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. 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 company 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 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 problem 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.