By on March 4, 2016

1978 Honda Civic front 3/4 in California junkyard, © 2016 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars

The first-generation Honda Civic sold like crazy in California, and could be found everywhere in the Golden State from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s. These Civics are now virtually extinct, both on the street and in the junkyard, because they were used up and summarily discarded.

1978 Honda Civic CVCC badge in California junkyard, © 2016 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars

There isn’t much enthusiast interest in restoring these cars, so backyards and driveways aren’t full of get-to-it-someday projects. Thus you won’t see the steady trickle of 1973-80 Civics into wrecking yards the way you do Fiat 124 Sport Spiders or MGBs.

1978 Honda Civic roof in California junkyard, © 2016 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars

The last owner of this car squeezed every last bit of use out of it, but didn’t sell it to U-Wrench-It when something disabling and/or annoying broke. The California emissions-test history website shows its last smog check was in April 2000 (it passed), and the moss on the car shows that it sat somewhere outside and away from the sun before finding its current place in queue for the crusher. Perhaps it was left in a vacant lot and had become overgrown with wild blackberry bushes, a common fate for neglected San Francisco Bay Area cars.

1978 Honda Civic engine in California junkyard, © 2016 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars

The CVCC engine ran so clean that Honda was able to omit the use of the primitive early catalytic converters that strangled performance in Malaise Era cars, giving the early Civic a gigantic edge over its competition — both in performance and fuel economy. As emissions standards became stricter, the CVCC engines were burdened with both catalytic converters and comically elaborate tangles of smog-related hardware.

1978 Honda Civic rear 3/4 in California junkyard, © 2016 Murilee Martin/The Truth About Cars

In 1978, nothing could compete with the Civic on its own turf. The Corolla might have been more reliable, but it was  less fun to drive and its rear-wheel-drive configuration made it more cramped. The Rabbit was fun, but it broke early and often. I owned a few of these things, loved them, and have driven Civics daily ever since.

Rapacious California Honda dealers sold these cars for well over MSRP. Buyers were happy to pay the extra cash to avoid driving such horrors as the Chevrolet Chevette or — shudder — the Fiat Strada.

Civics were assembled in New Zealand early on.

Honda used the term “green engine” all the way back in 1974.

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46 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1978 Honda Civic Hatchback...”


  • avatar
    Cabriolet

    I owned the same car back when. Purchased it new and sold it 3 years later. Was a good runner and i enjoyed it but the car always had a problem when it came to idling at a stop. I admit i install a few go fast goodies to the mix but i finally got tired of finding out what the problem was and sold the car. Also the selling dealer was a real piece of you know what. He was finally caught turning back thee speedometers of used Honda’s and paid a heavy fine but after a few years he was back doing the same thing.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Hey Y U no like Strada? I had one for a demo way back when, and it was a pretty pleasant, if goofy looking small car. Mine had a sunroof with this odd lever arrangement that you used to open and closed it. The one I drove was pumpkin orange, but it was roomy for a car of its class, and rode and handled well. No doubt it was not the most mechanically robust thing on the road, but I’d gladly take it over most of its competition.

    After I turned the Strada in, they gave me a Renault 18i.

  • avatar
    pbr

    Was there a variant of the 1st Gen that had a huge rubber gasket for the rear glass (and no hatchback, maybe)?

    “If I’d been smart” I would have squirelled away a few 4th-Gen Civics before they mostly got run into the ground … great to drive, useful packaging, about the perfect size for no-kids commuting.

    • 0 avatar
      tonyola

      Perhaps you’re thinking of the Z600 Coupe, which was actually not based on a Civic but on the smaller 600.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honda_Z

      • 0 avatar
        pbr

        >> Perhaps you’re thinking of the Z600 Coupe, which was actually not based on a Civic but on the smaller 600.

        Yeah, I think that is what I was remembering. I always thought that was a Civic, the familial resemblance is there, to my eye. Thanks.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    These were amazingly good little cars , a real eye opener for me as I still had my VW Shop when they came out .

