COAL: Hobby Car Of A Lifetime #1 & #2 — Pick a Pair of Honda Civics

Choose the basic coupe…


Or the truly useful wagon. Does anyone remember where I picked up the phrase, “pick a pair?” photos from the web.


My first two hobby cars were two Hondas that were similar, but quite different. A ’75 Civic coupe, and a ’75 Civic wagon.

I’d owned a long string of used cars by the 1980’s and some of these were pretty old when I bought them. But each of these cars was purchased to be used as transportation, not as a hobby project. After my marriage, this took a different twist. My old cars were now my hobby cars. I would have a “good” car for my Wife to drive, and that would be the “family” car.

When we bought our first home we only had our ’84 Cougar, but I had two motorcycles. An “81 HD FLHS, and my ’77 XLCR. We had been in San Jose for over six months when we bought our first home and I was still riding to work in the rain. We now lived 11 miles from my office, so I thought that I could use some type of old car as a “rain car.”


I’d already had lots of big old American cars, so I was ready for something different, as well as something cheap. I had owned a lot of Honda motorcycles and was intrigued by the concept of the CVCC engine. It could meet current emission standards without a catalytic converter. I kept my eyes open and found a 75 Honda Civic CVCC coupe for sale at a local gas station.

My tired little coupe didn’t garner this kind of response! Note the strap hinges on the trunk lid.


It didn’t look too bad, the left front fender had been replaced, which was apparent as it didn’t quite match the rest of the car’s yellow color. It was in fair condition, not wrecked, with fairly shiny paint. It had a four speed manual transmission. The clutch was a little iffy, but with careful application didn’t chatter too much. The one luxury item was an AM radio. It was a classic stripper, my first. Of course it was dirt cheap. I recall it being less than 500 dollars; in 1986.

This example is a lot nicer, but the layout was the same for both cars.


I was using it to drive to work, and I even hauled some supplies for our new home, like bags of mulch, light lumber, and even a narrow garden trellis, which I strapped along the passenger side. This wasn’t a hatchback model, which would have made it even more practical. I found that I liked having a compact car, though I thought that I might eventually like something a bit nicer. I was amazed by how spacious it was inside. I was quite comfortable driving it.

The only repair that I recall, was that the driver’s window regulator wore out, and dropped the glass into the door. I initially opened up the door panel and propped the glass up with a piece of 2X4, leaving it open an inch or so for ventilation. Later, a trip to the wrecking yard provided me with a good used regulator, which restored the window’s function.

It was a good, little basic beater, and I ended up selling it to one of my brothers-in-law.

Then I started looking for a replacement. We had sold our first home and moved to a bigger house only a couple of miles away. This was a neighborhood of older, larger homes on much bigger lots. The streets were wide with good setbacks which made the neighborhood feel much more spacious. There were mature trees everywhere.

Not Honda’s brightest idea!


After we moved in, I found a ’75 Honda Civic wagon. There were often cars offered for sale on one of the wider nearby streets, where it was parked at the curb. It was also yellow –it seemed like most Civics of that period were yellow. It was very clean, with a black interior in good shape. These wagons were great because they had four doors and a big hatch. There was a lot of room inside when the rear seat was folded down. It was a forerunner of the modern compact SUV. An interesting bonus (?) was that it was equipped with a Hondamatic transmission.

So much handy space was available when you folded the set down.


There was a problem with the engine; it was only running on three cylinders. But I was an optimist and thought that it would be an easy fix. So I bought it and drove it home slowly. Driving slowly was something that I should have gotten used to. I parked it in the two car garage while I thought about what to do.

The CVCC engine used three valves; one was in the pre-ignition chamber. It was smaller and housed in a screw-in housing. I later learned that this housing would sometimes loosen and rotate, preventing the fuel mixture from entering the combustion chamber. I decided to pull the head and see what was up. During that process a head bolt broke off in the block. That put an end to that! I had removed the head and found the problem, but I couldn’t remove the broken portion of the bolt. It was a couple of inches below the block’s surface. I had it towed to a local shop, and they couldn’t figure out what to do, either.

