The little car that started it all


honda-civic120161129You now know the Honda Civic as an award-winning sedan. The first-gen model, however, was this small hatchback

In 1973, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat—in an attempt to avenge his country’s loss to Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War (in which Israel decimated the Egyptian military in just six days)—led a coalition of Arab Nations in a surprise attack to reclaim territory annexed by Israeli forces. To the surprise of no one, Israel won yet again, though it took them slightly longer this time, as Israeli Defense Forces were on leave for the Yom Kippur holiday when the fighting started. A beaten Egyptian Army soon found itself encircled by Israeli invaders on its home turf, and Sadat had to agree to a ceasefire to prevent further bloodshed. Years later, before his assassination by Islamic radicals, the Egyptian leader would finally sign a peace treaty with Israel. An act that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize and the return of the conquered territories.

Lesson? Don’t piss off Israel. Ever. More important, don’t piss off OPEC. In reaction to US military support of Israel, the League of Oil Producing and Exporting Countries initiated the 1973 Oil Embargo, in which the US and its allies were locked out of the Middle East oil market. Oil prices quadrupled. Gasoline was rationed everywhere. The global economy tanked. And a tiny new car suddenly found itself thrust into the limelight: the Honda Civic.

Up until this point, Honda had made a name for itself selling motorcycles. Most of its cars at this time reflected this. The S800 sports car used a chain drive and an engine derived from Honda’s experience with motorcycles. The N600 kei car was tinny and tiny. In trying to break into the mainstream, Honda built the 1300, its first “true” car. It was beautiful and well-engineered. But it was beset by production delays, high prices and dismal sales.

Building upon lessons learned with the 1300, Honda launched the first-generation Civic at a mere $2,200 (roughly P550,000 today if adjusted for inflation). Based on a re-engineered N600 platform, it boasted sophisticated coil-sprung independent suspension, an overhead-cam alloy engine, a four-speed synchromesh transmission, a featherweight sub-700kg body, and seating for four full-size adults—though not all at the same time. Granted, the Toyota Corolla and the Datsun (Nissan) 510 were both larger and more powerful for similar money, but neither possessed the Civic’s neatest trick: CVCC.

Introduced in response to stricter US emissions standards in 1975, the “Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion” system allowed Honda to meet stringent anti-smog limits much more easily than anyone else. Basically, it used a special valve to squirt a tiny amount of fuel-enriched air into a small pre-combustion chamber around the spark plug, ensuring clean and complete combustion, while allowing the rest of the combustion chamber to be pumped full of fuel-poor air. This allowed the Civic to provide good fuel economy and emissions without the use of exotic catalytic converters or complex emissions-choked carburetors. Think of it as direct injection without the hideously costly high-pressure injectors manufacturers use today.

Surrounded by a sea of V8 barges choked down to a third of their pre-smog horsepower, the Civic’s light weight and rorty (don’t laugh) 52 horses made it a (literal) breath of fresh air. And with no catalytic converter, it could still use cheap leaded gasoline instead of the more expensive unleaded variety. As gas rationing got seriously under way, Civic sales skyrocketed. Even Britain, which hardly lacked for small, nimble and economical hatchbacks, loved the little Honda. Here, finally, was a spunky hatchback that didn’t burst into flames or break down every 12 miles.

As with other cult cars, owners often waved at each other. At least until every other driver on the road had one, at which point their arms got tired and they all just stopped doing it. Indeed, the Civic’s success was its own undoing. Unlike earlier “People’s Cars”—like the Volkswagen Beetle and the Morris Mini—it was a thoroughly modern and mainstream car. Not a quirky outlier to the establishment. And as Honda kept churning out newer, better, more sophisticated Civics, there was little interest in preserving endemically rust-prone first-generation cars. A shame, as the Civic was one of the foremost heralds of the tech-driven Japanese revolution of the ’80s and the ’90s.

And it’s all thanks to Nobel Prize winner Anwar Sadat.


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