By on September 15, 2011

There was a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I had two 1985 Civic hatchbacks and an ’85 CRX, all at the same time. They were fun to drive, sipped gas, rarely malfunctioned, and Pick-Your-Part in Hayward always had at least a half-dozen compatible parts donors on the yard. Truly, it was Civic Utopia.
Well, no, it really wasn’t. Much as I loved my cars (two of which are shown here), the emission-control system needed to make the CVCC engine comply with ever-stricter California smog standards had become absurdly complex by the mid-1980s. CVCC was a very advanced and effective system in the 1970s, but the dual-circuit carburetor and dozens of solenoids, sensors, vacuum switches, and hundreds of yards of hose made it a nightmare to get a CVCC car through the California emissions test. If any one of those components leaked or malfunctioned, the car might still run fine… but it would fail the tailpipe test. Tracing the problem was enough to make you want to stuff the car into The Crusher’s jaws and push the START button yourself. The EFI-equipped Civic and CRX Si cars didn’t have that problem, but they were much more expensive at the time. Still, sometimes I miss those multi-Civic days.

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38 Comments on “Missing the Old Civic Motor Pool… But Not CVCC Smog-Check Hell...”

  • avatar

    Honda execs should be forced to drive those old Civics, especially the next generation, as their personal cars, without right to replacement or repair until they figured out how to build something comparable in light, fun, space, ergonomics factors.

    • 0 avatar

      They do build such a car. It’s called the Honda Fit.

      • 0 avatar

        the key word “fun” is missing. driving a fit is like driving a blind high strung mosquito while wearing incredibly large gloves.

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry but comparing to Gen IV Civic, Fit is a piggie pig. Hey, let’s make that steering wheel bigger than a pizza pie AND put electric assist steering in. Fit is a great station wagon, though. Every Panther lover should buy one.

      • 0 avatar

        Sorry but comparing to Gen IV Civic, Fit is a piggie pig.

        It’s actually right on top of the Civic Wagovan in terms of room, power and weight. You asked for light, fun and space efficient (which the CRX and low-roof Civics were not). That would have been the Wagovan, of which the Fit is almost exactly the same car as.

  • avatar

    I remember the bitching and whining about how EFI was going to ruin automobilia for ever. It was going to be complex, undiagnosable and unreliable. You know, totally unlike carbueretted cars of this era, which always ran flawlessly. Not.

    Stuff like this is why I don’t mind hybrids and EVs. Something goes wrong and it’s either a software patch and a component replacement. Direct injection or turbocharger goes wrong? Good look with the fishing expedition those will entail.

    We had a Corolla of this vintage. The carb was the only thing that went consistently awry on that car. I think we all just accepted that carbs + emissions regs = epic failure and assumed that, since the D3 failed utterly at making cars in this era that EFI was impossible to get right and it was all the fault of the EPA for forcing impossible requirements. The problem wasn’t emissions regs or EFI, the problem was a system (dribbling fuel and air into the engine and hoping it all worked out) that was mutually incompatible with air you can breathe, and that just because Detroit (and the Europeans) couldn’t built cars that didn’t suck, and that those sucky cars included EFI, didn’t mean you couldn’t build a working EFI system.

    • 0 avatar

      I absolutely HATED carburetors! I could (and still can’t) not quite understand how they worked to be able to rebuild one that worked properly (a one or two bbl!) and frustrated me to death. A friend of mine – he was and is a carburetor genius. I love EFI and the computerization on cars, as they run near-perfect each and every time.

      • 0 avatar

        As much as I love the simplicity of the 2 barrel carb and even the early smog controls on my Federalized ’77 Chevelle. I’ve tossed the idea of converting it to TBI or even to port injection around.

        I hate the fussy choke adjustment even though it’s an automatic choke, I dislike having to retune it everytime the weather changes, and the leaky gaskets.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t remember any similar bitching and whining. By the time fuel injection started proliferating, carbs had gotten way too complicated for the average shade tree mechanic to diagnose and fix. The introduction of electronic ignition and fuel injection, I believe, was embraced by most enthusiasts. I do remember some of the early Bosch fuel injection systems like L-Jetronic and K-Jetronic not being the most reliable components. Ask Steve Lang about early FI Volvos.

