1985 Honda Civic CRX
If I had to describe my blue 1985 Civic CRX in one word, that would be it.
I bought it sight-unseen from a dealer my father knew. I took delivery one Saturday morning and drove to my parents' house to show it to Mom and my sister, taking the shortcut through the park so I could play with my new toy on the twisty part in the gorge between the old mill and the goldfish pond.
By the time I got to the house, I was thinking to myself, "This is perfect! It's like Honda read my mind. Someone finally built the car I've always wanted!"
That CRX was perfect. Completely, absolutely perfect. The most perfect car I had ever owned, driven, ridden in, or even looked at from ten yards away.
Let me explain what made it so perfect.
As it says in my official Car Lust biography, I learned to drive "on a succession of pathetic mid-70s domestic cars." To be specific, I learned to drive in a '67 Le Mans (not quite a '70s car, I know), a '73 Catalina, and a '76 Ford LTD. Not long after I got my license, my father acquired a '74 Vega.
I learned very quickly that I do not like bigger cars--and so I ended up preferring the Vega over Dad's large-barges. The Vega was small and light and had no power steering, which helped me to appreciate road feel and maneuverability. Being a Vega, it also taught me to appreciate build quality and durability--which it lacked completely. In fact, every car we had had in this period its share of quality-control problems, the Monza Wagon which replaced the Vega being the worst offender of a very bad lot.
I didn't like the rococo Elvis-in-Vegas look, with the opera windows and the vinyl roof and hood ornament and the faux-chrome plastic trim all over the dashboard--like you had in, say, the LTD. I'd always wanted a clean-lined space-age Car Of The Future. The Starship Enterprise didn't have a hood ornament or a vinyl roof, why should I have to put up with that nonsense?
Since we lived in Northeast Ohio, my first winter as a driver was a crash course (metaphorically speaking) in the practical skills necessary to get RWD Detroit iron through the snow. I remember counter-steering frantically to keep the car in its lane whenever the rear end broke traction. (The Le Mans was especially prone to this.) I also noticed that the folks around me in Rabbits and Civics were having a lot less trouble. I began to think that this newfangled "front wheel drive" might be something I wanted.
The last car I had before the CRX was a decommissioned Ohio State Highway Patrol Plymouth Fury with a 440 Interceptor under the hood. It was too big and used too much gas, and it had mediocre bench seats and full sensory deprivation steering gear--but it also had decent throttle response and brute roadholding grip. Lots of brute roadholding grip. Oh, man, could it corner!
I had looked at the Rabbit GTI in the fall of 1983, but it was priced just out of my reach. I'd kind of resigned myself to just living with the Fury for the forseeable future, and then I got a call from a friend of mine I usually call "Perk." Perk has an honest-to-Colin-Chapman Lotus Elan S4 in his garage, and he's forgotten more about performance cars than I'll ever know. On matters automotive, I trust him completely.
Perk called because he'd just gotten home from a visit to his local Honda dealer, where he'd test-driven the new CRX. He was as enthusiastic about it as he'd ever been about anything. "You should get one," he kept saying. "It's exactly what you want."
There was no Honda dealer in the town where I was living, but I investigated the CRX as best I could. It looked good on paper. Car & Driver liked it. Motor Trend liked it. Road & Track liked it. The MSRP was just barely within reach, but I could swing it. I mentioned it to Dad, Dad called his dealer friend and set up the transaction, I pulled my car money out of savings and drove up to my old hometown with checkbook in hand.
I got as much CRX as I could afford. That meant settling for the base ("DX") model instead of the fuel-injected air-superiority version, and passing up the opportunity to get dealer-installed AC and fancy alloy wheels. The DX model had a carbureted 1.5-liter engine making a mere 76 horsepower--but since those 76 ponies only had 1,819 pounds of car to tug on, the straight-line performance was better than you might think. The car magazines clocked it at 10.1 seconds 0-60, which doesn't sound all that great until you realize that it was the equal of the contemporary Rabbit GTI, completely outclassed the competing 2M4 Fiero and EXP, and trailed the much more muscular Cavalier Z24 by less than half a second.
It felt even faster than it was, thanks in part to a low seating position which put your rump down close to the road, and in part to a smooth clutch and a 5-speed transmission that fit the engine perfectly. I quickly developed an optimum 0-60 dash technique--cue up Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers' "Refugee" in the cassette deck, drop the hammer on the first chorus, shift in time with the music, and sing along at the top of your lungs. Trust me, if you shifted every time Tom Petty changed guitar chords, the tach needle would be right there in the powerband where you wanted it.
Once you were up to cruising speed, the fun was only starting. If you simply read the specifications, the suspension doesn't sound all that exciting: MacPherson struts and vented discs up front, but a beam axle and drum brakes in the rear. Sure, there were sway bars, and it had rack and pinion steering, but a beam axle? They're kidding, right?
They weren't kidding. It may not have been a fully independent suspension or all-disc brakes, but you couldn't tell by how it handled. It took curves gracefully, and the more curves the journey had, the more fun you had. I had an eight-mile one-way daily commute over country roads at that time, and in the CRX it was the highlight of my workday.
As for build quality, it was a Honda. 'Nuff said.
Oh, and fuel economy? 32 MPG combined city and highway. On a long trip with mostly freeway driving, it broke 40 MPG easily. (The lighter "HF" version, which was optimized for fuel economy, did over 50 MPG in highway driving.)
The CRX wasn't drop-dead beautiful--I thought the Fiero had it beat in the styling department--but it was pleasant to look at. It had a touch of the Giorgetto Giugiaro creased-and-folded look, with just enough curvature to balance that out. It was comfortably into my desired Car Of The Future territory, but it didn't draw a lot of attention to itself--which allowed me to surprise a few 4-cylinder Fieros in the stoplight grand prix.
Inside, the layout of the gauges and controls--what the aviation guys call "cockpit integration"--was superb, the best I had ever seen. I had some long-legged basketball-playing friends who occasionally bummed a ride from me, and they fit comfortably in the passenger seat. The cargo area was simply cavernous. The only thing "wrong" with it was that it was a two-seater (though it was sold as a 2+2 in Europe and Japan), which was really no disadvantage until I started a family.
My CRX served me faithfully through five trouble-free years until it was totaled in a wreck on a rainy night. It's a tribute to the lightweight CRX's structural engineering that I walked away uninjured. Had it not been destroyed, I would have had to get rid of it within a couple of years, as soon as the kids started coming along, due to the absence of a back seat.
The 1985 model year was the last year for the "original" CRX. Beginning in 1986, Honda replaced the recessed headlights with flush-mounted units, which to my mind took away some of the character. The second generation CRX, which was introduced in 1988, added flared wheel arches and general curviness to the bodywork, and adopted a sophisticated double-wishbone suspension that makes it a tuners' favorite to this day. The second-gen is a "better" car by every objective measure, but I can't warm up to it. Call me old-school, or just old-fashioned, but I prefer the original.
First-generation CRXs are relatively rare these days. I did see one in the wild last summer, while we were driving through Pittsburgh. It was a white DX, an '84 or '85 with recessed headlights, stock wheels and hubcaps, no dents, no rust. Beautiful.
The driver looked content, as well he should have been. He was driving the perfect car.
The vintage advertising illustration at the top, and the scale drawing, came from the image gallery at The CRX Page. The other photos came from the "Readers' Rides" gallery at Honda Tuning magazine's website. The blue '85 belongs to "relic85" and the red one to "Sgt. Pepper." (If either of you ever want to sell your CRXs, let me know.)
--Cookie the Dog's Owner