By on September 4, 2011

Living in Denver gives me a great perspective on the history of the four-wheel-drive car. Nowadays, it’s pretty much an all-Subaru affair around these parts (an observer who never left Denver would make the extrapolation that Subaru is one of the top-selling— if not the top-selling— marques in the world), but there was a time when Eagles and 4WD Tercels and many others slugged it out with the machines from Fuji Heavy. Here’s an example of Honda’s nearly-forgotten four-wheel-drive wagon, finally heading for The Crusher’s cold jaws after nearly a quarter-century of work.
By 1987, Honda had pretty well cemented its popular reputation as a builder of sensible, well-built cars. The Civic 4WD Wagovan seemed like a good bet to sip gas, run 200,000 miles, and crunch through the Colorado winter snow without getting stuck pulling out of the driveway.
The “Real-Time” four-wheel-drive system was just another way of saying “We know you stupid drivers can’t figure out when to engage four-wheel-drive, so we’ll just leave it going at all times.” Sure, it cost a few miles per gallon and added complexity, but it made the car an easier sell.

The Tercel 4WD wagon (which was much more this car’s competitor than anything from Subaru) had a lever that enabled four-wheel-drive, and its lack of a center differential meant that you’d beat up the drivetrain and/or tires if you drove it on dry pavement in 4WD. In addition, the Tercel had an archaic longitudinal-engine-above-front-differential arrangement that jacked up the center of gravity and made the car less aerodynamic. However, you couldn’t kill the Tercel with a Blue Steel missile, and the Civic suffered from the same weakness that afflicted all Hondas of this era: overheat it once and you’ll blow the head gasket.
With just 76 horsepower under the hood, the Civic Wagovan still managed to be more fun to drive than the competition (although you could still get the AMC Eagle, which was way more fun for mud-soaked off-road madness, in 1987).
I haven’t seen one of these things on the street, even in Denver, for quite a while. Several live on in 24 Hours of LeMons racing, however, and their teams are waiting for the race when it pours rain from start to finish… at which point they’ll get their doors blown right off by the Audi Quattros and 90s Subarus.

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36 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1987 Honda Civic 4WD Wagon...”

  • avatar

    “The “Real-Time” four-wheel-drive system was just another way of saying “We know you stupid drivers can’t figure out when to engage four-wheel-drive, so we’ll just leave it going at all times.” ” This is so true.

    My friend had one just like this example, and it really did go in the winter.

    After it rusted out, he stuck with the AWD theme by buying a succession of horrible Chevy Astros.

    • 0 avatar

      “We know you stupid drivers can’t figure out when to engage four-wheel-drive, so we’ll just leave it going at all times.”

      This is super misleading because the system is *not* some kind of full time 4wd setup. IIRC it runs 100/0 front/back until the front wheels slip (the modern “real time” 4wd system in the CR-V/Element has much in common with this.)

  • avatar

    This is one of those wagons I wish one or all of the Big 3 would’ve come up with. That means a perfect size and would run well and be reliable.

    Me? I always preferred the Accord wagon on looks alone.

  • avatar

    All of these around my neck of the woods were, literally, driven until they rusted into oblivion. Only weakness was the head gasket thing.

  • avatar

    Living where we are navel deep in used Japanese imports every make and model had a 4wd version Nissan Toyota Mazda Honda they all built them Subaru just couldnt stop as theyve nothing else going for them

  • avatar

    can someone tell me why these vehicles are always stood up on old wheels? Does this keep critters out, or the body from sagging?

    • 0 avatar

      That’s what self-service junkyards use for jack stands. They don’t want customers jacking up cars themselves, for liability reasons.

      • 0 avatar

        I never seen these in the junkyards down south. I suppose if you wanted something underneath, the yard guys had to hoist the car up with a front loader and a chain.

      • 0 avatar

        This is a trick I wish my local yards would figure out. Nearly nothing still has wheels on it in the car sections, so you have to flag down a loader, get him to come over to the trucks, pick up a truck while you drop off its wheels and tires, and finally drag all that shit back to the car you were working on, have him pick up the car and build a precarious tower-of-tires onto which he’ll stand the car. Yes, this is as dangerous and terribly counterproductive as it sounds.

        Seriously, guys. Just weld a buttload of steelies together and accept that nobody will ever buy them. That way you won’t have to keep burying bodies!

    • 0 avatar


      Where in the South are you? The junkyard I went to in the Tampa area with a friend at school had cars on steelies and I’ve seen the same here around Houston the few times I’ve been.

