Honda Australia 50th Anniversary – Original Civic

In 1973, Australians took a humble Japanese hatchback into their hearts and it’s been loved ever since through successive generations.
In 1973, Australians took a humble Japanese hatchback into their hearts and it’s been loved ever since through successive generations.

The Honda Civic had arrived a year after its domestic debut as a pioneer of the global basic car – a compact, lightweight two-door sedan or three-door hatch body style combining a transversely mounted, overhead-cam front engine with front-wheel drive (rather than the rear-drive common to small Japanese cars of the time).

Central to the instant appeal of the Civic – a name that represented a car created for citizens and cities – was a list of impressive values not typical of small cars in the early 1970s: fuel efficiency, spaciousness, high build quality and reliability. 

The Civic’s timing couldn’t have been more serendipitous.

Although it had been a response to the commercial struggles of the company’s 1300 small car, its introduction to the world coincided with the 1973 oil crisis and the subsequent consumer rush towards smaller, more economical cars.

The Civic’s popularity in overseas markets was boosted when it became the first vehicle to meet the strict emissions standards set by the 1970 US Clean Air Act, courtesy of its ground-breaking 1.3-litre CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine.

With a clever combustion process that eliminated the need for a catalytic converter, the engine could run on both leaded and unleaded petrol.

This was particularly crucial in the US, where the oil crisis had crippled the supply of unleaded fuel, creating long, frustrating queues outside petrol stations.

It was reflected in sales. Honda North America had sold fewer than 100 cars in 1969; sales reached nearly 40,000 in 1973. 

The Civic was rated the most fuel-efficient car by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for four consecutive years, between 1974 and 1977.

The 1.3-litre CVCC engine wasn’t available in Australia, though the Civic was still remarkably frugal thanks to its smooth, efficient 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine and meagre 657kg kerb weight.

Fuel consumption was just 7.5 litres per 100km. A relatively large fuel tank – 38 litres – also reduced the frequency of visits to petrol stations.

The initial Civic models in Australia were soon joined by a five-door wagon and a year later, in 1974, by a four-door hatchback powered by a bigger 1.5-litre four-cylinder – all furthering the small car’s appeal.
For gearboxes, buyers had a choice of the standard four-speed manual or optional two-speed automatic. 

A three-do or Civic with a Hondamatic auto cost $2,469 in 1973 (equating to around $22,800 in today’s money when adjusted for inflation).

Standard equipment included reclining front bucket seats, a folding rear seat, AM radio, trip meter and a laminated windscreen. 

The Civic also featured front disc brakes and independent strut suspension at all four corners, where most of the Honda’s contemporaries employed rigid rear axles. 

The absence of a rear axle provided advantages for agility, stability, weight reduction and – as CarAdvice discovered during its 2018 retro-drive of the original Civic – interior space.

“Sure, the car might be one metre shorter than the new [tenth-generation] Civic, but it is much more spacious inside than you think. 

“Storage is fantastic, with the glovebox large enough for four or five 600ml water bottles, and there are plenty of places to store your mobile phone.”

Motoring experts were as enthralled with the Civic as consumers when it launched, with Wheels magazine, in its May 1973 issue, declaring that “a motoring revolution has just gone on sale in Australia”. 

“It isn’t a revolution because it is so startlingly different in design or specification but simply because it is so damned good, so remarkably cheap and has such a wide appeal to buyers of all ages, sex and type.”

Writing retrospectively about the Civic’s impact when it debuted, industry journal GoAuto said: “The Civic offered interior room, good handling and ride, and distinctive looks coupled to a brilliant SOHC engine that proved as willing as any of Honda’s famed motorcycle engines.”

The Civic’s global-car status was reinforced by the expansion of production beyond Japan – the first for a Honda. This included New Zealand, where the model and its successors were manufactured at the New Zealand Motoring Corporation’s Petone plant between 1976 and 1998.

Many accolades came the Civic’s way. It was Japanese Car of the Year between 1972 and 1974, a then record three successive years, and it came a highly credible third in the 1973 European Car of the Year – the highest ranking for a Japanese car at the time.

US car magazine Road Test awarded it top prize among imported vehicles in its 1974 Car of the Year.

In Australia, the Civic was an instant sales success, helping cement Honda’s position in the local market. Following its arrival, Honda’s annual sales tally for 1973 more than doubled compared to the previous year, coming off the back of the Civic’s immediate popularity.

In 1974, the first full year of Civic sales, Honda’s total vehicle sales doubled again, increasing by 124 per cent from 4,859 units to 10,888 units. 

Honda was now a major player in the Australian new car market.

More than two million versions of the original Honda Civic were produced before it made way for a second-generation model in late 1979.

It was a success that ensured the Honda brand would become as renowned for cars as it was motorcycles.
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