Curbside Classic: 1976 Honda Accord – Modern Architecture

(first posted 9/15/2011)    The traditional automotive architecture: front engine; rear wheel drive. It was once as ubiquitous as brick buildings are in some parts of the country. The 1976 Honda Accord wasn’t the first space-efficient front-wheel drive car sold in America. But it was the most influential, and if any one car is responsible for the predominant architecture of almost all the cars we drive today, this is it.

Within four years of the Accord’s arrival, GM launched its mega-billion dollar X-Bodies, Chrysler bet its future on K-cars, and Ford eventually came on board with FWD revolution too, in a big way (Taurus). But not only did the Accord start a revolution in Detroit, but also in Japan. The Accord’s effect on Toyota City was like an earthquake that saw the stodgy old mini-Galaxie RWD Corona get dumped for a completely new US-centric FWD Camry.

The rest is history, and what a glorious one it is: a record 21 out of 25 years on C/D’s Ten Best Cars list; numerous COTY awards, repeat visits to the top of the US sales charts. Now the Accord is as American as apple pie, literally. From a tiny 2000 lb 68 hp hatchback smaller than today’s Fit, it’s now become a full size car, and not all that different from an updated version of the cars it made obsolete and irrelevant.

Read the middle paragraph on the right side of this ad: “Right here we would like to reassure you on one point. Although we fondly refer to the Accord as the Big Honda, it is only big by our standards. We don’t build what are traditionally called big cars. And we don’t intend to start”. Honda may have been sincere when they said it then, but things obviously didn’t turn out that way. And therein is the fundamental difference between the VW Golf and the Accord: they both started out the same size and basic shape, and although the Golf eventually grew too, its growth was always in low-calorie European terms.

Meanwhile, the Accord super-sized itself, and became a genuine corn-fed American. Ironically, VW has tumbled to the secret of success in America after thirty years, and the new 2012 Passat is as big or bigger than the Accord and Camry. Better late than never, I suppose, but did it really need to take thirty five years to figure out what went wrong?

Speaking of irony, the Accord was originally conceived to be a Mustang-sized car with a V6 engine! Or at least, so goes the legend. It wouldn’t surprise me, since Honda was a very ambitious (actually overly so) company just prior to the Civic. It tended to extreme manifestations of technical superiority, like the brilliant but expensive and unprofitable Honda 1300. But the Civic was the sea change in Honda’s thinking: a revolutionary but pragmatic cheap little hatch, to be built in massive quantities.

Honda would never be the same, and the same progressive pragmatism that spawned the Civic naturally took the next step in the Accord, and eventually with cars like the Odyssey, Pilot and Ridgeline. Would anyone have guessed that in 1976? Well, eating one’s words is a good exercise, and can be highly profitable, in Honda’s case.

Regardless of what the Accord was originally meant to be, it came as a very tidy but practical two-door hatch (the four door followed in 1979). Its wheelbase of a mere 93.7 inches is five inches less than the previous generation Hyundai Accent, and it was about the same length overall (160″) as that almost smallest of cars recently.  But Americans ate “The Big Honda” up as if it were an apple pie eating contest. It’s difficult to describe just what a huge hit and fad the Accord was when it appeared, unless you were there at the time. The fact that it came just three years after that equally huge hit and fad the Civic, made Honda undoubtedly the fastest growing new brand ever launched in the US. Keep in mind that when the Civic first appeared in 1972, they were being sold in Honda motorcycle dealerships. By the time the Accord hit, Honda car dealerships were licenses to print money.

Everyone raved about the Accord when it appeared. And it hit the market in a very different way than the Golf/Rabbit. VW was still anxious about preserving its vaunted “cheap car” status, and was frantic about offering the Rabbit at a sub $3k price. The only way they did that was by making a special “super stripper” version, with cardboard door panels and rubber floors.

Honda took a totally different approach with the Accord: priced at $3,999, exactly one grand (33%) more than the stripped VW, but lavishly equipped like no other car before in its price class. It came standard with a level of equipment unheard of in that time, even for Japanese cars: nicely-upholstered cloth seats, a tachometer, intermittent wipers, and an AM/FM radio. And everyone raved what a great deal it was. VW misread the market completely: Americans were ready to pay as much as a big car for a small one, if it had the comfort, style, pizazz and (most of the) convenience of a big one.

Of course, the Accord’s timing was exquisite, arriving one year after the first energy crisis. But it was more than that; Americans were ready to embrace smaller cars wholesale, especially on the west and east coast. And let’s face it, American coupes, typified by the Ford Elite and the like had miserable space utilization, horrible efficiency, were mostly poorly built and wretched to drive. Detroit didn’t just open the portcullis with its obese “mid-sized cars” of the seventies. It actively invited the invasion, and Honda led the charge.

That’s not to take anything away from Toyota’s pioneering and on-going success, but it never had the sudden and almost explosive success Honda did. Toyota had been cultivating its beach-hold since the early sixties, and in 1969 the Corolla became the number two selling import, after the Beetle. Toyota paved the way, identifying the soft underbelly of the beast Detroit. But Honda charged in for the kill, at the right moment, with the right weapon. By the mid-seventies, Toyota’s Corona (CC here) had become a pretty stodgy affair, built on very traditional architecture.

The Accord set the standards for all its future successors to come, if in embryonic form. It was never quite the brilliant and sparkling performer the Golf was, or could be in its best years (or when it was running right or at all). But the Accord had a complete and balanced dynamic that every one bearing that now-traditional name has had since: a smooth, economical and relatively responsive engine, a slick transmission (don’t ask about the early two-speed automatics though), accurate steering, capable handling, and a consistently high degree of mechanical and assembly quality. No, you won’t find fanatics of early Accords like the Golf Mk.1′s cultish followers, rebuilding their beloved cars endlessly. Instead, you find Accords still hard at work on the streets (not in the rust belt) like this and numerous other examples hereabouts.

The Accord’s soon to be proven legendary reliability was still largely unknown in 1976. But already then it spoke of a palpable quality of organic wholeness, a car that was as comfortable in its skin as it was to drive. There were no unknowns or surprises in the Accord: what you saw is what you got. Americans could do without the Golf’s Germanic brilliance, because they could smell the risks inherent in that. The Accord was the squeaky clean, cute girl with the winning smile in the local school’s cheerleader outfit next door. She might have been Japanese, but nobody even noticed or cared anymore. They were utterly seduced, and she was assimilated.

And when the Accord’s four door big-sister showed up in 1979, the front doors of suburbia really flew open. Some say that Detroit’s generally-miserable small cars were the cause of its decline. That may have been the case in the heartland, but in the influential West Coast, followed all-too soon on the East Coast, folks were dumping their big Cutlasses and Monte Carlos for Accords, unless they had a really big family. They were really closer in price. Anyway, it was the heyday of the multiple car family, so unless one was ferrying a big brood, the two and three Honda car family was quickly taking hold.

The Accord went on to enjoy several years at the top of the charts, until Toyota’s even more-American Camry eventually displaced it. Whether the Accord’s slippage in the current market is temporary or permanent is yet to be seen. But clearly the competition is more brutal than ever, including the ascendant Hyundai Sonata and VW’s new super-sized Passat. The fact that all of them are now really full-sized cars makes the Accord’s claim to “not build what are traditionally called big cars” somewhat ironic, but not really untrue. Who still builds traditional big cars? Nobody.