By on August 4, 2012

Although I hadn’t originally intended to tackle this topic in two parts, it seems that the responses received fairly demanded it. In all fairness, I do agree that the text didn’t support the title theme to the extent necessary. So without any further ado, on to Part Two!

There are those times when some truths seem so apparent, one would think they would be that apparent to others. Of course, that isn’t always the case; which is why historical eyewitness reporting often results in a very different accounting of events. That isn’t to say that every report is necessarily “the truth”, even if there is that conviction on the individual reporter’s part.

Since this is an editorial column, I really can freely spout off opinions on any subject without ANY level of objectivity, if I’m so inclined. But that’s not the way I roll, which is why I think this site is a very appropriate place for my postings.

That being said, I’m going to provide some additional evidence to support my statements in (what can now be considered) Part One.

It’s not my intent to turn this into some sort of an unsolicited testimonial for the Honda Motor Company; in fact, I’m making a conscious effort to avoid this sort of thing in ANY of my entries. Nevertheless, I have to call it as I see it—and I certainly did have an excellent vantage point, with my hands-on experience on many different vehicles from the period that is the basis for our dialogue.

When I consider what other manufacturers were producing during this period, I am not experiencing any warm and fuzzy feelings about spending time under their hoods.

Carburetors—ANY carburetor—from this period were generally just appalling, for the most part: The Blue Oval’s Feedback Variable Venturi, The General’s CCC, The Five-Point-Star’s Feedback Holley-Weber, to name a few. All a distant memory, thank the Car God’s! Yes, the European use of the Continuous Injection System was one of the bright spots, having replaced their by-and-large hideous emission carburetors preceding it.

But the Honda’s CVCC carburetor was really a REVELATION! It’s basic design didn’t change fundamentally from its introduction all the way until the end of the CVCC engine’s run. Yes, there was the 1983 CVCC Prelude—a one year only offering—with its dual sidedraft carbs, but otherwise we techs had only one design to familiarize ourselves with.

Honda never went to any sort of feedback mixture control variant (the feedback control they later added was an air-bleed system outside of the carb), or any other technology that made servicing the carb more difficult and expensive.

Techs could service the carburetor on-car; Honda even provided what they called an “On-Car Repair Kit”, containing all of the essentials for performing this service. It was a very rare occurrence that this carb had to be removed for repair. I NEVER had occasion to actually be required to replace one! There were a couple of instances where, if going by the factory recommendations in the service manual, I SHOULD have replaced the unit, but having a deeper grasp of the actual engineering and principles of operation, I was able to make a viable repair, instead.

Yes, it’s true that these carbs did have an “Achilles Heel” in the form of what seemed to be rather expendable floats (they had two, one for the main chambers and one for the auxiliary chamber). I think the failures might have had something to do with the changing fuel formulas of the time. At any rate, they eventually got it right. The shops I worked for at the time gave reduced rates for the float replacement procedure; and we didn’t mind, because it was so easy for us to do.

Some techs complained about the degree of difficulty involved in the removal of the air cleaner assembly for this procedure, but compared to some other imported cars of the day, I didn’t find it that big of a deal.

Regarding the CVCC cylinder head servicing, when it came to the servicing of the Auxiliary Valve / Prechamber unit, us full-time Honda techs didn’t have a problem with it, either. Throughout the years, we could do what we called a Prechamber Overhaul with pretty much the same minimal set of special tools. There weren’t a bunch of new additions required with each successive model year.

Some complained about the frequency of headgasket problems with these engines, but as far as I could tell, poor design was a factor on only the earliest models. Otherwise, headgasket failure was just collateral damage inflicted by some other cause: loss of coolant through some cause other than the headgasket itself, poor owner maintenance (failed thermostats, radiator fan switches, broken water pump belts, failed water pumps—usually due to over-tightened belts or poor coolant maintenance, etc.).

It’s also true that, on earlier models, Honda engineers had the radiator fan switch supplying the high-amperage current to the motor—which did cause rather premature failure of the switch. I engineered a relay system where the switch only controlled the low-amperage current in the relay solenoid circuit, resulting in big-time longevity for these otherwise overloaded switches.

Regarding the vacuum system on the CVCC engines: yes, they did get quite complicated on later models, but I found them to be very reliable, and not really that difficult to service. Often, serious difficulty was almost always caused by a previous encounter with an inept and impatient “tech”.

