COAL: 1990 Honda Accord EX – My First Car

1990 Honda Accord Exterior

Ours looked like this, but it was white


(welcome long-time CC reader/commenter Kyree Williams who starts a new Saturday COAL series starts today) 

The humble Accord actually started off as my mother’s daily driver. She’d just totaled her 70s AMC Concorde (note: crashing into the back of a dump truck in icy weather is very bad for your car) and needed something in which to get around. I recall her being pregnant with my younger sister, so that puts mid-to-late 1998 as the year we acquired the Accord. I also remember seeing it at some junky car dealership with the doors off of it; I think my parents purchased it from some salvage-repair outfit.


1990 Honda Accord interior

1990 Honda Accord interior


1990 was the very first year for the fourth-generation “CB” Accord Sedan and Coupe, with the Accord Wagon arriving for 1991. Ours was an EX Sedan model, in white, with an eggplant-colored interior that I came to realize was vinyl, not leather. To this day, I’m not sure if that was a factory upholstery option, or something the salvage lot did. I’ve also never seen that interior color on another one. I’ve seen red, but not eggplant. Honda didn’t add a driver-side airbag to the Accord until 1992, for the Accord’s facelift, and as such ours had the annoying motorized seat belts that would slide into position when you closed the door. Under the hood was Honda’s venerable 2.2-liter “F22A4” inline 4-cylinder engine, mated to a 4-speed automatic. Alloy wheels, power windows, power locks, and a sunroof rounded out the options list. To be fair, that’s a fairly short list from a 2019 standpoint, but 19 years earlier, it made for a fairly nice car. Oh, and I think our Accord had a “J” VIN, indicating that it was manufactured in Japan, rather than Ohio, like most of the US-market examples.


1990-1993 Honda Accord taillight comparison

An easy way to tell the pre- and post-facelift Gen 4 Accord apart is by the taillights. On the left is the 1990-1991 version. On the right is the 1992-1993 version (coupe shown), with narrower, rounded taillights and migrated turn signals/reverse lights.


I don’t have pictures of this car, so you’ll have to forgive me. It’s hard to make it sound exciting, because it didn’t really provide any excitement. What it did do, however, was transport our family through almost a full decade. My dad stopped driving us all around in his 1964 Chevrolet Impala coupe with no seatbelts in the back (I know, I know), and the Accord became our family ride. My sister was taken home from the hospital in it. We brought it with us when we moved from Denver to Oklahoma City. And it ferried me to and from school for years.

My parents kept the Accord in good condition, even by 2004, when it was getting seriously old, and had well over 100K miles on it. But…in the fall of that year, my mother, sister, and I all went to grab a bite to eat, when someone pulled out of an apartment complex without yielding as we were driving past, and ran squarely into the right rear area, spinning us around in a full circle. Fortunately, we weren’t hurt, although we never did catch the rogue driver. When we surveyed the damage, we found a nice big dent and cracked paint in the right rear driver’s side door and quarter panel, but the door still opened, and the rear axle hadn’t sustained any noticeable damage. Mom kept driving it.

In March of 2006, Mom finally decided she wanted a newer car, and she and Dad selected a fully-loaded 2003 Kia Sorento EX 4WD from the local Kia dealership. The SUV went into the garage, and the Honda sat on the street in front of the house, looking rather sorry for itself. By then, the damage to the right rear side had rusted up, instantly condemning the car to “hooptie” status. What’s more, the tires were flat and the cheap window tint had begun to turn purple and bubble up. And the relentless sun had done a number on the vinyl upholstery, whose surface began to crack and whose stitches started to come apart.


Failing Window Tint

Don’t you just hate seeing this?


As you may or may not know, 80s and 90s Hondas are tempting targets for gypsies, tramps, and thieves. They’re fairly easy to steal, and there’s a roaring trade in parts on those cars, or at least there was at the time. So it was only a year before some lovely individual noticed the unused car, and made an attempt for it. One day, probably in 2007, I noticed the front driver-side window was completely out of alignment as I was coming home. I looked inside, and–yup!–someone had shimmied a tool between the window and the frame, just enough to pull it out and access the manual door lock on the top edge of the door panel. (To this day, I’m not sure why automakers use those, as all they do is advertise the security state of your car.) This enterprising person then attempted to use something flat, like a screwdriver, to turn the ignition switch and get the car to start, since this was before Honda’s use of keys with security chips. All they’d managed to do, however, was tear up the ignition switch, and the car had stayed put. With that, the Accord was rendered inoperable.

It remained that way until 2011, my last year of high school. For various reasons that all start with “I was lazy,” I did not get my driver’s license until after my 18th birthday, at which time the Accord became mine. Let’s just say I wasn’t in any hurry to get my parents–who were divorced by this time–to fix it. I was embarrassed of it and its sorry state, and was hoping I could make it through high school without being seen in it. I considered the bright yellow school bus a preferable mode of conveyance to a battered white sedan that was old enough to order a drink at a bar. I suppose I had grand dreams of being surprised with a brand-new Bentley or something one day, not that we could afford one (although a student driving a new luxury car or new loaded pickup truck wasn’t an uncommon sight at my high school, on the nicer side of town where we lived).