    Cheap and very durable , the one thing that killed them in droves was failure to change the oil , a thing Americans always do , neglect basic service requirements .

    I could buy a two year old one for $150 ~ $300 often with new paint or new tires and slap in a $250 Japanese home market engine and re sell it for $1,000 to the first person who looked at it .

    For $25 extra , the used engine importer would give me a 5 speed transmission , most in California were 4 speeds to be cheaper .

    The paint on these was pretty cheap and the Cali. sun tore it up quickly but overall good quality fun to drive and roomy inside for this 6′ American .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    Do my eyes deceive me or is the yellow car in that commercial right hand drive?

  • avatar
    kit4

    There is a restored or original condition one of these in my city I see from time to time and that’s in good shape. It’s orange. So they’re out there stil.

  • avatar
    Shortest Circuit

    Ahhh… it made me remember a time when Steve Guttenberg used to be funny.

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    If Honda enthusiasts used these as a canvas to modify, I would have waaaaay more respect for them.

    It also wouldn’t get stolen.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    I bet that curved dash created a nice sense of space in a very small car.

    Q:
    Weren’t some of these CVT equipped?
    Weren’t they also incredibly slow?
    What was the last Civic available with wood trim?

    • 0 avatar
      snakebit

      To answer Corey DL, none were CVT. On Gen one model Civics with Hondamatic, you needed to manually move the lever from low to high range, it didn’t make the shift automatically.

      You’d never know it by either the color or the horrendous condition of this junkyard car, but this would have been the very top model Civic CVCC you could buy in 1975-79, a Civic CVCC 5-Speed (radial tires, black wheels with trim rings, a tachometer replacing the temp/fuel gauge in the cluster and their placement in a separate pod to the right, simulated wood steering wheel and shift knob, black vinyl and houndstooth cloth upholstery and of course a 5-Speed(not available on any other Civic those years) As for the simulated wood trim on the instrument panel, I think that was a feature on all of these, with the addition of a CVCC emblem on the right if that engine was fitted. I always thought Honda got their inspiration for the instrument panel design from the BMW 1600/2002.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      I have only one question:

      Didnt these have to be recalled at one point due to how badly they would rust?

      • 0 avatar
        NewLookFan

        Yes, I got a letter from Honda in about ’82 or ’83. I believe it was under pressure from the FTC or another governmental agency due to complaints. It was the 3rd recall notice I got, the other 2 were for a faulty thermo-vacuum valve and the notorious head gasket. I had dumped both of these wonderful Hondas by ’83.

        • 0 avatar
          CoreyDL

          Here it is.

          Report Receipt Date: NOV 06, 1981
          NHTSA Campaign Number: 81V136000
          Component(s): SUSPENSION

          All Products Associated with this Recall expand

          Details close

          0 Associated Documents

          Manufacturer: AMERICAN HONDA MOTOR CO.

          SUMMARY:
          PROLONGED CONTACT WITH ROAD SALT MAY, UNDER CERTAIN CONDITIONS, CAUSE SERIOUS RUSTING. THIS CAN WEAKEN CERTAIN UNDERCARRIAGE COMPONENTS: LATERAL SUSPENSION ARMS, FRONT CROSSBEAM AND STRUT COIL SPRING LOWER SUPPORTS.
          CONSEQUENCE:
          REMEDY:
          VEHICLES WILL BE INSPECTED AND, IF NECESSARY, TREATED WITH A RUST PREVENTIVE COATING. IN SOME CASES, REPLACEMENT OF COMPONENTS WILL BE PERFORMED, WITHOUT CHARGE TO OWNER.
          NOTES:
          VEHICLE DESCRIPTION: PASSENGER VEHICLES. SYSTEM: SUSPENSION; LATERAL SUSPENSION ARMS, FRONT CROSSBEAM, AND STRUT COILSPRING LOWER SUPPORTS.CONSEQUENCES OF DEFECT: WEAKENED UNDERCARRIAGE COMPONENTS COULD LEAD TO A LOSS OF VEHICLE CONTROL AND, POSSIBLY, AN ACCIDENT. NOTE: THIS DEFECT APPEARS TO BE MORE SERIOUS IN VEHICLES DRIVEN IN AREAS WHERE ROAD SALT IS USED EXTENSIVELY FOR SNOW REMOVAL.

