Honda began selling the 1169 cc (70 in) transversely mounted inline four-cylinder Civic for about US$2,200. The car produced roughly 50 hp 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. The car had front and rear independent suspension. A four-speed manual transmission was standard. Options for the Civic were kept to a minimum, consisting of air conditioning, an automatic transmission called the Hondamatic, radial tires, and a rear wiper for the hatchback. The car could achieve 40 mpg-US on the highway, and with a small 86.6 inch wheelbase and 139.8 inch overall length, the vehicle weighed only 1,500 pounds.
In the USA, the advertising campaign used to introduce the Civic was, “Honda, we make it simple.”
The Civic outperformed American competitors such as the Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto. 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 1970s for well-made cars that had good fuel mileage benefited 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. In order to meet the new 5 mph bumper impact standard, the Civic’s bumpers grew 7.1 inches, increasing overall length to 146.9 inches. The CVCC (Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion) engine debuted in 1975 and was offered alongside the standard Civic engine. The optional 53 hp CVCC engine displaced 1488 cc and had a head design that promoted cleaner, more efficient combustion. The CVCC design eliminated the need for catalytic converters or unleaded fuel to meet changing emissions standards, unlike nearly every other U.S. market car. Due to California’s stricter emissions standards, only the CVCC powered Civic 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 and an overall length of 160 inches. Civic sales also increased and topped 100,000 units for this year.
The first generation Honda Civics were notorious for rusting in less than three years from purchase where salt was used in the winter. The U.S. importer, American Honda Motor Company, signed a final consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission that provided owners of 1975-1978 Civics with rusted fenders the right to receive replacements or cash reimbursements. In the end, almost 1 million Honda owners were notified that their fenders could be repaired or replaced by the automaker at no charge. About 10% of all Hondas sold were to be inspected by a dealer, and the automaker had 180 days to replace front fenders and supporting parts that showed rust within the first three years of use.
The Hondas were so vulnerable to corrosion that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also issued a safety recall . This was because the car’s lateral suspension arms, front crossbeam, and strut coil spring lower supports could weaken with exposure to salt. A total of 936,774 vehicles built between 9-1-1972 and 8-1-1979 were subject to extensive repairs since Honda had to replace the suspension components, or the automaker bought back entire cars with serious body corrosion.
At the time, Honda’s rust recall was the largest safety action among all the brands imported into the U.S. Civics became known for their “typical Honda rust” in the used car market.