2011 Ford F-150 Platinum

A lot of my high-school classmates drove these, purchased new


No such luck. No dream Bentley, BMW, or even Buick ever descended from the skies and landed in my driveway. And around April, Mom found a guy through our church who was able to repair the ignition column and get the Accord running once more. After that, she turned me loose with a clothes steamer and told me she’d found a video on YouTube that said you could use one to remove the failing window tint. There were a few other issues to fix, like the passive seat belt that wouldn’t slide back into its “activated” position. But once those were solved, I was turned loose in the Accord.

The Accord proved itself reliable transportation during my final two weeks of high school, where I parked as far toward the back as possible to prevent being seen. It always started and drove, and the A/C surprisingly blew ice-cold without ever having had a recharge. That said, it wasn’t fun. The car’s low-slung shape and lack of airbags left me feeling quite vulnerable. And there was no radio, since the hollow power-retractable antenna had long since quit working. Or perhaps someone had stolen it and used it to shoot up drugs; I don’t know. The head unit, which was an aftermarket model with a removable faceplate, refused to spit out its CD, so I spent my time listening to the album my mother had last left in before she’d quit driving it. This is why I intimately know the lyrics to the Toni Braxton/Babyface duet and platinum hit “How Could An Angel Break My Heart.” Also, I recall a particular time my friend and I were driving back to campus from lunch, and it began to rain torrentially. I couldn’t see a thing ahead, but kept driving, thinking all the while that something was wrong with the windshield wipers. Turns out, no one had shown me how to use the defrost button, and pressing it out of curiosity quickly resolved that issue, since the A/C was already on. D’oh! Fortunately, she does not remember that incident.


Removable Faceplate Double-DIN

Surprisingly, they still sell Double-DIN head units with removable faceplates. Huh. Who knew?


And then summer came. My plan was to get a fast-food job to save up some cash for my upcoming freshman year of college, and it was a plan that the Accord tried its absolute hardest to ruin. Promptly after school ended, I began to have increasingly frequent incidents of the car coming to a jittering stop, and then refusing to start again for some time. On the final instance before we did something about it, it stopped in front of–of all places–the Honda dealership, where we left it until we could get a tow truck in the morning. I’m sure they loved seeing a car with their brand’s badge affixed to the grille broken down in their entrance.

The same guy that fixed the ignition wound up coming to our aid and taking the Accord back in at his shop, at no charge. Both of my parents were struggling quite a bit financially from their divorce and having to maintain two households, so he was a real godsend–not that I was grateful, since the car still embarrassed the hell out of me. While it was out of use, I wound up keeping my mom’s 2005 Nissan Murano SL during the day, and getting her and my sister to and from school/work. The Accord’s issue turned out to be a failing head gasket. It was letting oil into the cylinder head and saturating the spark plugs in oil, which of course prevented them from firing.


Fouled spark plugs

Spark plugs really don’t like oil


Since the mechanic was fixing the Accord for free, we didn’t pressure him to hurry, and he didn’t wind up getting to it until the week before I was to leave for school, in another state. Mom said I shouldn’t take the car, and I enthusiastically agreed. I wasn’t concerned about getting around the new city (I could walk and my roommate lived there and had a car, and parents with a washer and dryer they let us both use). And getting back to Oklahoma wasn’t an issue, either. One of the people at our church was an administrator at the school, and she had set up a second residence in that state. What’s more, her daughter was an entering freshman at the same time, and she planned to take frequent trips home, trips on which she was more than happy to bring me. So, the Accord stayed home.

At some point–I remember it was the latter half of my freshman year, so it would have been early 2012–my mom called me from back home and told me a coworker of hers was in real need of a car. She asked, making it perfectly clear that I could say no, if I wanted to loan the Accord to this coworker. I agreed. I didn’t see the harm in it, and also wasn’t attached to it. She drove it without incident for at least a few months.

And then the Accord stopped working altogether, and my mother’s coworker had it towed back to our house, feeling just terrible about the whole thing. We, of course, knew it wasn’t her fault. This time, it would crank, but wouldn’t even pretend to turn over. Mom didn’t want me to go yet another summer without a car, so she set about getting it fixed. This time, a different person came to the rescue—actually the husband of the college administrator I mentioned earlier. He quickly found the issue: the timing belt had snapped while my mom’s coworker was driving it. He was going to put another one on, but decided to open the valve cover and check things out. The Accord, like almost every Honda ever, had an interference engine. What this means is that the open valves in the head extend into the piston area, and that a broken timing belt will likely result in them staying open at the wrong time and getting smashed. And that’s exactly what happened to my Accord.

At that point, we felt it was time to let go of the  Accord. It certainly wasn’t worth fixing or replacing the engine on what was then a 22-year-old sedan in lousy shape. It stuck around in the garage, collecting dust, until I finally sold it for about $500 to a scrapper. It meant a lot to me as a car that I spent much of my childhood in, but as my personal transportation, it was mostly an embarrassment and a hindrance. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in the clear because the car that replaced the 1990 Accord was almost as elderly and substantially more unreliable.