The first Honda Civic debuted in the fall of 1972, marking Honda’s first major foray into the automobile business. Before the Civic, Honda was known around the world mostly as a builder of well-designed, high quality motorcycles such as the 100cc “Cub”, and the famous 1969 Honda 750. The tiny Honda N360 coupe was introduced in 1967 in several countries, but not in the United States, as it was too small for the U.S. market. When the slightly larger Honda Z600 coupe was introduced in the U.S. in 1971, it sold well enough. However, customers immediately requested something similar, but larger, with front disc brakes and a more powerful engine to handle the higher speeds found on American highways.
Honda began selling the 1169 cc (70 in³) transversely mounted inline four-cylinder Civic for about US$2,200 (AU$2,804). The car produced roughly 50 hp (37 kW) and included power front disc brakes, vinyl seating, reclining bucket seats and a woodgrain-accented dashboard. The hatchback version added a fold-down rear seat, an AM radio and cloth upholstery. Options for the Civic were kept to a minimum, consisting of air conditioning, an automatic transmission, radial tires and a rear wiper for the hatchback. The car could achieve 40 mpg (6 L/100 km) on the highway and with a small 86.6 inch (220 cm) wheelbase and 139.8 inch (355 cm) overall length the vehicle weighed 1,500 pounds (680 kg). The four-wheel independent suspension and four speed manual transmission (or two-speed “Hondamatic” automatic).
The Civic’s features allowed this “econobox” to out perform American competitors such as the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto, which had been manufactured to a lower level of quality compared to the Civic to keep their costs down. When the 1973 oil crisis struck, many Americans turned to economy cars. Reviews of American economy car quality were poor, and getting worse due to spiraling costs for manufacturers. Japanese culture had a long-standing tradition of demanding high-quality economy cars, and the growing American desire in the 1970’s for well-made cars that had good fuel mileage benefitted the standing of Honda, Toyota, and Datsun in the lucrative U.S. market.
For 1974, the Civic’s engine size grew slightly, to 1237 cc and power went up to 52 hp (39 kW). In order to meet the new 5-mph (8 km/h) bumper impact standard, the Civic’s bumpers grew, making its overall length increase to 146.9 inches (373 cm), 7.1 inches (18 cm) more.
The CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine debuted in 1975 and was offered alongside the standard Civic engine. The optional 53 hp (40 kW) CVCC engine displaced 1488 cc and had a head design that promoted cleaner, more efficient combustion. The CVCC design eliminated a need for a catalytic converter or unleaded fuel to meet emissions standards (nearly every other U.S. market car for this year underwent the change to exhaust catalysts and the requirement to use only unleaded fuel). Due to California’s stricter emissions standards, only the Civic CVCC was available in that state. A five-speed manual transmission became available this year, as did a Civic station wagon (only with the CVCC engine), which had a wheelbase of 89.9 inches (228 cm) and an overall length of 160 inches (406 cm). Civic sales also increased and topped 100,000 units for this year.
1978 brought slight cosmetic changes, some changes were as a black grill, rear-facing hood vents (which replaced the sideways versions) and new turn indicators. The easiest way to recognise a 1978 model from an earlier example is to look at the front turn indicators: prior to 1978, they looked like foglights mounted in the Civic’s grill, whereas in 1978 they were smaller rectangular shaped ones and were mounted within the bumper bar. The CVCC engine was now rated at 60 hp (45 kW) with 20 ft-lb torque.