This established the template for Honda power trains.


I had learned a few things over the years, and thought replacing the entire motor would be the ticket. I could use a junkyard engine, or a used low mileage engine that was sourced from Japan. Motors there were routinely replaced at a certain mileage. There were companies that dealt with importing and selling these used motors. I think that ATTARCO was the outfit that I dealt with. While doing my research, I learned that brand new motors in the crate were still available at Honda dealers. The price seemed reasonable and the charge for installation didn’t strike me as excessive. The original engine would still need to be removed for the installation. I have no accurate recollection of how much the engine and installation cost me, but it seemed like a great idea! I have the vague memory of the engine costing me a grand or so. I bought a rebuilt transmission from the Japanese supply company and delivered it with my car to the dealer, who would handle all the labor.

When I got the car back from the dealer it was like a new car. However, I discovered that the Hondamatic transmission wasn’t the best for performance. It was a two speed unit with High and Low ranges, but did not shift automatically between them. I could start out in low and accelerate to 35-40 mph. then shift into High, for “better'” acceleration. Or I could just leave it in High all the time, for really lethargic acceleration around town. It actually wasn’t too bad around town, or cruising on the freeway, but accelerating onto the freeway could be a real traumatic event. I had to be very careful gauging the speed of oncoming traffic, as accelerating from 35 mph, to 65 mph. took a very long time. There were many occasions when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to gain enough speed to merge safely. I had to come to a complete stop and wait for a better opening in traffic. Most drivers never come to an actual stop on an on-ramp, so the chance of getting rear ended was very high. I would often have to pull over onto the shoulder to wait for my opportunity. I was extremely focused every time that I merged onto the freeway!

Once on the freeway, the Honda would easily maintain 70 mph. On level terrain top speed was 85 mph. I drove the Honda out to Fresno to look at model home communities, and it did okay going over the Pacheco Pass, never slowing below 55 mph. I would also drive up to the Sacramento area looking at new homes. The key with small displacement Honda engines was keeping the rpm up, with this automatic that meant keeping the speed up. Though I could rev it out in Low if necessary. It didn’t produce any extra speed, but it could help maintain it.

I really thought that this was the most useful vehicle. My son sat strapped in his baby seat in the back seat and he loved riding in this car as it had great visibility. If it had a manual transmission it would have been a very good car.

I was always looking for another car. I used to stop at the used car lots that lined San Carlos St. in San Jose to see what might be available. One time I had stopped to check out a first gen Honda Prelude. I thought that these were interesting, though not very exciting cars. Later that evening, my wife told me that she had seen me at the lot. She was returning to the office after going to lunch with a co worker. She asked what I had been looking at, and I told her about the Prelude. I assured her that I wasn’t seriously thinking about buying it. She got a thoughtful look on her face and asked me, “Do you ever feel kind of poor, driving that little old Honda?”  I told her, “No not really.” ( I could never feel poor with a  Harley Sportster in the garage!) Then she asked, “If you like Hondas, maybe you should buy a new one.”

When the family CFO makes a suggestion like that, I keep the conversation and the energy going. I told her that I’d been reading about several of the new hatchbacks in Car and Driver magazine. The new Honda SI, the Dodge Colt and the GEO Storm, had caught my eye. She told me to decide which one I wanted, and then we could work the numbers out.

We ended up replacing the Mercury Cougar first, with a ’90 Dodge Caravan. Later that year we bought a new ’90 Civic SI coupe.

Like I said, my wife is a whiz with the numbers.

Unfortunately, this wonderful little wagon came to an untimely demise. We had sold the car to one of my wife’s friends, as their daughter’s first car. The girl hated the car, and she wrecked it by sideswiping a parked car. That put an end to it.

Since we now had two new cars, any thought of acquiring another hobby car was put on the back burner. Of course, that situation didn’t last for too long!


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1978 Honda Civic Wagon – Five Doors And Two Speed Hondamatic