Right product, right place and the right time.
Only occasionally do these three factors converge as harmoniously as they did for the Honda Civic, launched in Japan in 1972, and the US and Australia in early ’73.
It was neither Honda’s first small car, nor the first transverse front-drive littlie, but the Civic – “created for citizens and cities” – nailed the sweet spot in a time of energy uncertainty and expense.
It went on to be a major and enduring influence on the world’s small-car buying habits, and on the success of Honda and Japan.
The 1.2-litre, four-cylinder Civic was attractive, space efficient and well equipped, and delivered big-car build quality.
In 1973, however, even these were secondary to its fuel economy of 5.9 litres/100km (a magic 40mpg in the US), as the OPEC oil crisis set about quadrupling US fuel prices in just 12 months.
The Civic’s US appeal grew further with the 1975 launch of the 1.5-litre CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine. Using a small pre-combustion chamber for each cylinder, the lean-burning 12-valve engine achieved the US’s harsh 1975 Clean Air Act without a crippling performance compromise or catalytic converter.
The entirely agreeable Civic was quite unlike the handful of quirky Honda cars that had preceded it, such as the N360, S600 and the air-cooled 1300 coupe. Indeed, the latter’s seismic commercial failure had driven Civic project leader Hiroshi Kizawa to get his wish for “a more ordinary car”, rather than “a car that the Old Man (Soichiro Honda) wanted to build.”
Indeed, Soichiro’s idea of a good time was something like the 250cc, six-cylinder, 20,000rpm four-stroke Honda RC166 racing motorcycle of 1964-’67.
The main lesson from the 1300 coupe – a staggering engine, with the car as an afterthought – was the need for a complete package of quality and comfort.
The Civic design was completed in an astonishing two years, with the first production model rolling off the line in July 1972.
The first generation was produced until 1979, by which time the world was a happier, cleaner and more civilised place. That’s at least partly because the Honda Civic was in it.
Within Civic’s two-box template would come a variety of body styles: two- and four-door “sedans” three- and five-door hatchbacks, and a 330mm-longer wagon.
Interiors were simple featured a gently arced and fake woodgrain-accented dash, sporty two-spoke steering wheel, and boldly modern instruments.
The Australia’s first-generation Civics landed in March 1973 with the conventional 1170cc, sohc four-cylinder unit making 37kW and 80Nm.
A bore increase from 1974 brought 1237cc, 39kW and 82Nm, with torque then upped to 88Nm for 1977. A 1488cc engine propelled the longer versions from 1975, with 48kW/103Nm.