          • 0 avatar
            Kevin Jaeger

            These were fun little cars but up in Canada they rusted apart if you so much as spilled salt from your fries at the drive-through.

          • 0 avatar
            Ryoku75

            Thank you for looking that up,given how many cars rusted apart in the 70s I find it weird how Honda got singled out.

      • 0 avatar
        krhodes1

        The pictured car is about how they all looked in Maine by 1985 at the latest.

        They really were that much worse than everything else.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Civics weren’t slow compared to the competition. Some of which took 16-17 seconds to hit 60. Oh, the malaise!

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        The Malaise lasted even longer in the SUV market. It was evident when I watched old MW videos that the things they were selling here (for the most part) in the mid-late 80s were not designed for highway and around town driving.

        Something like 15 seconds for an old Montero to get to 60 in 1988. Similar figure for a Trooper 4-cyl.

  • avatar
    NoGoYo

    I’d rather have the Corolla.

    …Never thought I’d say that.

  • avatar

    The Civic taught Honda about the American car market, it was also about the first modern front wheel drive sold here. I suppose the Fiat 128 counts but other than early Hondas rusting as badly as Italian and British cars, the Civics were mechanically reliable, which the Fiat was decidedly not.

    Good students, Honda learned their lessons about American drivers and how cars were sold here and followed up the Civic with the first generation Accord in ’76. My brother bought one of the first Accords in Michigan. Even the base Accord was well equipped by the standards of the day. In the 1970s, though the market was changing due to imports and the glut of domestics in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, people still ordered cars. Honda figured out that putting an AM-FM Stereo radio and A/C in every car dropped the unit price on the components to the point where they could afford to put them on every car.

    Base cars today come with power windows, air conditioning, and a bunch of features that you couldn’t get on luxury cars 10 years ago. You can thank Honda for that.

    • 0 avatar
      VoGo

      +1
      Insightful

    • 0 avatar
      snakebit

      Ronnie,
      Eventually, Honda began making things like AC and AMFM radios standard in most models, but from the mid 1970s until roughly the mid 1980s AC and a radio were options in Accord DX models and all Civics(1980-1985)and were dealer-installed. On Accords, you had to step up to LX,Special Edition(a 1983 model that came only in dark silver but had AC, top-level AMFM cassette,power windows and even gray leather), SEi(a 1985 model like the ’83 SE but now with metallic brown paint and cognac leather, electronic fuel injection(the first Accord to get it)as well as the top radio, AC, and power windows. The next model(1986) a new Accord model, LXi hatch and sedan(basically a SEi without leather). As you posted, now, many of these things are standard across the board in all cars.

      • 0 avatar
        SaulTigh

        True. My parent’s ’87 Accord DX had dealer installed AC and never had a radio, just a plastic plate with “Honda” embossed on it. No passenger side rear view mirror. $12,500 was the price out the door, plus our failing ’82 Celebrity (transmission dying). I wish my parents had kept it until I started driving, but just before that happened they traded it in on a ’92 Accord. :(

        There’s talk of getting rid of their ’01 Accord for a new Civic. I think they’ll let me buy it.

        • 0 avatar
          krhodes1

          Looking back, it is astounding how much car stereos cost back in the day. I bought a basic Pioneer tape deck to put in my first car, an ’82 Subaru GL in ’86, fall of my senior year of high school. It cost me ~$150, which was a fortune for a high school burger flipper making $4/hr. It was slightly upmarket in that it had Dolby B noise reduction. $130 for one without, IIRC. A couple years later, I paid $499 for my first car CD player.

          The last car stereo I bought was for my current Range Rover. A high-end Nakamichi CD/MP3 player with Bluetooth, iPod control, and all the bells and whistles for all of $199.

