In 1980, my family’s brick-red 1968 Volkswagen Beetle (with a semi-automatic transmission) caught fire while we were driving it, and while I think the car was quite repairable, my strangely fire-averse parents took this as a cue to finally look into getting a new car. After a lot of car shopping, which I remember vividly even though I was a little kid (I was advocating for either one of the last convertible VW Beetles or an AMC Pacer, no idea why they didn’t listen to me) my parents settled on what was by far the smart, safest choice they could have made: a 1980 Honda Accord sedan. Accords were absolutely everywhere back then, and the car served us well for years. Now, though, I never see first-generation Honda Accords on the road, which makes me wonder why not? Where did all the old Accords go?
You remember these early Accords, don’t you? You should! They were a big deal. They were introduced in 1976 as a bigger, more family-oriented brother to the little Civic, with a similar transverse-engine/FWD layout and the same Honda Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) carbureted engine technology that let Hondas meet emissions requirements without a catalytic converter.
They came in two-door hatchback versions and four-door sedan versions, and the styling was clean and pretty understated, with a bit of tasteful chrome jewelry and very conventional, but attractive, proportions.
Japanese market cars got rectangular headlamps and wing mirrors, as you can see in this ad:
Though in America all of these first-gen Accords had quad round headlamps and conventional door mirrors:
Recognize that Voice of Honda in that commercial? Just a few years earlier that same voice was warning us that women weaken legs:
Yep, the voice of of Honda was Burgess Meredith, Rocky’s trainer.
These Accords had 1800cc engines in their US-spec form, making about 72 horsepower, and you could get them with a five-speed (proudly advertised with a 5speed badge) or a three-speed automatic, well, at least in 1980, as Honda’s peculiar two-speed sorta-semi-automatic Hondamatic transmission was still offered up until 1979.
I’ll have to write about that thing separately at some point.
Anyway, these were good cars, with excellent build quality and getting good gas mileage and priced well. In 1980, my parents’ Accord sedan would have set them back about $6,515, equivalent to around $23,000 today, which isn’t too bad for a new car.
Man, now I’m wondering – I remember saving up money around 1981 to get an Atari 2600 (we called it a VCS then but you know) and if I recall I had to save up $140 for it. I think I maybe managed half, and we got the rest at Hanukkah or something. What would that be today? Let’s see. Woah! About $450! Holy shit. That’s a lot of money to play flickery Pac-Man. Worth it.
Accords weren’t crazy, disposable-like-a-Yugo cheap, and they were built to high standards. People seemed to like them, too. Everything about these cars suggests that we should see more of these on the streets, right?
I get that there’s not going to be many late ’70s-early ’80s cars out on roads in general, but you do see some tooling around, some ratty survivors barely hanging on to automotive life, some clearly restored and cared for. In general, there’s certain older car categories that seem to be survivors: I still see a good amount of ’60s and ’70s Beetles, a lot of old pickup trucks, especially ’70s and ’80s Fords, collectible sports cars ranging in value from CRT-television-valued MGBs to expensive Jaguars, and even a good smattering of Japanese cars from the era, like old Celicas or Subaru Brats, and there’s even a reasonable amount of forgotten American iron like ’80s-era Buick Centuries piloted by near-century-old people. But no early Accords.
I guess this surprises me because, like I said, there were so many Accords when I was growing up. Hatchback Accords, often in silver, sedan Accords, often in the red that ours was or the interesting sea-foam green they came in, with interiors to match. They were like Toyota RAV4s or Honda CR-Vs are today, forming a sizable chunk of any parking lot you happened to find yourself in.
The sales numbers for the first generation of Accords, which ran from 1976 to 1982, show that plenty were out there:
Add all those up and you’re damn near a million cars sold in America. As an example of another old car I tend to still see around that was not uncommon in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the MGBs I mentioned before, only about a third of the Accord’s numbers (298,000 or so) of those were sold in America, and those had vastly worse build quality than the Hondas.
So, why do I see so many more MGBs soaking grocery store parking lots with dirty oil than I do Accords?
