RARE SURVIVOR OF THE JAPANESE INVASION
In the 1980s, we Brits took Japanese cars to our hearts. Hondas in particular were admired for their advanced engineering, and one such model was the Civic. owner Brian Parkes explores the joys of owning a Civic hatchback from 1989, and we are both surprised and delighted to learn that this one is the only example of its type left on the road in the UK today.
By 1988, Honda had already delivered the first three generations of their Civic model, each of which had sold well in all the world’s main markets, so well that they claimed over 4 million examples had already been delivered. This, the fourth generation, followed the company’s ethos for continuous improvement and enhancement, so would be their most ambitious yet. ( To bring the Civic story right up to date, Honda is currently producing the 11th successful generation of it.)
Of course, whilst describing the 4th generation Civic, we must take into consideration the company’s achievements in Formula 1 at that time, where it was enjoying quite unprecedented success. A succession of brilliant engine designs enabled Honda to win six consecutive constructors' championships as an engine manufacturer (two with Williams in 1986 and 1987, and four with McLaren between 1988 and 1991) as well as five consecutive drivers' championships (first with Nelson Piquet in 1987, then three times with Ayrton Senna in 1988, 1990 and 1991, and finally one win by Alain Prost in 1989). The peak of this enormously successful run was when Hondapowered McLarens won a total of 15 out of 16 starts, totally dominating the 1988 season.
This rightly earned Honda a reputation for engineering excellence. The brochure for the more mundane road cars naturally enough proclaimed that the engine design owed much to the Formula 1 practice of the time, and also claimed F1 to be an influence over the low, aerodynamic build and the advanced front and rear suspension designs. In reality, of course, there is little evidence that the Formula 1 designs had much bearing on the road cars. But if the competition 1500cc turbo V6s and naturallyaspirated designs that followed and which were used to achieve that huge racing success could not really have much relationship to the road car we are examining today, Honda certainly worked hard to make their buyers aware of the engineering heritage.
The car in our pictures, G241 CPC, became known to the current owner for the first time in 2004, having had three or four owners beforehand. Brian Parkes is a time-served mechanic who really seems to have worked on virtually every marque and model in existence, so he knows what makes a good car. Brian is now retired, but worked for an independent garage which, as you would expect, did not major on any particular make, but specialised in the sale, repair and maintenance of multiple marques. When this Honda came in as a part exchange, Brian – who was aware of Honda’s excellent reputation – was immediately attracted to it, so bought it for himself. He remembers his first trip was a long holiday to Devon, where the car performed faultlessly, and this reaffirmed that he had made a wise choice.
However, his garage subsequently persuaded him to sell it on to an elderly lady customer who was looking for just such a car. Though Brian
has regretted that decision ever since, in fact he never lost sight of the car, as it was regularly returned for MoTs, plus minor repairs as needed. Through such work, he became completely familiar with it. When the lady was forced to give up driving in 2018 (at the age of 98!), the car became available once again and Brian was still so enamoured with the Honda that he offered to buy it for the second time. He declares that this time around he isn’t going to make the same mistake and let it go again!
As a consequence of this history, Brian knows more or less everything that has been
done to the car over those years. But as the car is so reliable, that isn’t a very long list. In addition to the consumables that you would expect such as tyres, oil and servicing, the only real major remedial work has been a cambelt and water pump change, plus replacement of the two gas struts that hold up the tailgate. Bodily the car required at one point the replacement of two rusty wheelarches, which were at the time readily available from a Japanese parts supplier so did not present too much of a challenge. Certainly there is no residual evidence of them being welded into the (still immaculate) white bodywork.
So where exactly does this example fit into the 1989 Honda catalogue? On the world stage the Civic included fuel-injected cars in four- door saloon and a two- door coupé guise as well as a 4WD option, but neither 4WD nor fuel injection was offered in the UK. Instead the UK range contained two hatchbacks, a base model DX which was driven by a single- carb 1300cc engine, and the much more highly-specified 16-valve, 1400cc dual- carburettor GL which is our subject car today. The extra cylinder capacity was achieved by lengthening the stroke by 3mm to make it 79mm (the bore of both is 75mm). From the outside, the GL was distinguished by colour- coded bumpers, a chin spoiler and side protection mouldings, but Brian tells me the real improvements to the mechanical spec of the GL are much more significant. He is then able to reel off a list of features that would not disgrace any car built today, let alone one that was built 33 years ago.
To start with there is powerassisted rack and pinion steering, and the doors are fitted with both power electric windows and power electric mirrors. There is a rev counter, still a rare sight on run of the mill cars back in 1989. It’s a necessary bonus to have of course if you are going to get maximum benefit out of such a free spinning unit without risking damage – this one is red-lined between 6800 and 8000rpm. The niceties of halogen headlights, a digital clock and stereo radio cassette plus rear fog lights were all there too, as are remote releases for the tailgate and the fuel filler flap. Unfortunately, the spec did not quite run to alloy wheels, merely to alloy style wheel trims in this case.
