Curbside Classic: 1987 Honda Civic 4WD Wagon (Shuttle) – The Automotive Swiss Army Knife

(first posted 12/27/2011)    Honda’s single greatest moment ever? The fall of 1983, when it rocked the world, releasing a whole family of new Civics. As in four discrete cars, all with different bodies, something no one had done before: a four-door sedan, the hatchback, the outrageous little CRX, and the brilliant tall-boy wagon. The CRX and wagon were the standouts, both of them original and downright revolutionary. Ever since, I’ve debated endlessly which was the more brilliant of the two. Today, I will debate on behalf of the wagon; another day, it may well be CRX. I may never fully decide. Just as well.

With today’s high-tech based development capabilities, Honda’s Civic foursome would not be quite the big deal it was then. Manufacturers spin platform variations by the dozens. But in 1983, what Honda did was unprecedented and momentous. And not just because there were four of them, but also because each one was so superb: the best in class, four times over.

The tall boy wagon, marketed as the Shuttle outside of the US and as the WagoVan during some of those years in the US, was a marvel of space utilization. It was the second Honda tall boy, after the City/Jazz of 1981. And where did the inspiration come from?

I wasn’t there, but as best as I can piece together, the Japanese tall boy school started with Giorgetto Giugiaro’s 1978 Lancia Megagamma concept. And Honda wasn’t the only one looking at it.

The 1981 Nissan Stanza Wagon/Prairie (CC here) appeared the same year as the Honda City. And it clearly shows the styling direction that the Civic wagon would also adopt. The Stanza wagon/Prairie was perhaps as equally brilliant in its clever use of space as the Civic, but it was also one size larger. And it wasn’t nearly as much fun to drive.

To put the Civic wagon in perspective, both size and otherwise, it’s instructive to note that the prior-generation Fit/Jazz are very similarly sized as the Civic wagon, starting with the same 96.5″ wheelbase and 157″ length. And they both have 1.5 L fours, although the power for the Fit is naturally up substantially from the 76 hp in the still-carburated 1.5 four of the Civic. But then the Civic wagon was some 500 lbs lighter. A good idea is worthy of repetition.

The interior space of the 1984 Civic wagon was simply a revelation at the time. Small cars were really small then; tiny, cramped, and their rear seats were a place to just avoid, if at all possible. I’m not speaking in abstractions either: we had a gen2 Civic wagon, like this one here, and then got one of the brand new gen 3 wagons in the fall of 1983. The difference was just startling all the way round, but no more so than the rear seat. Wow; practically a limousine! A place to enjoy, not endure, should the need or desire arise. And it did; every so often on a road trip, I’d pull over, have Stephanie drive, and I’d plant myself between our two kids in the back, then about two and four. Quality time, in the Civic wagon.

When I can happily hop in the back seat of a car, and have truly unencumbered leg space, I really take note. And this was in a car 157″ long; a tall boy for a tall boy indeed. And it quite explains why I now have a gen1 Xb, perhaps the ultimate successor to the Civic Wagon. Once a tall boy lover…

Our Civic wagon was Stephanie’s car, which meant an automatic was mandatory. Probably just as well, or I might have just co-opted it altogether. I was driving a T-Bird Turbo Coupe at the time, and we used that on some of our many road trips due to its ability to gobble up the Mojave Desert with a hearty appetite. But despite the modest power and automatic, the Honda was always a blast to drive, if serious speed was not on the to-do list. I have very happy memories indeed of carving up and down Topanga Canyon with the Civic. And its stellar visibility made it an unbeatable city car for squirting in and out of LA traffic. All it needed was a stick and an extra 25 hp or so, and it could have been the world’s greatest car ever.

Ours was a first-year fwd version. But Honda soon upped the ante with 4WD. This necessitated a stick, so it wouldn’t have been kosher in our household anyway. Honda even made it semi-off road capable by blessing it with a sixth gear, a “Super-low” granny first. Through the 1986 model year, the rear axle was engaged via push button. But for 1987, Honda added a viscous differential and made it full-time AWD, now called Real Time 4WD. The Honda wagon was now the spiritual predecessor to the CRV.

I can’t properly explain it, but vehicle packaging is a peculiar and intense obsession of mine. Maybe it’s something about coming from a mountainous region, where folks need to be efficient with resources. How else to explain the Swiss Army knife? And the Civic Wagon was the automotive equivalent of that device. Able to do almost any automotive job one could ask of it, especially with 4WD: leap tall buildings… and get 35 mpg in the doing.

Maybe I’m losing my objectivity here, but if someone were to ask me what the ultimate automotive jack-of-all-trades was, I just don’t know what else I could come up with. Help me out here…how could literally every automotive quality be better rolled up into one small bundle? The rear legroom of a long-wheelbase Town Car, off-road capable, sports car handling, reliability, efficiency…enough already. It must have had some vices.

I wasn’t too wild about the checked upholstery. And the front seat cushion was a bit too short for my long thighs. The luggage space was a bit short, due to that rear-seat leg room; that’s what racks were invented for. I’m running out of gripes. Oh, right; it probably rusted like mad in the Salt Belt.  Nobody’s perfect, but some sure come mighty close.