In 1977, Honda stood at a crossroads in the United States. The success of its sub-$3,000, fuel-sipping, stripped-out CVCC Civic established it as a manufacturer that could compete with… well, what passed as Detroit’s finest economy vehicles at the time, no doubt. Admittedly, that was a low bar to clear. In the struggling domestic subcompact market of 1977, Ford was offering the drums-at-all-corners Pinto and Chevrolet was plagued with the oft-recalled Vega. To grow further, however, Honda would need to move upmarket into tougher territory, where the Big Three had had decades to practice comfort and style. Challenging them on that front would be vastly more difficult than building a better alternative to the likes of the relatively dire Vega and Pinto.
Honda had momentum after the Civic, however, and it manifested in a near-flawless second act: the Accord. The first-generation 1977 Honda Accord proved that not only could Honda offer efficiency at an unparalleled level, but it could also offer comfort that no other marque—domestic or foreign—could possibly provide at its price point. The Civic proved that Honda had something to offer to Americans. The Accord proved that the era of domestic dominance was over.
1977 Honda Accord 5-Speed CVCC Review Specs
- Price: $3,995 (in 1977)
- Powertrain: 1.6-liter naturally aspirated inline-four with CVCC | 5-speed manual | front-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 68 @ 5,000 rpm
- Torque: 85 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
- Curb weight: 1,920 pounds
- Seating capacity: 4
- 0-60: 13.8 seconds
- Fuel economy: 31 mpg city | 44 highway
- Quick take: Honda’s second act proved it built cars that could take down giants.
The Gauntlet Dropped…
As with the first-generation Civic, Honda’s ace in the hole for the success of the Accord was its innovative Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion technology—or CVCC for short. In the wake of the fuel crisis of the early ‘70s, the phase-out of leaded gasoline, and the newly created EPA issuing regulations for tailpipe emissions, domestic manufacturers were reeling from a rapidly shifting market that demanded something besides body-on-frame behemoths with massive V8s. Honda, however, had spent the better part of a decade developing the novel CVCC technology, which used a precombustion chamber for more complete fuel-burning with a leaner mixture. With the CVCC engine, Honda’s cars could meet EPA restrictions without a catalytic converter, allowing them to run on leaded or unleaded gas (a crucial feature at a time of shortages), all while offering the best fuel economy numbers on the market.
General Motors, however, remained unimpressed. As documented in the 2014 book Driving Honda: Inside the World's Most Innovative Car Company by Jeffrey Rothfeder, the chairman of GM at the time, Richard Gestenberg, said of the Civic CVCC’s introduction in 1973, “Well, I have looked at this [CVCC] design, and while it might work on some little toy motorcycle engine, I see no potential for it on one of our GM car engines.” In 1973, this was the dismissiveness GM could get away with towards Honda; GM controlled 45 percent of domestic auto sales, and Honda had just cracked the one-quarter-of-1-percent mark.
Soichiro Honda, the company’s founder and CEO at the time, took Gestenberg’s flippant remarks as a personal challenge. He personally air-freighted a ‘73 Chevy Impala—V8 and all—home to Japan and had the engineering team at Honda develop a set of CVCC heads for it. He then shipped it back to the States and submitted it for EPA testing, where it passed emissions requirements with flying colors.
There was, apparently, no point to this other than Honda brashly upstaging a competitor, but the fiery intent was clear: Dismiss us at your own risk.
By 1976, it was becoming clear that Soichiro Honda’s provocation had weight to it. Honda’s presence had become increasingly more concerning for the domestic manufacturers, as it finally cracked 1 percent of stateside auto sales entirely on the strength of the Civic, its only offering in the U.S. at the time. Granted, the Big Three still held a combined 85 percent of the market, but it’s worth noting that the only other Japanese marques with more than 1 percent were Toyota and Nissan, at 3 and 2.6 percent, respectively. Times were changing, but for Honda to move up, it was time to expand beyond the entry-level.
Enter the Accord. From its base price of $3,995—which works out to an inflation-adjusted $20,804 today—it offered a slew of standard features rarely seen on Japanese cars before. Cloth seats, AM/FM radio, intermittent wipers, a manual transmission with five speeds instead of four, a trip odometer, a day/night adjustable rear view mirror, and a tachometer were all standard. Underpinning the entire drivetrain was a slightly larger, torquier, and more powerful version of the same CVCC inline-four; despite its increased output and displacement over the 1.5-liter CVCC engine in the Civic, the 1.6-liter Accord still managed a staggering 44 highway mpg in 1977. Honda was trying to prove it could outperform the Americans at their own game and still offer the efficiency it was already famed for.
