Fifty Years of Honda in America

Don Sherman

The 600 served as the warm-up act for the real star of the Honda car show, which followed with fortuitous timing. The original Honda Civic was introduced in 1973, mere months before the Arab oil embargo triggered the first energy crisis. Powered by a 50-hp, 1.2-liter water-cooled four-cylinder, the two-door Civic became the instant darling of the EPA's new fuel-economy tests.

Gas mileage wasn't the only issue of the day. Meeting the so-called Muskie Law, which called for sharply lower exhaust emissions by 1975, was deemed an impossible task by most carmakers. Honda defied conventional wisdom by announcing that its new Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) engine could exceed the standard without a catalytic converter or unleaded fuel. This approach used two separate intake tracts per cylinder. A dedicated carburetor throat and tiny intake valves fed small precombustion chambers a rich air/fuel mixture that was easy to ignite. After combustion began in the anteroom, the resulting flame front lit a substantially leaner main mixture in each cylinder. Having extra air for combustion minimized the formation of unburned hydrocarbon, carbon-monoxide, and nitrous-oxide emissions. More significant, the Honda Civic CVCC topped the EPA's mileage charts from 1974 through 1977, with some ratings exceeding 40 mpg.

CVCC technology also benefited the Honda Accord, which arrived in 1976. During eight generations, Honda's mainstream model evolved from a $3995, 68-hp two-door compact riding on a 93.7-inch wheelbase into today's 271-hp four-door with a 110.2-inch wheelbase and a fully loaded price that tops $30,000. From 1989 through 1991, the Accord was the best-selling car in America.

Car and motorcycle sales gains, along with growing resentment over Japan's rising share of the U.S. market, prompted Honda to ponder a local manufacturing base. Operations began in 1979 with motorcycle assembly in Ohio. Three years later, those facilities grew into a million-square-foot factory for building Accords and, later, Civics. Learning from VW's mistakes when it established a Pennsylvania operation to build Americanized Rabbits, Honda made sure that U.S.-made Accords were indistinguishable from those imported from Japan. Further expansion, with new engine and transmission manufacturing plants, gave Honda sufficient capacity in Ohio to begin exporting U.S.-built cars to other markets, including Japan.

Honda's next courageous step up the prosperity ladder was the creation of a second sales channel for its Acura models. In 1986, three years before Nissan and Toyota followed suit with their Infiniti and Lexus brands, the Acura Integra and Legend gave faithful Honda customers an opportunity to spend more money while remaining true to the fold. Finishing at the top of J. D. Power's Customer Satisfaction Index from 1986 through 1989 was instrumental to Acura's success.

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