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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One winter in rust belt is worse than many many years in areas with mild climate, especially for older cars.
For automobile industries decades ago, there wasn’t too much they could do. thicker chassis and frame plus rubberized coating could make a car hang around longer, if with proper luck too. After decades of struggle, Detroit automakers simply gave up the idea of fixing the rust issue permanently, as a marvelous idea could have very negative consequence catching them off the guard in a way out of imagination. They can make cars hang around longer ( if they didn’t happen to forget on certain models ), but it’s only a matter of time if driving on salty road. Honda had a very unfortunate experience about rust resistance on early days, but seems they picked up some tricks about rust resistance after opening factory in Ohio. ( Still, salt usage is very modest in Ohio if comparing to Detroit area. Around where big three lives ( including Flint ), cities put salt as if the salt truck tips over. Sometimes I have a driving on sand feeling in those areas. Despite far heavier snow in North Michigan, the salt usage is more logical in smaller towns )
It eliminates most older Honda Civic around where I live but there are always few lucky ones. Even in a rough shape ( interior is beyond speech ), but it’s not dissolved yet! Still there. Being this old and odd, I don’t think anyone would use it in winter anyway ( and inadequate heat further discourages people from driving it in winter )
The obvious comparison point for the two-speed Hondamatic is probably the Torque Drive transmission offered on some late ’60s and early ’70s Camaros and Novas. That was basically a Powerglide stripped of its automatic shift body and some other stuff, although obviously it had a planetary gearset rather than a dual-shaft gearbox. And naturally pulling high gear on the torque converter with a 4.1-liter six is a bit of a different story than doing the same with a 356cc engine…
The interesting thing is that the market is sort of reinventing the original Civic, size-wise. A Fiat 500 or Volkswagen Up is about the same length (albeit quite a bit wider), and current Japanese kei-car regulations are nearly up to the size of the original Civic. (The first Civic was 3,405mm long without bumper overriders and 1,505mm wide compared to current statutory limits of 3,400mm and 1,400mm.) A modern kei is about as powerful, too: up to 63 net bhp. Of course, modern A-segment and kei cars are better packaged — the limited overhangs on a Honda N-One or N-BOX make the Civic look like a Mercury Montclair in that regard!
A car’s cult status can somewhat be determined by whether Muir wrote an Idiot Guide for it.
Drove a manual transmission version of the 1st gen Civic that belonged to a friend, I preferred my 80 Fiesta. Around the same time I spent 5 months in Japan where one of my co-workers had an air-cooled Honda coupe (I forget that model’s name). It would take me nearly 10 more years to become a convert to the Honda brand after owning that Fiesta and a Pontiac J2000.
The owner of that wagon should be kneecapped for installing those hubcaps. Good grief.
Re the Honda matiic trans. As an apprentice mechanic I was told to always do the 1-2 shift manually. To start in 2 nd/top was to invite torque converter trouble. Guess I was fed a line.
One question. GM keeping the Powerglide into the early seventies is apparently a deadly sin, but Honda introducing a 2 speed auto is OK?
“GM keeping the Powerglide into the early seventies is apparently a deadly sin, but Honda introducing a 2 speed auto is OK?”
I think our expectations were higher for American cars back then. I always classified the HondaMatic with the VW Automatic Stick Shift, in that they were both kind of novelties that were seen as necessary to accommodate the occasional old lady or person with a handicap, but were wholly unsuitable for anyone who really accepted the car for what it was. That these foreign companies could accomplish an automatic at all (in this price range) was seen as kind of impressive, even if it was an unimpressive unit in operation. Honda’s unit at least worked well. And they got to a 4 speed automatic before some of Detroit’s offerings did.
Also, the definition of a Deadly Sin, as Paul has explained here before, is not necessarily a measure of worth. No one (certainly not I) is really going to argue the adequacy of a two-speed automatic for a small ’70s-tech engine, particularly when rivals had three-speeds and would offer four-speed automatics in the not terribly distant future.
However, the rationale for Honda creating Hondamatic and Chevrolet clinging to Powerglide (or Toyota continuing to offer the similar two-speed Toyoglide on its cheapest models well into this period) is very different. One was an upstart company run by a small group of engineering iconoclasts determined to do things their own way even if the results were a little weird; the others were big, well-funded corporations that could (and did) have something better, but chose not to bother. One can judge either or both of these harshly, but not really for the same reasons.
A friend had one, and she always shifted it manually.
Having seen exactly two first generation Civics in the past decade, one in a parking lot and the other on permanent display in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, I am amazed at this find of an even rarer wagon.
