The 2017 Honda Civic Si is will be unveiled on Thursday, and in an unconventional way. MotorTrend reports that Honda will be revealing it on Youtube, instead of waiting for the New York auto show. It promises a more performance-enhanced model, which shows just how far the Civic has come from its original debut model 42 years ago.
That model featured one of Honda’s most impressive innovations: the Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion engine (CVCC). The most recent Civic offering provides a good excuse to go back and look at the many things that made the Civic great, and why Honda as a company has always stood out in the auto world.
Honda has always been primarily concerned with solving problems, and designing things that actually meet people’s needs. The company originally started out by attaching 2-stroke engines to bicycles during and after WWII, and eventually brought its ever-improving motorcycles to America during the 1960s. At first, Americans wouldn’t buy them because they were being sold in the same shops as existing American motorcycle companies. At the time, Americans still associated motorcycles with the seedy characters of Hollywood films, and regarded them as noisy gas-guzzlers.
When Honda realized this, they switched to selling them in departments stores, shopping centers, and other family-friendly places. They also designed them for every-day use, making them quieter, easier to handle, and nicer to look at. They were soon selling ten times as many as established American motorcycle manufacturers.
Where the story gets interesting is in how and why Honda entered the automobile market. They were planning to wait until they finished a newer, better engine design. They were still at least a decade out, but the Japanese government was about to nationalize its automobile industry in a way that would prevent any new companies from entering. They began their now-existing structure of a largely managed automobile industry, and Honda wanted to get in before the window closed for good.
So they rushed production of their first line of cars based on existing technology, producing admittedly sloppy designs, only one of which made it to the American market prior to introduction of the Honda Civic. This ensured that they could be considered one of the companies that would be protected. Fortunately for them, they already had an existing motorcycle market in America, so setting up auto manufacturing plants in the U.S. would not be as difficult. Not only was this a success, but they capitalized on the opening of other windows as well.
The first of these would become known as complacency. There was a real concern that Asian automobile manufacturers would find that the quality of their cars would be poor if they were made in America because, at the time, American consumers were unimpressed with the quality of American cars. They came to believe that American auto workers were lazy, and the auto giants were complacent to both a changing industry, and to the demands of its consumers. Honda came along at a time when consumer confidence in American cars was diminishing, and they proved that it was, in fact, poor management that was the cause of shoddy craftsmanship, not the laziness of the average worker.
A second window of opportunity to open would be the growing concern of environmentalism. That is because, little did anyone know, that engine that Honda had hoped to spend years perfecting back when Japan forced them into production was finally ready to be released. It was called the CVCC engine, and it was kind of a big deal at the time.
The reason had to do with the Clean Air Act, which was passed in 1970. The American auto giants complained that designing a car that would comply with this new law was just impossible, or would take far too long to develop. Honda was the only company stepping up and saying, “We can do that.”
Beginning in 1975, auto manufacturers of traditional gasoline powered engines and diesel engines began using a catalytic converter, which was eventually the technological solution found by industry experts to meet the emission standards set by the EPA. Catalytic converters burn off any excess pollutants as they leave the vehicle, but because leaded fuel makes catalytic converters go bad sooner, another Federal mandate was decreed stating that all filling stations must provide unleaded fuel.
This was a bit of pure luck on Honda’s part, to have had an engine design years into development at the time of this big change. It’s engine already met the new emissions standards three years before it was even required, and most impressively, and it met this standard without the use of a catalytic converter.
The CVCC engine uses a small pre-combustion chamber to ignite a very rich, highly explosive mixture of air and fuel, which then ignites a very lean, normally unburnable mixture in the main chamber. The result of this design uses less fuel, and therefore, fewer pollutants produced. It solves the problem of emissions by redesigning the source of the pollution itself.
But in spite of this achievement, these government mandates meant that American car manufacturers were all using catalytic converters. Over time, it is the bandaid known as the catalytic converter that was improved. The first two-way converters only converted hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide, which are only two of the three main pollutants produced by the internal combustion engine. Several more iterations of the catalytic converter eventually led to the three-way converter, which would convert NOx emissions to O2 and N2. By this point, there was no more need for a different engine design, and the CVCC was phased out.
But it doesn’t end there, because there is one more aspect to this story that is fascinating, and that’s the sheer volume of its cars that are no longer made in Japan. According to one report, in 2012, 70% of Japanese cars sold in America were actually made in America. From the same report, about 19% of all automobile exports out of the US were from Japanese companies. This trend has only increased.
In 2011, Honda announced that it would no longer make the Civic in Japan at all. Then they decided to stop producing all hybrids in Japan, and manufacturing them in the countries where they will be sold. It started to look like auto manufacturers were all making the conscious decision to leave Japan and move its production overseas. A number of possible explanations exist to explain this move.
Japan’s economy has been at a twenty-year stand-still. Incomes and money supply have increased, but sales have remained flat since the nineties. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was elected on the promise of using stimulus, quantitative easing (which may have run its course already), restructuring, and other interventionist policies in order to improve Japan’s stagnating economy. When polled, the Japanese say they’ve felt no difference as a result of these policies, and a few economists have already pointed out that it’s not working. The problem could be cultural: Japan has a savings-oriented culture, but its policies mimic the growth-oriented West.
Another problem that faced Honda more directly is the increasingly specialized and protectionist economic system in Japan, known as keiretsu. In this system, companies that normally do business with each other are actually tied together financially as partial shareholders in each other’s companies. It is a complicated system that seems to have worked well for Japan for a long time. It does well to insulate the Japanese economy and protect it from instability, but it makes it hard for companies like Honda when they cannot get what they need domestically.
The main negative impact it’s had on companies like Honda who wish to innovate is the relative lack of competition.
As a result, Honda made a bold move. In 2012, Honda hosted a huge meeting for American mega-suppliers, and for the first time ever, it did not even invite any of its domestic suppliers to attend. Since that moment, Honda and other Japanese auto makers seem to have reversed this course, possibly because of the new restructuring promised under Abe’s economic plan, and for other reasons.
Honda is a Japanese company that seems to walk that fine line between humble and graceful Japanese traditions, and the distinctly American entrepreneurial spirit of innovation through competition which is sometimes stifled by government interventionism. Honda must have looked at the EPA’s regulations in America like they were a cakewalk. By comparison to its home country, they probably were.
And even today, there is still evidence that Honda seems pretty hell-bent on wowing the world with its innovation. After decades of tinkering, Honda unveiled ASIMO in 2000, which is the famous robot you’ve probably seen before. Apparently, it can play sports and mix drinks, now. Honda has a fuel cell electric car that runs on Hydrogen called the Clarity, though as of this moment, all the hydrogen filling stations are in California. Add to this the other milestones, such as the first fuel-efficient 4-stroke marine engine, devices that assist those with walking impairments, and various awards for design and auto racing.
When capitalists scoff at regulators and their never-ending desire to meddle in the private market, they often talk about how the market comes up with solutions. The story of Honda is the story of one of those companies that has done this repeatedly. Honda would have come out with the CVCC engine, regardless of federal regulations. Car makers may have gone on to tinker with their engines even further to cut down on emissions in the way that Honda did, instead of throwing a catalytic converter onto it as a fix.
There is no telling what kind of innovations to the actual engine might have arisen in the market if regulators had not demanded a quick fix. All cars may have eventually come with engines that did not require a catalytic converter. We’ll never know. But for the next step in reducing emissions, and for countless other private sector innovations that will change the world, all eyes should be on Honda.