Maybe Accords were too, you know, boring? An MGB is a little sportscar full of charm. Sure, they had plenty of issues, but maybe the overall enjoyment of them, as opposed to a much more fiercely practical car like an Accord, is why they ended up saved?
Perhaps it’s because of the Accord’s reliability that, counterintuitively, makes them so uncommon now? To use the MGB example again, those were far more likely to have some problem that put them under a tarp for decades until someone finally decided to really restore it and get it back on the road.
An Accord, on the other hand, would likely have run and run until it was genuinely used up, worn out like a beloved pair of jeans, and then sent off to the junkyard. Accords weren’t having (generally) weird electrical gremlins that parked them for years. They went and went until they had nothing left to give.
That’s a theory, anyway.
Maybe its because I grew up with Accords forming such a huge part of the automotive quilt that draped the background of my life that I find it so baffling that so few survive today. On the incredibly rare occasions you actually do encounter one, they always seem to be such tidy, charming, well-designed cars that would likely be a real gem to own today.
Sadly, that’s very unlikely to happen. Very occasionally, you’ll see these pop up on auction sites, but compare that to cars like the BMW 2002 or something with a real following and you’ll realize that really, they’re all effectively gone.
There’s a lot of reasons why cars some cars survive and why some don’t, and those reasons are not always based on how good or popular the car was back in the day, or even how many were made. I can’t really think of a better example of this than these almost-forgotten, once-common-as-bad-opinions Hondas, now just fading memories in the minds of old bastards like myself.
I have a weird fascination with what survives and what doesn’t, well probably not viewed as that weird in this crowd, but nevertheless.
Obviously enthusiast cars and high end stuff survives in higher numbers, and appliance cars less so for reasons cited, but let’s look at some fun examples.
Mercedes 450SL and it’s R107 brethren. I swear there are more of these around than when new. I can look in my relatively sparse Midwest region and find five to ten of these for sale all day everyday, Sunday, Christmas and the 4th of July. Long production run, sheltered lives, still some perceived class/desirability (though I drove one once and have to say it felt more like a Buick sedan than a sportscar), presumably fairly well engineered and robust.
Also see a surprising number of early seventies Valiants, absolutely an appliance car, but I assume the can’t kill it nature of the drivetrain kept some around.
Air cooled cars, Porsches (easy call) Beatles (built by the millions, iconic, cheap to run and fix), then you have Corvairs, did people love Corvairs? A lot of them still around. Anyway air cooled seem to survive in disproportionate numbers.
The Accord, appliance car, people liked them, but because they were good transportation, not for looks, performance or quirkiness. Then they rusted away, and now they are gone.
Sometimes reliability seems to kill cars, the early Diamond Star cars Eclipse and Talon, sold in big numbers, very good performance for the day, never see them, yet similar era RXs and Z’s and such survive in reasonable numbers. Part of it may be brand too, there are Datsun/Nissan guys, Toyota Heads, Doritos Lovers, an unholy union of Mitsubishi and Mopar, not so much love.
I could go on, but I have rambled enough.
Spot-on again (or, as always), Mr. Torch. At last month’s Petersen cruise-in I saw the 2k-mi ’78 that sold on BaT awhile back… it is STUNNING, and its optional rooftop luggage half-rack somehow makes it!
I don’t know the answer, but I do know who would. Murilee Martin. He was in bay area junkyards at the right time to have seen what happened to these in a place where road salt wasn’t the answer. Now I’m curious. They were everywhere.
I realize I’m 2 days late with this comment, but my first car was an ’81 LX 5spd coupe, probably identical to the middle car in the print ad towards the top of the article (same blue color), would’ve been the spring of 1992. It was in the process of succumbing to the tinworm when I got it. My dad worked out a deal with a friend of his for it. He told me on the way over, “It’s got some rust.” I told him I expected that. He said, “No…I mean like a lot of rust.”