It would be interesting to learn more about the similarities and differences between the Hondmatic for cars and the short-lived 2-speed Hondamatic for motorcycles that Honda sold during the late 1970s. The very limited references to the motorcycle Hondamatic that I have found indicate that it was derived from the car version, but there must have been significant differences.
I took this picture of the Civic at the Smithsonian Museum of American History a few years back. D.C.’s one of my favorite cities; I really need to make it back.
That Civic is part of a surprisingly small display of cars at the Smithsonian. They are unrivaled worldwide in showing planes, quite good at trains, but not trying very hard when it comes to automobiles.
Washington is indeed a very good city for visitors, as long as you wait a few weeks for the record-setting freezing temperatures and snow to finally go away!
In July and August you get to experience why, in the days before air conditioning, Congress, the President and anyone else who could left for cooler climates.
During the mid-19th century, for example, plenty of Washingtonians spent those months in Bedford, Pennsylvania.
How appropriate. California plates.
A Civic in a museum – I must be getting old!
Robert that was a point of interest to me as well. They certainly shared the name but wikipedia didn’t seem to get that deep into the similarities. Or if they did they didn’t make it simple enough for me.
I was transferred to Guam in Dec 78. These things were all over the place. In my world this gave Honda a reputation for dependability and economy that lasted for years.
Great find! I believe one of the CIA guys is driving one of these in the third season of the Americans, which is currently airing. As you know from my personal accounts, I’m a big fan of Honda/Acura products both through my ownership and that of family members.
I love that second-to-last picture with the ’95-’95 red Accord in view over the Civic’s hood. My cousin’s first car was a ’95 red Accord LX, just like that one. It’s amazing to think how large and refined Hondas became in just fifteen years.
Excellent show. I believe it’s a brown 1980-1983 model.
That and Mad Men are my two favorites shows on right now. How about that gruesome car jack release by Elizabeth last week?
I love everything her character does. I wonder how much that Barracuda cost; it’s among the most expensive props on that show.
The car selection in The Americans has become more diverse this season, unless I am mistaken. Maybe it is drawing a lot of owners of surviving pedestrian 1980s cars out of the woodwork so that they are offering them up as movie set cars when they would not have earlier.
I may need to issue a second “CCs of The Americans” article soon!
It’s a good thing they’re so good with the cars, because they’re really bad at recreating the early ’80s in terms of other props and set design. The show’s strong enough that it’s only slightly distracting.
Although it appears to have some age on it, it is obvious that someone devoted a LOT of attention & love to details on the “Moby Grape” paint job!! The Hondamatic letting, the indside door trim, and front grille were all addressed. I remember that the steel wheels on these cars could be made to look quite sharp w/ the addition of chrome trim rings & lug nuts. About the hubcaps, kneecapping is a bit severe, how about a six month restriction on shopping at Pep Boys instead?? 🙂
A friend’s older sister drove a Civic with the Hondamatic. I remember riding in it and being puzzled by the semi-auto. If you still had to shift, it didn’t seem to me a big gain to just lose the clutch pedal. Forty years later, I now know the how & why.
I was a kindergartner when Civics first arrived on these shores. Honda motorcycles were plentiful in those days (what happened to all the small bikes that used to roam the streets?), and I considered them to be American as apple pie. So I was surprised to learn Honda was a Japanese company. I was also surprised that a motorcycle maker could also build cars.
It was easy to write the early Civic off as too small and quirky. But even my Oldsmobile-driving father was impressed by the Accord when it came along. He made noises about potentially purchasing one.
When my mother bought her 74 Luxury Lemans, our Pontiac dealer had just added Honda.We got a Civic loaner a couple of times, which I found exceedingly cool and just irresistible.
After a teenage mishap in the LeMans (involving ice and a fire hydrant) we got one of these as a rental for maybe 3 weeks, probably a 76. So, I may be one of the few who has real seat time in one of these.
As a stupid teen, I flogged the everloving crap out of the car. It was not fast, but was incredibly fun when you nailed the gas as you entered every turn and hung on as the fwd pulled you through it. That poor car endured full throttle at least half of the time I drove it. I have always wondered about how the poor bastard who wound up with that one made out. Had the thing had a stick shift, I might have gotten into some trouble with it.
I always shifted the HondaMatic, because acceleration in 2 was glacial. It was spartan, but well assembled and roomy enough for my mother and two teenagers to travel about an hour and a half out of town at Christmas. So, I guess I learned early on that Honda made a heckuva little car, and have always understood what people saw in them. And great God in Heaven, this is the first one of these I have seen since maybe 1982.
