COAL: 1980 Honda Civic GL1500 – You’ll Never Forget Your First Love

(Welcome Gene, our new Wednesday COALer)   In my 2nd year of college, I scored an engineering internship at a company out of state, in neighboring Indiana.  That meant that I needed a reliable set of wheels to get me to work in Ft Wayne and back home to Columbus on weekends, practical and affordable on a college student budget.

Dad left it up to me to search for my first car, and although I was very aware of his personal bias toward Chrysler products, I was not about to get a Dodge Omni like his.  Back in the pre-Internet days, searching for a used car meant scouring the local newspaper classified ads, and in doing so I spotted an ad for a 1980 Honda Civic GL.  I had no idea what that car was like but the price was right, so I went for a look.

It didn’t make much of a first impression on me, a little too cute and stubby for my tastes.  But this was the 2nd generation Civic, all refined and grown up from the quirky little hatchback that Honda unleashed in the US back in the 70’s.  Compared to Dad’s ‘81 Omni which I had been driving, this car was too good to be true.  There was a pleasingly simple, uncluttered dash with full instrumentation including a tachometer, controls clearly marked and easy to reach, operating with a slick buttery smoothness that the Omni sorely lacked, with ergonomics that were absolutely on-point.  We take these things for granted now, but Honda had it right 40 years ago when Chrysler and its cross town contemporaries were mired in malaiseness.

Compared to the Omni, the Civic drove like a dream.  It had a slick 5 speed transmission, light clutch, crisp manual steering and the eager little 1500 cc engine that loved to rev.  These were Honda characteristics at the time and I fell hard for the Civic’s charm.  There was no way I was not going to buy this car.

But this Civic was 6 years old with 75,000 miles, and its age was starting to show.  On my college student budget, I replaced 4 nearly bald P155/80R13 tires with the cheapest “Guardsmen” radial tires from the local Sears store.  I upgraded the stereo with a cassette player and amplifier, and had to do some body work as the Midwestern road salt was starting to take its toll.

This silver Civic was my pride and joy throughout college and grad school.  It got me to work that summer in Ft Wayne Indiana, and remained mostly parked during the school year, except for the occasional weekend SCCA Solo II run around the campus parking lot, with those Sears Guardsmen tires howling in protest and me grinning from ear to ear.  Summers in the Civic were memorable, having been on many road trips throughout the Midwest, including an all-night drive from Chicago to Columbus starting at 11 pm and ending at 4 am, then another 2 hour drive to Cedar Point 3 hours later.  And then there was the memorable mother and son trip to Boston/New England through upstate New York.

My Civic was a hoot to drive, so agile and maneuverable, with an engine that seemed to enjoy being pushed hard.  Even though it wasn’t very quick, that everything worked so harmoniously together made the driving experience rewarding and fun.  I was convinced that Honda’s in the 1980’s were magic.  So when Honda came recruiting for engineers on campus at Ohio State, I wanted so badly to work for them. Their new factory and tech center in Marysville was less than an hour north of campus.  But alas, Honda didn’t look at my resume and GM scooped me up instead.  I had spent the second summer doing an internship at GM (with my Civic discreetly parked in the far corner of the employee parking lot), and my youthful enthusiasm for cars must have convinced them to hire me.

So upon graduation, I was getting ready to move up to Michigan to work at GM, and trying to figure out how to keep my Honda and drive something more politically correct to work (i.e., a GM or American-made product).  But the cancerous rust that had plagued the Honda from day one was finally starting to eat it alive, such that the floorboards in the rear were completely rusted through, leaving only carpet between the rear passenger feet and the ground below.  And every time I hit a bump, pieces of underbody would come off leaving a trail of rusty bits on the road behind.  It wasn’t safe to drive for much longer.  Dad by that time had moved on from his Dodge Omni (and Chrysler products forever) and was driving a Ford Escort.  He agree to lend me the Escort and take over the Honda until I could find an appropriate GM car to drive.

I don’t know what became of my beloved Honda Civic.  Dad drove it for a while and then it probably went to the crusher.  I missed it dearly, especially driving around in Dad’s miserable ’88 Escort, which, even though it had a 5 speed, was a much lumpier, clunkier machine than that little Civic.  I couldn’t wait to give it back to him.