  • avatar
    CowDriver

    I bought a Civic wagon new in 1980 for just over $5K, and sold it in 1996 for $900 with 200K miles on it. Pretty good value, I think.

    I wish I still had that car. It was an absolute joy to drive, and I would love to turn it into a LeMons car. As Car & Driver said in their review of it, “It scampers like a crazed cockroach.”

    While it had pretty good gas mileage, I once conducted a month-long experiment to see just what I could get if I really tried. My commute at the time was from Pasadena, CA to Newport Beach — almost exactly 50 miles. I stayed as light on the throttle as possible, watching traffic and lights far ahead to avoid using the brakes, and keeping my speed as constant as possible. I always got my gas at the same station and pump and kept careful records. At the end of a month I was pleased to have achieved slightly over 50 MPG! The next day I went back to my normal driving habits. :-)

  • avatar
    NewLookFan

    If ever there was a car (or cars, including the Accord) that epitomized “urban legend”, then the CVCC was it. I rolled a Civic off the showroom floor in 1976, an Accord 3 years later, and during that time I never saw the so-called car with magical fuel economy and driveability surpassing everything else. These should have had a catalytic converter from 1975, they’d have driven better as a result. It still wouldn’t help the dismal reliability. Cracked cylinder head, head gaskets; failed thermostatic fan switches, water pumps, auxiliary valve chamber seals, carburetors that were very sensitive to the tiniest dirt particles – on and on it went. I wanted to like these cars as much as anyone, but even I could hold off reality only so long. A Vega by any other name.

    I’m surprised there is no mention of the CVCC equipped Chevrolet Impala with similar stellar fuel economy, driveability, and a bouquet of flowers blooming out of the tailpipe. Truth is, people at the time the catalytic cars debuted in 1975 found a noticeable improvement in driveability and mileage in their new cars.

    I wish I’d bought one of several Corolla models available then instead. Heck, I’d even take a Chevette; they weren’t anywhere near as bad overall as the Hondas.

    • 0 avatar
      snakebit

      NewLookFan,

      Let’s agree that you had a horrible but honestly very singular experience with your CVCC Hondas, and based on that, anyone in your shoes would have soured on any car posing all of those troubles.

      I spent the first part of the ’70s part time at a Chevrolet dealer, and I drove brand new Vegas and Monzas daily. Keep in mind this was before any cooling problems or rust issues, these were brand new cars. My opinion at the time, using a rating scale 1-10 and 10 being the best rating, I considered the Vega to rate a generous 2 , the four-cylinder Monza(built in a separate, slower, more careful assembly plant in Canada but using the same motor) rated a 3, and a Monza 350 V8 with THM(in CA)rated a 9. The motors had almost everything to do with scoring.

      About two years later, I found myself at an east coast Chevrolet dealer, dealing with Vega 4 cylinder motors overheating to such an extent that we had one technician who did nothing else all day but constantly rebuild these motors. More and more Vegas began coming in for various rust complaints for the ensuing three years.

      About 1980, I started working for a west coast Honda automobile dealer. The cars and the owners could not be more different. What you call ‘urban myth’ these owners called reality. One difference-we were out of new cars to sell 25 out of 30 days a month, it got so bad we had to post a sign in the showroom telling shoppers that we weren’t out of business, simply out of new cars. I’ve not met happier car owners since leaving that dealer five years later.Most of them had to wait 3-4 months on a list to receive their cars, and they were still happy.

      Concerning your issues with the CVCC-specific engine valve seals, I do recall that being a repair we did about 2-3 times a week on cars, after about 1983. Concerning dirt particles affecting the very-well metered Honda carburetors, aside from intentional sabotage to the fuel tank which could happen nationally, cars in the rust belt suffered this ailment by far the most, because road salt and sand used to treat snow on roads tended to rot away the unprotected steel fuel filler tubes on 1982-1984 Accords. I don’t know the specific warranty and goodwill policy, but once the defect was looked into and diagnosed, a new steel fuel filler tube with undercoating was made available. Yes, it was aggravated by the intricate carburetor that, afterall, was designed for optimal fuel economy and provided it so long as dirt wasn’t fouling it. As for thermostatic electric fan switches, ask any technician of popular cars using electric fans, and you’ll find issues with either this switch, the dedicated relay for it, or the engine control module on some cars that monitor the sensor.