Yes – some of the early Honda dealers were standing Pontiac dealers. In my area, one of the first Honda dealers in the 1970s was Larry Hopkins in Sunnyvale, CA, which was a big Pontiac dealer. Well, eventually the Honda franchise and sales exceeded that of Pontiacs, and Larry Hopkins because an exclusive, stand-alone Honda shop, which still exists today. The Pontiac franchise moved to the Pearson dealership down the street, which was originally an Oldsmobile franchise, then a Buick/GMC/Pontiac one, and now, just a Buick/GMC dealer.
One of my SiLs had a brown Civic wagon in the late 80’s. There is a “cute factor” about these that not all micro cars are capable of exuding. Honda did a fantastic job with the styling. It has real character.
Here’s a great visual that demonstrates the actual size of this from last year:
I remember this generation Honda Civic. I was just a boy when I first saw the Honda Civic, about 5 or 6 yrs old. I remember thinking at the time that it was the ugliest car on four wheels. I remember wondering why anyone would want to drive this, when one could drive a Toyota Celica ST. Today, 35 yrs later, I look at a 1st gen Honda Civic and I see a nice looking car, small enough to park in most places, yet can seat 4 adults comfortably. I prefer the 4 door station wagon or a 4 door hatchback sedan over the 2 door hatchback sedan. It’s a shame that the 4 door sedan was never offered during this time. Other car makers were offering their models with 4 doors (the VW Rabbit, for example. Why wasn’t the Honda Civic?
I live in Washington, where it rains, and if we’re lucky, it snows. Most of my family, by this time, bought American cars: Ford, Chevy, Buick, GMC Truck.
My parents owned one of the first Honda Civics in Vancouver. I believe a tennis friend worked at a newly opened dealer. I still remember the novelty factor and other owners honking and waving. I recall our ’72 Mach 1 driving tennis pro (a British expat) driving it around the club parking lot and saying “what fun, I never should have given up my Mini!”. Of course ours was a manual, which I learned to drive standard on.
Even then my tastes were much more Brougham, my teenage mind plotted how I could add sound deadening, plush one piece carpeting and wood trim!
Cool wagon and I like the color. There is one of these in Saint John’s, but always on private property and they look even smaller in person. I love all these rare cars Oregon has to offer.
The dashboard reminds me of the one in may 1971 BMW 1600 (2002 with a smaller displacement engine). My sister-in-law bought a 1981 Civic wagon with a 5-speed. My wife (then finance) then sort of “rented” it from her over the ensuing summer. The price? Having a dealer-installed air conditioner put in. This was central Texas after all.
To that end I got to drive the car quite a bit and it seemed so sweet – also reminiscent of my Bimmer. It was a hoot to drive.
Shifting the transmission was smooth as butter. At the time I was driving a 1980 Pontiac Phoenix with the 2.8 liter V6 and (rare) 4-speed transmission (cable actuated and not nearly as smooth as the Honda’s). Unlike most GM X-body owners, my Phoenix never gave me any trouble save for the CV joint boot getting torn once causing the CV joint to fail on a trip from San Antonio to Houston but the car was 5 years old by then.
The Civic wagon was replace with a 1988 Subaru Loyale wagon which was roomier and more refined but certainly not as fun as the little Honda.
Those elemental, unadorned, yet fully functional dashboards and interiors sure make me wax nostalgic for the ‘good old days’.
I loved and badly wanted the 2 door version of this car. I finally did get to drive one, with a 5 speed manual. Then I really wanted it. It was rough, stiff suspension, lots of tire and engine noise, it sounded and felt like a race car when you wound it out through the gears. Unlike today’s appliances, it did anything but insulate the driver from the driving experience. The engine sound was different, but otherwise it felt a lot like an old VW bug.
I think the Fiat 500 looks a lot like it, so I went and test drove one. I was seriously disappointed. The Fiat 500 is no luxury car, but it doesn’t have the sound and feel of that old Civic by a long way. Someone should build a small 2 door car today with that same basic look, and the same sound and feel. Leave the safety bumpers exposed rather than covering them in plastic. And leave out all the navigation/bluetooth crap. If you built it as simple as that Honda (yes, I know, unfortunately it would have to have air bags and ABS) or as close as possible, it should be a fairly inexpensive car. Oh, and make it in yellow
I always thought these little wagons were cute as a button! Haven’t seen one on the road since about the mid-90s – the road salt up here in Southern Ontario seems to have got them all. I am surprised by the room in the back seat. The 2-speed Hondamatic transmission is interesting, didn’t Honda come out with a proper 3-spd around 1980 or so?