…and the Challenge Accepted
The Accord debuted stateside with only one body style: a three-door hatch. A sedan would come later in the model run, and every other body imaginable would appear over the next 45 years of the Accord: wagons, coupes, even proto-crossovers. Regardless of the form factor, the ethos has stayed constant through the years: this is a Good Car for the Sensible Buyer. And with the keys to this silver hatchback in my hands, I decided it was time to imagine the Sensible Buyer of 1977.
Driving this early example is a reminder that this mentality has been baked into the Accord since day one. The interior, appointed in its standard cloth, feels downright lavish compared to the standard vinyl offered in economy cars of the era. The doors are thicker than the 1,500-pound-curb-weight Civic’s. The gauge cluster is a thoroughly modernized unit, with a little wireframe model of the car itself in it to indicate faults or open doors. More importantly, unlike the cheaper Civic that preceded it, the cluster and the interior as a whole no longer look parts-binned from a motorcycle. Everything in the cabin of the Accord screams clean-sheet design.
In motion, the gulf between the Civic and the Accord becomes even more apparent. The thicker doors, seven-inch-longer wheelbase, and cloth-equipped cabin of the Accord make for a much more civilized ride than the Civic, or indeed, most cars with a sub-$4K price point built in the ‘70s. This was part of the design brief for the Accord from the beginning, which was optimized for higher U.S. speed limits; as a lead engineer on the car’s development explained, his team targeted a noise level of “70 decibels at [80 mph],” which ensured that American buyers cruising the 5 to work every day would enjoy larger-domestic-model levels of NVH. I am here to tell you the design team succeeded; combine the cabin’s plushness with the smooth and quiet operation of the 1.6-liter CVCC engine up front, and it’s hard to remember this was Honda’s first real attempt at a true highway cruiser.
But as a 26-year-old woman with a leaden foot, I couldn’t remain a Sensible Buyer the entire time I was behind the wheel. To my delight, as I began to push the Accord more like a sports hatch, it actually held up shockingly well as one. The standard (power!) rack-and-pinion steering is sublimely precise even by modern standards; in its era, it’s hard to imagine getting this level of feedback without buying a through-and-through sports car. Despite the nose-biased weight distribution (62/38 front/rear), the four-wheel-independent suspension never felt like it was on the brink of plowing. I admittedly didn’t push Honda’s heritage-collection classic to its outermost limits on public California roads, but MotorTrend noted in its Accord first drive from 1977 that the hatchback “can be pitched into a corner with the tail coming out just a bit in actual oversteer.”
On top of all of this was the five-speed manual transmission which, just like the Civic before it, is typically Honda in use: damn near perfect. Throws are still on the long side compared to the millimeter-separated gates of later Honda performance cars. But driving the Accord is a great reminder that Honda has been nailing the experience of rowing your own gears since its inception, and the Accord has never been an exception (at least until 2020, when the manual disappeared completely).
Whether I was the Sensible Buyer or a 20-something who watched too many replays of Fast and Furious on cable TV in my formative years, it didn’t matter: this car is rock-solid.
The Reign of the Accord
As with the Civic before it, Honda had nailed the Accord’s formula from the first generation. Sales skyrocketed accordingly. In 1976, when the Accord was introduced (as a ‘77 model year), Honda dealers sold a little over 18,000 of them in the States; by 1978, after the introduction of the four-door sedan model, the company was selling more than 120,000 Accords a year. By 1979, buoyed by the strength of the Accord’s popularity, Honda had captured 2.5 percent of U.S. sales, and it and the rest of the Japanese carmakers had done well enough to worry Congress.
In 1981, Japanese automakers collectively agreed to a set of Reagan-administration-backed “Voluntary Export Restrictions.” Under the restrictions, Japanese car companies agreed to send no more than 1.68 million cars to the U.S. per year; this was in order to artificially prop up the market share held by domestic manufacturers, who had been lobbying the federal government hard for protectionist measures from popular Japanese cars. Honda’s response to these limits was to simply build a factory in Marysville, Ohio, and produce all U.S.-bound Accords there to avoid the import restrictions. By Nov. 1, 1982, the first American-built Japanese car ever, a second-generation Accord, rolled out of the plant in Ohio. To this day, U.S.-market Accords are still built in Marysville.
Over the 45 continuous years, the Accord has been on sale, Honda has built 18 million of them. An Accord has been on the Car and Driver 10Best list a staggering—and unrivaled—36 times. Those decades of later success were built on one of the strongest foundations in automotive history: this humble, silver hatchback. Jacks of all trades are common in the automotive world; masters of all are what legendary cars are made of. And by that measure, the Honda Accord is most certainly an everyday legend.
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