      • 0 avatar

        I did, but perhaps it had more to do with the environment I grew up in: everyone who owned a car was either old, serious, very conservative Italian-immigrant fruit-farmers, or a scion of one.

        But yes, I remember a lot of complaining about how EFI would be impossible to tune up without a lot of expensive dealer-only equipment. It omitted the fact that EFI cars don’t need turning up, and was coloured by how godawful the American product of the time was. It was easy to make correlation-is-not-causation errors and assume the problem was fuel injection, since the changeover happened at about the same time the whole product went to hell.

    • 0 avatar

      Carbs worked much better before they were asked to be clean too. Granted, they still needed adjustments to keep in top tune and they didn’t always start up or run as nicely in every conceivable condition like an EFI motor of the last 20 years or so but they were not as bad as you would believe if your only experience with them was overly complicated and choked down smog motors and old, clapped out pre-smog motors.

      Modern, multiport EFI is orders of magnitude better though. No matter how cold and wet, or humid and hot, or how heat soaked the motor is or nearly frozen the block is – if my car doesn’t fire off on the first couple of revolutions, it’s a surprise. You forget that on anything other than a nice sunny 75 degree day, you used to have to cross your fingers when you turned the key and hope that it would start and stay running and didn’t flood or vapor lock, and then let it warm up enough to drive away without stalling, hesitating or bucking. Now you just turn the key and drive off without a care and don’t even have to crack the hood for anything other than oil changes for the better part of a decade.

      • 0 avatar

        My two biggest problems with the one- and two-bbl carbs were:

        1. Losing the “Jesus” clips – the tiny wire clips that held the linkage on the bell cranks, for that was the first (or several) word out of your mouth when one flew off into orbit, never to be seen again.

        2. Losing the equally tiny little steel ball-bearing thingy that came with the kit and losing your mind trying to find it, or just reverting to the old one!

        Did I say I hate carburetors? Yeah.

    • 0 avatar

      Remember how you used to see cars broken down at the side of the highway, like, every few hundred yards? And how you always smelled super-hydrocarbon-enhanced exhaust anywhere near a road? EFI and electronic ignition fixed all that. The old days sucked. Well, except for Iggy & the Stooges.

      • 0 avatar

        Yes, I not-so-fondly remember that smell, especially when we find ourselves behind a classic car that is still carburetted. It stinks! My wife and I look at each other and say: “How did we stand that smell back then?” Same is true for cigarette smoke! Ghastly!

      • 0 avatar

        In 40 years of driving carburetor equipped cars I have NEVER been stranded by a carb failure. Most failures result in poor idling or hard starting.

        The worst ignition PITA I have ever had was in my wife’s ’76 Mustang with its early electronic system. It would stall for seemingly no reason but then start up fine after being towed. Finally fixed by replacing the ignition amplifier. Points are actually quite reliable as long as they are installed correctly and replaced at proper intervals, which of course they weren’t in many cases.

      • 0 avatar

        The carb on my ’62 Falcon got clogged driving across the country, and I had to have it rebuilt in Salt Lake City. I never had a problem with the carb on my ’77 Corolla, which I drove from 91k to 161k.

      • 0 avatar

        I do remember that when I was a first grader at a private school where parents had to drop off and pick up students there were three car fires in one year. Number one was an orange VW squareback with fuel injection. It went full inferno so quickly and so close to me that I was mesmerized and couldn’t back away from it. The second was a blue Porsche 914 with fuel injection. The last one was a convertible Beetle with fuel injection, either white or very light silver. They had little badges alerting people to the fire danger, or so I thought as a car crazy child.

  • avatar

    My daily driver is an ’89 Civic hatchback with the engine Honda should have put in the Si model in America (as they did in almost every other country): the venerable b16a. Honda’s Acura so scared of eating into Integra GSR sales didn’t want their smaller brethren eating into their sales with the faster car (at least until the NSX debuted). It only took $2k to pick up this swap (used low mileage engine with transmission and ECU) and the mounts / shift linkage needed. A little attentive wiring (more if it had the DPFI) and you now had one of the most agile and fastest small cars on the road. Enough to pester most v8s and turbos of the day all with a tiny displacement n/a engine with F1 derived technology.

