COAL: 1980 Honda Accord Hatchback — Oil and Water

From the beginning, it was obvious that there was going to be a problem. Not a mechanical problem, as the above COAL title might imply, but a philosophical one. Following is the tale of two opposing forces. In this corner: My father. In that corner: My mother’s 1980 Honda Accord.

The Backstory

In the late ‘70s, my mother finally got her New York driver’s license.  She had let her Pennsylvania license expire after she moved to Binghamton, NY in the mid-1950s for work. Reluctant to commit to the expense of car ownership, she carpooled to work at Ansco, which was a not-uncommon practice at the time.

Surely, 1950s carpooling was just like this. The adults are going to work, the kids are going to school, and the dog . . . I’m not sure what he does.


After she and my father got married in 1959, she alternated between carpooling and being chauffeured by my father throughout most of the ‘60s and part of the ‘70s. The Triple Cities area (Binghamton, Endicott and Johnson City) is compact and very drivable; it’s easy to get from one side to the other in 15 minutes or so.

Map shows the close proximity of towns in the area. Apologies for the 8-bit video game quality image.


After she got her license in 1979, she was not remotely interested in driving the Riviera. So, in 1980 we went car shopping. At age 13 there was nothing better to me than car shopping, even when I participated as a largely silent spectator.

The Problem

We returned to our local Pontiac dealer in summer 1980 for a look at used cars. As I scanned the lot, I noticed plenty of potential options to grace our driveway: late ‘70s Firebirds, a couple of Nova-based Phoenixes, even a low-trim level LeMans. “This should be easy,” I thought. Famous last words.

Here all week, folks. Try the veal. You CCers really are a beautiful audience.


The problem: My mother was 4’11” tall. (Note: I’d just gotten used to telling people she’s 4’10” when she recently told me she’s now 4’9”!) We were sunk when she couldn’t reach the pedals in the Firebird. No $4,999 lightly-used Firebird for us. None of the other used cars on the lot were any better — she usually couldn’t reach the pedals, but occasionally it was the 1-2 punch of couldn’t reach the pedals and couldn’t see out of it.

Universal pedal extenders were patented in 1971, but we had no internet on which to find them anyway.


No average American car (that I can think of) at that time had the kind of seat adjustability a 4’11” individual needs as standard equipment. And I knew we weren’t going for a loaded model of any car to score the elusive six-way power driver’s seat.

The Solution

Conveniently, our Pontiac dealer was also a Honda dealer. Honda sales were already on fire; the addition of the Accord sedan for model year ‘79 only expanded the Accord’s appeal. Everybody wanted an Accord…except my father. I think he was still surprised that we’d struck out on the lot’s domestic used cars. But, my father was a man of action! Once he decided my mother was getting a car, they were going to try cars on that lot until they found the right one! Honestly, he should have paused and considered his options.

Not sure why we started with the base Accord. Seems like we should have gone for the Accord LX. 1981 base model shown here.


But no! As a man of action, when the salesman (the same one who’d sold him his Bonneville Brougham) mentioned considering a Honda, he was game. He immediately rejected both the Civic (too small) and the Prelude (too small and too expensive). That left the Accord. My mother test-drove a Livorno Beige base model Accord hatchback and had no problem with visibility or pedal distance.

The Bottom Line

I don’t have the exact numbers, but I recall that in 1978 his Bonneville Brougham stickered for around $9,000. In 1980, her base Accord, with crank windows, no air conditioning, no power steering, but with an automatic transmission (my father never learned to drive a manual), 8-track player, dealer-applied hockey stick-ish looking tri-color vinyl striping, and aftermarket sunroof (his chosen alternative to air conditioning, God help us all) was close to $8,000 in 1980. There may have been a “market adjustment” in there, I’m not sure. I do not think he thought the Accord was “good value for money,” as the Brits say. But this car worked for my mother, so they bought it.

On the Road (one time)

Sometime later that summer, someone (the same someone who boycotted the NYS Thruway for years because of a speeding ticket), thought it would be a great idea to drive our new Accord to Unadilla for a family visit.

It was certainly not a great idea. It was not even a good idea. I’m reluctant to say it was an OK idea. But, we did it anyway.

