It would be easy for me to tell you that in the late 1970s, the Honda Accord took this country by storm and helped move the Japanese car from a coastal oddity to an American mainstay. But, like, why, man?
Well, a lot had to do with how specifically shitty its competition was.
We’ve written before about how bright a light Honda was in the American car world in the disco decade. My favorite story is how General Motors claimed that meeting the government’s emissions standards was impossible, and then Honda, in a spectacular troll job, bought and modified a Chevy Impala and got it to pass.
And that’s sort of echoed in this genuinely wonderful pair of histories detailing the introduction of the first-generation Accord and the garbage Chevy Malibu that so many people traded in for the little Honda.
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Both are written by the great Paul Niedermeyer, originally posted on The Truth About Cars and recently re-posted on Curbside Classics.
Whereas previous import cars were cheap first and cheap second, the Accord was more of a good deal, and that had a huge change in how Americans thought of these cars, as Niedermeyer explains:
Americans ate “The Big Honda” up as if it were an apple pie eating contest. It’s difficult to describe just what a huge hit and fad the Accord was when it appeared, unless you were there at the time. The fact that it came just three years after that equally huge hit and fad the Civic, made Honda undoubtedly the fastest growing new brand ever launched in the US. Keep in mind that when the Civic first appeared in 1972, they were being sold in Honda motorcycle dealerships. By the time the Accord hit, Honda car dealerships were licenses to print money.
Everyone raved about the Accord when it appeared. And it hit the market in a very different way then the Golf/Rabbit. VW was still anxious about preserving its vaunted “cheap car” status, and was frantic about offering the Rabbit at a sub $3k price. The only way they did that was by making a special “super stripper” version, with cardboard door panels and rubber floors.
Honda took a totally different approach with the Accord: priced at $3,999, exactly one grand (33%) more than the stripped VW, but lavishly equipped like no other car before in its price class. It came standard with a level of equipment unheard of in that time, even for Japanese cars: nicely-upholstered cloth seats, a tachometer, intermittent wipers, and an AM/FM radio. And everyone raved what a great deal it was. VW misread the market completely: Americans were ready to pay as much as a big car for a small one, if it had the comfort, style, pizazz and (most of the) convenience of a big one.
Meanwhile the Chevrolet was a real punishment, and the Malibu had an almost patronizing glare in its face, as Niedermeyer notes:
You want to know one of the reasons why the Honda Accord took the country by storm in 1976? You’re looking at its ugly face. That grille looks positively unreal, like something cobbled up by a high school shop class with some leftover extruded sheetmetal. And then those stacked rectangular headlights to really set it off. Where were you, Bill Mitchell, when this abomination was approved? Under a drafting table with one of the secretaries? In the Accord CC I said Detroit didn’t just open the portcullis with its obese “mid-sized cars” of the seventies. It actively invited the invasion, and Honda led the charge. Well, here are GM’s gates swung wide open. And the problem wasn’t just the front end, but a face does reveal much of what’s behind it. And this mug wasn’t lying.
You should read both of these articles in full right here and right here if you haven’t clicked through to them already.
I myself have spent a bunch of time driving around in one of these first-gen Accords, a blue ‘81 with a manual my buddy had in our NorCal hometown. It remains one of the best-handling and most entertaining cars I’ve ever driven. Direct, engaging and almost eager in how it took on the road.
What I find interesting about this whole thing is how, in the decades since this takeover, the Accord has since morphed from a distinctly Japanese car to a genuine American machine. Our Accord is sized like the mid-sized domestics it made obsolete, and it’s even built and designed in Ohio. Now we just need another right place/right time car to take its place.