The underhood vacuum schematics were very easy to follow, and the hoses were numbered and color-coded, not to mention the fact that they were made out of an incredibly durable rubber compound.

Savvy techs made it a point to only remove hoses for other service when absolutely necessary—an then using the right technique to avoid damaging the hoses, steel tubing or components. We generally left everything connected when removing cylinder heads. The whole removed assemblage of head, manifolds, carb and vacuum system was still relatively light, so again, it was no big deal to do it this way.

I could go on and on with more reasons why it was a real pleasure working on these cars during this period (did I mention that—along with the Catalytic Converter—there was no EGR system to deal with until the early ‘80’s, too?), but I’m hoping my point has been defined and clarified a bit better than at the end of the first part.

Other car companies may have had the ability to do what Honda did, but only Honda actually DID it, for which I’m very grateful, indeed.

Phil ran a successful independent repair shop on the West Coast for close to 20 years, working over a decade before that at both dealer and independent repair shops. He is presently semi-retired from the business of auto repair, but still keeps his hand in things as a consultant and in his personal garage.

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33 Comments on “Memoirs Of An Independent Repair Shop Owner: How Honda’s CVCC Gave Me My 10 Best Years—Part Two...”

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    “The underhood vacuum schematics were very easy to follow, and the hoses were numbered and color-coded, not to mention the fact that they were made out of an incredibly durable rubber compound.”

    Wow, you hit the nail on the proverbial forehead with one of the Honda’s hidden strengths. We still have several of these tin cans on the road, and one big reason why is because this model coupled an exceptional engineering with a reasonably intelligent approach towards ease of maintenance.

    These models are not perfect. But as you mentioned they represent a far more intelligent level of design than most other imported vehicles of that time.

    I have always felt that color coding certain hoses, sensors, and key components, along with ‘thickening up’ the materials for endings, would make DIY repair a lot easier and less intimidating to perform.

    It would add substantial longevity to most vehicles and make car ownership a far more affordable experience. I think it would also help out some of the ’emerging mechanics’ out there whose understanding of the way things work is not quite up to snuff.

    Great morning post. Thanks for writing it.

  • avatar

    Wow, that is a hot chicka.

    So natural!

  • avatar

    I had a 1980 Accord automatic. After about 5 years it wouldn’t start one morning. I had it towed to the dealer ( where I had all service since I found the service manager to be really good). The dealer replaced the cracked floats in the carb, at NO cost, and paid for the tow. Since then our family has purchased eight more Hondas

  • avatar

    I currently drive one of the last round of CVCC Hondas — a 1982 Prelude – and have been impressed with how well it runs with minimal fuss. The carb needed a cleaning when I bought it, since it hadn’t been used regularly beforehand. It was remarkably easy and it now runs like a champ. Starting a carb engine requires remembering things I had forgotten from nearly 20 years ago, but the Prelude has been pretty reliable in that area as long as I give it a little gas before turning over. And for all of the complexity of the vacuum system diagram, there isn’t a lot else going on under the hood. Elegant simplicity — I think you captured that here in the post.

    • 0 avatar


      Elegant simplicity is a great term for what was the essence of the reason for the uber-reliable vehicles of Japanese glory years.


      The Prelude you mention is the perfect example.

      Today, it’s an amalgam of point of part manufacture, point of vehicle assembly, etc., with Ford Fusions assembled in Mexico, Camrys in Kentucky, Hyundais in Alabama, Hondas in Ohio, Buicks in Germany, VWs in Virginia, Chryslers in Canada, with parts made in Mexico, the U.S., Austria, China (China again, and again), Japan, South Korea, etc.

      And forget about elegant simplicity. The trend has reversed with engine bays crammed to the brim, with the inclination for more and more consumer-desired gadgets and government mandates devices killing any hope that elegant simplicity will ever return.

      • 0 avatar
        el scotto

        DW I think you mean VW is headquartered in a VA suburb of DC. I used to see MFGs tags on VWs and they were usually driven in an urban aggressive mode.

      • 0 avatar

        el scotto- you are correct. Thanks for that.

