Civic/CVCC Fuel Economy Draws Praise in the U.S.

The Honda Civic went on sale in Japan on July 12, 1973. It was a car developed with the company’s back to the wall, at a time when the company considered withdrawing from the car business if the plan failed. But the Civic was well received in the marketplace, winning the 1973 Car of the Year Award sponsored by Motor Fan magazine. On December 13 of the following year, the four-door Civic/CVCC 1500 went on sale, giving the model name a solid basis for success in the Japanese market.

Shipments of Civic/CVCC automobiles to the U.S. market began with the 1975 model year. Prior to exportation, however, the car had to be certified as satisfying the Clean Air Act. Even though the CVCC engine itself had passed the 1975 qualification test in 1972, it had not yet been tested as a complete vehicle. Emissions tests in Japan a year earlier, using a 1974 Civic with normal engine specifications, had encountered no problems. However, at the EPA, the vehicle failed to acquire certification (although it passed after being retested.) Honda R&D Center was not about to be discouraged, though, and in the spring of ’74 it organized an EPA certification project in preparation for the Clean Air Act’s first year of implementation. The first task was to determine why the 1974 model had encountered problems during the test.

Honda R&D and Suzuka Factory worked together with the EPA’s Ann Arbor certification lab to find out why the test results in the U.S. had differed so much from those of Japan. Thorough comparisons were made, and the research data was collated for comparison.

Results showed three major differences between tests conducted in the two countries: air pressure, chassis dynamometer and driving habits. Tests were affected by air pressure because the two test areas differed by 350 meters in elevation. Although the identical make and model of chassis dynamometer was used for both tests, it turned out that the span between the front and back rollers on Honda’s unit had been converted for easier testing on small cars. As for driving habits, it was determined that American and Japanese drivers differed greatly in their treatment of the gas pedal.

Based on these findings, Honda decided it would repeat the EPA’s test conditions in order to determine whether its own vehicle could pass the test. After that, they checked the influence of the new test conditions on automobiles that were to be mass produced.

The 1975 model of the Civic/CVCC was brought before the EPA in November 1974.

“With the test completed and the computer spitting out numbers,” remembered Takeo Fukui, who was in charge of EPA certification, “I felt like I was waiting for the results of my college entrance exam.”

“Congratulations!” said a cheering EPA inspector, offering his handshake when the test was completed.

Mizoguchi and Fukui were certainly overjoyed just for having achieved certification, but the EPA inspector told them their product also got the top rating for fuel economy.

“We were so preoccupied with emissions that we hadn’t given any thought to fuel economy,” Fukui said. “But to the EPA, passing the emissions test was no big issue. It was fuel economy that mattered. After all, they had the future in mind.”

The Civic/CVCC’s fuel economy figures continued to climb with each passing year, and as a result it was number one in that category for four straight years, through the 1978 model. It was soon common knowledge among American consumers that the Civic was a miserly user of gasoline. The car also drew praise as a low emission car that ran on either leaded or unleaded gasoline.

The Clean Air Act finally went into effect in 1975. Cars made by Honda’s competitors were equipped with catalytic converters, which meant they could use only unleaded fuel. Lead, of course, was known to have a damaging effect on catalytic converters. Once Fukui had completed the EPA’s certification process, he rented a car to test its fuel economy, driving from California into the neighboring state of Nevada. It was the latest model from Ford. On his way through the desert he stopped at a service station, where the attendant refused to fill up the car.

“The station didn’t sell unleaded gas,” Fukui recalled. “I begged the manager for some gas, saying, ‘Please, I’ll run out of gas out here.’ But all he said was, ‘Sorry, I don’t want to be fined.’ Luckily, I was saved because the next station had unleaded gas.”

Fukui was not to be alone in such an experience, as drivers across the country began to encounter similar situations. Besides the possibility of a fine, there were other measures intended to keep leaded fuel from entering the tanks of unleaded-only vehicles. Such cars had smaller fuel filler tubes, forcing gas stations to install narrower nozzles on their pumps that dispensed unleaded gas. Since the fuel industry could not meet the demand right away, relatively few stations were capable of serving unleaded cars.
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<< The 1970 U.S. Clean Air Act
<< Launch of the AP Lab
<< Achieving Lean Combustion through Trial and Error
<< Developing an Engine with a Prechamber
<< The Official Name: CVCC
<< The CVCC Engine System: An Immediate Success
<< Civic/CVCC Fuel Economy Draws Praise in the U.S.
<< The CVCC: Expressing the Honda Philosophy

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