When we arrived, he went in and met his friend, who went to retrieve the keys. As we were waiting, dad started fidgeting with the ‘Honda’ name badge on the hatch. The metal below the badge was beginning to rust through, so his picking caused the badge to pop off in his hand. He turned, handed the badge to me and walked away.
I later learned that dad’s friend had removed the interior of another ’81 accord and put it in what was now my car, as well as a number of parts. The brakes were always sketchy, the floor rusted through, the wheel arches nearly nonexistant. It always smelled of mold because the carpet was wet from the rust hole. Still, it was fun to drive and it was my first car.
Dad died later that summer. Soon after the brakes started failing and I paid his friend to repair them because I didn’t know how to do it. A month later I had to pay him to do it again. As the year went on I started realizing why the carpet was always wet. The cassette player ate one of my favorite tapes. I’m kind of glad that he didn’t know how much I started to hate that car. I bought an ’86 Civic Si later that year, and eventually sold the ’81 Accord for about a third of what we paid for it.
They all rusted to death while being used as the appliances they were.
I came on and wanted to comment to you specifically, to tell you Im sorry about your Dad:
I bought a 05 Element EX AWD about 8yrs ago and even though Ive lauded them for their weak rear suspensions (not just Elements, but CRVs, Odys, Ridgelines… anything thats anything close to a truck.) They just dont “look right”. Rear sits.. while other cars have their suspension configured differently.
So, long story short… I did my front and rear brakes about 3 weeks ago.. after about a week of trying not to drive my car cause of the Squealing. When I finally got her in the air.. took off front n rear tires and checked her out: I noticed the Calipers were shot, pads were bad and the Rotors were awful. Spent the next 4+ days trying to get them off. Little things like a rusty Caliper Bolt, or the Rotor Screw was holding me back. After it ruining for numerous days, I finally got help from a sorts stranger with a 10lb sledge. My boy helped me bleed my brakes…
But I was in a manic mood = scared, shaky, pissed, unhappy… not the type of mood to try and teach someone how to do this. I feel kinda bad.. that I didnt involve my boy in all of this, cause I really was coming undone and at the end of my rope.
I flatly apologize for how stupid I sound… Id like him to do this with me, but I was under tremendous strain. I was also running out of ideas.. as far as how to continue to approach fixing this.
1) rotor screws: Lisle makes an impact screwdriver. Best <$30 tool I ever bought. Anoint the screw with Kroil, administer a couple tappy-taps with a brass hammer, pre-tension the big Phillips bit, give ‘er a whack—and Bob’s your uncle!
2) I used to have my daughter ‘help’ me wrench years ago. When I got to that point, I’d tell her, ‘Girl, this isn’t going to be pretty: you’re about to see a grown man lose his cool-or cry. How about we clean up & go put some dancin’ music on?’
Years later she stopped by one day when I was fighting with a starter: ‘Daddy, you look like you need to go put some dancin’ music on!’
I did, so we did—Jethro Tull, btw
Kids are gonna learn we have feet of clay: may as well be up front about it
Had both an ’82 Prelude and a ’85 CRX. Both were great little cars, but man that CRX was like a go cart on rails. Wasn’t overly fast but sure felt like it.
Actually, these early Accords are all over the roads. You just have to know to look for the fine brown dust.
Even in Northern California these rusted into the ground. My uncle had an ’82 and there was so much rust the drip rail fell off, and there were speed holes around the windows.
The problem of course is that with a million of them, and no performance trims to get excited about, nobody cared about saving them esp in light of the rust. All the attention went to the 510 as far as commuter boxes went.
I had a green hatchback that I absolutely loved. Classic grandma car find; around 100k when I got it. The dash-mounted flip-tile clock was hilarious. Had a bit of rust around the back bumper, but nothing too bad. The gas tank was full of pinholes, so I coated it. The only (big) drawback was the 3-speed auto. Poor thing was lucky to hold sixty on the highway. After a glorius year of fun, I crashed into a rock retaining wall and ripped out the passenger axle from the trans. RIP little green Accord.