      Lastly, comparing the Civic or Accord with the CVCC motor to Vega is really laughable. You and I know what you say you endured with the Honda. You really have no idea the Hell you would have gone through if you had chosen a Vega from the first half of the 1970s. You didn’t dodge a bullet-you dodged a double-barrel shotgun blast by choosing something else.

      • 0 avatar
        NewLookFan

        Snakebit, I wish I could call the comparison laughable. The car my ex-wife had before the Civic was a ’72 Vega from new. It was a horrible car to be sure. OK, so maybe it was marginally worse than our Hondas; one car was a compromised, underdeveloped design shoddily manufactured, and the other was a jewel but seriously underdeveloped. Aside from the Vega and its CoTY award, I’ve never seen a car so adored yet so bitterly disappointing to own. I maintained the 1978 Accord that a friend of mine bought new. I observed him having to have the 5 speed manual transmission rebuilt at 5000mi under warranty. I watched it start to suck oil at 25Kmi when the auxiliary valve seals failed like my cars. I worked with someone who bought a new Civic like mine end up having major transmission repair under warranty. The transmission synchronizers were used up by the time I dumped my Accord at 37K mi. Thankfully, our Civic had a Hondamatic which had no issues at all.

        Since then, I’ve had another flawed car, mediocre cars, and good cars, but never again something as problematic as our Hondas. I looked at buying a new Honda twice again in the early ’80s – the 600 mile old 1983 Civic S demonstrator with a worn out 2nd gear synchronizer finally pushed me to get over Hondas and move on. I believe the pre-1980 cars were especially fragile and underveloped.

        I stand by my assertion of relating the CVCC cars to “urban legend”. I mean, don’t you find the claim “giving the early Civic a gigantic edge over its competition — both in performance and fuel economy” more than a little hyperbolic? Or claiming that the Accord debuted with standard A/C? Our Hondamatic equipped Civic averaged 20mpg – not as bad as the 14mpg Powerglide Vega, and our 5-speed ’79 Accord returned 24mpg, neither car was noted as being exceptionally frugal or speedy. And we both know that standard A/C first appeared on the new ’78 LX; it was several years before it was standard on every model.

        So we will respectfully agree to disagree. I have to say that my impression of post-1979 Hondas is that they obviously made major improvements in the durability of their cars. I would seriously consider a new Fit if I was in the market for a new car. However, I remain adamant that I’m judging the performance of my Hondas objectively.

        That miserable Accord LX I owned ended up in the driveway of a house in an affluent part of town. After 3-4 years a new Accord appeared in the driveway. Obviously, different people see different things. YMMV.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    A high school friend got the 2nd one sold in Ontario as a gift from his father. It had a ‘custom’ black paint job.

    Unfortunately he experienced some ‘oversteer’ and drove it into some trees after only about 14 months.

    We bought a stripped 2nd generation, brand new in 1981. Drove it for 4 years and then sold it for about 1/2 of what we paid for it.

    I also bought a new 5 speed in 1982. Drove the crap out of it. Over 150,000kms plus at least the same amount of idling time on the engine in just over 3 years. Gave it to my brother. He drove it for 2 years, re-painted it and sold it to a friend who drove it for at least another 3 years.

    We replaced them with an Accord sedan and a Civic hatch and then a Civic Wagovan with ‘realtime awd’. During the same decade negotiated the purchase of 3 other Civics and a Prelude for family members. And when they first arrived the much loved Integra hatch.

    Zero work on any of them other than the recommended maintenance on both of them, except for the dealer installed A/C systems. Mr Honda would not allow factory air to interfere with the performance of his engines.

    Quite frankly when you compare performance, handling dependability and practicality, they were the very best ‘bang for you buck’ deal to be had in cars in Ontario for at least a decade. The only major concern was rust, but even 1980’s Hondas did not rust as quickly as 1970’s Fords or 1990’s Mazdas.

