MM Retro-Write-Up: 1975 Honda Civic


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MM Retro-Write-Up: 1975 Honda Civic

The First-Generation Honda Civic, introduced in the fall of 1972 as a 1973 model, and sold until 1979, was one of the most interesting small cars ever sold in the U.S. It followed on the heels of the miniscule Honda 600, which was little more than a two-cylinder, enclosed/four-wheeled motor-scooter. The Civic adopted the now-almost-universal front-engine/transverse-layout/front-wheel-drive that was first introduced on the British 1959 Mini, and was arguably the first widely-sold FWD subcompact in the U.S. One reason for its instant popularity (rivaling that of the increasingly-popular Toyota Corolla) was that it was introduced at a time when the first major fuel crisis, in 1973, was to cause major changes in the auto industry. Ford, GM, and AMC had all introduced domestically-designed subcompacts of their own, with Chrysler preferring to leave that part of the market to its European Simca/Hillman imports. Although successful in the marketplace, the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega both had serious design/engineering flaws and poor quality control, and the AMC Gremlin, essentially a chopped-off Hornet, had better quality but was a subcompact in name and size used large in-line six-cylinder engines, and even had a 5.0L (304 c.i.) V8 engine as an option. The Plymouth Cricket (A.k.a. Hillman Avenger), which was sold at Chrysler-Plymouth dealerships, IMO was so cheaply-made, inside and out, with bargain-basement materials, that even Scrooge would probably not have wanted to drive it. In short, at that time, with the possible exception of the long-successful air-cooled VW Beetle (which I did a write-up on several days ago), and the well-built Toyota Corolla which was starting to increase in popularity, the choice of subcompact cars available in the U.S. basically s**ked.

Into this American world of I'd-Rather-Walk subcompacts, in the early 70s, came the first-ever Honda Civic. Here was a truly interesting subcompact, with incredible space-efficiency, the ability to stretch those expensive (and hard-to-get) gallons of gas, and something that, like the Corolla, also developed a reputation for staying out of repair shops, except to get routine service. Ten years before, Honda had helped transform the motor-scooter market in the U.S., and now was poised, with a high-quality product, to do the same with small cars. The Civic came with features unusual on small cars at that time....power front-disc brakes, fake-wood trim on the dash, optional air-conditioning, and an AM/FM radio. The very short wheelbase and light weight made for a somewhat choppy ride, and the sound-insulation was not the best, but that helped keep the weight down and give it the excellent fuel mileage it was known for. In addition, the 1974 model introduced the first CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine, which, at the time, was the only engine in the American market that could meet the upcoming 1975 emission regulations without a catalytic converter or unleaded fuel. The secret lay in having three valves and two separate combustion-chambers for each cylinder. A small pre-chamber got a rich (more fuel/less air) mixture, which, when it was fired by the spark plug, lit off a very lean mixture (less fuel, more air), in the much larger main-chamber. It worked fine on paper....and in the EPA tests, but, in actuality, this engine did have one significant shortcoming.....which I'll get to in a minute.

My brother had a yellow CVCC model (a 1975, if I remember it correctly), which he bought used, and one of his closest friends had a similar chocolate-brown Civic without the CVCC engine option, and with a somewhat more stark interior....many of the CVCC versions also had the sport-oriented interior and dash. I got to drive and sample both, several times, which brings us to the one big shortcoming of the CVCC system...cold start/warm-up. The regular Civic, with its conventional in-line four, could not equal the CVCC's efficiency, but, even with the crappy 1970s carburetors, was much easier to start and drive, needing only minimal warm-up. The CVCC was fine once it got to normal operating temperature, but starting and warming it would test the patience of a saint. You pulled out the manual-choke lever, gave it a little gas, and cranked it. It would usually catch on the first try, but go absolutely nowhere until matter how gentle you let out the clutch, you got an inevitable stall...the engine would just quit, requiring a restart. No matter where you set the choke-lever, same thing, at least until the lower end of the normal range on the temperature-gauge (about 140 degrees F on the engine temperature). Then, you could at least go somewhere, carefully, with some stumbles and hesitation. When the coolant-temperature got to normal (about 180 degrees F or so), you could drive normally, and there was no problem. It was not simply a matter of me (or my brother) not starting and driving the car correctly....many other drivers/owners
also had major complaints on the CVCC cold-starts, although of course, this was before the Internet and car-forums, and we all depended on publications like Consumer Reports and enthusiast car-magazines. Was it worth that cold-start inconvenience each morning and evening to have a super-efficient (for the period) engine and be able to use cheaper unleaded fuel? IMO, no.....but, looking back, today, of course, we have the advantage of having had decades of electronic engine controls which have taken away the problems that carburetors and lean-running engines used to cause. Back then, the CVCC's popularity showed that the lure of both higher mileage and the cheaper unleaded gas, even with the cold-start problems, was a strong thing to overcome.

And, as Always, Happy Car-Memories.


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