On this day in 2005, at an auto expo in Geneva, Switzerland, Honda debuts the Civic Concept, a five-door hatchback. The Japan-based automaker launched the first Civic in the early 1970s and the compact, affordably priced car went on to become a best-seller in the U.S. auto market.
Soichiro Honda founded the Honda Motor Company in 1948 in Hamamatsu, Japan, located near the village where he was born in 1906. The son of a blacksmith who also repaired bicycles, Honda grew up in humble circumstances and as a teen went to Tokyo to apprentice as an auto mechanic. He later ran his own auto shop and drove race cars before an injury sidelined him. During World War II, Honda built engines for the Japanese military. After the war, he and a partner formed the Honda Motor Company, which grew into a successful motorcycle manufacturer. In 1957, Honda launched its first car in Japan, the N360. (According to The New York Times, this decision “infuriated the bureaucrats of Japan’s powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry, who ordered [Honda] to keep making motorcycles because they had drawn up plans for Japan to have only a handful of automakers.”) Two years later, the company began to sell its motorcycles from a storefront in Los Angeles–its first American retail outlet.
The Honda Civic went on sale in Japan in the summer of 1973. The following year, the company launched a Civic with a fuel-efficient CVCC (Controlled Cortex Combustion Chamber) engine. Starting with the 1975 model year, Civic/CVCC cars were available in the U.S. According to the Times: “The engine used a startling new design, one that burned a leaner mix of gasoline and passed emissions tests–the main barrier to the American market–without using a catalytic converter.” The Civic, along with the Honda Accord (launched in 1976), arrived at a time when Americans, who had experienced soaring gas prices as a result of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, were looking for an alternative to the large, gas-guzzlers rolling off the assembly lines in Detroit. The small, fuel-efficient Hondas soon had a foothold in the U.S. auto market.
In 1989, Honda started making Civics at a plant in East Liberty, Ohio. Seven years earlier, in 1982, Honda had become the first Japanese automaker to build cars in America (using domestic and globally sourced parts) when it began producing Accords in Marysville, Ohio. By 1995, a total of 10 million Civics had been produced worldwide. Another milestone in the car’s history came in 2001, when Honda introduced a gas-electric hybrid version of the Civic.
Soichiro Honda died of liver failure at the age of 84 on August 5, 1991. At the time of the outspoken auto maverick’s death, the company he founded was Japan’s third-biggest carmaker, after Toyota and Nissan.