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The Glove Box: Honda Civic

The Glove Box: Honda Civic

Cover photo from CivicX.com

Just this week, I saw a grey Civic hatchback, a brand-new 2017 model, in the College Prep parking lot. I was surprised to see it, because I didn’t know it was even on sale in the United States yet. But that car, whatever you may think about its exterior design, is a sign of a confident Honda returning to its footing in globally united, human-focused engineering and design in harmony. The new Civic has been a knockout success, winning most of the awards for which it’s eligible, and now Americans finally get the hatchback version we deserve. Honda’s love for people and cars alike is shining through the clouds once again, just like in 1973, when the first Civic rolled off the boat in California.

Who says a perfectly normal, vanilla car can’t have an interesting history? Some time ago, I became enamored with Honda and its story, specifically in the United States. It is a perfect mixture of serendipitous timing, engineering excellence, and love, and it began with the Civic.* Let’s see what The Glove Box will tell us about it.

Photo from Honda Brochures on Flickr

*I hate to relegate one of my favorite Japanese cars (and it is very tough to choose) to asterisk status, but, unfortunately, that is effectively what Honda did. The company put its products in an awkward position when it sold its first car, the N600, in the United States, because the little sedan was sold at motorcycle dealers. No Honda car dealers existed yet. As car dealers began to open to sell the Civic, and motorcycle dealers closed, N600 owners found themselves in possession of orphaned cars with a gradually shrinking network of dealers able to service them. I honestly don’t know why I like the N600 so much: maybe it’s just so cute, maybe it’s the pioneering yet heartbreaking story behind it. As a side note to this side note, N600 specialist Tim “Merciless” Mings recently performed a complete, year-long restoration on “Serial One,” the single first Honda car to arrive in the United States. Whatever its provenance, an N600 has earned its place in my dream garage. But enough about me.

You may have noticed a theme in my articles by now: cars that were simple where they needed to be, yet meticulously thought out in key areas. The Civic is no different. This type of product, which demonstrates a sophisticated yet humane method of engineering, has the most lasting impression on the car world. The Civic debuted in the United States with a small, 50-horsepower engine and a very simple list of optional extras. Honda engineers, though, had focused their attention on areas like the four-speed manual transmission’s shifter and clutch, which were easy to operate in gridlocked Los Angeles traffic. Even early on, Honda understood the people who would buy their first mass-market car.

In fact, for the time and place, the Civic was revolutionary. It had a transverse engine and front-wheel drive, a space-efficient and rather safe design which had not yet caught on in the United States but Europe knew and loved thanks to the famous Mini. Importantly, its build quality was top-notch. Meanwhile, the Vega and Pinto were attempts to downsize an old-fashioned rear-wheel-drive architecture to respond to the impending threat of foreign imports. While theoretically decent products, they quickly developed poor reputations for rust and explosions, respectively, that they never quite could recover from. The Civic took up a mantle also held by the BMW 2002 to degrade American hegemony (to use a debate term) over the native car market, capitalizing on the failings of American cars.

The Vega and Pinto. Photo from Car and Driver.

Honda was new to the car business. In 1959, the company opened an office at 4077 Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles, a small building made to facilitate the selling of small plastic motorcycles at the height of America’s chrome-laden Jet Age of car design. While small, this overseas office was one of the first of its kind for a foreign manufacturer, especially an Asian one. At this time, most foreign cars were sold in the United States by private importers such as Max Hoffmann. Toyota had actually tried and failed to sell cars in the United States just prior to Honda’s entry, but Honda was truly committed to knowing the customer. Well, a bit lucky too.

Honda started selling various motorcycles Stateside, but quickly realized that they were not fit for long stretches at high speed. They sent the broken bikes back to Japan to find a solution to the problems, but in the interim, the Honda staff, realized that their 50-cc Supercub shop bikes might sell well. The simple Honda 50 proved a success among people who wanted easy-to-use, efficient transportation. Even the Beach Boys liked it. Dumb luck number 1. Indeed, that same motorcycle is the world’s single best-selling motor vehicle (60 million and counting). The famous slogan “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” demonstrated the people power of this upstart Japanese brand.

Photo from The New York Times

The slow, basic N600 I mentioned earlier was the first car Honda brought to the States, arriving the same year as the CB750, basically the world’s first superbike. That car, though, was really just to test the waters for the Civic, which landed for the 1973 model year, just a few months before the Arab oil embargo that forever changed the American automotive landscape. Dumb luck number 2. Over the rest of the decade, Honda bestowed the Civic with CVCC, essentially a method of controlling the engine such that it did not require a catalytic converter (imagine a thief on Golden Gate looking under your Honda for one of those but finding nothing!) or even unleaded fuel. It was simple, easy transportation; magic in its day. In a way, the entire American auto industry was playing catch-up. (In fact, Honda even proved to a bullish GM that CVCC could allow even the large V8 Chevrolet Impala to pass emissions test without a catalyst. Jalopnik has a punchy article covering this.) Soon enough, CVCC was available on the bigger Accord, which further hurt the domestic brands and even threatened to monopolize the import market. The Civic topped the EPA’s first list of most fuel-efficient vehicles in 1977.

Thanks to the miraculous timing of the oil crisis and Honda’s following through with the perfect serve dealt to it, the brand had huge success. In 1982, it started building Accords in Ohio, carefully ensuring a high standard of quality to prevent the failure Volkswagen had experienced with its Westmoreland plant. Soon enough, most Honda cars sold in the United States were built in North America (they all are today, with just a few exceptions). Honda even exported American-built models back to Japan in the 1990s. Today, obviously, Honda is immensely successful and ubiquitous, but remember that forty years ago, the company was just getting started. The Civic, in the meantime, has continually grown in size, had its fair share of ups and downs. We all know and love the Civic.

Photo from evo

For more than you ever knew there was to know about the Civic, check out Car and Driver’s well-executed piece (including photos!) on the history of the Civic in the U.S. Also worth looking at is a write-up of the inspiring story of Honda’s American branch, such as this one from the New York Times. Next time in The Glove Box, we’ll return to the obscure, my real comfort zone. We will have fun.