This is the second in a series, “Steering into the Skid”, highlighting classic cars that exemplify the perseverance and innovative spirit in the face of hardship that defines our community of enthusiasts.
If you talk to classic car enthusiasts about their favorite automotive era, I’d be stunned if you wound up hearing a whole lot about the “glorious 1970s.” This is because most car aficionados associate the 1970s with fuel crises, malaise, and rust. And while this association is mostly warranted, I would like to share some of the outstanding feats of engineering lost in the shadows of this automotive ‘dark age.’ But first, let’s take a quick trip back to remember what the automotive industry was up against.
The dark decade began with the passage of the 1970 “Muskie Amendment” to the U.S. Clean Air Act, which called for the most stringent emission standards that the world had ever seen. In what would become merely the first of a decade’s worth of suffocating governmental restrictions on the automotive world, this law required automakers to reduce emissions across their entire line of vehicles by a mind-boggling 90% in only five, short years. To add insult to injury, Congress also decided to require all vehicles to run on unleaded fuel in a similarly short timeframe. While it may seem unlikely that this act would send shockwaves through the 1970s auto industry, it is crucial to note that for the previous 50 years (or ever since World War I for any history buffs out there), automobile engines had almost exclusively been running on leaded gasoline.
As if this avalanche of federal restrictions wasn’t enough to send automakers reeling, they were soon blindsided by the six-month, OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973. The national energy crisis that ensued saw the American public become crippled by record increases in gas prices, and, of course, those notoriously long lines at the pumps. As part of its response to this crisis, Congress passed the nation’s first-ever fuel economy regulations. Through its new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, automakers were forced to either meet progressively higher fuel economy targets beginning in 1978 (18.0mpg for all passenger vehicles) or be walloped with mammoth fines.
Attempting to deal with the sudden avalanche of new regulations, unprecedented reliance on foreign oil, and unrest in the Middle East, it’s not at all surprising that most of the major players in the American auto industry were petitioning and lobbying (read: begging and pleading) Congress for exemptions and extensions from the growing list of nearly impossible-to-meet restrictions and fast-approaching deadlines. Meanwhile, automotive designers and engineers were busy ruining their prized creations to comply with this new American reality by adding performance-robbing catalytic converters to their exhaust systems, lowering compression ratios, utilizing more restrictive air intakes, and shrinking the number and size of carburetors under the hood.
This was undoubtedly one of the bleakest times for car enthusiasts. And while one car could not single-handedly rescue the auto industry, an unlikely hero was able to provide just enough of a hopeful spark. It was a promise that the days of new, exciting cars would soon return despite this suffocating new reality. What was that unlikely hero? The mighty 1975 Honda Civic CVCC.
In the same way that the early bird catches the worm, Honda began its development of a low-emission and more fuel-efficient engine all the way back in 1966. Rather than turn a deaf ear to the growing environmental movement and whispers of future American regulation, Honda decided to ‘steer into the skid’ by looking at a potentially more stringent amendment to the Clean Air Act as an opportunity. It was an opportunity to finally be viewed as something more than merely manufacturer of motorcycles to a skeptical American public. It was also an opportunity to become a stronger competitor to its Japanese rivals, Datsun and Toyota, and to shock the automotive world.
As mentioned above, automakers determined that the only way to meet the looming congressional deadlines was to clean exhaust gases after they left the engine through the installation of the restrictive catalytic converter. Honda, believing that catalytic converters were too expensive and too fragile of a technology, went against this prevailing belief by building the first engine in the world that was able to comply with these new emissions regulations without the implementation of a catalytic converter. This remarkable feat was accomplished through Honda’s revolutionary Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) engine.
The CVCC engine’s cylinder head made it brilliant. While each cylinder utilized a traditional intake and exhaust valve, each also implemented a second, smaller intake valve and a miniature cylinder that sat between the spark plug and the actual cylinder. This miniature cylinder would receive a rich fuel/air mixture through the auxiliary intake valve and would act as a precombustion chamber. When the spark plug fired, the rich mixture in the miniature cylinder would become ignited and mix with a lean fuel/air mixture that was received by the actual cylinder through the traditional intake valve. The combination of these two mixtures, once ignited, in the cylinder allowed for a more stable and slower spreading spark producing a more complete burn of the combined mixture, which, in turn, resulted in reduced emissions.
While other automakers undoubtedly noticed this technological breakthrough, the mere fact that the Civic met emissions regulations that all other OEMs were complying with, albeit without a catalytic converter, wouldn’t necessarily help Honda achieve its goal of grabbing American consumers’ attention. Yet, Honda saw its US sales more than double between 1974 and 1975 due almost exclusively to the fact that Civics were flying off the showroom floors. So what was it about this mighty little car and its clean-burning engine that so intrigued the American public? Well, it was a little bit of everything, really.
For starters, there was a trio of CVCC characteristics that the public did actually care about. First, and perhaps most importantly, the CVCC’s ability to burn its fuel/air mixture slowly and cleanly was not only environmentally friendly, but also incredibly fuel-efficient. When the public, still reeling from the OPEC crisis, heard the EPA announcement that the Civic was the most fuel-efficient car in the country (28mpg in the city; 42mpg on the highway), they flocked to Honda dealerships.
Additionally, the CVCC engine accepted leaded, low-leaded, and unleaded fuel without risk of engine damage, another huge selling point due to the questionable fuel-grade availability in some markets. Finally, its ability to meet the new emissions standards without an expensive catalytic converter enabled Honda to keep costs down, allowing the Honda to sell the Civic at a relatively low price.
However, the Civic was able to cement Honda’s reputation as an auto manufacturer in the United States because it was a car that, as Motor Trend stated, “like[d] to be driven hard” and simply “put the fun back in driving.” The Civic appealed to car enthusiasts when most automakers failed to provide anything even remotely exciting.
In spite of the fuel-efficient, environmentally-friendly, 1.5-liter CVCC engine’s diminutive size, it was able to produce 53 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque. While these numbers don’t sound too impressive it is important to note that the engine only needed to lug around a Civic that weighed 1500 pounds. This frisky engine packaged in a small, lightweight car on a sporty, four-wheel independent suspension earned raves from the automotive press and enabled the Civic to outperform both its American and Japanese competitors.
And that, in short, is the story of how Honda was able to establish itself as a viable automotive manufacturer in the United States. Rather than seeing insurmountable odds, Honda saw an opportunity. And rather than building boring cars in an uninspired attempt to comply with new and stifling regulations, Honda took a chance to impress and excite with the 1975 Honda Civic.
Thank you to Franck, a member of the for allowing us to photograph his Honda Civic 1200, which shares many similarities with its sibling, the CVCC.