        I was confusing VW’s HQ (which moved from Auburn Hills, MI to VA) with the Passat assembly facility that was built in Chattanooga.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve found for the most part with the advent of fuel injection and digital engine controls that engine compartments have been greatly simplified over their carburetted forebears.

        Many cars today have minimal vacuum hose routing and in many cases through the clever use of things like VVT manufacturers have eliminated EGR valves, engine mounted air pumps are now electric (if they need them at all) and so on.

        I think the biggest issue with the modern engine bay are manufacturers trying to squeeze powertrain packages in ever tighter spaces in order to reduce the overall footprint of the vehicle while offering the largest possible interior volume. Especially if the powertrain is of the transverse variety.

  • avatar

    Gosh I never thought a little Honda could be sexy till I saw that picture…

  • avatar

    Nice article on a car I love. I once had a 1983 Civic, a 1500DX hatchback with the smooth as silk 5spd – and working AC too! Though I did have to have it recharged that first spring/summer, but it was working fine up through 1997 when it finally quit.

    Bought it in 1992 with just a timing belt, water pump, a clutch cable and full clutch assembly needing to be done and of course, a fresh oil change and it was super reliable for the 6 years I had it.

    I never had to deal with the carb on that thing, ever though it would produce a large puff of black smoke upon starting it cold in the mornings, but ran clean otherwise and would pass emissions inspections, though to do so meant making sure it was thoroughly warmed up. Towards the last year or so, the car did get a bit recalcitrant on cold mornings but once running, it was fine.

    As to the maze of hoses, I think without the knowledge you gained by working on these motors, most people didn’t realize you can do so much without having to undo the hoses and let the diagram intimidate them and many just undid a bunch without really looking at it first, hence the issues with these in their later years and why you don’t see many of these still running (when not rusted out) these days.

    I was fortunate that I live were rust isn’t an issue so I still spot these early ones every now and then, still chugging along. Mostly it’s the 2nd gen on, but once in a blue moon, I’ll spot a first gen still being driven but those, even here are RARE.

    I’ve always loved the general looks of these cars, especially the first, second, third and fifth gen models, the rest, not as much – especially after they dropped the hatchbacks on the later generations.

    Mine still ran great up to the end, but by that point, some of the parts like the ignition switch was going, or had been replaced (front wiper switch, which I replaced with one from a base hatch as the original got flaky and in frustration I broke the stalk off), the heater blower motor (worked on 1 of the 3 speeds, replaced by a donor from a buddy of mine’s old, dead ’80 Civic that lost the top 2 of it’s 5 forward gears in the gearbox), but ultimately, a rear ender, causing water to leak inside was its undoing.

    Replaced by a 1988 Honda Accord LX-I sedan with fuel injection and the manual tranny.

  • avatar

    ” Nevertheless, I have to call it as I see it—and I certainly did have an excellent vantage point, with my hands-on experience on many different vehicles from the period that is the basis for our dialogue.”
    I had a Volkwagen/Opel/Capri repair shop in SE Michigan during the 70’s through early 80’s.

    These Honda’s were regularly dropped at our shop with blown head gaskets just after they were out of warranty. So much so that I set-up an arrangement with another shop for these owners since we did not specialize in these cars. We also spoke to their originating dealer and many times they would fix it if it wasn’t too far out of warranty. We decided not to expand into Honda repairs since there were very few Hondas in our area. (we would have needed additiona inventory) So very few Honda’s in our area yet many failures. That speaks volumes that this was a big problem.

    Perhaps it was the extreme temperature cycling in winter time that sped up the failure timetable.
    And rust was extreme after 3-4 years of driving on salted roads in the winter.

    I will admit that Honda paid attention to these issues and made continuous improvements. The car did evolved to be one of the best quality, reliable, long lasting cars out there. But back then they were disposable cars in the midwest.

  • avatar

    I had a 1976(?) Civic station wagon about 30 years ago in grad school. I bought it with a blown engine and had to repair it to drive it. In the meantime I had only a motorcycle. I had to strap the head to the seat to take it to a shop for reworking. When it was back together it worked pretty well, although it never got the milage I had hoped it would. I eventually had to remove the exhaust manifold to pull out the internal sheet metal lining piece by piece. It was rusty and had started to deteriorate and block the exhaust.