  • avatar

    We had an ’87 Civic wagon, FWD. At the time we couldn’t afford the AWD version. Even with only two wheels powered it was a great car in the snow. It overheated once, but didn’t blow the head gasket. It just shut down. In the evening, when it cooled down it fired right up w/o a problem. In ’87 it was about the only car that my wife (5’2″) and me (6′) could both get comfortable in. Lots of head room. It went 150K trouble free miles before being involved in an accident which totaled it.

    “The “Real-Time” four-wheel-drive system was just another way of saying “We know you stupid drivers can’t figure out when to engage four-wheel-drive, so we’ll just leave it going at all times.” That’s exactly what my wife likes about her CR-V

  • avatar

    My wife had the 1986 version of this car, right down to the powder blue color. In its first year it actually did have a button on the dash to engage and disengage the 4wd system. My main memory of driving it was how ungodly underpowered it was on mountain roads and on the highways. The plus side was it did go through the worst of Vermont winters without missing a beat. At this point in my life I don’t care about that much about the power and would buy one today if it was still made…

    • 0 avatar

      I just got one over the summer, my 1987 honda civic 4wd wagon is awesome. It has 110,000 miles and runs great. The engine runs really smooth, 4wd drive system works amazingly. A few of my buddies and I took it off road for the first time and I got stuck in the mud. Luckily Honda put a super low gear which gave it the low end torque to get out. All in all it’s a great first car, I’m usually with a friend who has a 2014 super charged mustang GT and my honda ends up getting all the attention from people. I had no idea I bought such a rare honda, I got it for $1100 and went online and saw people selling them for thousands. If your interested in learning more about the car you can call me. My name is Sam (17yrs old) and my cell number is 1-845-558-4734 or my email is [email protected]

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    I own a 1991 FWD Civic wagon. Ideal size, much better gas mileage than the small CUVs, decent road car . . . but it is showing signs of old age (more than 260,000 miles). We’ve been milking the car as long as we can because there hasn’t been an equivalent newer wagon on the market. At Honda the Fit is too small and the CRV and Element are too tall and heavy. I’ve been resistant to considering a recent Kia or Hyundai but suspect that I’ll need to eventually get over it. Honda has lost its way.

  • avatar

    I live in Denver and still see them from time to time. I also see them in the mountains almost every time I head up.

    These things, especially the second version from ’88 to ’91 I believe, outshined the competition in every review back in the day as far as driveability and fun factors were concerned (acceleration, steering, handling etc.). Always wanted one and thought they were kinda bitchin’.

  • avatar

    Brings back fond memories of my ’85 Civic S. That mid-’80s Civic line was brilliant.

  • avatar

    Didn’t these have viscous coupling that sensed wheel spin on the rear wheels, causing it to lock up and send power to them only when needed? Correct me if I’m wrong.

    • 0 avatar

      You are mainly right, it had a center clutch that was engaged hydraulically by pumps attached to the input and output. When there was a difference in speeds in the shafts it would cause pressure to build that engnaged the clutch.

  • avatar

    What, Subaru isn’t the country’s favorite car? I sure saw plenty of them on today’s ride through Rocky Mountain National Park. And I once got a good laugh on a bus pulling into a ski area parking lot when I told the driver, “Just let me out by the Subaru.” So I was confused recently when I searched some major used car sites for comps to estimate the value of my ’04 Forester XS. I found just THREE of the same make, model and year in the entire USA. Meaning, perhaps, that they’re not as common as it seems.

    Denver’s a funny place. We drive pickups as sport cars, SUVs as family wagons, and cars not much at all. Subarus hit the sweet spot between sports and utility, so we love ’em. My visits to the east coast show me a whole different automotive food chain. When I shop for used cars, I shop nationally. I always find better selection and deals a time zone or two back eastward. I bought my last car two states away and drove it home, and I expect to do that next time, too. Unless it’s a Subaru, no need to travel for that.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Wonder if the AWD system can be transplanted into other mid-80’s Civics. An AWD CRX would be a hoot.

  • avatar

    I had always assumed they had an independent rear axle. Now I want to Lemonize one, but with some other drive train installed front to back, with a normal 5 speed. Maybe a Miata motor and transmission?