My Dad had a 1984 Honda Accord, this was in the mid ’90s and it had a 4-spd auto. What a jewel of a car it was. While my VW Jetta shook, rattled and rolled when started on a cold winter’s day, you could turn the key of that Accord and it started right up and ran glass smooth. Too bad the rust got it.
As a side note, does anybody know why the Japanese always put the side-view mirrors way out on the front fenders? Is there a reason for that?
They were mandated by law in Japan for cars until some time in the 1980s. The advantage with the fendor mirrors is that they provide a wider angle of view or less of a blind spot, which is an advantage when one is manuevering around the very narrow streets common in Japan.
Refreshingly simple, innovative design. Soichiro Honda worked so hard, yet the company soon forgot as they shamelessly produced defective automatic transmissions for years.
That’s what I remember about the Honda Civic of this generation, its simplicity. If I were old enough at the time, and had my driver’s license, I would’ve bought one for myself.
This is the first of these I’ve ever seen, and my consciousness of cars stems from about 1985-6. I remember the Toyota wagon of similar vintage, but not this. Thanks for the introduction!
Haven’t seen a Civic of this generation in a long, long time, so this is a seriously great find! The generation after this is also almost impossible to find anymore either, and I’m not even in salt country. I do see the (very) occasional first-generation Accord, but that’s about it as far as Hondas previous to 1982-83..
Where do you live?
Out here in the midwest, you don’t regularly see pre-1990 Accords or pre-1992 Civics.
In mid-west, nearly all rust-prone not for pleasure vehicles before ’90s disappeared.
Despite the horrible rust resistance, there are still handful of MGB out there though, as cars like that pop up like flowers in spring.
Richmond, VA for the past 2.5 years, and the Research Triangle area of North Carolina for 14 years prior to that. Mostly similar climates, a few snow/ice events each winter but not a lot of salt overall. And in general, still quite a few ’86-’89 Accords around and the ’82-’85 are seen rarely, and a decent amount of ’88-’91 Civics and occasional ’83-’87 Civic/CRX.
I caught pics of a first-gen Hondamatic Civic last summer, a two-door sedan. Guess I shoulda posted it!! I spotted it in Brown County Indiana, which is full of two-lane hilly roads. All I could think of was how dreadful it would be to drive a Hondamatic in such conditions, and I never considered myself spoiled, given my experiences with third-world motoring. I can’t imagine how refreshing five-speed versions must’ve been, though; all-aluminum engine and four-wheel independent strut suspension made it unlike anything at that price. C’mon Honda, give us something fresh again.
Paul brings up a good point, vis-a-vis the market reinventing 1st-gen Civic-sized cars. But it would be especially cool if someone were to make a very small car built around sophisticated mechanicals and an engaging driving experience. We instead get very space-efficient tall-boys built to deliver a low base price. I’d actually say we have something more conceptually similar in the likes of the current Focus. It’s actually considered somewhat of a big deal that it’s commercially viable in the US with its combination of compact size and big-car sophistication (and the Mini doesn’t count, since it’s not exactly classless). Short of another fuel-crisis, we won’t see this combination of economy, compactness and sophistication for a while. The original Mini is similar in this regard.
Now, if I could find a Swift GT/GTi, that would be really cool (though these cars were not as jewel-like as early Civics, they married frugality and sophistication in a similar manner).
I’m curious to see how the Fiat 500 will do marketplace in years to come. I see those as the small, inexpensive fuel efficient car these days, like the Honda Civic was back then.
I also miss these little utilitarian but zippy cars, the original Rabbit/Golf, the Civic, the Strada, LeCar, etc. I ended buying a Yugo back in the 90’s strictly for commuter duty and ended up really appreciating it more than it’s el cheapo roots deserved.
I think our European cousins have re-discovered those joys with the upsurge in the sales of Dacias and etc., but I don’t know that we’ll ever get to re-discover them over here…
B- and C-segment cars (hatchbacks) grew in the past decades, hence the whole wide range of A-segment cars these days (the minis).
Volkswagen Golf -> Volkswagen Polo -> Volkswagen Up!
Renault Megane -> Renault Clio -> Renault Twingo
Opel Astra -> Opel Corsa -> Opel Adam
Ford Focus -> Ford Fiesta -> Ford Ka
Toyota Auris -> Toyota Yaris -> Toyota Aygo
Und so weiter.
This find brings back good memories! My first car was a used 1977 Honda Civic CVCC hatchback with the Hondamatic transmission.
My parents bought it used for me in the summer of 1980 to commute to the local college. It was white with a tan vinyl interior, and had about 25,000 miles on the odometer. The original owner was happy with the car, but the arrival of his first baby resulted in a trade for a 1980 Dodge Omni.
