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Asian Car BrandsMr. First-Gen Honda Civic | Driving

Mr. First-Gen Honda Civic | Driving

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How one BC man is keeping early Honda enthusiasm alive

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As usual, Justin March’s house is a hive of people wrenching on Hondas. In the front yard, a second-generation Odyssey sits on multi-spoke wheels, looking classier than any old people mover has a right to be; there are Honda scooters all over the place, and then there’s the turbocharged first generation Honda Civic parked right out front. March himself is in the back, working away in a garage that’s a treasure trove of hard-to-find Honda parts.

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If you live in the lower mainland and own a first generation Honda Civic, then no introduction is necessary. If not, then meet Mr. First-Gen Honda Civic. March is one of a handful of collectors around the world who has taken his passion for the earliest Civics and turned it into something of a calling. If you’re looking for a part or knowledge about a repair, give him a shout.

“Well, I’ll never sell those,” he says, depositing two flawless Honda emblems on a workbench, one of them still in its factory wrapping, “New old-stock badges are impossible to get. I’d never be able to find them again. ”

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New old-stock badges
New old-stock badges Photo by Brendan McAleer

When the Honda Civic arrived in 1973, it was an immediate hit. Simple, thrifty, reliable, and easy to work on, many people were charmed by this little car. March’s father, living in Richmond at the time, had a tenant who owned a Civic. Even before he had his license, Justin was tinkering with little Hondas.

“They’re just so simple,” he says, “Nothing to them really, just the basics.”

He got his first one in the mid-1980s, when he turned sixteen. It was fun, fuel-sipping transportation for a teenager, but as is so often the case, March started looking for something a bit more thrilling. He bought a Camaro.

Mr.  Honda
Mr. Honda Photo by Brendan McAleer

“I was really into street drags [Mission raceways], and an engine-swapped Civic beat my Camaro. How is this four-cylinder beating a V8? I figured then, if you can’t beat them, join them. ”

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His first engine swap was putting a carbureted Accord engine into a Civic, and things didn’t stop there. In fact, his latest project is a 1979 Civic Wagon that’s had no fewer than four different engines: the original pokey four-cylinder, a hotter D16 as found in the 88-91 Civic Si, a turbocharged B16 from the Japanese market, and the current K20 series project which has a turbocharger the size of a grapefruit.

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“Around five hundred horsepower maybe,” March says offhandedly.

In a Civic wagon!

For a whole generation of gearheads, the Civic’s simple construction and ease of engine swapping made it the 1990s version what the 1932 Ford was to Hot-Rodding culture. It wasn’t the first-generation Civic in this role, however; it was the later boxy third and fourth generation cars, and the still-lightweight fifth- and sixth-gen Civics. There is still plenty of information out there about how to put the engine of an Integra Type R into a 1990s Civic Hatchback.

“It’s all custom work,” March says of his projects, “The second engine swap was easier because I learned from the first.”

Mr.  Honda
Mr. Honda Photo by Brendan McAleer

His prowess has got him some international notoriety. Nostalgic HeroJapan’s premiere classic car magazine, covered March’s wagon a few years ago while it was running the 300 hp B16 turbo setup.

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“Perhaps because it’s such a large land, Canada is known for its liberal nationality,” the translated copy reads. “And that Canadian liberalism was also reflected in its cars. Re-imagination can be done quite freely. ”

Basically, Japanese enthusiasts are a bit envious of what Canadian tuners can get away with. Modifications like this are hard to pull off in Japan. Either way, it’s a feather in the cap for a home-builder to receive accolades from the Civic’s country of origin.

Mr.  Honda
Mr. Honda Photo by Brendan McAleer

Tucked outside March’s garage is a well-preserved piece of Canadian Civic history. It’s a Special-X, a one-year-only 1979 model released as a celebration of Honda’s Canadian history. Technically the interior fabric is listed as red houndstooth, but it actually looks like Red Green’s shirt. And yes, there’s a bit of duct tape holding things together.

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This little Civic belongs to March’s daughter, Mackenna. Like her father, Mackenna doesn’t quite have her driver’s license yet, but the pair have plans to drive the car to shows with its original patina, and then fully restore it for the fiftieth anniversary of the Civic in Canada.

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There aren’t many original first-generation Civics around anymore. March can think of maybe only three local owners, and the number around the globe is dozens rather than hundreds. Civic owners mostly prefer to express themselves a bit, and improve on the little Honda’s 1970s driving characteristics. Better brakes have a common upgrade.

The early Civic community may be small, but it has its pillars. March has connections in Colorado, Australia, and the UK. Sometimes he’ll get a call about a barn-find car or two, and there’ll be a scramble to get the parts preserved rather than going to the crusher. Some parts, like window seals, are being remade, while others are nearly impossible to find. March says he gets a lot of questions through social media, and helps out where he can.

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Between his know-how and his parts collecting, March is responsible for keeping more than a few first generation Civics on the roads over the years. He’s a fixture of the old-school Japanese collector’s scene, someone you’ll see at all the shows as they begin to open up again, behind the wheel of his wild Civic wagon.

And should you ever swing by his place to pick up a part or have a chat, you’ll always find old Hondas scattered around, with people working on them. Because Justin March is basically Mr. First-Gen Honda Civic. And his place isn’t just a garage – it’s a clubhouse for anyone who loves old school Hondas.

Mr.  Honda
Mr. Honda Photo by Brendan McAleer

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