Problem 1: The route

Remember, we’re still taking the unenjoyable route discussed in my last COAL. Only now, we’re doing it in the Accord, which doesn’t make the route any better. Its three-speed automatic did not pair with the engine as well as the 5-speed. It was smaller (much smaller) than the Bonneville inside. It did not have air conditioning, and as my father quickly discovered, the sunroof was an inadequate substitute on a humid, sunny summer day in NY. Crammed in the back seat, the sun’s rays baked me through the hatch’s window glass.  We were all sweaty and sad way before we reached Ithaca, and we still had a long ways to go.

Coach accommodations at Sweat Zone Central. One advantage of my father driving the Accord was my mother in the front passenger seat; she’d move the seat enough that I could sit like a regular passenger.

Problem 2: My father

My mother totally “got” the Accord the moment she drove it. My father, on the other hand, was not ready for the Accord; it was too much of a departure from his automotive reference point. Predictably, he never really warmed up to its virtues. Its build quality, attention to detail, and fit and finish were lost on him. His Bonneville was well-built and not falling to pieces around him, so he had no comparison point. He was not concerned about gas mileage because the Bonneville was a company car and gas was reimbursed.

Front office at Sweat Zone Central. My father wrestled with the unassisted steering, which oddly reduced the turning effort needed for my mother and me.


To him, the Accord must have seemed too small, too expensive, too slow, too uncomfortable and too under-equipped. Speaking of which, he fought the Accord’s unassisted rack and pinion steering, never grasping that it turned more easily if the car was moving even a little bit. Rather, he yanked the steering wheel to the left or right, hand over hand, as hard as he could while we sat stationary at a stoplight, waiting to turn.

The shape of things to come: More instrumentation, monitors and status indicators. About as un-Bonneville as one can get.


We made enough “memories” on that trip to never take the Accord again for any long-distance travel. But, it’s fun to share travel misadventures after enough time has passed.

Problem 3: The car

In retrospect, they probably should have given the Civic a closer look. It was smaller, so there would have been no temptation to use it for long-distance travel. It would have cost less to purchase, which may have encouraged more reasonable expectations of the car.

This may have been the better all-around pick: Lower price, lower expectations.


We also could have gone for a Tercel hatchback. The neighborhood moms would take turns carting us kids to school on days when it was too cold, snowy or rainy to walk. Our next door neighbors got a white 5-speed SR5 hatchback shortly after we got the Accord.

This is exactly how our neighbors with the SR5 drove us kids to school in inclement weather.


I thought their Tercel was quite nice. Also, I thought that its engine sounded slightly rorty and somewhat reminiscent of George Jetson’s personal spacecraft as he zipped to Spacely Sprockets. That was not a bad thing.

If I could ask my father now, he’d probably categorize the Accord as “overrated.” As we closed in on 1982 and the end of “The Good Life” period, the splurge on the Accord seemed like a bad idea that never got any better.

Everything has a price

We had the Accord until summer of 1983, when the bank “reclaimed” it, shall we say. Like all Hondas, the Accord at that point was worth much more than the balance owed on it. Our landlord bought it from the bank for his wife, for about half of its book value. I believe we received some goodwill on the rent in return.

Why we didn’t sell it ourselves and cash out the equity, I have no idea. I’m sure my father thought it was wise to try to hold on to a three-year old, thrifty Honda when the alternative was the 13 year-old, not-so-thrifty Riviera.

Not missed, really

I was glad that it was gone. By then, it wasn’t my mother’s car anymore: My father had used it semi-regularly by then out of necessity. My mother’s car was neat and clean and smelled like “new car.” With his more frequent use, burn holes appeared in the carpet, ashes and tissues scattered around the interior, and it smelled of stale cigarette smoke.

Note: Many years later, she got her own car again — a 2000 Maxima GLE with 18,000 miles that we found in 2003; she still has it, with a blistering 74,000 miles on it. It has an eight-way power driver’s seat, reasonably thin pillars, and a lot of glass area, so that made it a “keeper.” There are no tissues and ashes all over the interior. Its interior burn hole free and smells like leather upholstery.

Now what?

Anyway, back in 1983 we were saddled with the Riviera as our only car. Who drives a 1970 Riviera as their only car in 1983? We did, at least some of the time. We’ll talk more about that in our next COAL.