It's been almost fifty years since Honda entered the U.S. market. Sales were slow until, in 1973, the Japanese company replaced its little N600 with the Civic; a car far more suited to American roads. The N600 had achieved a niche following; Civic would gain a much larger one.
But even the Civic was smaller than some of its competition, notably Volkswagen's Rabbit. And even the Rabbit was either too small or too basic for those looking to downsize in the wake of the gas crisis.
Work on a larger Honda - codenamed 671 - had begun in 1972 under the auspices of Hiroshi Kizawa, formerly development leader on the Civic. It would be wider than Civic, and 500 pounds heavier.
With the final clay models completed in the Fall of 1973, it was decided that the new car would use a long-stroke, 1.6-liter version of Civic's 1.5-liter CVCC four-cylinder engine.
The Civic CVCC had flabbergasted the world of automotive manufacturing by being first to not require a catalytic converter to meet the new emissions standards.
Now, power would increase from 53 to 68 horsepower.
Prototype testing was finished by January of 1976, when the new car was christened. Motor Trend conjectured that its name came from the period Japanese predilection for French words. At the time, another magazine noted, four cars, three motorcycles, two color TVs, and six chocolate bars with French names were being sold in Japan - all of them Japanese made.
Later that year, Honda quietly slipped the Accord into the automotive mainstream As Car and Driver once put it, "the compact-sedan market was never to be the same again."
On the basis of Civic, Accord, and Prelude this decade, Honda would achieve a reputation for clever, well-conceived designs, painstakingly executed; cars that were somehow more than the sum of parts to which myriad other manufacturers, in a growingly globalized industry, had access.
No Honda, however, embodied the company's giant-killing power and thoughtfulness in design more than the Accord. It had clearly been designed around feedback from the global market, and America in particular.
With the exception of the engine and transmission, there was little interchangeability of parts between Accord and Civic. Both cars had MacPherson-strut suspension all the way around, but only the strut cartridges were common. Bearing American tastes in mind, Kizawa cited ride quality as a vital priority for the development team, which took full advantage of the additional seven inches of wheelbase and four-inch wider track. The former point improved front-to-rear weight distribution over the Civic; the latter allowed the use of longer, relocated lower control arms.
The longer wheelbase also meant that there was now place for the tall driver to rest their clutch foot.
The seats were comfortable, building on the Civic's all-vinyl affairs with a cloth insert that breathed. Lower-back and lateral support were judged average by Motor Trend, as was a reclining mechanism which did not permit fine adjustment.
Vents in the door panels kept the side windows from fogging up. A remote hatch release was placed beside the driver’s seat. Swing-out rear windows, an option on many cars, were standard, as were an AM/ FM radio and rear window/ wiper washer. A panel between the tachometer and speedometer indicated which door was open. At the foot of the speedometer, service reminders keyed to the odometer turned from green to orange to red, reminding the driver to rotate the tires, and to change the oil and oil filter.
The manual choke had two detents, for warm and cold starts, limiting guesswork.
The dashboard receptacle which held bills, quarters, dimes and nickels in clips and troughs, for toll or parking change, would become a legendary piece of thoughtfulness; as Road Test magazine's Larry Griffin put it, "in the category of 'Good Ideas Everyone Ought To Have.'"
All in all, the dashboard looked, wrote Griffin, "Like something from the Art Center Design Studios; everything - but everything - is just where you can get to it without fuss." This opinion would be echoed by many, over the coming decades of Accords.
"Given a choice between spending four hours in a Toronado or an Accord, we would unhesitatingly opt for the Accord, even though it doesn’t have unborn peach velour seats.
"What it does have is excellent visibility and a superb flow-through ventilation system — which includes side-window defoggers that work — and both contribute greatly to the impression of airiness in the car."
The rack-and-pinion steering was precise and isolated from road shock, and reduced the Civic's torque steer to almost nil. It was so light that it could be power assisted - but it was not.
The standard transmission was a five-speed manual gearbox, with Honda’s "Hondamatic" two-speed semi-automatic transmission available as an option. The rod-operated manual gear change was praised for its lightness and precision, aspects which many transverse-engined cars got wrong in what were still early days for front-wheel drive; but it was also judged as noisy, particularly in engine-braking situations.