The Hondamatic was interesting. I often left it in second gear when driving around town. In retrospect, this was a way to experience what it was like to drive a 1960 Ford Falcon with the automatic transmission. Shifting the transmission into first at every stop, and then shifting into second at about 25 mph, improved the acceleration, although no one would accuse the car of having blazing performance. This was 1980, however, which was a low-point for domestic car performance. Virtually every new or nearly new vehicle was slow in those days.
The car itself was fun to drive, and managed to feel both light and strong at the same time. The seats were comfortable, and it had all sorts of nice little touches. I received many compliments from people when I gave them a lift in the car. In my small Pennsylvania town, Honda cars were still somewhat exotic during that era.
My points of reference for small cars at that time were my parents’ 1973 AMC Gremlin, my aunt’s 1977 Ford Pinto and the cars of my best friend’s family – his 1974 Fiat 128 Sport Coupe, and his parents’ 1978 Plymouth Horizon.
The Gremlin was a real dog – it was the most unreliable car anyone in our family has ever owned. The back seat was cramped and the traction was treacherous even in rainy weather. The interior was literally falling apart when the car was three years old.
The Pinto was okay, but its cramped interior and low seating position gave one the impression of sitting in a bathtub. Its interior fit-and-finish was actually good for the era, and it had the best AM radio I’ve experienced in any car.
My friends’ Plymouth Horizon spent as much time in the shop as on the road. It was less reliable, believe it or not, than his Fiat! The Fiat was a fun car, but with that small engine and a four-speed transmission, he ran it into the ground. Amazingly enough for a Fiat in Pennsylvania, I don’t recall it having any serious rust issues.
The Honda had its quirks (I learned how to use a manual choke on that car!), but, in comparison to other small cars of that time, it was easy to see that Honda was a company headed for greater things. That Civic was a very good car, and went over 120,000 miles before my parents took it back when I transferred to another college. They eventually traded it on a 1986 Ford Escort Pony. The Ford actually turned out to be a very good car from a reliability standpoint, although it wasn’t as much fun to drive as the Honda, even though the Ford had a manual transmission.
“In retrospect, this was a way to experience what it was like to drive a 1960 Ford Falcon with the automatic transmission. ”
Very good. The experience that came to my mind was pulling a skier up out of the water in a speedboat with a 35 horsepower outboard. There was a lot of engine noise, but forward motion came slowly.
While the car was slow in absolute terms, it didn’t feel like a slug. The light weight, and, more importantly, the overall feeling of lightness, gave it a peppy demeanor.
My dad and I test drove a first gen Honda Civic with a Hondamatic. Riding as a passenger, It felt so under-powered, I felt as though the car was going to stall.
Fresh out of college with a journalism degree, I landed an “editor” job which mostly consisted of driving seed packets to the Post Office for a non-profit that promoted gardening. (I should have taken this as emblematic of the “career” that was ahead of me, but no … ) Their car was one of these first-gen Civic wagons, less than a year old at the time and complete with the Hondamatic.
I was impressed by the room in the cargo hold — the only other car I’d driven that was nearly that small was a Beetle — and I didn’t mind the lack of power. What I will always remember, though, is how cold-blooded that car was and how prone to stalling at first, even in a California autumn. I’m sure it didn’t help that it was the first car I’d ever driven with a manual choke, but even when I’d gotten accustomed to that, it was still problematic. I’m sure it would’ve been fine with a stick.
Early Mavericks and Vegas also offered semi automatics. Our neighbors bought an early Civic wagon. I always thought it was a purposeful looking car. Very clever.
Wish someone would return to minimalist interiors and scrap the asinine cock pit cliches. Enough with consoles eating up all that interior real estate. Probably makes the Civic seem roomier than it is.
Seems a shame the Civic lost the plot along the way, like so many have over the years: feature,length and width bloat, no attempt at designing in simplicity of construction, repair or servicing.
I went from my first car, a ’67 Ford Galaxie 4-dr, to a ’73 Civic after graduating high school in 1974. This was prior to the introduction of the CVCC motor. Mine was a manual, while my dad had a Hondamatic version for his daily space center commute. I absolutely loved mine but really disliked the Hondamatic, as it really sapped the spirit out of the car. But both of them ran absolutely faultlessly for the couple of years we had them. The first timing belt I ever changed was on mine, which took about 45 minutes to do with just a wrench or two. But, the FL coastal salt air perforated the rocker panels within two years as the paint simultaneously turned to chalk. I traded it in for a neglected Jensen-Healy sitting on flat tires in the Chevy dealer’s back lot…
Whoa… the word Hondamatic takes me back to the most gutless motorcycle I’ve ever ridden… 1980 CM400A
I hope the car was better.