Two of them are still in my driveway. I have an 81 Hatchback and an 80 Sedan in that lovely Hampstead Green. I think that they have all disappeared in the last few years. The first major hit was Cash for Clunkers. Before that, I could go on Craigslist and find at least 3 people near me parting them out in their back yards. Before COVID, it wasn’t too hard to go to the parts store to at least keep the car maintained. Now, I can’t even get an oil pan gasket for it, and even oil filters are getting harder to find locally.
If you think the amount of them here is low… I have been told there are less than 10 left in Japan. I know at least one of them was imported to Japan from the US.
Also in Japan, not all of them had square headlights. They still sold round headlight models side-by-side there. They had so many different trim levels and models of Accord in Japan, it’s actually kinda hard to sort out. There were 1600s and 1800s sold side by side. CVCC and non-CVCC models. It seems like for every non-japan market version of the Accord, they had at least one of those trim levels available to buy in Japan. On top of Japan-exclusive models as well.
The other real bummer about all the Accords in Japan being gone, is that I doubt any of them have an Electro Gyrocator in them. That likely means the only one still in existence is still in the Honda Museum in Japan.
My 81 was in a Jalopnik article about 10 years ago… But they seem to have lost the images. And pretty crazy the Imgur album I posted for it is still up.
So much hate for my car 10 years ago even on Jalopnik of all places. Now, everywhere I take it, people compliment me and ask me about it. Even Murilee… er Judge Phil came by our pit stall during a Lemons race and complimented it (it was my ‘support’ car). Though I will say that adding a fresh coat of paint, and doing a full rust-delete has made the car look much more appealing.
So according to the article the Accords had worse build quality than the Hondas. What am I missing here?
But I do agree in that a well made reliable car will be driven into the ground, while a less reliable vehicle will sit forever. Also I am more partial to a MG design rather than an Accord. It’s why people collect cars and not washing machines.
I learned to drive on an ’85! Not first gen, I know. Looked just like this:
I think that design has really held up. Anyway it was slow as hell but the long-throw 5-speed was fun and the drivetrain had a bit of a spaceship sound quality to it. Only thing that went wrong on that car was the stereo buttons eventually fell off and were lost to the netherworlds. My parents eventually though it was too unsafe (or something) and DONATED it. Yeah.. and then I saw it months later being driven around with a stupid ass wing tacked onto the trunk. That poor thing.
I know I live in “Domestic Autoland”, but not only do I never see first-gen Accords, I never see 2nd, 3rd or 4th gen ones either. My mother had a nice, manual ’93 Accord – 4th gen (which she didn’t let me drive because she had zero patience to teach me to drive a stick). I really liked that body style and the size of the car (before mid-sizes bloated).
Those 4th gens are around. They live forever. I had a ’93 SE in “champagne”.. I really wanted the dark green pearl.
I owned a 4th, 6th, 7th gens. I also drove a 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 8th gens.
8th gen is when I decided.. enough is enough. Shes too big to have fun with. So what did I buy.. a 05 Element EX AWD = Square Blue Honda.
If you look in the West Coast you will find them. I see them here in Portland sometimes. Mostly parked, but here. I am sure Cali has a fair share as well. But the salt roads probably ate up a ton of them in the east.
I sold first-gen Honda Accords when the three door was the only choice. Yes. Yes, I’m old. Buyers sensed that they were getting a really well-built car and the fact that they didn’t require unleaded fuel was a bonus, too.
Rust and Parts availability. I have a late 80′ oldsmobile 88 and all the parts are still readily available. Honda of similar vintage not so much. Imagine late 70′ japanese cars. Down right impossible.
The first car that I really admired was a silver ’80 Civic 3-door with nice mesh aluminum aftermarket wheels five houses down from home that I’d pass walking or riding my bike to school. There was actually a 930 Turbo two-three houses down on the other side of the street that often was often visible with the garage door open (and I did see up close once), but the clean, street parked Civic with the cool wheels was what I really liked it was so cute. I never did get to drive or sit in one though.
I’m not so certain that the California Accords and Civics of the era rusted away. Our first gen Integra that someone above in the comments said all rusted away didn’t have a spot of rust when we sold it in the early 2000s.