Let’s discuss the engine further, because it is such a sweet little unit. It sits across the car, but not exactly eastwest as might be expected; instead it is at an angle to that. My guess is about 10°, though the exact angle is not specified. Honda made a great song and dance about the care they took with the four engine mountings employed and their role in keeping vibration down and noise into the cabin at a minimum. Curiously perhaps, the engine does not sit level in the car, but is leaning over backwards slightly and angled slightly down a little at the nearside.
A trait that is, as far as I can ascertain, only shared with the other small Hondas and their derivatives is that the engine – and therefore also the gearbox – rotate in an anticlockwise direction. The author is yet to discover why this is. Of course,
in the days when cars had a starting handle, the convention was always that the handle was turned clockwise and maybe that set a fashion which engine designers thereafter saw no reason to change. I welcome views as to why, with the exception of Honda, this clockwise convention still exists when starting handles are no longer necessary.
Dual carburettors are fitted. They come from the Keihin Corporation, which is almost 50% owned by Honda itself but specialises particularly in motorbike carbs. Remarkably in my view, Brian tells me they have never gone out of adjustment or required any tuning whatsoever. When one considers the amount of adjustment commonly required on dual- carb setups in other classic cars, this is quite frankly astonishing and suggests they are a masterpiece of Japanese design.
The Civic is front wheel drive of course, with the gearbox sitting on the offside and unequal length driveshafts (angled backwards) driving the wheels. The gaiters on the CV joints are a service item, according to Brian. The single overhead camshaft sits on the front side of the 16-valve head, meaning that the eight exhaust valves are operated by short rockers, whilst the eight inlet valves are operated by extended ones. Because the camshaft does not sit over the centre line of the cylinders, there is room for the spark plugs to occupy those central and optimal positions. The camshaft directly drives the distributor at one end, which is in-unit with the coil pack. Fuel injection was still taking baby steps, and Honda had yet to opt for it at this point. When new this would have been run on four-star petrol, but the engine was already designed to cope with the new-fangled unleaded from the outset. The compression ratio is 9.3:1, and the engine does not develop peak power until spinning at 6300rpm, which it does extremely willingly.
Honda also used their brochure to wax lyrical about the four-wheel independent
Curiously, the engine does not sit level in the car, but is leaning over backwards slightly and angled down a little at the nearside
suspension design, and the description is no exaggeration. The front suspension is double wishbones, which keeps the bottom of the tyre firmly planted to the tarmac. The independent rear suspension was new for this fourth generation of Civic and comprises three links off trailing arms. Again unusually for the time, the car was fitted with bang up-to- date gas-filled shock absorbers all round.
Why has this car lasted so long? After all, Japanese cars of this era do not have a particularly good record for rust proofing and consequently few have survived to such a great age. But there are some clues as to why this particular car is still with us, in a number of small holes in the hollow panels that are sealed with small plastic plugs. Yes, the car appears to have had a course of after-market rust preventative treatment. The two areas that required replacing must have missed the initial application. And it really is a rare survivor. My research from howmanyleft.
co.uk has confirmed that there is only one other 1.4 GL Civic left, and that is an automatic, so that makes Brian’s car the only manual hatchback left registered on the road today.
Fortunately, despite its rarity Brian was more than happy to let me sample the driving experience. The car starts easily with the application of about half choke, which can very quickly be dispensed with. I was immediately impressed by the noise levels, or should I say the lack of them. At speed the engine note is most enjoyable, and at tick- over it is virtually silent. The gearchange is crisp even after almost 100,000 miles, and I soon get acquainted with where all five speeds are. The power-assisted steering, again a rare feature on such a modest car, is not overly light, but commendably precise and the thing goes round corners like a train on rails. Ruts in the road induce a slight tremor into the cabin structure, but that is more a condemnation of the state of our roads than any criticism of the super design of the suspension. I didn’t get the opportunity to test the headlights, but Brian assures me that, being halogen, they are well up to the most modern of standards
I am caught out by the indicator stalk being on the right rather than on my left as in a modern saloon, but you soon get used to that. In fact I am quickly into the swing of things – the key is to keep the revs up and the engine on cam and the car then fairly hums along and feels like it is aching to get past any traffic in front. The real surprise however is the flexibility in fifth gear – it is possible to trickle along without changing down and without any snatch or hesitancy when the speed of traffic starts to pick up again.
There are all the driver comforts that are needed in here too. It is a 33-year old car that feels like it will drive on for the next 33 years without the slightest trouble. It's just a pity that Brian is not willing to sell this one for the second time. But then again, what is the point of getting older if you don't also get wiser?