We don’t say Happy Holidays here at Riverside Green; it’s Merry Christmas, the holiday to celebrate the birth of our risen Savior, Jesus Christ. Before you fedora-tippers say anything, we’re perfectly aware that Christmas and Easter were both time-shifted to replace existing pagan celebrations. Celebrating Christmas around the winter solstice is no more illogical than espousing an evolutionary origin for pressurized organs. So there. (Yes, I read Stephen Jay Gould’s arguments for that, too.)
As we celebrate Christmas, the nice people at Honda are celebrating Civics. The Twin Ring Motegi track is currently hosting a Civic heritage display; some photos and a video are below, with various comments.
As with many other world-changing machines, the first Civic contained almost no original thinking but rather generated its impact from the unique way in which it put previously-established ideas together. Honda had already built transverse-engined FWD cars, inspired by the original Mini. The Civic was merely a combination of transverse FWD, water cooling, international compact-car dimensions, weight-conscious engineering, and elevated build quality. When the CVCC engine appeared, it was then uniquely positioned to make a splash in the United States.
The Civic was also designed to be cheap. As this photo shows, many of the early cars didn’t even have a hatchback, because the hatchback mechanism added cost. Many people remember Honda as the automaker that popularized five-speed transmissions, and that’s largely true, but it was also possible to buy four-speed Civics through the Eighties, long after the ’77 Cutlass could be had with a five-speed. Honda retained a carburetor in entry-level models long after the competition made fuel injection standard.
Not that the Civic was perfect. The early cars were as fragile as tissue boxes — this blog was almost pre-canceled in 1985 when my mother’s black ’82 Civic Si was struck by a mid-Seventies Cadillac in the back bumper at a stoplight and promptly collapsed its rear seatback into the front seats. As fate would have it, she’d dropped us off at our house just ten minutes before. Honda also struggled for years with rust issues, perhaps not as much as Toyota did in that same period but enough for plenty of first-generation Accords to lose their floorboards before the synchros got graunchy.
Almost always the right car at the right time — cheap and cheerful in America’s darkest era, BMW-esque during the yuppie Nineties, swoopy and futuristic just as the competition largely abandoned subcompacts — the Civic has always delivered outstanding value, meticulous reliability, and enough driving interest to keep young people from dismissing it out of hand. The Fast and Furious “import tuner” scene may have put Skylines and Supras on the front cover of magazines but it largely relied on Civics to fill the parking lots.
Your humble author campaigned a Civic briefly with Compass360 Racing in Grand-Am’s Koni Challenge during 2009, while also racing an ’89 DX hatch with Pakistan Express from 2009 through 2011. Eric Kutil’s Gridlife Touring Cup championship in 2020 makes the case for the continued viability of the “golden era” Civics in competition; double-wishbone Honda hatches are often the only legitimate competition offered to Miatas in smallbore club racing. If you’re interested in starting a trackday career, and you don’t want to drive the aforementioned Miata, it’s hard to go wrong with a manual-transmission Civic.
In the right hands, the current Civic Type R can be a giant-killer; when my brother and I ran SCCA’s Targa Southland together a few years ago, his Type-R press car was almost always faster than the expensively-upgraded C5 Corvette my wife had just bought from Matt Farah. I vividly remember being fully crossed-up in AMP’s final carousel turn while Mark’s Civic just steamed away like it had a massive rubber band attached to its front bumper.
Honda is also almost alone in continuing to offer a stick-shift low-price sporting compact, with its current Si, although if you want a coupe you’ll have to find a dealer with last year’s model in stock.
You’d have to go back to the 1963 Chevrolet to find another car that has been so many things to so many people, and competent besides — but the Civic has maintained that something-for-everyone virtue over almost fifty years now. It’s not the car you buy if you won the lottery, or the car you would buy if you wanted to impress the crowd at your high-school reunion. For millions of people around the world, however, the Civic has simply been the car they bought, again and again. That’s worth something.