Look at that odd engine in the 1975 Honda Civic
CVCC engine cements Honda's reputation for technological savvy
But good old-fashioned marketing and a catchy tag line did just as much to elevate the car and Honda's image for technological competence in its critical early years in the United States.
As strict emissions standards loomed for the 1975 model year, most of the world's automakers decided to clean up exhaust gasses after they left the engine. They did so with expensive, performance-robbing equipment such as catalytic converters, exhaust gas recirculation valves and pumps that forced air into the exhaust system.
Honda went a different way. It designed an engine that created fewer emissions to begin with.
The CVCC, short for Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion, was exactly the breakthrough Honda needed to compete with Toyota and Datsun. Before the Civic, Honda was best known in the United States as the motorcycle company that also sold a few two-cylinder, air-cooled roller skate-sized N600 coupes.
Honda made the most of its engineering breakthrough with an effective tag line for the Civic CVCC: "What the world is coming to."
Controlling the mix
Honda engineers believed they could reduce dramatically harmful emissions of carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen, or NOx, by precisely controlling the mixture of fuel and air, as well as the time that it burned in the cylinders.
They designed a special cylinder head with a precombustion chamber that allowed the spark to spread slowly, resulting in a more complete burn of the lean air and fuel mixture.
The CVCC engine did what no other engine could do at the time: it passed strict new emissions standards without using a catalytic converter. It was a coup for Honda and brought the company major headlines, not just in automotive publications but in the mainstream press.
Takeo Fukui, a CVCC team member who later became Honda's president, had a role in developing the CVCC engine. He was the link between Honda's r&d and production departments. The new engine would require different manufacturing techniques in part because it used a small third intake valve in the cylinder head.
Fukui says part of the CVCC's success was lucky timing. Honda began researching the concept in 1969. In 1972, when the new U.S. Clean Air Act was passed for implementation in 1975, Honda was well on its way to perfecting the design. Engineers had tested and abandoned air-cooled engines, Fukui said. The CVCC had performed better than expected.
Speaking of the development of the CVCC, Fukui told Automotive News: "Those were the days when things were really going great for Honda. And it was just the time that the water-cooled Civic had been launched. The fuel economy proved much better than we initially projected, and the market responded very positively."
The flood of CVCC publicity brought customers into Honda showrooms.
"Even people who wouldn't normally think about engine technology were talking about it," recalls Rick Case, an early U.S. Honda dealer. "It got across to people that Honda was making a car. And it got across the Civic. The CVCC caught people's attention, that's for sure."