    Plenty of my friends with the 3G Civic / 1G CRX swapped up to a b16 and EFI and never looked back. Even had a buddy who swapped out in his 1G CRX a double barrel carb setup from a Suzuki superbike of the time. Balanced and blueprinted his engine and it was a rocket. He also deleted most of the emissions crap on the engine and had a screamer.

  • avatar

    Wow, absurdly complex indeed. Cars today aren’t any less complex however, except it’s mostly electronics.

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, “electronic logic” instead of “vacuum logic”. At least wiring usually doesn’t get “leaky”.
      We had nearly the same progression in automatic transmissions – “hydraulic logic” replaced by “electronic logic”.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m going to have to disagree with you about leaky wiring. It does leak in some VWs due to coolant migration. The fix to prevent thousands of dollars of damage is to drill a small hole in the coolant expansion tank. I think VW has fixed it now, but not a fun problem if it happens to your car.

        As for the CVCC, that vacuum diagram makes my head hurt. I’m glad I’ve never had to deal with that and never will.

  • avatar

    Had we only known. We could have entered into a great recycling program. You send your good running but not California emissions compliant Honda out here to the midwest, and we sent you the rusted remains of a midwestern Honda for trade-in or recycling. A win-win.

    • 0 avatar

      So true. The back wheel wells… I don’t think I ever saw one over 3 years old, back then, without rush.

      • 0 avatar

        Rocker panels and the area where the front torsion bars mounted to the body were also suspect.

        in the late 90’s I had a friend that had the ‘S’ version that she autocrossed. She wanted me to drive it to get an idea of how far off the car was compared to my ’86 Integra (both were, and are, in the same SCCA class.)

        Her dad veto’d the idea because he thought putting a faster driver in the car would be detrimental to the ability of said torsion bars remaining attached to the uni-body.

    • 0 avatar

      Still plenty of running 3rd-gen Civics in California. Go get ’em!

  • avatar

    1984 Prelude. Last carbureted version before the 1985 Si with PGM-FI.

    It was scary to pop the hood and look at the carburetor area, for it was eerily similar to the drawing.

    Although it never happened to me, I used to wonder: what if any of those dozens of thin rubber hoses breaks? Who’s ever going to be able to fix this house of cards?

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    I had a 1978 CVCC Accord, which we owned for 6 years (not a California version). I don’t recall any particular emission issues with the car, which always started and ran fine. The red paint oxidized like crazy, and the interior became “tired” but that was it.

    @psar: I don’t recall anybody whining about EFI being the ruination of cars. IIRC, VW had fuel injection on its 411/412 car to try and prolong the useful life of the ancient, air-cooled Boxer 4. Generally, I recall fuel injection as being associated with “hot” cars — Corvettes, Porsches and the like in the 1960s and 1970s.

    The real problem was that, in the mid to late 1970s auto manufacturers attempted to meet emission requirements with carburetors, which were simply not up to the job. However, we owned a 1984 Jeep Wagoneer with the 2.5 liter 4-cylinder engine that had an electronically controlled carb, which had no driveability issues, ran perfectly fine, never failed an emission test . . . and the car got about 25 mpg on the highway. Later, Detroit went to single point, throttle body fuel injection which, I believe, was electronically controlled.

    Without a doubt today EFI systems perform better in every respect than carburetors — more HP, lower emissions, better fuel economy, better starting, etc. But they also are “disposable” engines. Once the ECM, and the chips inside, is no longer available and fails, the engine is a boat anchor. No one is going to keep today’s cars running for 50 years, the way the Cubans keep 1950s-era cars running.

    And a hybrid is a very big boat anchor once the custom-made battery fails and a replacement is not available.

    Electrics? Something altogether different.

    • 0 avatar

      My understanding is that the Cubans use Soviet-era Fiat engines to keep these 50s-era cars running.

