappy bullet connectors with the corrosion enhancing sleeve failed and they were stuck in traffic they kept driving it until the steam was rolling out from under the hood. Or those who didn’t understand that since there was only a little more than 3 qts of oil that you had to check it and change it regularly. The CV joints/boots were about on par with other FWD cars of the time. Not as good as the maligned Colt but not as bad as a Subaru.

        They were so profitable for me I seriously considered becoming a Honda only specialist in the late 80’s.

        As to the fun to drive thing I guess it depends on what you consider fun. I didn’t and don’t consider not knowing where the sloppy front suspension of the examples I saw were going to take you as fun.

        Dr Lemming so you made it to 250K on the original engine w/o having the head gasket done at least once, the CV joints once or twice, the water pump 3 or 4 times, distributor once?

        If it was maintained by a Honda dealer then maybe I could see it. Than as now they sell a lot of things as “normal” maintenance, like water pumps, CV joints, and distributors.

      • 0 avatar

        My fan failed and I never got it fixed; I learned to turn on the heat when stalled in traffic to keep the temp down (it was already hot with no A/C, so the extra heat in the cabin didn’t make that much difference).

    • 0 avatar

      The appeal of these cars is that they were fun. The Civics had a level of roadholding and verve that few other small cars of the time could match. Most people had excellent reliability in these cars and consumer surveys of the time bore this out. I also had an ’84 CRX and a ’90 Civic for at least nine years each, and I never had an issue with the seats. I’m not a small guy either.

    • 0 avatar
      John B

      An acquaintance of mine at work circa 1985 had a similar Civic. He had a long distance commute and had rolled his odomter over for the third time (I recall it as having five digits). I believe he finally traded it when it hit over 350,000 km. He nver had any issues as I recall. Sisley Honda in Toronto used to give him a 10% discount on all maintenance work.

  • avatar

    “Back in the Malaise Era, why did anyone buy a Corolla (or an Omni or GLC or any other miserable underpowered econobox) instead of a Civic?”

    The old man still tells this story when people ask him why he never buys a “foreign” car. My parents bought an 83 Mercury Lynx brand new for about $5700, the closest comparable Honda that they could find on a lot that was ready for sale was a thousand dollars more. My dad and the Honda salesman could not find the value in the extra $1000 over the Mercury other than the H on it’s nose.

    The Lynx was a good little car. They drove it daily from 1983 to 1990 when it was handed off to me after I got my license. It served me well until I whacked a tall curb with it and killed the front suspension in 1993.

  • avatar

    Fender rust was a common sight on these Civics in the snowbelt. Our 81 was bright metallic green with a black vinyl interior. Available inventory won over preferred color. Goes without saying the standard leatherette seats were clammy in the summer without a/c. Good little city car – reliable, didn’t burn a hole in the pocket, eon’s ahead of domestic offerings. Put the Chevette to shame on snow & icey grades.

  • avatar

    I had a 1983 “FE” model. It could turn 40MPG even delivering pizzas. It had absolutely no power on the high end, however. One time while trailing a semi on a two lane highway, I decided I needed to pass. I looked, and there wasn’t anything in the other lane for miles (there was a truck that looked like it was going the same way) so I went for it. Turns out the truck was headed our way. And the Civic got to about 60-62 and it started running out of steam. I made it past the semi with a few feet to spare. That was the last time I tried a pass like that, and got more sedate in my driving.

  • avatar

    A friend had one of these in the mid-late 80’s before they got bigger – just like the photo, color and all.

    He was tipping at least 250 lbs. His wife was normal and they and a friend all went to Florida on vacation in it – with a turtle shell luggage carrier strapped to the roof! Three people with a week’s worth of luggage! In the summer. This when I still lived in the St. Louis area.

    I’m thankful I wasn’t the friend. Somehow they all still got along AFTER the trip!

  • avatar

    My degenerate friend in high school had an 81′ 4-door that was the same color. The thing was damn near indestructable. For the 2 years I knew the kid, this is what the car was subjected to:

    -Boot missing from the CV joint the whole time. Once a rock got jammed in the CV. He spent 4 hours by the roadside gettting it out, then continued to drive without repairing.
    -No routine maintenance of any kind.
    -At least 5 road trips loaded to the brim with people and gear.
    -WA state off-road trails at least 2x a week.
    -Got stuck in a tree on an off road trail.
    -Chased by security guard through rock quarry. Civic escaped, security truck got stuck.
    -Driving through public parks at every opportunity.
    -At least 1 police chase that I know of. He escaped, was later arrested at school.

    “This is an 81 Honda HOW DARE YOU!”

  • avatar

    After 3 very bad American cars in a row my dad went out and got a new orange 1975 Honda Civic stationwagon. For a bit of irony it came from a stand alone Pontiac dealer that decided to sell Honda cars on the side. It exceeded his expectations but I remember how cheap the plasic interior looked. The glovebox door was the worst.
    At first he had a problem with someone at the DMV insisting Honda didn’t make cars and that he needed to be in the motorcycle line. Back then “Made in Japan” was stll a punchline and Civics were refered to as “Honda cars”.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    looks almost ready to get back into service with some TLC

  • avatar

    None of these Japanese cars were ever that popular in Maine back then. We had tons of roadsalt, and a TWICE a year safety inspection with MINIMAL tolerance for rust holes. So most of them flunked inspection after 2-3 years.

    This is why I think Saabs and Volvos are so much more popular here than elsewhere – they rusted SO much more slowly than everything else that they were worth the extra money. You would get far more life out of a used Volvo than a new Honda here.

    These cars were fun with 55-67hp because they wieghed nothing, as the metal was about the thickness of tissue paper to start with.

  • avatar

    I am the original owner of a 1981 Honda Civic 1500 GL Hatchback, great condition, Blue, roof rack factor stylish addition, new tires and radiator with 149,000 miles and gentle use, for sale in Hawaii

  • avatar

    The comment thread here is old, but I can’t help but chime in, as I had an identical 1980 model in the mid 80s, except with Hondamatic and the pink plush seats(it also had the standard instrument cluster, without the tach).

    I’d previously had a ’74 civic (orange), and the second generation model was quite a bit more substantial, although of course not as idiosyncratic or interesting. Even with the modest hp and the Hondamatic, it didn’t feel underpowered (but then, I was coming from the ’74). Although it did have some of that bubble up under the paint rust seen the junkyard car, it was quite sturdy, withstanding duty on 1980s NYC lunar landscape roads and even being rearended by Plymouth Fury taxicab without significant damage.

    I did have to sink $$ in the car right away for transmission work, and a little bit more at some point for a waterpump (the wheels on these broke on all 3 civics I had), contrary to some comments here, it was quite reliable and didn’t need much attention.

    Note to today’s car designers. Observe the relatively plain styling of this vehicle and relatively box-shaped passenger and cargo area. This maximized passenger room and enabled the driver to see other cars and pedestrians on either side of the car and on the rear, without use of external cameras or other aids.

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