The 1975 Honda Civic CVCC was the perfect car for the mid-1970s. At the time, most auto manufacturers were bemoaning the difficulties of adopting catalytic converters and the use of unleaded gas to meet increasing exhaust emission restrictions. Adding to their woes, the gasoline embargo of 1973 severely limited the supply of gas, driving up gas prices. Then, out of the blue, Honda, a small Japanese manufacturer then best known for its motorcycles, introduced the fuel-efficient Civic CVCC that met all of the U.S. emission requirements – without using a catalytic converter. Honda Civic CVCC owners could use any kind of gas that was available – regular leaded, unleaded, or even premium.
The Honda Civic: A car for the times
Timing the introduction of a brand-new car model in a totally new market is critical. Automotive history is replete with failures of new models being introduced at exactly the wrong time. Sometimes, however, a car maker gets lucky. Factors completely out of Honda’s control made their timing for introducing the Civic absolutely perfect. It was a small, fuel-efficient car with enough room for American buyers and sufficient performance to keep up with American traffic. Introduced in 1972 as a 1973 model, the Civic entered the market just as the oil embargo of 1973 hit Americans with a double whammy – a shortage of gas and increasing gas prices. Propelled by a 50 horsepower, 1170 cc, four-cylinder engine, the little four-seat Civic averaged 30 miles per gallon.
The Civic had independent suspension all-around, power-assisted front disc brakes, reclining bucket seats in the front and a fold-down rear seat, and an AM radio. A four-speed manual transmission was standard, with a two-speed semi-automatic transmission as an option. Other options included air conditioning, radial tires, and a rear window wiper. The monocoque-bodied, 87 inch-wheelbase car tipped the scales at about 1700 pounds. While high speed was not its forte, the Civic could go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 14 seconds and had a top speed of 85 miles per hour. Certainly not earth-shattering performance, but then, owners didn’t have to spend much time waiting in line at the gas station.
1975 Honda CVCC engine
Honda sold over 75,000 Civics during 1973 and 1974, but they had another ace up their sleeves. To meet the demands of the Clean Air Act of 1963 for reducing carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon, and nitrogen oxide emission levels by 90% beginning with the 1975 models, Honda used the CVCC engine. CVCC stands for Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion, Honda’s name for stratified-charge combustion technology used in the engine. Honda did not invent stratified-charge combustion, but they were the first to use the technology in a gasoline-powered car engine. The 1488 cc, four-cylinder CVCC engine that debuted in the 1975 Civic produced 53 SAE net horsepower and had an EPA fuel consumption rating of 32 mpg in the city, and 43 mpg on the highway.
Briefly, here’s how the CVCC engine works: in the cylinder head of the CVCC engine, small (thimble-size) chambers act as precombustion chambers into which a fuel-rich gas mixture is injected and ignited by the spark plug. In the ‘regular’ combustion chamber, a lean fuel/air mixture is ignited by the flame from the associated precombustion chamber, and the expansion of the burning gas in the combustion chamber exerts a force on the piston, as in a standard engine. The stratified-charge combustion results in a more complete burning of the fuel/air mixture, reducing the noxious exhaust emissions. Honda’s CVCC Civic met all of the U.S. emission requirements without using a catalytic converter. Without a converter, the Civic could use less expensive regular leaded gas, another bonus for Civic owners. Thanks to the CVCC engine and other improvements, Civic sales for 1975 jumped to 102,389 vehicles, up from 43,119 in 1974 – an increase of 137%!
Rust never sleeps
Despite the initial sales success of the Civic, by the later seventies, Honda had a rude awakening. There’s an old saying that every car restorer knows well – “Rust never sleeps.” It’s a reminder to do everything within their power to coat every bit of internal or external metal surfaces with some kind of rust preventative, or else the dreaded tin worm will inevitably return and devour their precious restorations. Unfortunately, in the 70s many new car manufacturers did not feel the need to use rust preventatives, or other treatments on their brand-new babies. “After all,” many thought, “by the time rust attacks, the owner will be ready to buy a new car anyway, so why bother?”
We don’t know what Honda’s thinking was on rust treatment, but they were among the many car makers that relied solely on the paint on the exterior metal surfaces to combat any rust problems. In the midst of the celebratory euphoria about the ongoing sales success of the Civic, they were abruptly brought back to reality when they discovered that Civics were becoming notorious for having serious rust problems less than three years into their useful lives. Following a series of customer complaints, the Federal Trade Commission ordered Honda to replace rusted fenders on 1975-1978 Civics at no charge, or reimburse their owners for having the fenders replaced. But, the worst was yet to come – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration then ordered a safety recall for all Civics because pervasive rust had weakened the front suspension arms, the front crossmember and the coil spring lower supports. All Civics received new front suspension parts, or were bought back by Honda.
Honda’s largest-selling model: Civic
Certainly, the rust debacle tarnished Honda’s reputation, but the Civic name has continued on through today. The Civic is Honda’s longest-running nameplate, as well as their largest-selling model. Worldwide, about 22 million Civics have been sold since 1972. The brand is heralded for its refined driving dynamics, quality construction, and world-class fuel economy. The first-generation Civic played a large part in the success of Honda Motor Company. Motor Trend magazine said of the first-generation Civic, “Its combination of smart engineering and environmental concern laid the blueprint that made Honda one of the major players on the world automotive scene.”
Honda Motor Company took its first tentative steps into the U.S. car market in the mid-1960s with the N600 and the Z600. Both were diminutive micro cars powered by 600 cc, two-cylinder, air-cooled engines, which sold poorly and proved to be unsuitable for the American market. Company co-founder Soichiro Honda was driven to succeed and was not happy with either the cars or the effort by his engineers. He reminded them that cars sold in the U.S. must meet Americans standards to succeed, which led to the design of the Civic. Mr. Honda assured his staff that this was their last chance – if the Civic wasn’t good enough for the U.S., Honda Motor Company would pull out of the U.S. car market. Forty-five years later, Honda Motor Company is still in the U.S. In addition to being a fine engineer, Mr. Honda proved to be a superb motivator.