      • 0 avatar

        And a hybrid is a very big boat anchor once the custom-made battery fails and a replacement is not available.

        How much more of boat-anchor is in than a car that’s seen a failed transmission or engine. Battery prices are going down, the batteries themselves amount to a bunch of D-cell-like modules in a wrapper and what hybrids are reaching high-mileage marks are aging pretty well

        My understanding is that the Cubans use Soviet-era Fiat engines to keep these 50s-era cars running.

        Some, but you also see older grey-market Japanese engines with some regularity. A lot of the Soviet stuff is, frankly, not very good.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re forgetting that the electrics (automotive lifecycles notwithstanding) get cheaper to produce and easier to use every 18 months.

      At some point, you’ll be able to purchase a “universal ECU” for your rebuilt ’90’s EFI motor, with the software and fuel mapping available for download over the internet. Add connectors and go.

  • avatar

    The first car I ever bought on my own was, in fact, identical to the gray hatchback in that photo – an ’85 Civic 1500S. That car was RADICALLY better than anything else in its class at the time. This is why there was a three-month waiting list for one, and the price was sticker + $500, which I gladly dealt with.

    When I went to pick up the car, the salesman informed me that my trade was now worth $1000 less than we had originally agreed on. When I objected, he pointed to three guys standing in the corner of the showroom and said that if I backed out, they’d be happy to take my car. Being 22 and stupid, I acquiesced and went out to drool over the car. Meanwhile, I noticed my dad, who I’d brought along because I wasn’t sure if I was going to qualify for financing on my own, talking to the salesman rather pointedly. All the sudden the salesman announced I’d be getting free floormats and rear speakers as well. Well, happy damn day!

    At this point, I might mention that my dad was about six foot twenty and built like a linebacker, and the salesman was this mousy little fellow. Might that have influenced the negotiations? I didn’t care – I was off to show off the car to my girlfriend, who pointed out that there was no radio (they didn’t come with one). Ah well…I loved the car more than I loved her, as it turns out.

    The Civic turned out to be a VERY willing little back-road delinquent – it wasn’t powerful, but that little 1500 LOVED to rev, and the handling was terrific. And since I wasn’t living in California, I never had to deal with the emissions equipment nightmare. But as it turns out, that was my last Honda – when it came time to trade it in, the Honda dealer was still acting like it was 1985, and I think they still do.

    • 0 avatar

      Another ex-mid 80s Civic S1500 owner here. Mine was a ’83 however… red over grey, black interior. Awesome car, had over 130K on when I sold it never a problem other then a leaky value gasket and a fan blower resistor. Got 30 mpg and I beat it within a inch of its life, classic Honda handling and ultra smooth shifting 5 speed. I used it a delivery van of sorts with the back seat folded down. Then dropped four 10″ subwoofers plus three amps into a huge custom enclosure and did some damage in a few South Florida sound off contests with that setup.

      All those S models had the grey on the bottom, your choices were red/grey, grey/grey or white/grey. Your interior choice: black and nothing else. A few key differences between the S and the DX (which my brother had): the S had a center console, passenger side mirror, plus split folding seats that could be set at any angle. The DX had no such fancyness, instead it had colored interiors, my brothers was blue.

      The only way I know of to tell the difference in the years are the headlights. In ’85 they become a flush mount style that matched the angle of the hood, my ’83 had the flat recessed style.

      My current Volvo C30 is like a modern day version of that old Civic hatch, with the same basic shape/configuration. Best grocery getter around :)

      After a few years with the Civic my brother moved onto a CRX Si, which was a hoot! You simply can’t say enough about how good that CRX was, everything about it was great. I switched over to an ’89 Prelude, which other then a leaky clutch and soft-ish brakes was pure joy. Way faster then my Civic as it had the fuel injection. Still the best handling FWD car I’ve owned to date. Loved the low hood and dash, comfy seats and sunroof. It was yellow with the popup headlights and separate fog lights.