    And that is why there are still so many Honda ‘devotees’.

  • avatar
    Joss

    Had an 80. Bright green, more popular colors were on back order. Clammy black vinyl interior. No a/c. Pop out rear windows and plenty of fender rust at the end of the 5 year lease. Back seat was cramped. A 2016 Civic is now Buick-sized.

    Though very reliable dealer arrogance sent us over to Mazda for a GLC.

  • avatar
    redapple

    1982 I was undergoing deep programming in Flint.
    I was closely following the Civic 1500 GL. It was the predecessor to the Civic Si.
    Big time lust but it was forbidden fruit. Real forbidden fruit.
    Having anything except something from the General would land you in a gulag.

  • avatar
    jhefner

    Two guys in my circle of friends each had one of these, another had a Prelude. All three were absolutely reliable right up to 70K; then everything literally started falling apart; the father of one of them finally told him to stop throwing money at it and buy something else.

    It left me with the perception for decades that Hondas were engineered to be reliable up to 70K; at which point things would start to break.

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      That has been my experience with Hondas as well, though more like 120K for the Civics that my friends had in the ’90s. And at 120K they were not worth fixing due to the rampant rust.

      120K is where many of us bought VWs, Saabs and Volvos and thought they were just nicely broken in.

  • avatar
    SoCalMikester

    mom had a 77 accord, bought for $1000 in 88. smooth engine, drove nice

    but honda was still learning about plastic formulations. for an 11 year old car, all the inside vinyl and plastic parts that werent cracked were chalking.

    carpet was sun bleached, and there was a lot of hard foam baked red from the heat where the vinyl had already cracked and fallen off. it was a heap but it always started and drove, until the day it was stolen from in front of our house. it was recovered, but didnt start, so we let the lot keep it.

  • avatar
    r2s2

    I registered here just because this post brought back many memories. I bought a brown ’78 Civic CVCC new. I’d planned to buy an Accord hatchback, but they had all, 15 or so, been loaned out to lady golfers in town for a match. I needed a car right then because my ’76 VW Scirocco had stopped running, after 2 years of constant problems, so I ended up with the Civic. I still remember that AC was not standard, so the OEM AC was installed by the dealer by taking out the glove compartment and placing it in that space, along with a compressor of course in the engine bay. The AC unit had four air vents. I aimed two over toward the driver and the other two toward the passenger side. It didn’t do too badly, believe it or not.

    It was a good car, and never needed anything done to it except scheduled service/oil changes. I traded it in with about 50,000 mi. on a 1982 VW Scirocco because I still loved my Sciroccos. Since then I’ve had three Sciroccos, two Jettas, one Corrado, three Passats, two New Beetles, a Mazda MX6, a Mazda6, a Mazda RX-8–which I still have along with a 2006 Passat–and a…1989 Pontiac Grand Prix (never mind).

    Thanks for stirring up all these good memories, Murilee.

  • avatar
    April S

    My best male friend in High School had one of these. Brand new 78′ bright red two door coupe. Light years ahead of my 1977 Chevrolet Chevette. Added a chime horn to it. Blew peoples minds. :D

    It was a slick little car. :)

    P.S. He also had a 68′ VW Bug with a Baja kit. I had pretty cool friends back then.

  • avatar
    kinsha

    My cousin bought one of these used in high school. Must of been around 1978, and it had the hondamatic in it. It said so proudly where this one says 5speed. It was white with huge factory brown tone racing stripes on it. So the first day he has it we go pick up our friends. Him and I in the front seats ( he was big ) Our 3 friends squeeze in the back. All of us ready to go out and parteeyyy! He starts it, and puts it in reverse – it just sits there and revs. Laughter that is still recorded in my head insues :-0 We all still bring that up for laughs every once and a while. The dealer did let him trade it for something else. Believe it or not a little more cash and he was driving a Fiat X19 :-0 Don’t even get get me going on that heap!

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