For as much trouble as the CVCC engine gave me, the Hondamatic in our ’76 Civic was trouble free. Also, I found the Civic comfortable enough to drive almost 2000 miles on a trip to the Northwest.
The first gen Civic was pretty good, it just didn’t hold up well for me.
I had one of these in 1986. Those rear door window cranks would definitely be a hard to find item as they were unique from those used on the front doors. The knobs were spring loaded and would articulate flat like the handle so that the rear seat could fold down without catching on the knob. To roll the window up or down, you’d grab the knob, it would move perpendicular to the handle and you’d crank as normal. When you released the knob, it would fold flat against the door panel. Very cool.
Cute little car ! .
I was expecting lots of hate filled ‘ penalty box ‘ comments , glad to see some love here as I believe there’s a place in America for smaller , fuel efficient cars…
This generation of Civic always makes me think of one thing: as a small child in the ’70s, even though I lived in an intensely American-car oriented environment, I had a large plastic toy Civic. It was the two-door hatchback, not the wagon, and about the size of a Tonka toy. My parents still have it at their house, and my three year old son sometimes plays with it when he is over there. As it features a Honda logo on its grille, and as Honda has not changed their logo in the past forty years, he is even able to identify it as an “old Honda”.
The base of the car indicates that it was made by a company called Strombrecker Plastics. A Google search for “Strombrecker Honda Civic” will turn up images of toy Civics similar to mine. It was apparently made in red and yellow (with either a red body and yellow interior/base, or vice versa) or blue and white (with either a blue body and white interior/base, or vice versa). Mine is the version with the yellow body and the red interior/base.
Had totally forgotten about this toy! Googled it and the memories came back! I was a child in the 80s and had the blue one! Those oversized tires jogged my memory!
The picture of the 2 door Civic reminds me of my then girlfriend’s Civic. At the time in late summer 1977 a dock workers strike left BC and the rest of western Canada with few new Japanese cars. She was shopping around for something small and the Civic at a dealer in Victoria on Vancouver Island had a metallic brown one she really liked.
The dealer didn’t have much to offer and my girlfriend felt the little brown 2-door was bested suited to her needs. I think it had the auto tranny. I also remember the Civic cost her well over $4,000! Pushing the price envelope for such a small car in 1977.
Anyway I got to drive it a little before she dumped me later in the year and on the Island highways it was a hoot to dart around between Victoria and Nanaimo. Less than a year later ex-girlfriend and Civic moved east to southern Ontario. I suspect that Civic rusted away out there in less than a decade.
I had one of these with the Hondamatic as a college student car gift from my parents… This would have been in 1974 so I ‘m guessing the car was a 73 as it had small merely decorative bumpers. We were a family of 60’s SAAB owners with decade-long string of matching SAABs 93’s et al for my mom and dad, but recall that was in the days when SAAB meant smokey and quirky. For those who don’t remember they were 3- cylinder, two-stroke, freewheeling, reversed-pattern column-shifter quirky. It also meant that I wasn’t uncomfortable with the idea of winding the piss out of a small engine. My dad, a QC engineer, liked to say that the redline on a 2-stroke SAAB was the exact same as the destruction point of the materials…..
So, a Civic, while tiny even compared to the SAABs or a VW Beetle didn’t seem AS alien to me as to some of my friends. It seemed very small but in no way cheap; in fact it seemed rather sophisticated in design. Rather than the expansive but bland interior surfaces of American cars, every centimeter of the Civic’s interior had some purpose, and all of it was synthetic material or carefully molded and fitted plastic. Despite all the plastics nothing seemed cheap- it was simply thoughtfully utilitarian. I liked it. I was already 6 foot tall but fit comfortably. Back seat? I suppose it had one but I never tried stuffing anyone it it. I’d remember that. I had the hatchback which was kind of a novel thing in those days, and very useful. They did make these with a trunk but you could only use that as a cat-carrier, and then only if the cat wasn’t too fat.
The car ran perfectly, always. Mileage was great but I don’t remember what great was exactly. The Hondamatic wasn’t a big deal, and I have no memories of it being difficult, unlike the 73 Super Beetle I owned some years later when I had to start paying for my own cars.
It was certainly about two classes above the Chevette another of my college friends had.
