The year 1970 was a historic one for Japan. Amid a period of remarkable economic growth, the nation hosted the Osaka Expo and busily prepared itself for the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympic Games. These international events prompted Japan to accelerate the building of transportation infrastructure and fueled its swift transition into an urbanized society, symbolized by the automobile. It was then that Japan took over the position as the world’s No. 2 automobile manufacturing nation.
Such rapid economic expansion and urbanization caused major issues in the form of traffic jams and air pollution. At the time, Honda specialized in highperformance, sporty vehicles. Given the issues facing the nation, however, the Company assumed the urgent task of developing a new, economic passenger car that would become a central part of people’s lives. This led to the creation of the first-generation Civic, a strategic model incorporating the comprehensive strengths of Honda.
The Civic’s development process contrasted completely with Honda tradition. Rather than pursue development based primarily on the vision of Company founder Soichiro Honda, the Civic’s development team traveled to various world markets, gained local knowledge and experience first-hand, and then set about creating a car that “is needed right now.”
Honda’s previous models had extremely high-performance engines, but were lacking in terms of space, noise reduction and weight balance—which are important factors in creating a car that is closely tied to people’s lives. After reflection, the Company decided to develop a new model that was compact and nimble—a basic car acceptable to people worldwide that provided “maximum value from the minimum number of mechanical components.”
As a latecomer to the automobile industry, the Company’s decision to lead the industry in developing a global car for world markets was a true demonstration of Honda’s challenging spirit which has remained to this day.
At the time, the traditional “front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 3-box” design (engine compartment, cab and trunk) was the mainstream standard for compact cars, but the Company boldly chose a “frontengine, front-wheel-drive, 2-box” specification (engine compartment and cab only) as the concept for the “basic world car.” Its project members were confronted with multiple new challenges and difficulties in the development process, and overcoming these issues led to the birth of new technologies. One was related to weight reduction. By decreasing the thickness of steel sheets to one-millimeter units and modifying their structure, the Company overcame conventional wisdom and achieved new levels of vehicle lightness, which also contributed greatly to reduced cost and fuel efficiency. Also, Honda chose an independent strut-type suspension*1, which offered a sporty driving feel as well as a comfortable ride, rather than the rigid-beam suspension used in most Japanese compact cars and trucks at the time. In another revolutionary first, the Company introduced its transverse-mounted engine to the compact car market, where vertical engines had been mainstream—giving its cars a “roomier” feel.
Perhaps the greatest determining factor in the success of the first-generation Civic was the distinctive three-door hatchback styling, which was unusual in Japan despite having won attention in Europe and North America. The Civic’s “mold” design spurned the traditional obsession with style and took the “maximum value from the minimum mechanical space” concept to the extreme. This design helped entrench its image as a familiar “people’s car.”
After only two years of extensive trial and error—an incredibly short amount of time in those days—development was complete, and the Civic made its debut, with a two-door model in July 1972, followed by a three-door version in September. The series was a major hit, especially among young people. For three consecutive years, from 1972 to 1974, the Civic won the Car of the Year Japan award, firmly entrenching its name in the Japanese market.
Rolling off the assembly line in July 1972, the first-generation Civic greeted a wave of hopes and expectations.
In 1972, Honda also began exporting the Civic to the United States, and its innovativeness soon won widespread acclaim internationally. Exports to Canada began in 1973, and between 1976 and 1978 the Civic was the best-selling import car for 28 consecutive months in that nation.
The first-generation Civic enjoyed achievement upon achievement, such as winning the Motor Fan magazine-sponsored Car of the Year Award for three consecutive years.
The Civic CVCC, launched in the United States in 1974, was instrumental in cementing Honda’s reputation overseas. Initially, practically all manufacturers regarded the U.S. Clean Air Act*2 restrictions as impossible to meet. In 1972, however, a new Civic equipped with a CVCC engine became the first model in the world to officially qualify under the new standards. Honda, a latecomer to the automobile market, saw the legislation as a golden opportunity, not only to protect the environment and otherwise fulfill its social commitment but also to join the leaders in the front line of technology. The Company instantly took on the challenge with conviction.
Civic CVCC (1973)
In October 1972, the CVCC engine was unveiled during a ceremony at Tokyo’s Akasaka Prince Hotel, attended by Company founder Soichiro Honda (far right).
Since first entering the Isle of Man TT races in 1954, Honda had used the racetrack as a testing ground, making excellent technological progress in the areas of speed and durability, as well as maximizing safety. The Company also learned much about setting and meeting difficult goals through its racing activities, and soon fully mastered the principles of engine combustion. Indeed, the renowned CVCC engine was the result of product development conducted through Honda’s racing activities.
The CVCC engine won acclaim not only for its clean emissions but also for its excellent fuel efficiency, and Honda later even offered its technologies to other companies. In subsequent tests conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), CVCC received the No. 1 fuel efficiency ranking for four consecutive years. In addition to meeting stringent emission standards, therefore, the Civic CVCC delivered superior economy and performance, thus strengthening Honda’s reputation for technological excellence in the minds of customers.
At an EPA public hearing in 1973 at a Department of Agriculture hall in Washington DC, the CVCC engine is declared to have met 1975 emissions standards.
To this day, Honda has pursued an unwavering policy of meeting social obligations and offering technologies that benefit the world. This policy began with the CVCC engine.
The Civic not only became the foundation for subsequent Honda compact vehicles but has since prevailed through periods of major change, including oil crises and diversifying values. It has become a true “car for the people,” as its name suggests.
The Civic gained popularity throughout the world.