COAL -1979 Honda Accord Hatchback – Back on Four Wheels

In 1991, I was living in San Francisco and working as a bicycle mechanic, and after selling my Maxima to my brother, I had been carless for over a year. Traffic and a lack of parking make owning a car in San Francisco more of a chore than in many other locales, and I’d been getting around via bicycle, motorcycle, public transit, and occasionally renting cars for trips out of town. I had noticed a well-kept first-generation Honda Accord hatchback parked around my neighborhood with a “for sale” sign in the window. Quite honestly, I don’t remember if I’d been thinking about buying a car and then saw the Accord, or if the Accord got me to consider car ownership again.

Either way, I was familiar with the Accord’s reputation as a game-changing car and had, by that point, come to accept that front-wheel-drive was a proven technology and had left behind any apprehension that such cars were difficult to repair, prone to mechanical problems, or handled strangely. Looking back, this belief may have come from observing the frequent problems encountered by friends who owned used (often very used) early front-wheel-drive cars such as a VW Dasher or a Fiat 128.

The Accord was introduced in 1976, and its launch generated a massive amount of attention. It was a small, fuel-efficient car that offered a level of standard equipment and fit and finish well above comparable cars, and delivered a pleasant driving experience and impressive reliability at a time when small cars were generally compromises at best. As a point of comparison, the Chevrolet Chevette and Renault 5 (aka Le Car) were also rolled out to US buyers around the same time, and the Chevy Vega, AMC Gremlin, Ford Pinto, and Datsun B-210 also competed for the compact buyer’s business that year.

I was a boy when the Accord was introduced, but remember a friend of my parents purchasing an early model and speaking quite highly of it. Dealers were charging substantially over MSRP, and my parent’s Accord-buying friend rationalized paying the premium by saying he’d make up the difference in gas savings.

I kept seeing the Accord parked in the neighborhood for some weeks, and one day noticed that they’d dropped the asking price on the sign. I had just sold a drum set and had some extra cash, and decided to give the sellers a call.

Speaking on the phone, I learned they had owned the car for some years, the tags were current, they had maintenance records, and the car had recently passed smog. I asked about the timing belt and there was a pause – it was due for a new timing belt but it hadn’t been done yet.

Making a mental note to budget for the timing belt, we set a time to look at the car. The sellers were nearby and I just walked over to their house. The car looked nice, I gave it a close inspection and we took it on a test drive. Someone had suggested driving in clockwise and counterclockwise circles to listen for worn CV joints so I added that to my repertoire of pre-purchase inspections. The car looked in good shape, drove nicely, and the seller and I came to an agreement on the price – if memory serves, I paid $900.00.

In writing this, it strikes me how quickly used cars dropped in value in decades past, especially one like this where the odometer shoed more than 100,000 miles. The $900 I paid for the Accord was perhaps 15% of the original MSRP for a then-12-year-old car. While it’s hard to make an exact comparison, it seems like today a 12-year-old Honda in similar condition & mileage would typically sell for around 25% to 33% of the original MSRP. At the time, it seemed like the sellers thought they had a car near the end of its life with an expensive repair coming on, whereas I saw it as a fairly solid car that needed a somewhat expensive but fully anticipated routine servicing.

A major engineering breakthrough. Though don’t let the timing belt break.

I was mindful of the havoc that a broken timing belt could wreak on the Honda’s interference engine, so not long after buying the car, I found a shop across the bay that could do the timing belt relatively cheaply. I may have had the water pump replaced and valve adjustment done at the time as well – my service records stayed with the car when I sold, but I do remember sinking several hundred into the car in preventative maintenance right after I bought it, though I can’t recall what else beyond the timing belt was done. After that, it served me well and the only other work I recall doing on it was a set of brake pads sometime later. Beyond that, oil changes and fluid checks were about all the work I did. Thus, it wasn’t until some months after I bought it that I came across a Snap-On ¼” swivel ratchet wedged into a corner of the engine compartment. I wasn’t sure if it was left behind after the recent timing belt replacement or was a souvenir from some earlier mechanical work, but I still have that ratchet in my toolbox.

On the subject of oil changes, the Accord had a simple but effective maintenance reminder. A little window near the odometer would change color to show if the car needed an oil change, filter change, or tire rotation. It seemed to be mechanically linked to the odometer, and it could be reset by inserting the ignition key into a slot on the dash – the slots can be seen in the photo below.

Unusually for a compact car, the Accord had power steering. This was apparently part of Honda’s effort to make it more appealing to US buyers. It didn’t have the numb, overboosted feel of a domestic sedan, but it made parallel parking in San Francisco a breeze – or at least, it was easy to back into a parking space once I’d managed to find a spot. In Honda’s very detailed history of the car, the decision to add power steering was apparently the source of some internal conflict.

Another interesting feature of the Accord was the side window defrosters. On the defrost setting, a duct at each end of the dashboard would blow warm air into a channel in the door panels, to come out of two vents at the front of the driver’s and passenger’s doors. In the photo below, you can see the rubber gasket for the duct at the end of the dashboard.

My Accord was an LX, and had the maroon cloth interior which, unlike many cars from that vintage, held up quite well. This is not so uncommon these days (I later owned a 1995 Subaru where the interior still looked great at 300K miles) but for a decade-old car built in the 1970s, having upholstery that wasn’t split or threadbare after 10 years was an impressive feat.

