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1973-1979 Honda Civic

Is this the original Pregnant Roller Skate? Internet sources say no, pegging the VW Beetle as having earned that CB radio moniker among truckers. On the other hand, this was the first car I had heard referred to by that nickname back in the '70s and whenever I see one these days--rare though that is--that's what I think of it as. To be honest, back in the days of its introduction to the U.S., a lot of us probably saw the Civic and many of its Japanese subcompact brethren something like the dinosaurs viewed a diminutive little mammal in a certain Far Side cartoon: laughing their heads off while one of them noticed the first few snowflakes starting to fall. 1973_honda_civic_hatchback-pic-24154 Yeah, yeah we were wrong.

Then again, I still can't say I can work up a lot of enthusiasm for the car itself other than as an historically interesting object that started off one of the great success stories in American business. It was tiny, rusted out soon after driving it off the lot (at least in the Midwest), and had fairly unexceptional 0-60 times. Still, as the years have rolled by, I guess I've developed a certain fondness for the little bugger, maybe a bit like Austin Powers finally did with Mini Me by the third (otherwise best forgotten) movie in that series. Part of this has to do with my association here, delving into the forgotten cars of the past, but I am also part of the Civic owner base, at least by marriage if not blood: my Spousal Unit has driven a Civic for several years now, and I have come to view it as an absolutely brilliant car in its simplicity and functionality.

So, I write this missive as something of an ode to youthful folly and the wisdom of old(er) age. I won't go too far into the weeds on the particulars of the car itself, which would probably be boring anyway with such a straightforward little car, but simply give a few specs, a little history, and a couple of pictures to take you, gentle reader, back to those thrilling days of yesteryear when big cars were expensive, small cars were cheap, and the Little Car That Could foreshadowed an epic struggle pitting some Japanese upstarts against the titans of the U.S. auto industry.

Honda first set up shop in the US on June 11, 1959 with an unassuming little storefront in Los Angeles named the American Honda Motor Co. Inc. The cAmerican_honda_storeompany had been founded by Soichiro Honda to make motor bikes; literally motorbikes, they were basic bicycles fitted with engines. Eventually, Honda produced the successful Honda Cub and other models, but soon moved into the automobile business. The first model to hit the US shores was the N600 a diminutive little kei car that garnered little interest (or buyers). Then in 1972 (as a 1973 model) came the first Civic with the advertising catchphrase  "We make it simple." Yes they did.

The original Civics had a whopping 1.1-liter engine (that's 70 cubic inches) putting out 50 horsepower. Not to worry. though, engine capacity soon zoomed to nearly 1.5 liters and a thumping ... 60 horsepower. Not like it needed a lot of power, it only weighed around 1500 pounds. Still, it had power disc brakes in front, independent suspension fore and aft, and a 4-speed manual transmission standard (that eventually grew into a 5-speed manual and a 2-speed "Hondamatic" auto). The engine was also mounted transversely and the car had front-wheel-drive, so it had pretty good interior space despite its small size.

Overall, it probably outperformed the domestic competition, such as the Vega and Pinto. Its secret weapon, if you could call it that, was the CVCC engine. This was a special engine developed by Honda to meet American emissions standards without a catalytic converter. The CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) had an extra valve near the spark plug which increased the fuel in the mixture near the plug while the rest of the cylinder contained a leaner mixture. Because of the design of the combustion chamber, the lean/rich sections were kept separate which allowed for stable engine performance while burning more of the fuel and thus putting out fewer hydrocarbons and CO. It was a neat little trick that kept the price low, the engine reliable, and obviated the need for performance-robbing (and expensive) catalytic converters.

Options were few, involving little more than A/C, a rear wiper, and radial tires. As they said, simple.

But it was enough to get a foot in the door to the US market and, especially during the oil shocks of that 78hondacivic_cvccAd decade, 40+ mpg looked pretty good to a lot of buyers, especially when the domestic competition was more or less woefully inadequate. The Civic grew over the next few decades but generally kept to its roots of  simplicity, offering buyers an entry-level car that performs well and doesn't break down very often. As well, the lineage has produced some memorable models, including at least one apparently perfect one. It has truly been a model line that stayed true to its roots while still evolving to keep up with the competition.

Despite this drive for simplicity (or maybe because of it) the Civic has become a favorite of tuner-boys everywhere, souping up the engine--often beginning with just a few tweaks of the engine software--and dressing them up as well as any old-fashioned muscle car or hot rod aficionado. Unfortunately, this also makes them a prime target for thievery since the parts are hot commodities. C'est la vie, I guess.  

