1990: Riding in the beater ’73 Civic that made me give up on British sports cars

JDM 1973 Honda Civic

I was proud of my daily-driver British Racing Green MGB-GT, but a first-year Civic bested it in nearly every way.

In 1990, when I was living in an Orange County university trailer park and shooting grainy 110-film photos of Los Angeles junkyards, my daily driver was a British Racing Green 1973 MGB-GT.

Murilee Martin’s 1973 MGB-GT

In 1987, I’d switched from a big ol’ NASCAR-esque Competition Orange 1968 Mercury Cyclone to a reasonably straight ’73 MGB-GT, and that little British Leyland machine made me feel like a million pounds sterling. The MGB was never a very sophisticated car, and mine had the 78.5-hp pushrod BMC B engine (every horsepower was so precious during the Early Malaise Era that British Leyland felt compelled to include that half-horse in the official rating) with finicky SU carburetors. The suspension was crude as well, with lever shocks in the front and leaf springs in the rear, but I didn’t care— I felt like Adnan Khashoggi in a new Countach when I drove my B.

1973 Honda Civic dash

In early 1990, I had a girlfriend who had become tired of being a nobody in L.A. and decided, at age 21, that she wanted to get her first car. “No problem!” I said, and proceeded to help her find and purchase a 1973 Honda Civic hatchback with 200,000 miles for a few hundred bucks. I taught her how to drive a manual transmission (yes, few had that skill 25 years ago, contrary to what cane-shaking old curmudgeons will tell you today) and— just like that— she had wheels. At first, I felt contempt for that boring little econobox, sold the same year as my MG, but it didn’t take long before I realized that the Civic was superior in every way save external appearance and heater effectiveness. Everything— it accelerated better, cornered better, braked better, had a more comfortable ride, could go more than a month without sinking a carburetor float or shorting out some critical electrical component, got much better fuel economy, and generally made me feel dumb for thinking my car was so great.

1973 Honda Civic AM radio

I didn’t have the money or time to make my MGB-GT much quicker— fat swaybars and some basic engine modifications would have helped a lot— so I sold it for a good profit and bought a car that could be made monstrously fast for nickels and dimes. Later, of course, I owned Civics as daily drivers, a dozen or so from the first through fifth generations (more, if you count cars bought at tow-away auctions and flipped right away), and I came to understand how the Civic was an unbeatable deal in the 1970s and 1980s. I have an EG Civic today, in fact, and this quarter-century love affair with Soichiro-era Civics began with that MGB-stomping ’73.

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