    As I recall, there was a special procedure for cold starting, and if you did not follow it, the engine would not start. Period. After I sold it, in midwinter, I had to make an early-morning trip to the buyer’s house to start it because she said it would not start. Of course it started immediately for me. She never called me back, but I don’t know whether it was because she remembered how I told her to start it, or she was too embarrassed.

  • avatar
    Tony C

    Why’s the pic named “accord.jpg” when it’s a Civic?

  • avatar

    There was a number of carbs on older cars that were so simple that they could be rebuilt without removing the unit from the engine. The old motorcraft 2 barrels, carter AFB’s, the BBD 1 & 2 barrels, to name a few. And the newer edelbrocks, like I have on my chryslers are stupidly simple. They are actually based on the old carter AFB design. But with only 4 bolts to remove, or in some cases 2, why bother rebuilding it on the engine?
    Regarding the 70’s civics, there was a very large recall issued for cars sold in the rust belt. The structure would rust where the front suspension pieces mounted, causing separation of such parts from the car. Many of the cars were too far gone to repair and were bought back.

  • avatar

    In 1978, after the head gasket recall, I believed the failures might be a thing of the past. So I bought a ’79 Accord. The head gasket and cylinder head lasted a total of 33K miles., which is longer than the head gasket lasted on my ’76 Civic. Not the kind of successful redesign I was looking for. Again, overheating and coolant maintenance were not factors in these failures. The manual transmissions were just as bad.

    I knew several people that had these early Hondas, and the majority of them faced the same problems I had. Many of those people believed they were wonderful cars in spite of major repairs before the cars had traveled 40K miles.

    As I said in the part one, I know that Honda made tremendous improvements in their cars in the latter ’80s and ’90s. I’d consider one now. But I think believers in the first Hondas were more captivated by intellectual appeal and marketing than actual durability and service.

  • avatar

    Phil, when are you going to get around doing a series on Lucas Electrical?

    Now THAT will be comedy gold.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      Got many fine British Car stories on the taxiway. Maybe one day I’ll be able to cash-in on my experience with “The (other) Dark Prince”, because it sure wasn’t very profitable back in “the day”…

    • 0 avatar

      Lucas Electric is too easy to make fun of. I think it was one of the major causes of the eventual failure of the British car industry. They should have just bought one of any of the decent alternators out there, the GM one probably was the best of the era, and used it as the basis of the car’s electrical system. But they didn’t, and so it went…

      I experienced the Lucas joy secondhand, as I had a friend whose dad, and later on, he himself, somehow became mesmerized with love of English sports cars. Twice I was the passenger(two of us sitting on the passenger seat)when the generator died, and somehow it made it to where we were going before it died and it had to be towed off to get a new one. When my friend and I hit 16, his first car was a 1960 Ford Galaxie 500, a total POS, just due to the rust alone. I put my hand through the front quarter when I leaned on it accidentally. Soon after that, the trans exploded in the mountains of PA, and the Ford was replaced with a Triumph TR4A, a car that made the Ford look good, if not great. Between the leaking head gaskets, the burned valves, the carbs from hell, and the Lucas electrical stuff added up to one huge dog of a car. Oh, and it was rustier than the Ford was, and must have had a hundred pounds of screen and bondo on it. He worked all summer on it, and then it literally came apart at 40 MPH, the rust had eaten the frame to the point the left front suspension tore off. That was the end of the TR4A and his first fling with the Lucas love. I don’t know if it was all the pot he smoked over the next 20 years, or what, but somehow at almost age 40, he bought a TR6, in amazing shape, from Nevada. Rust free, even the interior was perfect. Sadly, the Lucas gremlins were waiting to come out. A year later, and numerous tows later, he was done, and sold it to some guy who had six other TR6’s for a decent price. He learned from his tortures, I thought. A few years ago, he decided to sell his prized and mint, ’69 427 Vette, and his boat, along with his daily driver, a Toyota Supra Turbo (awesome car) and buy a more “rational” car, and ended up with an Audi A8. Te spirit of Lucas lived on in that car, it was great when it ran, but it had electrical issues nonstop and the dealer here is so bad Chrysler yanked their franchise, so the fact that he leased the car was a brilliant move. When it finally went back, he bought a new Camry, which he hated, and then made a turn back to his past and bought one of the tuner Vettes. So far, after a year, it’s been perfect. He loves it. He still has the Camry, his wife drives it and hates it too. She will soon have a Chrysler 300 SRT8.