    • 0 avatar

      If you want more powerful motor for a Civic, maybe a B18 motor (from Acura Integra) would be a better choice? THey might even fit into the existing drivetrain.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, but I want a rear wheel drive set up, and a motor that won’t blow a headgasket when the going gets rough. That rear end looks like it can handle being the only motivation for this car, I doubt the “transfer case” would survive eliminating the front drive parts.

    • 0 avatar

      No you can’t make it rear wheel only drive. You can yank the guts to make it front wheel only, see my post below.

      Here is the part of the wikipedia page on the CRV RT 4wd which is an evolution of the system on this junker.

      “Honda’s Real Time 4WD system on the CR-V utilizes a dual hydraulic pump centre/rear differential and 4WD transfer case. The dual pump system employs two pumps, one driven by the drive shaft from the transfer case at the front of the vehicle, and the other driven by the rear differential. When there is a pressure difference of greater than 3% between these two pumps, a clutch that connects the front and rear axles begins to engage. The greater the difference in axle speeds, the more torque is applied to the rear. This system would most accurately be called, “automatically engaged four wheel drive,” because the driver has no control over when the system engages. To allow the ABS braking system to function properly, the 4WD clutch will disengage if the brakes are applied.”

      So all in all and almost worthless system since as soon as it engaged the shaft and thus pump speeds are the same and it dis-engages. Much like the electronic 4wd systems.

  • avatar

    Know what else killed them off? Ridiculous maintenance complexity.

    I did a clutch job on one when I was just starting out as a tech. IIRC it was something like 11-12 book hours. Only 4 nuts held the engine to trans in a Subaru, clutch changed before lunch.

    Antiquated live axle and high center of gravity made them ride about like a Radio Flyer wagon.

    Like the Tercel, they looked like an ATM machine from the rear.

  • avatar

    Audis had a pretty good run as the 4wd car of choice in Denver–in the Seventies the two dealers used to go back and forth as the number one in the nation–until the unintended exhilaration business pretty much swept everything away.

    • 0 avatar

      Audi did not have an awd car until the 80’s, Original quattro was introduced in Geneva 1980, not in the US until 1983 officially (sone ’82’s are running around theough) and the 4000/5000 quattro’s not until 1984. UA debacle was ’86… but did not affect any quattros as they were all manual up to that point.

  • avatar

    What’s funny is that these 4WD variants still persist in the Japanese domestic market. The Fit, Vitz/Yaris, Auris, etc. still come with 4WDs as options in Japan.

    Particularly perplexing is that Honda has a 4WD option on their Fit Hybrid, which significantly impacts its mileage (from 20.6km/l->16km/l JC08), in fact, that 16km/l is no better than the non-Hybrid 1.5L 4WD fit.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    There’s only one of these I know of in my little city in the Southwest. The driver teaches elementary school and her first name is Autumn (true story).

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    That Civic is built tougher on the underside than any CRV has ever been!……LOL

  • avatar
    Volt 230


  • avatar

    The “real time” 4wd system was a total joke, even worse than the electronic 4wd systems masquerading as AWD. Instead of a center diff they had a center clutch. Attached to the front and rear outputs were hydraulic pumps. When the front and rear axles were turning the same speed they would pump between themselves and build up no pressure. If one turned faster than the other pressure would build up between the 2 pumps and this would engage the center clutch. It was not a very reliable system at all.

    A friend bought one used and he figured out that the 4wd would not engage. Upon dis-assembly he found that a PO had gutted the case when they presumably had a problem. Thing was that it was only 3 or 4 years old when he bought it. It was the car that made him never consider buying another Honda. Once he had the 4wd worked out the water pump blew when his wife was driving it, she didn’t pay attention to the pegged temp gauge and seized the engine. It wasn’t too long after he got it back on the road that time with a “low mile imported from Japan” engine that he traded it in.

  • avatar

    My “RealTime 4WD” Civic looked just like this one. It had a 5 spd manual, very much needed with the 1.5l 74hp four. It actually was very good in our Pittsburgh winters, and averaged over 35mpg. I kinda miss that little guy.
    Paid $9,400 for it new.

  • avatar

    I HEART my Wago! I bought the ’89 Civic WagoVan in Philadelphia with 190k for only $400 After 6 years and multiple cross country moves (all in the wago) the car is living it up out here on the Colorado front range. I now have over 273k and its still running on hopes and dreams. I put literally just $100 into it a year (aside from gas) and it just keeps running! So if your a starving artist like me and have no money or desire to do any of that maintenance business, find a wago.

    btw, I checked the mpg last week.. 40. suck it diesel.

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