As I say, I'm also a Civic owner by marriage--though I'm not the primary driver. The Spousal Unit bought a Civic  HX new in 1996 (a 1997 model, pictured). To my eyes, the '96-2000 generation is the most attractive all around. The shape looks simple, aerodynamic, no fuss, no muss, just enough styling to keep one interested but not enough to date it within two years. The HX was the high-mileage model, although at 115 horsepower it had a bit more oomph than most of the other Civics. It was rated at 34-37 MPGg city and 38-44 highway, but it has regularly gotten in the mid-40s with mostly highway commuter driving. Until recently, anyway--it needs some work, but it's still in the high 30s. And all without the added expense of a hybrid!

True, it's pretty basic, no A/C, ABS, or a lot of other junk, but then again it's a workaday commuter car (we mostly take the Mustang II out on the weekends). It's still on the same clutch (knock wood) and has only had one O2 sensor probleCivicm the whole time. After 14 years it's the same as it's always been: Simple, basic, reliable and highly efficient transportation. It's simply a brilliant car.

Credits: The yellow Civic at the top is a '73 from CarGurus.com, the storefront is from Honda's own web site, and the ad is from AdClassix.com.

--Anthony Cagle

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One small correction: Most tuners don't change their software. The most common mods are an exhaust, and CAI (cold air intake). This makes them louder, and frees up 10-20hp. The majority of guys never really go beyond that, due to cost. The idea that honda people are young punks that hack into their ECU to provide more power is kind of a misconception pushed by people into musclecars.

Great article, Anthony. I was 16 in 1973, and should have got one of these new, with A/C, for less than I gave for the 1972 Vega. But who knew then, eh?

Honda hit the US automotive market fairly strong and fast. Here's an ad for their 1979 line-up, including the model from the post above:

http://www.adclassix.com/images/79hondacivicaccord.jpg

I found respect for the "little bugger" after watching this movie scene. At least watch the last 12 seconds of this one. BTW, it's a second-gen Civic:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKc8QJEla0I

Typical Car Lust mentality at 41 seconds:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBOZ06_AfUo&feature=channel

My chemistry teacher used to have an third-gen 1985 Honda Civic DX hatchback since new. Simple and functional, stock right down to the steel wheels. Very reliable and peppy, she told me.

When she said she she traded it in for a new Honda Fit (she couldn't drive stick anymore due to a leg operation), I quickly asked if its still for sale.

Once again, the dream of actually owning a car slips through my fingers, as it had already been sold. I shudder at the thought of a local punk cutting up such a gem. X(

I was working in a used-car lot for a short spell in the mid-70s, and every Japanese car that came on the lot looked and felt like a cheap scaled-down caricature of an American car - cramped, full of noxious plastic parts - then I rode in a Civic, and really liked its spare but high-quality feel, and it actually felt spacious inside. First compact car I didn't feel was punishing me for riding in it. Shoot, all six feet three of me sat in the backseat of one on a six-hour road trip without complaint!
I'm looking to get a car soon, and am leaning away from something new and looking at a mid-2000s si hatchback. Always liked them, and they seem to not be a choice car for those crazy tuner-boy kids, so I should be able to find a clean one.

A 1979 Honda Civic was my very first car. I got it for $65. It's hard not to see it through rosy glasses -- it was a GREAT car. Super cheap to run, always ran great, and if I turned up the stereo loud enough, the shaking and road noise didn't seem so bad.

Of course, it was rust that killed it. It was already bad when I got it. I used an old bamboo fishing rod to hold up the rear hatch. And every time the doors were closed, a ring of rustflakes would be deposited in silhouette, like the body at a crime scene.

Finally, I sold it to a local farmer as a field car for $200. Last time I made money on a car, too.

And FWIW, I think the styling is beautiful. I think the look of Hondas has nosedived sharply since about 1987. The Civic wagon is the last one I really liked. But that probably tells you a lot about my tastes.

Those first Civics were game-changers: insanely economical, reasonably priced, recognizably Japanese in styling but without too much of that "Atomic Cockroach" vibe, everything was lined up straight and torqued down to spec, and it was unkillable. Give it gasoline and follow the oil-change schedule, and it would run forever.

At the same time, GM was giving us the Vega, which started rusting on the assembly line and had an engine that self-destructed in less than 50,000 miles. Ford was having build quality problems of its own--"Found On Road Dead"--and Chrysler . . . well, the less said about the Aspen and Volare, the better. Contrast that with the Civic, and now you see why the Big Three fell so far.

We had a 4 in 1978 in bright orange that is among my earliest memories. I distinctly remember my father grabbing the rear bumper and lifting the rear end off the ground all by himself.