      Now nothing Honda makes, including the CR-Z, has me excited. Sad :(

  • avatar

    Wow, that shot totally brings back memories. My first car (would have been around 1991) was an 84′ CRX that looked exactly like the one in the picture. I (as well as my brother after me) absolutely drove the piss out of that car! Mom, knowing best even the, made me get it (a 5spd), instead of the prelude (automatic) that was the other at the end of the short list. She said it would be more fun. I think she also liked the fact that it was a 2-seater so we wouldn’t ever be driving around more that 1 friend .

    A few memories: Thing must have had the thinnest brake rotors known to man, warped constantly, though our driving “might” have been an issue there. 5 speed was awesome, god what a blast to change gears in that thing! You sat about 9″ off the ground, but it felt like 4 – grandparents had a real issue pulling themselves out of it, which was entertaining. Handled like a dream (or as much as any 17 year old without rich parents could hope for). Maybe a year after getting it, leaving a trail of white smoke heading away from all stoplights (rings). Not-quite-long-term maint. program of adding a few quarts a month to keep up with said smoke. There was no emissions testing in Nebraska. Minor front end damage (the brother) “fixed” by adding one of those horrible front end bra’s. First forays into car stereo install (previous owner had put a pretty decent blaupunkt in there – quickly replaced by something nicer – and utterly ridiculous). While not being “fast” per se, that car could definitely could do over a hundred…on a slight downhill…& it definitely felt unsafe doing it.

    I feel pretty damn lucky to have had that car as my first.

    Had a civic del sol and a civic si as a few of my many cars since then – trying to relive the magic. Neither came close to that CRX.

  • avatar

    I had an 89 Si hatchback and an 87 Si hatchback. Those little cars were just amazing.

    at that time, the Si was actually significant.. Sports Injection meant it was EFI and not carbed.

    The 89 had a giant power sunroof. MANUAL STEERING! the rear seat accomodated adult humans, despite the car’s parallel parking-friendly size. it had 109 hp, but it absolutely never felt slow. you just ran it through the effortless gears and shot through traffic. if I still had it now I’m sure it would have to be upgraded to SiR-spec B16 twincam vtec motor. I still might have to buy one again as a 2nd car. i sold it for what I paid for it. i think i might have put gas in it once a week.

    The 87 was the perfect city car. this particular example had developed some quirks in its later years. we had installed a Corbeau racing seat, which was an upgrade over the rotted stock seat, but the tracks didn’t line up 100% so it wasn’t completely bolted down. the headlights were useful only as marker lights, really. occasionally it would misfire, causing the check engine light to flash. while moving, I would flick the ignition off, then flick it back on again and the motor would fire up again instantly since the flywheel was still moving. this would occasionally cause an amusing backfire. on one long road trip, this caused a backfire that opened a seam in the muffler. the last 400 miles were considerably louder. and it lacked a clutch/starter interlock so I’d always end up starting it in gear and smacking into whatever was in front of me. and the gearbox was worn down enough that the only time I even had to use the clutch was to start moving in 1st. the rest of the time it was like a sequential with an H-pattern.

    but it looks like I’m joining a LeMons team for the Charlotte race next week, and they’re fielding an early CRX. I can only hope it will be as much fun as the ones I owned.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Wow, this does bring back memories.

    More than 12 years later, this car would have brought even more money at the auction than it did back then.

  • avatar

    I was at a junkyard today across from the old Joliet prison and found a 4WD civic wagovan of this vintage. The last time I saw one, it was laying on it’s side on a soccer field 18 years ago. Wondered why no love from the Honda fans for this thing for a second, then remembered the diagram above. Most kids these days would pass on something that complicated for sure and pick a 240sx.

    (MM-You should hit up this yard when you’re in town for Lemons. Some of the cars are inside a REALLY old factory building. Pretty neat.)

  • avatar

    I had the exact charcoal gray Civic S (84 or 85, I forget, but the last year before fuel injection) as in the photo up there. Bought new. In the first six months I had it, it was at the dealer for about three of them. Even after that it’d stall for no reason and would not restart until it’d sat for a good 20 minutes. Honda finally gave up and replaced the entire fuel system — tank, pump, lines, 842 vacuum lines, and that fiendish carburetor, and it ran fine after that.

    That was my last Honda. I sold it to some other kid after a few years.

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