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

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Honda’s early years are almost beyond belief. Soichiro Honda’s manic drive and willingness to take endless risks propelled the company’s growth at breakneck speed. Undoubtedly, the Civic was the most important Honda automobile, as it not only was Honda’s first mainstream car, but it was a huge success in the United States, making it a massive struggle to expand production facilities to keep up with demand. The Civic was revolutionary in many ways, and we covered most of those qualities here. But this is the first gen1 wagon I’ve ever found, and it has Honda’s unique self-developed (semi)automatic transmission, the Hondamatic. That gives us plenty of scope to add to the Civic story so far.

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The Civic sedan and hatchback were tiny, even for the times. Today, it looks microscopic. The front seats were quite useable, but the rear seat was realistically not suitable for American-sized adults. The overall length of the 1973 Civic was just under 140″, and wheelbase was all of 86.6″.  Numbers that are hard to relate to in today’s market.

Honda Civic 1973 4 door

There was a four door sedan too, built on a 3.3″ longer wheelbase, but it was not offered in the US. Why not? Probably production constraints, as Honda was already struggling to keep up with the huge demand for the little two door.

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But after a couple of years, Honda did send over a wagon version, riding on the same 89.9″ wheelbase as the four door sedan. And it was worth the wait, as its rear end was even longer behind the rear wheels, making for a reasonably roomy cargo hold, unlike the suitcase-sized luggage area in the sedan/hatch versions.

It was a smart move: Honda knew Americans can never have too much room, and with the wagon the Civic was finally American-sized, although with an overall length of 160″ it was hardly going to give the Country Squire anxiety.

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The rear seat was now suitable for American adults, although the Civic’s target demo meant mostly youngish ones. The Civic endeared itself with many of them, and they grew up along with Hinda’s ever-larger cars. How many Civic wagon buyers in the mid-late 70s are now driving a Pilot or MDX with which to haul their grandchildren?

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I’m guessing that window cranks for gen1 Civics might be getting a bit scarce these days. Well, that goes for the whole car; there are a couple of two-doors still around, but I’d long given up finding a wagon. Of course, Walmart is a hell of  a place to find things that can’t be found elsewhere, like daily driver purple gen1 Civic wagons.

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The Civic was the ultimate anti-Brougham, right down to its cute instrument nacelle and dashboard design, which was open, spacious, and very contemporary, in an international way, and decidedly not in the American style of the times.

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But in a concession to American’s love of automatic transmissions, the Civic was available with an almost-automatic: the Hondamatic. It had two speeds, but since its torque converter locked up, one could say it almost had three gears. But switching between 2 and 1 was not automatic; one had to help out a bit. This was Honda’s first “automatic”, and they went about it in typical Honda fashion: ignoring all the precedent and patents that had been developed for automatics for decades.

Hondamatic pho_01image:

Honda’s web site has an excellent story detailing the development of its unique approach to building an automatic, but I’ll hit a few highlights. Keep in mind that the Hondamatic first appeared in the very tiny N360 kei car. Building an automatic that would work properly with an engine this small had never really been done before.

Honda’s engineers contacted Borg Warner for an automatic that would work behind their S500 sports car, as a starting point. BW’s answer: we don’t have anything that will work with a 500cc engine and one that has an 8,000 rpm redline. So Honda went it alone, which was really more in keeping with their intent all along  to avoid paying royalties.

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There were two main differences from previous automatics that allowed Honda to avoid royalties and be granted its own patents. The first was that the torque convertor design. From Honda’s web site:

The hydrodynamic torque converter consists of a pump, turbine and stator, and transmits engine power via oil circulation. The stator is used to convert torque, and is usually mounted in a stationary position. The development team’s idea was to make this stator free and movable. By using a bearing to turn the stator, they thought that sufficient force from the moving stator could be harnessed as amplified torque differential and transmitted to the hydraulic control valve. This could then engage the clutch based on the amount of torque present in the converter.

The control realized by this system was much simpler and more efficient compared to conventional hydraulic systems. This idea brought a dramatic degree of improvement in AT efficiency and was ultimately the basis for Honda’s patented technology on “an automatic transmission based on the detection of stator reactive force.” It was an invention born through determination, a team effort and the desire to create something that didn’t simply copy existing technologies.

The other key difference was that Hinda did not use planetary gears, to avoid patent infringement, and instead used a twin-shaft (parallel-axis), twin-clutch helical gearbox, and still does to this day. It’s a very efficient design, and created a distinctive  “mechanic” feel to Honda automatics that has mostly disappeared in recent years.

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Honda’s excellent account if its development is a bit confusing, inasmuch as it clearly indicates that the Hondamatic could be shifted manually or automatically: Mr. Honda instructed the development team to add a manual selector mechanism so that the driver could choose between manual and automatic shift operation. But unless there was a fully automatic version of the two-speed Hondamatic kept for the Japanese domestic market, the only despcription of it always indicates that it was a semi-automatic, and needed to be shifted manually between 1 and 2.

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Of course like other such semi-automatics, one could just leave it in 2 and let the torque converter make up for the missing first gear, which it was quite willing if the driver had plenty of patience. I’m trying hard to imagine an N360 driven that way.

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The Civic wagon’s 1488 cc 63 hp SOHC CVCC four was four times as big as the 360, so I’m sure some folks just left it in 2 and let it chug away, Dynaflow style. At least the torque converter locked up at some point.

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If you’re about to leave a comment along the lines of these all rusted away within three years in my part of the world, you’re not going to be dunned for exaggerating. Yes, the gen1 Civics were perhaps the most notorious rusters ever, and Honda had to replace a lot of fenders under an FTC consent decree. But that was just within the first three years; after that everything else started to rust away too, making rust-free examples like this rather rare.

One of the guys who worked with me at the tv station in LA had a Civic 1200 that he had taken back to Kansas for one winter; he literally stripped the inside of his Civic bare to try to stop the rust from breaking out in all sorts of nasty places under the carpets and such, and this was a car maybe three or four years old in Los Angeles.

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Well, that was a long time ago. In the meantime, Honda has become essentially an American car company, and endeared itself to many loyal owners, despite a few shortcomings early on. The Civic created a cult following unlike anything that had been seen since the VW Beetle’s early days in the mid-late 50s, and one can rightly call the Civic the closest thing to the VW’s successor in the US.

And this little purple Civic is the equivalent of finding a 1953 VW still in daily driver use in 1990. It belongs in a museum, not at Walmart.


Related reading:

CC 1973-1979 Honda Civic:  The Second Little Revolutionary