Limited design budget
Honda’s first idea for a larger model was ‘Project 653’, a potential Mustang rival to be powered by a 2.0-litre inline six-cylinder engine. In the aftermath of the OPEC fuel crisis of 1973, with crude oil prices inflated by 400%, 653 was cancelled. Instead, the research engineer Hiroshi Kizawa was assigned the task of devising a Honda that would occupy the class immediately above the Civic.
Honda had previously invested so much in earlier cars and engine development that Kizawa would have only a limited budget, so ‘Project 671’ would have to be centred on the Civic’s power plant, floorpan and several body parts.
Kizawa’s brief further dictated that 671 would be ‘a compact car that is easy to use and has a stylish, sporty look’, which he decided would mean a hatchback body. In the mid-1970s the Japanese light/medium car market was dominated by saloons, meaning that a Honda entry in this field would struggle to compete, but in the USA export territory most successful ‘compact cars’ had either two or three doors. At that time, Honda’s four-wheel products were developed with overseas markets in mind and as the Civic had proved so popular in North America, it made sense to employ this winning formula writ large.
Two separate teams worked on 671’s styling and the design that was eventually selected by Honda was one heavily influenced by the Lotus Elite. To ensure that the latest Honda would be able to achieve ‘comfortable cruising at 130 kilometres per hour’ there was all-round independent suspension with MacPherson struts and a five-speed gearbox helping to increase the level of refinement. Japanese cars were often regarded as noisy but the overdrive fifth lowered the revs and also contributed to reducing running costs. However a major challenge remained: the engine. In 1975, Honda fitted the Civic with its new CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) unit. It was designed to meet local strict Californian emissions regulations without the need for a catalytic converter or fuel injection. However, the 1.5- litre could not be expanded to 1.6 litres and remain refined. Kizawa later observed that ‘Japanese cars still had high noise levels of around 70dB at 100km/h. To make the 671 a world-class car, we decided to reduce the sound level to 70dB at 130km/h’. It took much work on the power plant to In such a market, the Honda was indeed, as the brochure copy put it, ‘small enough for crowded urban traffic, yet completely comfortable for four adults’. In May 1977, Car & Driver magazine thought that ‘at first the Accord may seem like another transportation module in the familiar mould of front-wheel drive and hatchback, a Honda Civic with a thyroid condition’, but considered that it ‘marshals every desirable trend in small-car design’.
As a compact family car, the Honda offered more space than some of its rivals. The clean-cut, appealing, and almost ‘Preppie’ styling meant that it looked more at home in a suburban driveway than the likes of the AMC Pacer.
There was also an extensive list of fittings, including a (now-common) cable remote boot release, devised after a Honda engineer overheard a caddie complain that ‘with a small car, you can’t remove a golf bag without asking the customer to open the trunk with his key.’
The ‘Hondamatic’ two-speed semi-automatic box was ideal for the many US motorists who had little or no experience of ‘a stick shift’. The LX version came with air conditioning and PAS as standard – the latter was a first for a Japanese car in this class, and was fitted after company boss Soichiro Honda himself found 671’s steering to be ‘heavy’.