Usually, when we have a classic car visit our garage, we undertake an old versus new comparison, pointing out differences in driving, exterior, and technology etc. But not this time.
When Honda offered us a drive of the first-generation 1973 Honda Civic it recently acquired, we wanted to give it the spotlight, as its younger sibling, the tenth-generation 2018 Honda Civic, has seen plenty of it since its launch in 2016.
Before we take it for a spin, a short history lesson.
Without the success of the Civic, there is a strong chance we wouldn’t be driving Hondas today. Before the Civic came along, Honda offered roadsters, wagons, sedans and smaller cars like the Kei-car-inspired Z and N360.
But sales started to decline by the early ’70s and Honda was close to shutting down its manufacturing. However, when an oil crisis hit in 1973 and fuel prices rose, people started looking for an economical car. Enter the Civic.
With its affordable price, Japanese reliability, and economical engine, it became a hit, and Honda was back in business.
When the Civic landed in Australia in 1973, a year after it was released, it was sold for just over $2000, with only air-conditioning, radial tyres, a rear wiper and a semi-automatic transmission as options. Factoring in inflation, it would cost $18,000 today, about $4000 less than a 2018 Civic.
The first-gen was a good seller, but nowadays you would be lucky to see one. A few will be wrapped in cotton wool in garages – like this one – and a lot were driven for hundreds of thousands of kilometres until they ran out of puff, or depending on where you lived, they rusted (America issued a rust recall).
While it isn’t as desirable as a half-million-dollar European classic, it’s a car that gets as many looks as one. Pulling up to the traffic lights, you feel as if every eye is on you, and it gets a smile from young and old, sparking memories of people who used to have one or knew someone who did.
So, what is it like being behind the wheel of this 45-year-old hatch? Super fun. Like most old cars, you physically drive it. With two hands on the wheel, and a whole lot of patience.
Powering it is a 1.2-litre petrol engine with 39kW of power, taking 16 seconds to reach 100km/h. But with its four-speed manual transmission that is losing its synchro, it takes much longer than the factory claim, and many crunches to get it up to speed.
The engine has a whirring sound to it, and because of the lack of a fifth gear, once it gets faster than 80km/h, the revs get that high it sounds like a rocket ready to launch.
You need to have the windows down most of the time to dissipate the exhaust fumes that make their way into the cabin. I’m sort of used to this, as my own classics have the same problem! #classiccarlife
The pedals are placed much closer to the centre of the car than you think, as I went for the clutch a couple of times and got the brake instead. The non-retractable seatbelts got a workout when this happened.
Noise suppression is surprisingly good, even at rocket launch speed, with conversation levels not needed to be raised too much. However, you do hear when it rides over potholes with its 12-inch wheels. The whole car shudders, and it’s usually followed by "I’m so sorry, little car!”.
Stopping the Civic are front disc brakes and rear drums, quite a rare sight on a car of this size for its day. Steering is light and direct at higher speeds, and is fun to throw around sweeping bends, but at lower speeds, like in a carpark, your arms get a workout as there is no power steering.
Honda claimed 7.5L/100km when it was new, and we noticed it was sipping petrol for the few hours we were driving it while making the video. In comparison, the 2018 Civic 1.5-litre VTEC engine averages 6.1L/100km. Not bad really, considering a 45-year age gap.
The cabin is simplistic. Apart from its cream headlining and woodgrain-accented dashboard, everything is black. The interior is like going back in time as this particular car boasted a one-lady owner and is untouched, right down to the original seats and rubber floor mats.
Sure, the car might be one metre shorter than the new Civic, but it is much more spacious inside than you think. Because there’s not a long sloping windscreen filled with a dash, there is plenty of leg room, although head room for tall folk might start to get tight.
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.
Climbing into the back seat is no easy task, but once you’re in, it’s pretty comfy. There’s good leg room, but head room is tight, as you sit a little higher than the front seats.
An ashtray is built into the back of the driver's seat too, and to aerate the cabin of smoke there are ultra-cool pop-out windows, which I personally think should make a comeback.
What a charmer this wee car was to drive, and we can see why it was such a popular choice for buyers in the day who were after a great runabout. Who knew such a small car could save one of Japan’s biggest car manufacturers, and cement its place in hatch history.
Click on the Photos tab for more fabulous images of the 1974 Honda Civic by Frank Yang.