Nothing forecast the future better than a side-by-side comparison of those two cars. The Civic was clearly thoughtfully engineered and assembled. The Chevette was indifferently slapped together out of cheap materials and built on a design that’s seemed to date back to the 50’s
My mother had a 1977 Civic wagon, with the manual transmission and brown rather than purple. I remember a camping trip from Vancouver to the BC interior for a week or so – my mother and four children aged 10-15. The car was packed to the limit – we put the tent flat on the roof, then a canoe (full of sleeping bags etc) on top of that, which tied everything down. No problems at all.
A friend of my father’s had one of the first Civics in Montreal. She was used to driving a manual, but the dealer only had a Hondamatic in stock, so she took that. She said that she only got confused once, when she was approaching a traffic jam on the expressway and tried to downshift from 4th to 3rd. This put the car from Drive into Park, and it came to a screeching stop. Lots of drama but no apparent damage – she put it back into gear, and kept going.
Had 2 Civics in the 80’s.
I actually worked on them.
Changed front axles and rebuilt the top half after timing belt disaster.
Now my grocery-getter is an awd Element.
Slow, but nice.
I have owned 2 Pintos. I bought a ’73 sedan (or whatever they called the non wagon without a hatchback) back in 1976, and absolutely loved it. It was a 2.0L OHC with a 5 speed. It was orange, and I put aluminum slot mags and Goodyear non radial RWL Polyglas GT tires on it. I spent a lot of time washing and waxing it. Maybe it wasn’t a Mustang or Camaro, but I thought it had plenty of style. And it lasted for many years and over 80,000 miles, and was still running great when I sold it. The ONLY issue I ever remember having with it was having to replace the distributor, because the bushings wore out and the points would not stay set. I now have a ’72 woodgrain wagon, and had the same issue. Otherwise everything has been fine. Very fun to drive, and still has style.
I wish I could own one of those mid ’70s Honda 2 door hatchbacks, but there are none to be found. I can’t afford to travel around the country looking for one, only to find nothing but rust. I found the rust free Pinto wagon by accident. I bought it on the spot.
The one thing about the Honda that I wish they had done differently, would have been to use a live rear axle with leaf springs. It is way stronger than IRS. I understand that Soichiro Honda wanted to do just that, but got talked out of it.
My family lived in Australia for about a year in 1978-79. We had a white four-door one of these. Didn’t realize it had a longer wheelbase than the two-door but it makes sense. We drove all over the eastern part of Australia in this, from Brisbane to Adelaide. We moved to Perth for the latter part of our stay and I’m assuming that they shipped it there by train from the Adelaide area. Because these were in such high demand, my dad was able to make a profit on this, selling it for more than he bought it for even though we used it for a year. They loved the car and when we returned to America, my parents bought a 1980 Accord four door in that light green color.
In terms of the wagon, I have a great story that took place around 1989 or 1990. My friends and I saw the end of a road rage incident involving one of these. I was with a bunch of friends and we pulled up to a light and there was a middle aged guy who was driving a restored 1958-62 Corvette. We didn’t see the initial part of the incident, but I’m guessing maybe the driver of the Civic wagon cut off the Vette and they had words. Anyway, we got to a light and the civic was in the left lane of a two-lane one way street. The guy in the Vette gets out of his car and walks up to the driver side of the Civic, is yelling at them and starts wildly punching the driver through the window. The Vette was in the right side lane, not parallel to the Civic but about one car back. After a few seconds, the Vette driver starts to walk back to his car. Without missing a beat, the Civic driver puts the car in reverse and aims straight for the front of the Vette. The middle aged guy literally had to jump out of the way to avoid getting hit. The Civic probably gets going about 10 – 15 mph in reverse and slams in to the front of the Vette. He knew his car was worth about $300 at that point, so he was probably thinking what do I care. We can’t believe what we are seeing. Then the light changes and we all drove away. The last thing I remember seeing was the middle aged guy with his hands on his head looking at the destroyed front of his pride and joy. Not sure what happened at the beginning of the incident, but from what we saw, the guy in the Vette was the aggressor so, don’t judge me, but me and my friends all thought we witnessed some pretty sweet justice.
There’s another factor at play here. Not sure if it’s still the case, but in oz when a car sustains damage to its rear from a car behind it, liability falls on the car behind. As you’ve described it, it’s probably not the case but it does become a matter of ‘he said she said’ in the courts.
That car’s a boat compared to this fine Honda product still on the showroom floor at Dick Brooks Honda in Greer, SC:
One of the Honda dealerships in Durham, NC has both a Z600 like this one and an N600, parked side by side in an alcove to one side of the showroom. Both look just as fresh as the one you posted, though I don’t know if they are NOS survivors or restored. They made quite a counterpoint to the Odyssey van parked nearby!
