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While first impressions suggest Gunnery Sgt. Steve Mayhue and his 1982 Honda Civic FE are a rather odd couple, the six-foot-plus Marine and the diminutive Japanese econobox are strangely in sync. The U.S. Marines are known for being first ashore—the Civic gave Honda a foothold on our shores. The Corps lives by the motto semper fidelis—the Civic has succeeded by being reliable over the long haul. Both have played key roles in getting us to where we are today.
Honda sold cars in the United States beginning in the 1960s, but met with little success until the debut of the Civic in 1973. Reeling from the first oil crisis, Americans turned enthusiastically from thirsty domestics to the jaunty little hatchback. The Civic’s influence on American acceptance of Japanese cars was huge. Then, as now, some people bought the compact for economic reasons, others to make the statement they rejected conspicuous consumption.
Either way, for a base price of about $2,200 buyers could get a Civic hatchback or sedan. Both offered impressively efficient space with room for four; the hatchback even had a fold-down rear seat. The Civic returned more than 40 mpg thanks to its low weight (approximately 1500 pounds) and 1169-cc, 50-hp I4. The engine mated to either a four-speed manual or a two-speed Hondamatic auto. An independent MacPherson-strut/coil-spring suspension assured enjoyable handling. The car sported front-disc/rear-drum brakes.
The Civic’s execution surpassed contemporary American rivals like the Ford Pinto or Chevrolet Vega. In 1975 Honda made a technical leap with the 53-hp Controlled Vortex Combustion Chamber engine. The CVCC displaced 1.5 liters and, utilizing a cylinder head design that allowed for a very lean overall mixture, enabled the Civic to meet 1975 California emissions standards without the need for a catalytic converter. The technology was later sold to Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and Isuzu.
Despite a restyled, more aerodynamic body, stretched wheelbase and more interior room for 1979, the second-generation Civic did not sell as well. This 1982 model demonstrates Honda’s consistent attention to detail. A Civic FE (for Fuel Economy; it was rated 41 mpg city/55 highway) with a five-speed manual, the car sports redone rectangular headlights, black 5-mph bumpers and more power, 67 ponies, from the same 1.5-liter. The Honda is pretty basic, but it features excellent build quality, with tight panel gaps and well-aligned trim.
This Civic is on its second tour of duty. Two years ago its Severna Park, Maryland-based owner was on the lookout for something inexpensive to drive to work. Sgt. Mayhue spotted the car on I-64 near Norfolk, Virginia, followed its driver, who turned out to be a Navy commander, and later bought it from her for $500. The commander, who had bought the Honda new, kept good records. The car remains original save for new 14-inch wheels and a color-correct respray. It shows 132,000 miles on the clock.
There is plenty of room for a couple of strapping jarheads up front. Another pair in the rear would be staring at their knees, but they would still have good headroom. At the helm the driver faces a complete, clear gauge cluster through a two-spoke steering wheel with the Honda “H” on the hub. The original AM/FM radio provides sound through a single speaker to the right of the glovebox. The company’s trademark low beltline and good visibility are appreciated.
Driving this Civic can be an oddly sporting endeavor. You’ve only got 67 hp and less torque to work with, but momentum driving with the forgiving clutch, long gear wand and zippy handling is rewarding. You do more than the other guy does with less.
So do the people who have owned this significant little car, now in its eighth generation. With more than 16 million sold worldwide and 7.3 million-plus in the United States, the Civic really is Honda. Though fellow Marines rib him, Sgt. Mayhue drives his car to the Naval Academy in Annapolis every day—it is his Civic duty.