  • avatar

    Nice way to keep toeing the party line. Blame owner abuse/lack of maintenance for the head gasket failures that were caused by poorly made/designed systems. Yes many headgaskets failed due to bad fan switches and failed water pumps and thermostats but those are not “normal” maintenance items, at least as often as one would have had to replace them. A thermostat should not have to be replaced every year and a water pump should last more than 60K. Fan switches should last for at least 100K or more. Of course these failures are the reason Honda started telling people that replacing water pumps and axles were just “normal” maintenance. Certainly I can see the reasoning behind replacing a timing belt driven, or buried behind the timing belt water pump. However these cars and Hondas for a number of years after had water pumps that were not driven by nor obstructed by the timing belt.

    Also Ford did not make a feedback VV carb, when then went to feedback it was with a different carb. Regarding changing carbs every year Ford used the same Motorcraft 2100 for decades w/o any significant changes as did GM with their Quadrajets. So no you didn’t need a ton of new tools to deal with every new model year.

    Yes the engine and car overall was not too hard to work on but they required more than their share of work to keep on the road. So yes they were great for mechanics. So much so that I seriously considered becoming a Honda only shop instead of working on all makes.

  • avatar

    We also pulled the head with manifolds at our shop.

    Many feared the vac sysytem but it wasn’t the horror some make it out to be.

    Also agree that head gaskets were 9/10 incompetent owners expecting coolant not needing changed/checked for 10 years vs their detroit-mobile.

    And what a tease. And no, I’m not talking about the T&A, but the reference to Continous Injection System(CIS),another misunderstood technology that, as far as I can deduce, is original and still working on my 74 Porsche. Please put it on your list.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      Too bad VW didn’t install the CIS on their early FWD cars.

      Wasn’t Porsche using a mechanical injection system in ’74? I think CIS was available on the 911 a little later, no?

      • 0 avatar

        Only the Euro model Carrera got mechanical injection in 74. Still needed MFI to work with more radical cams.

        CIS debuted in the 73.5 911T and all 74 models got it.

      • 0 avatar

        VW installed CIS on the US market Scirocco in 76 and on the Rabbit in 77, I believe the Dasher/Passat also got CIS around 77 as did the Audi Fox. After that CIS or CIS-E was standard on FWD VWs until 87 when they started switching to Digifant.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Did this one have rotors that could only be turned at the Honda dealer? That’s what a Honda service rep told me about my Prelude. Or I might have been scammed. I don’t care, it was one of the best cars I ever owned.

    • 0 avatar
      Phil Coconis

      On-vehicle rotor resurfacing equipment was, in fact, available to independent shops, and we always had one.

      • 0 avatar
        el scotto

        Thanks Phil. I was living in a small town in the Midwest at the time. With my Prelude and Sirocco, my local mechanic would tell me It needs a special Honda/VW tool; I’m not buying one tool to fix your car. He is a great mechanic and a good guy and will never want for work. A fair trade off for living somewhere where you rarely locked your car or your house.

  • avatar

    Quite a few Japanese cars first made the brake rotors bolt on from the back- a in that the hub must be removed before the rotor can be removed. That also meant that the wheel bearing must be replaced. Tool companies came up with brake disc lathes that would turn the rotor whilst in place on the car.

  • avatar

    My 1975 Civic CVCC critter was reliable economic basic transportation and with the 5-speed manual the transition from the 18-wheeler to the minute munchkin was only half as devastating.

    In the California central valley winter there was some problem with carb. icing when chilly (30 degree range) and humidity was high.

    Carb heater set-up, exhaust manifold heat riser, was attached properly.

    Sub-par running during these events but never stranded.

    Later, as economic woes increased for us commoner scum, the Civic was converted to a mobile bedroom.

    The beast eventually passed away; broken valve I believe but no place to repair it and no cash to hire it done.


  • avatar
    Spencer Williams

    I still drive a 4-speed 77′ Civic CVCC wagon. Don’t drive it daily, but it’s my only car, so she sees the road a few times a week. I’ve heard the carbs are tough to rebuild, haven’t tried ti myself yet, but will in time. I’ll be doing the headgasket sooner than later too, got a leak there that will lead to bigger problems. But she passed California emissions testing a few months ago, so she’s still good in that regard.