And despite the Accord’s small size, the interior didn’t feel all that cramped. I regularly drove it with 4 people (and sometimes 5) and while I wouldn’t want to go on a long road trip with that many passengers, it was fine for trips around the Bay Area or up to Marin, and the car never felt underpowered heading up hills with a full load of passengers. I also recall the radio having above-average reception — I can imagine this being yet another detail sweated over by someone at Honda as the Accord was being designed. On the subject of radio, eagle-eyed readers may notice a KUSF radio sticker on the back glass in the lead photo of this article. The car had some kind of stained-glass-looking Zodiac sticker in the back window when I bought it, and I popped on a KUSF sticker over it. KUSF was a college radio station in the classic sense, playing an eclectic mix of music heavy on punk, underground and independent music. KUSF was one of my radio presets on this and subsequent cars until the University of San Francisco sold the station in 2011 and it went off the air.

And while the Accord seemed like a very modern car, there were a few aspects that dated it to the 1970s. The bumpers and a surprising amount of the trim were chrome or stainless. The clock on the console was digital, but as you can see in the photo below, it was the kind of digital clock where the numbers rotate on wheels rather than an LED clock.

The round, quad sealed beam headlights also looked dated at the time, though to my eyes today, they look less of their era than the rectangular sealed beams often used in the 70s and 80s.

Also a bit old-fashioned by the 1970s was the use of emblems consisting of individual letters held on by pins going into a hole in the metal, as was done for the “Honda” letters on the hatchback. A few years later, glued-on emblems would be far more common. If you look closely at the lead photo, 2 of the letters on my car had fallen off or been stolen, so my car read “OND” rather than “HONDA”. I vaguely thought about looking a spare “A” at a pick&pull so I could spell out “DNA” on the back, but the car never gave me cause to go on a used parts run.

Another thing that pegged it as a car of the 70s was the absence of a passenger-side mirror, a surprising omission given how generally well-equipped the car was. I’ve seen first-generation Accords with a passenger-side mirror on some photos online so I’m guessing it may have been a dealer-installed accessory.

Not dated but rather European-seeming was the Accord’s front-opening hood. I’d been surprised some years before in my Falcon when the hood popped up on the freeway,  so this was an appreciated design feature.

The Accord was reliable and never let me down, although my lack of trouble could have partly been due to me not using it as a daily driver and thus not piling on commute miles. I both lived and worked in San Francisco, and getting to or from work was much easier on public transit or even on a bicycle than by car. Any trip I made within San Francisco would involve searching for parking both at the destination and when I returned home, so my car was used more for weekend trips, running errands, hauling large objects, and trips after work.

My Accord, in a rare parking spot in the Haight-Ashbury.

When I did get it out of SF traffic and onto the open road, I found it fun to drive and a surprisingly competent car. Mine had a 5-speed, and 1979 was the first year of the enlarged 1800cc motor – which was introduced to power the heavier 4-door Accord but installed in all models that year.  The 1800 motor wasn’t a powerhouse, but neither did it feel underpowered, and the brakes and chassis felt very much in line with the amount of power on tap, giving the car a pleasant, balanced feeling whether on the freeway or on winding roads.

I ended up selling the Accord almost exactly a year after I bought it. It was running well and not giving me any trouble, but the insurance was coming due, and I had decided to go carless again. I took out a classified ad in the SF Chronicle, and sold it to another young man that weekend. I got $1100 for it – making back my purchase price and a good chunk of what I’d paid for the timing belt.

As an aside, one of the publishers of automotive & motorcycle manuals in the 70s and into the 80s used to include a hop-up section at the back, going over what engine and suspension modifications could be made. I believe it was Clymer, but I could be wrong, perhaps someone in the comments will weigh in? These hop-up sections would typically be broken down into stages, starting with simple bolt-ons like Weber carbs or headers, ending with engine overbores and high-compression pistons. I recall reading one of these hop-up sections in a Honda manual – either for an Accord or a Civic, and rather than outlining what could be done, it largely went over all the things that couldn’t be done to a Honda of 70s vintage. Essentially, the CVCC combustion chamber ruled out most typical engine modifications, and the front/rear strut suspension didn’t, at the time, have any feasible upgrade options. It may be that when the manual was published there just wasn’t yet an aftermarket for Hondas, but this impressed on me that CVCC-era Hondas, though impressively engineered, didn’t lend themselves to standard performance improvement tricks, in marked contrast to their 90s and later brethren which spawned the huge “sport compact” aftermarket.

A shop manual, though I’m not sure if it was this one, had a Hop-Up section that essentially said “don’t bother”

Quite some years later, while at the Wednesday night bracket drags at Sears Point, I came across a first-generation Honda Accord hatchback staged in the “Sport Street” lane amidst far newer Hondas, and I wondered if someone had cracked the secret to CVCC performance, or if perhaps it had a motor swapped in from a later Honda. As I saw the Accord turn slow (but quite consistent) 19 second quarter miles, I realized it was stock or nearly so. The car was the same silver as the one I had earlier owned, and seeing it brought me back to my long-departed car for a moment.