COAL – 1985 Honda Civic 1300 Hatchback – Base Model Bargain

My last few automotive purchases were a case of me coming across a car that captivated me and deciding to buy it rather than being in need of a car and searching for one that met my requirements and budget. After selling my Capri II, though, I was in the market for sensible transportation and was regularly scanning the newspaper classifieds for anything in my price range that seemed like a likely candidate.

I had a budget of around $1000-$1400, with several hundred held in reserve for any repairs, and was looking for something reliable, something that could handle longer road trips, but also fairly small and easy to park in San Francisco. And ideally, something that was fun to drive and at least a bit interesting.

It was the mid-90s, and I had a copy of the 1988 Consumer’s Guide Complete Guide to Used Cars. Having a slightly out-of-date book was actually an advantage, as I was looking at the lower end of the market, and the 1988 guide covered late-70s to early-80s cars that weren’t in newer editions.

I saw a few BMW 3-series, though the ones in my price range were beater-ish and often had evidence of improvised amateur repairs – most likely due to the high cost of BMW parts. I was, also, still a bit leery of the Bavarian marque’s reliability. The image below, pulled from another Curbside Classic, is typical of the type of 3-series that fell into my budget.

While a cheap BMW appealed to my heart, my head was leaning toward one or another of the Japanese brands, as I was hoping for something less likely to have mechanical issues and which would be fairly cheap and easy to fix if it did. I was curious about the Toyota Starlet, but never found one for sale.

My earlier experience owning a Honda Accord left me favorably inclined toward the brand, and I was aware that the 3rd generation Civics (introduced in 1984) had made a quantum leap forward in overall refinement when compared to previous generations.

I’ve copied the capsule description from my Consumer’s Guide below. Despite what it says below I don’t believe the 1300cc motor used the CVCC cylinder head, though I could be wrong.

This generation of Civic was high on my list, but most were priced above my budget. Scanning the classifieds one weekend, I came across a 1985 Civic Hatchback for $1350, and phoning the seller it turned out he lived perhaps five blocks from me. I happened to find the actual classified ad I responded to in some old papers, and it gives a good sense of the price range of used Hondas back then.

A Civic 1500s for $2700 looks appealing in hindsight.

The Civic I came to see was a base hatchback, which had a smaller engine than other Civics (1.3L rather than 1.5L), no air conditioning, no tachometer, and a 4-speed transmission rather than a 5-speed. It also had a salvage title – the seller said he had purchased the car that way, he didn’t know why it had a salvage title but he had never had any issues with it. The only damage I could see was a small dent in the front fender which they explained had occurred after they bought the car.

The 1300 Civic dash, with a temp/fuel gauge where the tachometer would be on better-equipped models.

I was a bit leery of the salvage title, but the seller told me (and their paperwork backed up) that they had owned the car since the late 1980s. They said they had bought a new car and were now selling this one, and I figured the likely scenario was that the car had been crashed and repaired when it was fairly new, and then sold as a used car. Looking it over, it seemed in good shape, I couldn’t find any obvious damage, and the seller had receipts showing he’d been keeping up with the factory maintenance schedule. Most critically, the seller had replaced the timing belt not long ago, a critical maintenance task for this car – I knew that a snapped timing belt on an interference engine such as a Honda could cause the valves to collide with the pistons, destroying one’s motor in an instant. He’d also paid for a smog check before selling the car and paid the registration recently (in California, the tags & license plate stay with the car.)

The registration called out my Honda’s salvage status. Note the $49.00 registration fee — annual registration is a bit higher in California these days.

On the minus side, in addition to the salvage title, the tires had little tread left and desperately needed to be replaced. Even though the Civic had fairly small 13” wheels, a new set of rubber would be a couple hundred. While the salvage title did raise a red flag, the owner’s story of how long he’d owned the car and why he was selling it seemed to make sense, and they had maintenance records for the car going back to the start of his ownership, and I decided to take it for a test drive. I remember finding an empty parking lot to test for noisy CV joints by driving backward in a circle – a trick I’d recently learned. I found no issues with the car and was impressed with how it drove, and I made the seller an offer and let him know I had all the paperwork to transfer the title (at that point, I’d bought and sold a few used cars and was in the habit of picking up spare copies of the Bill of Sale and Release of Liability forms whenever I stopped by the DMV). After some negotiation, we agreed on a price of $1200.00 and I now owned a Honda Civic.