    Only difficult thing is trying to find parts.

  • avatar

    I was a young mechanic in 1978 and worked for a Pontiac/Honda dealership in Falls Church. I had just passed my NIASE certifications for all 9 areas (engines, electrical systems, air conditioning, transmissions etc.) and my shop manager sent me to the Honda School in the Cherry Hill area of NJ, for all the different courses they offered on Honda cars, including CVCC engine rebuilds. at that time there was a major recall for a defective head gasket that would leak antifreeze into No. 4 cylinder. The recall involved at a minimum replacing the connecting rod bearings, the head gasket, piston rings, and is the leak was bad a complete overhaul of the engine. I was doing 3 of these rebuilds a week. Between 1976-77 there were some 300,000 CVCC engines under the recall. They paid 5.6 hours for the recall and it took 8 hours to complete. On the other hand the 1978 Accords and Civics did not come factory equipped with air conditioning. In the Washington DC area summers are God awful hot, so Honda AC kits were selling like hotcakes. It would take four hours to install an R-12 ref. system and the pay was 12 hours. So what we would loose in the CVCC engines we’d make up for in the AC kits. The carburetors were unbelievable. No one was good at rebuilding them and they were particularly sensitive to dirt and water in the gas. The filters were not that great so the float bowls would collect debris. The carb was ingenious, really two in one. There was a two barrel for the main chamber feeding a rarified 23:1 air gas ratio. Then there was a pre-chamber carb built into the carb. This fed a rich 5:1 air gas ratio to the small steel cup “prechamber”. The prechamber ignited with a spark plug and would torch into the main chamber. The carb had a complicated system of vacuum lines that controlled various servos etc. If you didn’t get the right hose on the right vacuum port the car wouldn’t work right. Mechanics that didn’t know what they were doing could really screwed up the carburetor. On the 1978 model Honda got the bright idea to control hydrocarbon emissions from the float bowl by placing vacuum operated plugs to the float bowl vent. If the vacuum lines to the valve mounted on the firewall was accidentally switched the vacuum would be cut from the plugs and the float bowl was not open to atmosphere. When the line was switched the car wouldn’t go more than 10 mph, backfired and ran in wild fits and starts. One new mechanic got a car that had been serviced by a local shop. The mechanic had switched the line and the Accord acted like there was something majorly wrong with the engine.Those damned carbs used steel screws to bolt the top on (about 14 of these tiny screws). The bi metal condition (electrolsis) would corrode the screws in the float body and they’d snap. This guy must have snapped half the screws. After three days of rebuilding the carb, and replacing it with two new carbs, the car wouldn’t run any better. Being the young guy in the shop I usually kept a low profile, but after 3 days of getting nowhere and no with about 5 “top” shop mechanics crowding around the car I came over too to take a look. The week before I had taken a Honda air emissions control systems course and noticed that the vacuum line to the servo on the firewall was swapped onto the wrong nipples. I switched them and said, try the car. It ran like new. This guy had the car 3 days , ruined on carb and replaced two new carbs and all it was was a switched vacuum line. This design was particular to the 1978 CVCC engines. God the air lines coming off those carbs looked like a plate of spaghetti. Man do I have stories about my early years as an auto mechanic. At age 26 I went to college for physics and got my MS in Engineering. I pretty much got out of cars. I was never much of a gearhead anyway. But I do look back on those days fondly. Now I’m 66 and look at the possibilities. I’m probably one of the few people left who knew anything about the Honda 1200 cc Civic engines, 1975 1500CVCC engines and the 1600 1976-1978 CVCC engines. Hondas began moving towards fuel injection by around 1980 and used electronic ignition, which reduced the amount of “real” mechanical work to be done. Honda was the kind of motor company that had their mechanics do a lot of their own machine work. I did a lot of machining. The only work I didn’t do was machine warped cylinder heads. That work was sent out. Honda even made us mechanics rebuild alternators instead of simply replacing them with rebuilts. We’d actually test the diodes for problems and replace them. We did everything except the windings. That would have been ridiculous. But we did a lot of work with Hondas that most other manufacturers would have their mechanics do. If anyone is having trouble with a Honda CVCC I must have rebuilt 200-300 of them between 1978-1980.

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