Nice find. Here in eastern PA, i think i saw the last of these sometime in the late 80’s. Even my neighbor’s Vega lasted longer.
Btw, you wrote, “And this little purple Civic is the equivalent of finding a 1953 VW still in daily driver use in 1990.” Does a 1957 in 1995 come close?
I drove a ’77 2door with a trunk back in my college days starting in 1984. It was a hand-me-down from an Aunt who switched to Honda when VW bugs were NLA. It was dealer serviced all it’s life and came with a stack of work orders. What was really interesting was every three months it was in the shop for a grinding noise in the rear and always with adjust parking brake and at least once per year replace rear brake shoes and adjust parking brake. If the parking brake was not used frequently it would sieze up so that meant using it all the time.
One winter we discovered handbrake turns with this car. Handbrake spins were another thing we did on every slippery parking lot we found. The car came with knobby snow tires which we used every winter. The front end had loads of traction and the back end went wherever it liked. Once I went sliding into a full serve gas station late at night and the attendant was an older gentleman who suggested the snow tires should go on the back. I though he was nuts and didn’t realize it was front wheel drive but he insisted saying that the front wheel drive had the weight over the drive wheels but the back end needed more traction if it was going to stay where it should be. I swapped them to the back that night and went out for a drive and wow, what a difference. The back brakes no longer locked up as easily in the snow and slush and the handling was amazing. From then on the snow tires went on the back every winter and people though I was nuts!
It was a fun car yet needed a head gasket every now and then and snapped a timing belt once. In the 80’s parts cars were cheap and plentiful which came in handy when the engine siezed. The little gear that drives the oil pump losts it’s teeth and by the time the oil light came on the crank was stuck. I swapped the motor with a 40K mile donor which promptly threw a rod. I found a nut from the big end bearing in the oil pan with not a single mark on it. When I got back to the shop I grabbed the original motor from the scrap pile, honed the cylinders, re-ringed it and put in new bearings and that motor lived on in two more cars before I switched to Datsun. Never owned a Honda since.
This one was in my garage and drive way for a couple of years beginning in 2006. Long story of how it came to be and what might have happened to it. It was not even mine.
Cough rollcage400smallblockand10″rearend Cough. It was never meant to be though and is just a sore spot to those who had plans for it. Myself included.
This foolishness had already been done to it and it moved under it’s own power at this point. The project was abandoned when the 400 small block idea was floated and then the project was taken back again and once more abandoned. Pissing off people in the process. Anyone handy with welding and fabricating wishing to try something like this with a 1st generation civic wagon. A Miata front end would have solved all the problems this project had. Too bad no-one was listening.
The Civic might have been the first successful mainstream Honda, but before it there was another conventional* attempt: the Honda 1300
*I should have said relatively conventional, as it had an air cooled engine.
Sweet looking car. It’s a shame that it was never sold here in the USA. It would’ve showed us that Honda was capable of doing other cars than the Civic.
This brings back memories. I had a slightly beat up 75 coupe with the CVCC and 4 speed. This was my first really small car and I really liked it so I was looking for a Civic in better condition. I found a yellow wagon with the Hondamatic. I thought that this was the perfect sized vehicle. My wife and two kids ( even with a child seat) fit well and there was plenty of space with the seat folded down. I guess it was the Fit of it’s time. The motor was messed up and I ended up swapping in a brand new crate motor. It was slow and I always shifted it to get a little more speed. There were times I had to stop on the freeway on ramp because I just knew I wasn’t gonna be able to merge in front of that rig. Once on the freeway it would cruise at a steady 70 mph. on the level. Still, I drove it out to Sacramento and Fresno which was about 2-3 hours one way. I had no problem with the manual choke as I was still riding motorcycles at the time. I bought my first new Honda a couple of years later, a 90 Civic SI hatchback which was one of the best cars I have ever owned.
Major CC Effect, although I see this car regularly anyway… ’79, Hondamatic, CVCC, hatch model (I think). Somehow survivng the snow/rain/salt:
You could get a “Hondamatic” in a couple of Honda motorbikes in the U.S. – the twin-cylinder CM 400A (later CM 450A), and the 4-cylinder CB750A. Both of them had to be shifted between first and second, though you could start in second as noted above. It wasn’t fast, but it wasn’t really that bad, actually. Rode a CM450A for a long time. With the torque converter you could beat some faster bikes off the line. Instead of a clutch lever, it had another brake lever set as a parking brake.
Suzuki sold a similar motorcycle to the CM 400/450A, the GS 450 A. It was also a semi-automatic.