The 1974 Honda Civic CVCC Is a Timeless Lesson From a Troubled Era
Driving a first-generation Honda Civic CVCC can show us a path for a better future.
I am a devout auto enthusiast, but lately, it’s hard to find the same joy I once had in the hobby. For the longest time, cars offered me a respite from the anxieties of the broader globe, but lately, my automotive proclivities seem to bring me less relief from the crumbling world around me. I think it’s because the car industry feels like a microcosm of the same problems that plague me in my daily life.
For example, the economy is bad; that’s a usual concern for any 20-something with anxieties about the future. But the auto industry reflects this even more intensely than most other facets of life. Dealer markups and the outright cost of buying a damn car have hit unprecedented levels. For another case in point: I worry a lot about COVID. In addition to upending life for years on end and resulting in the deaths of over a million Americans, it is unavoidable in the automotive world as supply chain crises have wreaked havoc on automaking. Throw in our environmental problems and the fact that the electric cars meant to solve them keep becoming less and less accessible, and honestly, it feels like a bleak time to enjoy cars.
Most cars of the past I am lucky enough to drive are fun, but they offer no real assurance that the world of today will be any better. And then I drove this 1974 Honda Civic—born from a tumultuously bleak era 50 years ago—with a huge grin on my face and I stopped worrying so much about what’s to come. The Civic is a blueprint for enthusiasm in the face of adversity, and a stint behind the wheel isn’t just fun, it’s reassuring.
1974 Honda Civic CVCC Review Specs
- Price: $3,009 (in 1974)
- Powertrain: 1.5-liter naturally aspirated inline-four with CVCC | 4-speed manual | front-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 53 @ 5,000 rpm
- Torque: 69 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm
- Curb weight: 1,570 pounds
- Seating capacity: 4
- 0-60: 12.5 seconds
- Fuel economy: 28 mpg city | 41 highway
- Quick take: A car that democratized the definition of fun in a cloak of practicality.
Bleak World for a Birth
Admittedly, part of the joy and reverence I have for this car stem from the fact that it’s not just a 1974 Honda Civic. This is the first CVCC Civic ever sold in the United States. A lineage 27 million strong began in this car, and arguably from this yellow three-door came one of the most dominant Japanese marques of all time. Honda’s success in the U.S.—its largest market across the globe—began with the Civic, and especially the novel and efficient CVCC engines it came equipped with.
To understand why this 53-horsepower hatch could define a company, we first need to examine the ‘70s. In late 1973, when this Civic was on its way to the U.S., the country was in dire straits. Unimaginable political scandals shook the very foundations of the country’s institutions. Inflation hit unfathomable heights of over 8 percent as gas prices simultaneously skyrocketed thanks to OPEC-induced oil shortages.
The auto industry was shaken by similar issues. The overall regulatory environment changed drastically and rapidly as the birth of the EPA (in the wake of repeated environmental disasters) resulted in the phase-out of leaded gasoline. The first safety standards for crashes came into effect in 1973, directly after the birth of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1970. The automotive industry was in bad shape and scrambling to keep up with the brave new world it was thrust into.
Any of this sound familiar?
The microscopic N600 / Victoria Scott
Prior to the Civic’s release, Honda itself wasn’t doing so hot in the early ‘70s either. The N600, a two-cylinder kei car exported to the U.S. beginning in 1967, was critically panned and sold poorly despite its economical air-cooled, two-stroke 600cc engine; it was just too small and gutless (32 lb-ft of torque!) for vast U.S. freeways. Thanks to its prior motorcycle sales, Honda had a vast dealer network before a single N600 was sold, but it looked as though its cars would be dead nearly upon arrival.
And then the Civic launched in July of 1972 to modest success and much higher praise. It was larger than the N600, with good fuel economy, a lot less buzziness thanks to its four-cylinder engine, and over double the torque. The true game-changer, however, was the Civic’s Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion—or CVCC—engine that went on offer in late 1973.
CVCC engines were Honda’s answer to both the fuel crisis and the Clean Air Act. Most manufacturers in the ‘70s had no choice but to equip their inefficient cars with extremely rudimentary catalytic converters that sapped power and could only run on still sometimes-hard-to-find unleaded gasoline. Honda circumvented this by creating the CVCC system, which used a precombustion chamber in the head of the engine (seen above as the small cavity the spark plug rests in) that allowed for vastly more efficient combustion of less fuel.