--Big Chris

I always liked the sporty steering wheels and clean shape of these.

My concern with reliability... I had a 79 Accord and it was the worst car I have ever owned. Master cylinders were eaten for lunch, semi automatic tranny going out (Hondamatic) twice in 3 years of owning this beast, over heating issues were common...2 engines in 45k. It was my 1st car in late high school... so I did beat on it it a bit, but it still seemed touchy with only 70k miles at that time in 1992.

Note: I had an 86 base Ford Escort for about 2 months prior to this Accord. I hated the way that car drove, in fact this 7 years older Accord was 10 X's more enjoyable.

and Chris, my buddies used to do that with my 87 Sprint Turbo when I bought it in 1992 all time too! We would sometimes park in San Fran CA with friends lifting the rear to fit in a spot.

Kenny: A tight parking space in San Francisco? You've GOT to be kidding! (Ha!)

When I was in high school (in the mid-90s), my friend's dad had an early 80s Civic with about 30K on the odometer. (He was an airline pilot and basically only drove it to the airport and back a couple times a week.). Anyhow, it became my friend's car, and I had the pleasure of driving it a few times. It was no speed demon, but it was a fun little car to drive--it had sort of a wiry-but-strong feeling to it--pretty much the same feel that my '02 Accord Coupe had.

Now that I live in San Diego, I actually see first generation Civics from time to time. They aren't babied heirlooms, but beat up microclunkers that have somehow stood the test of time and smog checks. That is pretty impressive, as few cars that aren't somehow enthusiast pieces survive from beyond the '90s. My first Civic driving memory was in a second generation 2 door hatch that one of my neighbors would sneak out of his driveway when I was 13 or so years old. The car that I was 'borrowing' from my folks at the time was a '79 Plymouth Horizon, and the Civic failed to impress me as the game changer that it was in hindsight.

The first Civic that I admired was the 3rd generation car. Car and Driver loved every version of it, and I was something of a believer at the time. The first car I flipped over was a CRX Si, and I was happy at how it maintained its integrity in a tripple digit wreck. I almost bought a 4th generation Civic hatch, but the dealer thought better than to sell me the one I wanted. I worked for the same dealer a year later and learned that they had absolute contempt for Honda customers. The cars were quality, but the dealer saw only the potential to take advantage of people who wanted them.

I thought Civics got pretty boring for a while, but considered a 2005 Civic Si hatch. Unfortunately, it was at the same dealer and they hadn't improved their act. The salesman wanted me to shift at redline in a car with 15 miles, which wasn't an indication that I wanted to buy one of their cars.

In 2007, I finally bought a Civic. Having spent about 17 years driving German cars, I was driven to it by the Germans losing the values that I admired. I'd driven an S2000 for a while, and it changed my outlook on Hondas. They aren't just sound cars, they can be worth driving just for the joy of it. I still love my Civic Si sedan. In about 3 and a half years, it has had no problems. It is as fun as any car I've driven, and it doesn't limp home after hitting 8,000 rpm on every shift. Honda seems to be hunkering down for the political landscape that will see energy made a luxury good, but hopefully they'll be ready with powerful, light, naturally aspirated cars if ever recover from our current mistakes.

The picture of the yellow one reminds me of the 1st car that I can actually remember my dad owning. it was a 77 I think. Good memories.
I think it would be fun to have one of those to play around w/ now, but not necessarily a daily driver.

Rumor has it the American Honda Museum has spent years looking for a restorable 1973 Civic. They have a '75, but are looking for one from the first production year for historic purposes. Here's a list (from 2007) of their wish list:
1973 Civic Hatchback
1975 Civic CVCC SGE 5sp (Yellow?)
1976 Accord Hatchback
1979 Accord Sedan
1979 Prelude
1980 Civic Hatchback
1981 Civic Sedan
1981 Civic Wagon
1983 Accord Sedan (US Built)
1986 Accord (LXI)
1987 Civic Wagon (4 Wheel Drive?)
1988 Accord Coupe
1990 Accord Sedan (DX or LX)
1994 Passport
1995 Odyssey
1997 CR-V
Acuras
1986 Integra Hatchback
1994 Integra Coupe

Before I retired my 79 Accord, I remember the passenger door flew open around L hand turns, the driver's seat was worn to no stuffing and it would suddenly fall back ward/ reclining without reason. Scary car. Not Honda's finest moment.

Granted, I loved the dash board. So many nice touches like a coin box, fat 4 spoke sport steering wheel, controls within reach, nice seating position, quiet engine, locking fuel filler door, low lift rear hatch, big gauges with a tachometer. Such a modern car... could have passed for a mid 80's design. American cars were garbage in comparison.

