1973 Honda Civic
1973 Honda Civic. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The Honda Civic appeared on the automotive scene in 1973, only 11 years after the Honda Motor Co. Ltd. of Tokyo had built its first car. Its first cars were tiny roadsters powered by engines of 500 to 800 cc displacement. Honda was already famous as a motorcycle builder, and its first cars relied heavily on motorcycle technology. Honda’s cars did well in Japan and it soon began planning to export.

The Honda 600s that arrived in North America in the early 1970s were little front-drive coupes and sedans powered by twin-cylinder, air cooled engines. While economical, they were not really suitable for North America. Honda realized this and set to work on a model that would gain greater international acceptability.

The result was the Honda Civic, and by a stroke of good fortune its arrival in North America coincided with the first oil crisis of the 1970s. In October, 1973, on the eve of Yom Kippur, Egypt attacked Israel. Israel retaliated, and with U.S. support was eventually victorious. The humiliated Arab world struck back with the strategic weapon it had: oil. It embargoed oil shipments to the West and before it was over, the price had quadrupled from about $3 (U.S.) a barrel to $12.

North American motorists, particularly in the United States, panicked. There were long and sometimes violent line-ups at the gasoline pumps. Motorists were more concerned about the supply of motor fuel than they were about price.

It was a very propitious time to be launching a small, fuel-efficient car, and that’s exactly what Honda had. That first energy scare catapulted Honda into the automotive limelight, and made tiny cars, even smaller than the Volkswagen, truly acceptable.

Although not as small as the BMC Mini, the Honda Civic was still a very diminutive vehicle. But within its over-all length of 3,551 mm (139.8 in.), and width of 1,501 mm (59.1 in.), it could accommodate four passengers and a reasonable amount of luggage.

A wheelbase of only 2,200 mm (86.6 in.) made rear legroom snug, and taller than normal passengers would find their heads brushing the roof. But there were compensations. The hatchback with its fold-down rear seat provided an enormous 20.7 cubic feet of cargo space with only two passengers aboard, making the Civic a very utilitarian vehicle.

As in the Mini, the Civic’s engine was positioned transversely between the front wheels, although its transmission was mounted on the end of the engine, not in the sump as in the Mini. The 1,170 cc (71.3 cu in.) overhead cam four drove the front wheels through a four-speed manual transmission.

Performance was more than adequate for our driving. With its 50 horsepower the 730 kg (1,610 lb) Civic could, according to Road & Track magazine (5/73), accelerate from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in a respectable 14.1 seconds, and reach a top speed of 146 km/h (91 mph).

But motorists weren’t really buying Civics for performance, although they did delight in zipping through tiny holes in traffic, parking on the proverbial dime, and shifting the buttery-smooth transmission. They were buying economy, and the Civic yielded 35 to 40 mpg in normal driving.

The Honda Motor Co. was clearly on its way in the four-wheel world. And the Civic was to prove that the Japanese engineers were a force to be reckoned with, that they could do more than just design a good little economy car.

In the early 1970s auto emission standards were being established in North America. American automakers resisted strongly, and complained bitterly that they were being forced to fit expensive catalytic converters and other power-robbing devices to meet these standards.

Honda set to work and came up with a low-pollution engine with three valves per cylinder. They called their system Compound Vortex – Controlled Combustion (CVCC), and when tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1973, it comfortably met all of the pollution standards without a converter or other add-on hardware.

When American engineers responded by saying that this was easy to do on a small four-cylinder engine, but not on Detroit’s large powerplants, Honda’s engineers went to work again. They quietly took two 5.7 litre (350 cu in.) Chevrolet V-8s, fitted them with the CVCC system, and proceeded to pass the EPA standards with them. Needless to say there were some red faces around Detroit.

The Honda Motor Co. soon moved up market, added the Accord, which was really an enlarged Civic, and then the luxury Acura. It went from strength to strength until it is now a full-fledged player in the competitive global automobile marketplace. And it can date its success to that original little 1973 Civic.

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