By using this novel head design, Honda could produce motors that offered extremely clean combustion without needing to waste additional fuel to prevent lean operation. The Civic CVCC, as a result, became the most fuel-efficient car tested by the EPA for four years straight after its inception at a fantastic 41 highway miles per gallon; it did this while simultaneously offering consumers the ability to use any fuel—leaded or unleaded—they could find during the shortages of the era. One of the catchphrases for the U.S. Civic sales campaign was “Any Kind of Gas.” Buyers responded to this efficiency and flexibility in massive numbers, buying more Civics in its first full year of sales than they’d purchased N600s in the past four years.
So the Civic is incontrovertibly important to Honda and U.S. car culture, and that alone would have made its driving experience nearly moot for me. Reviewing a car like this should be approached more like a Ford Model T or a Volkswagen Beetle—comfort and driving dynamics matter less when the car in question revolutionized the personal automobile.
And the CVCC Civic’s interior paints a spartan picture, similarly to those titans of the past. Its simple gauge pod, clearly sourced from a motorcycle, only displays fuel, temperature, and speed. The interior is covered in either black vinyl or the original bright-yellow paint on bare metal; the only exception is a strip of faux wood running along the dashboard, which is stylistically pleasant but doesn’t help sell a luxurious image.
But overall, I found it a comfortable enough place, so I adjusted my single driver’s mirror and set off into Los Angeles city traffic to discover how it would feel in motion. Driving one of Honda’s most historically important vehicles on public roads will always be a nerve-wracking experience; driving it through Los Angeles had me worried I’d leave stress marks on the steering wheel, but I had no real reason to worry.
The Civic kept up with modern-day traffic exceptionally well. Often, in classic cars, I have to frantically apply wide-open throttle from every stoplight to have a prayer of keeping up with regular drivers in their modern turbocharged crossovers; the Civic’s low weight and extremely early torque peak at 2,500 rpm meant I could drive it much more calmly than most classic economy cars. Tapping all the way into the throttle and revving the 1.5-liter all the way out was enjoyable, but it rarely felt necessary.
The carburated, pre-chambered inline-four that the era demanded made zero concessions to comfort, either, with a perfectly smooth idle and a complete lack of the buzziness that characterized so many early four-cylinder engines.
Since this Civic is the grandfather of the next 10 generations to come, it possessed many of the same traits that would make its progeny favored by enthusiasts for the next half a century. The four-speed transmission had phenomenal feel, with an assuring handshake of lever to gear with every shift, that now is a hallmark of a Honda manual gearbox. The four-wheel independent suspension—which was essentially unheard of in the early ‘70s, especially on a $3,000 car—made it both more comfortable to drive than its contemporaries and more fun, with handling dynamics that wouldn’t be seen on most other companies’ FWD economy cars for another decade or two.
In 1974, as the Malaise Era’s bleak reign over the auto industry began and the U.S. teetered on the brink of economic ruin, it would have been difficult to fault anyone for assuming that car enthusiasm had run its course. Feeling a spark of joy in a Mustang II or a Chevette was certainly possible, but compared with the burnout-party-machine V8 behemoths U.S. manufacturers were building just a few years before in the cash-and-fuel-flush ‘60s, it was a lot more difficult.
The 1974 Honda Civic concedes every point of that bleak reality. Money was tight and costs needed to be kept low; up to you if you wanted to leap for the optional AM radio. Safety standards dictated bigger, rubberized bumpers that hurt styling; pollution standards and gasoline shortages mandated the 1.5-liter CVCC motor at a time when four-cylinders were still widely regarded as tragic.
The car acknowledges all of these truths and still was fun because of them. While not the first-ever Civic, this is the one that established a 50-year-lineage of vehicles that, much much later, became my initial pathway to enthusiasm. It’s worth noting I’m not alone in that; I’ve never driven a car that received more compliments per minute than this bright yellow hatchback. At every stoplight and photo stop, people would walk up to me and compliment the Civic and relate a story of how a tiny car just like the one I was driving played an outsize role in their life.
It was a transformative experience to drive a car that came from such a similarly turbulent era and still changed the automotive landscape so deeply. Driving classic one-offs and supercars is fun, to be sure, but none of those assure me that an accessible future with joy for all is on the way; they simply encapsulate the moment of their creation. The Civic, on the other hand, offers lessons that still resonate with me now. Humble cars do not need to be penalty boxes of misery; fun comes in many forms.
In troubled times, sometimes that looks like a bright yellow, three-door hatchback.
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