The Accord could be coaxed into oversteer when pitched hard into a corner. Fitting fatter tires — 175 or 185s in place of the original 165s — helped.
Fuel economy was excellent, one report posting 36.2 miles per gallon on a 73-mile test loop of urban and freeway driving. Despite the added power, size, and weight, EPA ratings were the same as Civic CVCC: 44 mpg on the highway, 31 in town, and 36 combined.
Performance was predictably relaxed, Accord taking three seconds to accelerate from forty to fifty miles per hour, and eight seconds from sixty to seventy miles per hour.
Accord wasn't perfect, and Road Test magazine's Larry Griffin noted a good deal of wind noise, which he attributed to windows bowing outward and jamming in the channels at speed. "The window channels need strengthening," he conjectured. Honda, which he said was frantically aware of the problem, suggested that judicious beefing-up of the stamping would eliminate the problem.
Nonetheless, the new upmarket model was, according to Griffin, "the best four-grand car around." Briefly marketed as a '76 model, before benefiting from a full '77 model year, it would prove so hot that dealers outfitted Accords with numerous add-ons, sometimes unabashedly padding the prices with what Road Test described as "air conditioning, tape stripes, vinyl tops, coco mats and sundry other fancy but expensive goodies."
As Road & Track characterized the practice, "Take it or leave it — there’s someone else who’ll pay if you won’t."
Demand for the three-door Accord hatchback had barely cooled when Honda in 1979 added a four-door sedan. Its introduction was a momentous occasion, marking the first time that Honda had ever offered a car with four doors and a conventional trunk - lit, of course, and complete with a remote release.
Road & Track judged its engine to be smooth and responsive, free-revving to 5,000 rpm, and inferior only to the Volkswagen Rabbit's, whose maker was able to get more power out of lower displacement while avoiding the occasional cold-start stumble which afflicted the Honda. The Accord's gearbox and linkage were widely considered best in class, well matched and with well-defined shifts, and its overall refinement, in terms of comfort and road and wind noise, seemed a class above.
It was more floaty than the Mazda GLC, understeering more than either the Mazda or Ford Escort (if ultimately less than the front-heavy Rabbit).
But despite its relaxed damping, Accord proved a balanced drive. The most impressive thing, found Road & Track, was fit and finish "that would do justice to a car costing considerably more." The rear seat was on the cramped side - and that was all that the magazine could find to gripe about in its February, 1981 group test.
Described as a miniature Mercedes-Benz - a comparison which Honda executive vice-president Norimoto Otsuka would gladly pick up and re-use - Accord listed for about $7,500, fully equipped.
The May 1981 edition of the NADA Official Used Car Guide suggested that the first, '76 Accords retained eighty-nine percent of their original suggested retail price. As word got around, dealers tacked on various surcharges to new Accords, as Japanese imports became limited by voluntary quotas.
Buyers scrambled to pay $9,000 for the privilege of owning an Accord sedan.
Accord would lend its underpinnings to the image-building Prelude coupe, and Honda rounded out the '70s on a roll. A decade on, American Honda veterans would reminisce of the "wild days of the mid-1970s, when Ford and General Motors were buying up so many of the wondrous new Accords that they were beginning to dig into the regular dealer allotments" (as Car and Driver recalled).
"Whether the secrets of the Accord were successfully plumbed by the boys in Detroit can be debated, but it cannot be disputed that the vehicle under examination was a watershed automobile.
"Like the Model T and the Volkswagen Beetle before it, the Accord was so special that it altered the ways in which cars would be built and sold."
From less than 4,200 cars sold in 1970, its launch year selling cars in the 'States, Honda had come to prominence in America; in part thanks to the decade’s one-two OPEC punch. Sales had grown yearly, to the tune of more than 350,000 cars in 1979. The mileage-king Civic had been responsible for much that success, but the family-sized Accord helped Honda more than double its sales by the close of the decade.
Frequent model turnovers and, since 1982, a manufacturing outpost in Marysville, Ohio, would keep the Accord a moving target while keeping Accord loyalists happy and increasing their numbers. In the 1987 model year, the little-Honda-that-could outsold every other car in the U.S. market bar Ford’s Escort and Taurus.
Despite the market's move to crossovers, Accord remains Honda's "Heartland" car in America. It takes a back seat to Toyota’s Camry in overall sales but claims to be the best-seller among retail customers.