I almost immediately had a new set of tires put on at Auto Parts Club, a now-defunct auto parts chain that had a membership model similar to Costco. Normally after buying a used car, I run through any potential maintenance it might need, but this car had records showing when the last oil change, valve adjustment, and other routine maintenance had taken place, so I just picked up where the previous owner had left off.

Auto Parts Club went out of business years ago, but I found my old membership card in a desk drawer.

It proved to be a trouble-free car, and despite the lack of a 5th gear it was a pleasant freeway cruiser – I drove it from San Francisco to Los Angles on numerous occasions, and it had no problem cruising at 80 mph for hours at a time, delivering mileage in the mid-30s. The rear seats folded flat and gave a surprisingly large cargo space — the lack of protruding shock towers was a contributing factor, and I was able to fit even large items like dressers and bass speaker cabinets in the rear cargo area.

I’ve since driven a 5-speed version of the same car, and while the 5-speed shift knob was made of soft-touch plastic in the vaguely golf club shape typical of 1980s or later shifters, the 4-speed knob was a hard plastic orb which seemed like something out of an older car. Quite possible it was the same shift knob used on the 1970s Civics.

Photo credit Murilee Martin

I did, well into my ownership, finally, find evidence of the salvage title damage. I had pulled up the carpet and paneling in the rear hatch for some reason, and noticed rippled metal on the cargo area floor near the corner of the car – it looked like a hard hit to the rear corner had been straightened out — I’m assuming a new rear quarter was welded in. I also noticed some tiny pits on one of the rear side windows – likely caused either by sparks from welding or a grinder. Whatever had happened to the car before my ownership had been repaired quite well, though, and much like the previous owner, I never had any problems due to the earlier damage.

It came with an AM/FM cassette stereo, and after a year or so, the sound started getting muddier and muddier. Prying the grill off of one of the door speakers, I realized that water dripping into the door had turned the cone of the door speaker into mush. I purchased a new pair of speakers at the Good Guys (another defunct chain store), opting for speakers with mylar cones to prevent a recurrence of the problem. I installed them in a few minutes in the parking lot of the store, tossed my old speakers in a trash can in the parking lot, and drove off with a restored sound system.

In preparation for a trip to Lake Tahoe, I happened to find some tire chains in the correct size at a garage sale. I never needed to use them, though having done winter mountain driving in the Sierras, it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them. The lead photo of this article was taken on this trip and it’s the sole picture I have of my Civic. I believe that’s a ’63 Impala in the background.

Not my car, but an almost identical one found in a Copart auction.

Driving it one day, I started smelling gas, and a check under the hood revealed that the fuel pump was leaking. Stopping by the Honda dealer in SF, I picked up a replacement pump, which included precut lengths of fuel hose and a gasket in the package, and I bolted on the pump in what was perhaps a 10-minute repair.

Later on, I was out of town and got a flat and, not wanting to make a long drive back on a mini spare, took it to a tire shop for a repair. They told me the damage was too close to the edge of the tire for them to patch, but the shop put in an inner tube and sent me on my way. This seemed like an archaic repair even in the mid-1990s, and it seems less likely that a tire shop would do it today. Back in town, I went back to Auto Parts Club to see if I could make a claim on the free road hazard warranty that came with the tires. I felt I was on shaky ground given that the tire now had a tube in it, but they honored the warranty and I drove off in under an hour with a new tire.

The fuel pump and the flat tire were the only problems I recall having with the car, and it gave many miles of reliable service.

I owned the Civic for several years, and while it passed its first biennial smog check easily, it failed a subsequent check, quite possibly due to nothing more than a leak somewhere in the spaghetti-like network of vacuum hoses under the hood, though it was beyond the ability of the smog check station to figure out and they recommended I take it to a mechanic.  It had also, by that time, developed a worrisome click from one of the CV joints, and the clutch was nearing the end of its life. None of these were terminal issues, and the car was still quite drivable and likely had plenty of life left were they to be addressed, but at the time, I was only able to work on my car on the street, and I already had my eye on another car (a 5.0 Mustang which I’ll detail in an upcoming COAL.) After purchasing my Honda’s replacement I took out an ad in the paper and sold my Civic for a few hundred dollars – I was upfront about the mechanical issues and it sold in a day or so, and the Civic passed out of my life.