Didn’t these vehicles come brand new with rust holes?
In other words, and to partially quote Kansas: they’re all “Dust in the Wind”.
My 13 year old reprobate self would “borrow” my brother’s hatchback accord during the summer. Sans any official lessons I figured out stick shift driving after watching video of Hans-Joachim Stuck’s feet. My dad would also let me shift his Volvo from the passenger seat. I recall the Accord’s third and fifth being too close and I would often find myself out of steam. Nonetheless, driving around my suburban town listening to Peter Gabriel So, was exhilarating. That feeling was met with complete and total fear when my brother, driving his company car, met me at a four way stop. He kept driving and informed our parents of my shenanigans. I ended up grounded of course. Undaunted, I later snagged his Prelude for middle of the night speed runs down the Atlantic City Expressway to sit on the beach at Cape May. What can I say – I was a free range 80’s kid.
I miss high point Honda. Can someone please recreate a hatchback Accord for me to buy? Your worthy efforts to inform and remind folks of these relics may prod the out of touch car companies to again create affordable and simple cars. New car prices and their resultant complications have outgrown the societies they are intended to serve.
P.S. Bravo gentleman on maintaining the flame of though provoking automotive journalism. Godspeed.
My friend’s mother used to pick us up after high school in a 1st gen hatchback Accord. It was my first close encounter with a foreign car and I was fascinated by the digital clock in the dash, the quality feel of the interior, the manual transmission, the tight suspension and zingy engine, and the compact dimensions.
We were a bigger is better, tons of steel per dollar, V8 please, American family and my father is a no-Japanese car guy to this day. As a teenager seeking non-confrontational ways to rebel, liking the Accord was a perfect emotional and aesthetic choice. It just occurred to me that my adult car purchases have been almost exclusively Japanese.
Had use of one ’81 as an office car, 5 speed, Canadian spec. hatch, only thing that went wrong was the transmission that IIRC started kicking out of 3rd gear and was replaced under warranty.
Driving it was a pretty meh experience, neither adventure or fun.
Traded in on a ’84 Rabbit GTI and at which time it was starting to show signs of edge rust just starting at about 90,000 salty Southern Ontario kilometres. Probably would have lasted another 3 years before perforation and body work was required.
Not a vehicle that is missed, even now that they’ve gone missing.
My father bought a 1982 Accord when that second gen version first came out. They were so sought-after that he only got his because he won a coin toss. I remember a couple of things about it:
1. He got annoyed because he tried to take it through an automated car wash and it was too small – the brushes never touched the car and the mechanicals on the floor bent the front license plate.
2. He traded it after a year because it was too boring. Since he got it on a coin toss, he didn’t get to pick options and it had almost none. He ended up getting an ’84 Subaru GL 4×4 with digital dash (that ended up getting passed down to me as my first car). Those are pretty extinct around here, too.
I remember discussions on American vs Japanese car quality in the ‘80’s. Yes Japanese were better built. But nothing rusted – FASTER – than a Japanese car (the Vega would have given them a run for the money….).
Those cars rusted audibly and visibly. It was like watching bamboo grow with the naked eye.
Source: I had an 87 Integra that rotted out from around me while giving me an all-consuming hatred for rust.
Thank you for this! I have noticed the same thing the past 5 years.
RIATA – Rust Is Always The Answer
I had an ’82 “Honda Red” Hatchback from ’93 to ’95. Got it at 241k miles, tow truck removed it the day before I left for college at 269k miles. Many adventures in that car. Miss it dearly, would LOVE another today.
Hi, I’m writing from Costa Rica. I have a green 1981 Accord SE, 1600cc, 4 round headlights, only left mirror, and only 100000 Km (65000 miles) . It was from my father and due to some situations it was stored in the garage.
I have wonderful memories of weekend rides, so now I am trying to repair it. The car has rusty areas on the bottom, but the rest is in very good condition. My problem is how difficult it is to find spare parts in Costa Rica, and even in the United States.