I own a 96 EX sedan, and it's certainly pleasant to drive (relatively quiet, with cruise control, and even a moon roof for those rare occasions when speed and climate combine to make opening it enjoyable).

But my heart belongs to the previous generation of Civic. My '93 DX Hatchback has a much better power to weight ratio, and gets much better gas mileage, so it's the car I drive every day.

I remember a Chicago Suburban housing developer sold new house with a new civic 1200cc in each garage some time between the mid-60 /mid-70.
I though that time it could be a nice shopping cart.
Wonder if there is any person remember this marketing ploy..

I had a brand new 1976 Civic with the conventional non-CVCC engine, which seemed luxurious after the '69 VW it replaced. It ran on leaded gas, which allowed me to bypass the gas lines at the unleaded pumps in the later 70's. The hand choke was a great help in the Minnesota winters, although I had to take the tiny battery inside on really cold nights. The seals on the pulley end of the camshaft would leak, spraying oil on the timing belt, ensuring its short life, and it was hard to find those 12" tires. Eventually, the rust ate it.

Had one of those when I was living is Boston's Back Bay, where you needed, 1] A parking sticker and, 2] the ability to take any fraction of a parking space available. I always found a place to park because I could take much smaller spaces than most cars could. Parallel parking that thing was a cinch. Oh, and it was as reliable as a stone ax too. Mine was almost exactly like the top photo, only red.

The first car I bought by myself was a 1979 Red Honda Civic CVCC while at college. I was young and naive and paid at least twice what it was worth at a dealership. In the year I owned it, I spent way more on that car than I should have, but I loved it. Someone rear ended me in LA and totaled it.

Ironically, I eventually moved back to where I went to college and bought my current 1999 Civic at the same dealership and this time got a very good deal. Problem is that it isn't built as well and I don't like it all that much--more than my other commuter cars between, but that's not saying much.

(By contrast, my 2001 Honda Odyssey is the best car I've owned. It's been unbelievably reliable and is simply wonderful to drive.)

What's the opposite of lust? Disgust? That's my emotion for early Civics. I inherited a 1980 Civic Wagon as a college student. No A/C. Only AM radio. NO power. With the accelerator floored, top speed was about 70 on level ground. The best it could do up a steep hill was 55 mpg. Scary driving that thing on the highway, at speed strong wind could almost blow you off the road. In heavy rain water would splash into the engine compartment and soak the spark plugs, killing the engine.

It did get good mileage. And the front engine gave it good traction in snow. But EVERYTHING else about this car totally sucked.

My dad had one, and we all thought it was a hoot to drive! Keep the revs high and the little thing moved okay, and in SoCal rust wasn't much of a problem. The ride quality just added to the fun.
Not a great 'date car', though.

My first three cars were 73/74 cvcc civics. Loved 'em. Handled like a dream. It was high school and guys were always picking them up and moving them around on me. Being a teenager, I beat the crap out of 'em and and even split one in half with a freight train. But that's another story.

What a blast from the past! A 1979 Civic was my first car. I loved it like crazy except that the head gaskets blew about every 15 K miles. Once I ran it up along side of a tree, and in an effort NOT to scratch it up any further, a girlfriend and I (both women) were able to 'bounce' it away from the tree. It spent it's last summer - 1984 - in a parking lot by the ocean, and in 4 months became nothing but a rust spot and a memory....

On my fifth Honda, an '89 Accord LXi coupe bought from my mechanic when my '88 Volvo 740 GL (241K, owned for 10 years) just started having too many problems to keep up with.

Honda had 148k, 161 now, a year later, 34 mpg highway and 30 city/hwy combined. Minor stuff, plus some rust, but drives like a farking champ!

After buying it I couldn't understand why I held on to Volvo for all those years. I told people I got bored with Hondas because they did everything damned near flawlessly.

HOWEVER I also told people I owned Hondas since their were junk and the early models were.

My first and only Civic was nice, except that while living in Denver I started having thick, gray smoke pour out of the vents when the heater was on. Drove without the fan for six months until the following winter when desperate for heat, I turned on the fan again an VOILA! NO SMOKE and it never did it again.

First Accord rusted from the gas tank out. Finally got rid of it after two carb rebuilds in three months due to said rust in gas tank and then when filling up had the filler tube drop to the ground.

Had an 86 Accord LX sedan that was the most awesome car ever, finally died with 240K on it. Next had a 92 Prelude that was almost as awesome until some chick ran into it while it was parked on the street. Pushed the rear bumper just about to the rear window. She was looking for her purse. Stupid idiot.

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