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.
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.
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.
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.
“living in San Francisco and working as a bicycle mechanic”
Ah, the idyllic ’90s. So many possibilities unavailable to young people today.
As long as one avoided the AIDS crisis, I guess.
I too lived and worked in SF in the early/mid 90s, and yes street parking there as a resident can be a draining experience, one of the few large cities in the US where doing without a car is a viable proposition. These (and newer) Accords were everywhere at that time in that area. I think these in particular have aged very well and rather enjoy the double round headlight look on them, it just looks “right”.
We used bike messengers extensively in my printing business prior life in that timeframe, it’s the fastest way to get something physical from location A to location B (still is), I’m trying to recall which company we used, eventually I think it was JetSet (afer Y2K) which grew out a bunch of bike messengers tiring of working for corporate bike messenger company overlords and just starting their own independent outfit as many others in SF and the area have done in all sorts of fields.
I got my ’79 Accord LX, bronze with the wheels of the top picture, for $850 in 1990, not too far off what you paid a year later. And mine had rust. It was comfy and well-equipped. Easy to a work on as well. It had the “big” 1.8L engine and a nice 5-speed.
It had speed-variable power steering according to the manual. Still one of my favorite cars.
KUSF was sold by the University of San Francisco (despite the name, not City-owned and operated, but a Jesuit institution) to a nonprofit arm of the University of Southern California. The frequency and broadcast license are now KDFC, listener supported classical music station also serving the greater Bay Area through several satellite stations and repeaters.
Parking in San Francisco has now taken on a more sinister aspect than scarce parking spaces as roving homeless, derelicts and thieves regularly smash car windows to steal what they see inside, and sometimes to steal what they can’t even see. This has been happening even in high end neighborhoods like the Marina. Drug use, lax courts and a permissive attitude in City government have taken their toll on the City where I grew up. I don’t drive into San Francisco unless I have to pick up something that I cannot carry by bus, ferry or train.
People breaking into cars in SF has been going on since forever, it’s nothing new. Neither is drug use in SF, openly popular since what, 1965? My GTI’s window got smashed back in 1992 and even back then many people would just leave their cars unlocked with gloveboxes open to show there was nothing worthwhile in there. The Marina neighborhood may be “high end”, but mainly it just means high end rents in an area then and now popular with well off younger people that tend to leave stuff worth stealing in their cars. Your average Tenderloin or SoMa street dweller addict isn’t walking or taking the Muni over the hill to the Marina. Perhaps the federal gov’t shouldn’t have shut down needed mental health services forty years ago, it isn’t working out so well as you noted.
A rising tide lifts all boats.
Unless you don’t have a boat.
Then you drown.
A coworker of mine had a 76 Accord, in the much more car-hostile environment of west Michigan. By 1980, the tops of the front fenders were rusted through (later, the subject of a recall), and Bill said it burned a quart of oil every 500 miles.
Another coworker had a first gen Accord when working as a field rep in Delaware. His pet peeve was the “semi-automatic” choke, as the car was so cold-blooded that he often found himself trying to shift, steer, and pull the choke back into operation, at the same time.
A car that was a bit overlooked when it first came to Europe, as it was an era when most Japanese products could be labelled as “well equipped, not great to drive and not much more, may rust”. Also “reliable” featured and some makers didn’t realise how much that mattered toe very day motorists…..
But looking back, the Accord was perhaps a break out car (with the Civic) for a car that did all those things and was good to drive. 6 years BL were licence building Hondas…..
And, fun fact, the Rover 3500 SC1 (also 1976) had very similar side window demisting ducts, and a dash that looked like a shelf with a box on it, albeit more blatantly than the Honda.
Nice tribute to a good car, and thanks for the link to that Honda site…..I may be some time.
Ah, I recall those well. My best friends brother got a light blue one just like that with his company. When it was time for a new company car, the family purchased the blue one cheap. We had a lot of fun in that car and to this day I feel that Honda (and Toyota) should have kept things simple and basic. Anyhow, this was in the mid-west where we had lots’ of snow and salted roads. The two things I remember the most about Honda’s of those years (70’s through mid 90’s) was the cars would run forever, but the bodies were gone after only 3 or 4 years. And it wasn’t just the outer body panels. The sub-frames and under-body would rot into pieces from the massive rust.
But going back to the running forever: I actually worked at a dealership that sold Buick, Cadillac, Honda and GMC. Of those brands, the only one that required (to keep the warranty in tact) timing belt replacements and manual valve adjustments, was the Honda. The valve adjustments were required every 15,000 miles and timing belt was suggested at 60,000. So yes, those cars would run forever because in 115,000 miles that engine was opened up and checked/repaired 7 or more times at a cost of nearly $1,500 over that time. People driving Buick’s would never spend that much in just required upkeep. I guess my point is that those older Honda’s really gave them the false reputation they have today. But the Buick was much less expensive to drive overall.
Great story. What is that green placard just ahead of the window crank?
I vaguely remember it being a tire pressure warning, and I found a closeup to confirm that. Odd that Honda put it on the door panel rather than the more usual door jam location.
Wow, that is a strange place for it!
My Citroen 2CV also has the tire pressure sticker on the inside of the door, but that is because there is no door jamb as such, just a narrow piece of framing.
A friend had one of these and I quite liked it, although I don’t think I ever drove it. It was probably smaller than a current Civic.
It’s on the door panel so you can read it and tell the full service attendant what pressure they should be
I learned to drive stick on 77 Accord that my parents bought new. Unfortunately for the car we lived in New York so rust was taking its toll by the time we replaced in 1986. One of the interesting features on the Accord was the little coin box above the vent to the left of the cluster. This was very useful in the NYC are for tolls and parking meters.
Ours predated the LX and manual steering, I think power steering was an LX feature. On the other hand we did have the accessory “nerf bars”. The early Accords were small, light and eager feeling unlike the larger and more refined 84 Accord we replaced it with. While the 84 had air conditioning and a cassette player its taller gearing made it less fun to drive especially compared to my 78 Scirocco.
What I remember of these fine cars was Americans are too cheap to pay for routine hot oil and filter changes, that killed many CVCC engines before their time .
In California where it doesn’t rust much, they were superb cars , I rehabbed and flipped dozens of then but never kept one ~ my mistake .
Nice write up Chas. I had a 1979 Accord 5 speed. I remember so many of the touches you mentioned, the indicators for oil changes etc. I got mine from a friend, and it had a bit of cowl and window surround rust. I don’t think it ever lived near the beach, but hmmmm. My friend was not a waxer and she didn’t have a garage. I have seen many cars in California that rust from the salt air, even living as she did in Cow Hollow. My car did not have power steering which I remember very clearly from my episodes of parking in the Haight. I lived on Cole and Page, in the Haight. I really enjoyed the Honda. Great gas mileage, good handling, high cargo capacity. My kayak fit on Easy Ups on the roof. A great car. I remember when the Accord appeared in the US, my hosts in San Diego purchased the automatic. I was excited to see it because all the buff mags were raving about how much car Honda had made for so little money. The good old days before affluenza ruined SF. Now the artists all live far away and everybody is in the gig economy. Mr. Poon, all the car thieves I have seen have been motorized, as in two or more thieves in a car. They check, check, check, smash, grab, run. I have seen it a number of times. Rarely do the PD seem very interested unless you have the plate of the thieves car. None of the reasons that you ascribe to the rash of break-ins has much basis in fact. Car break ins occur through out the country, in many different political climates.