I succumbed to the tantalizing offer of another vintage Honda last week, but it wasn’t a motorcycle this time.
A local Craigslist ad showed a very clean and original 1987 Honda Civic 5 dr. wagon for sale, featuring a newly installed clutch, windshield, tune-up, tires and detailing. The car only had 135k miles on the odometer and a rainy day test drive proved out that this was indeed one of those time-capsule cars; a one-owner machine for the past 25 years.
It turns out that the car actually was sold in Oakland, CA, then the owners moved to New Mexico for the bulk of that time and for some reason moved back this year. Given the condition of the car, which showed great care overall (original paint, interior, untouched spare tire/tools) and the recent repair history, it seemed like a fun car to cruise around in for awhile. The car came with the owner’s manual, warranty book and the original window sticker, which is a rare find, these days. It was just irresistible and I HAD to have it!
Because it was delivered in California, it had CA emissions package as the only “option” shown on the window sticker. CA emissions packages usually have a refined distributor spark advance, different jetting and EGR delivery specifications, so most of those parts are CA-specific and hard to replace now. Going on-line to check for part numbers, pricing and availability yielded a lot of NLA (no longer available/discontinued) notes beside the part numbers.
The car had failed smog twice, previously, and after I had had my test drive, the wagon went back for more emission repairs. I had a smog license about 20+ years ago and know something of the processes and the interactions of the parts and their effects on the tailpipe emission readings. The car had high HC (hydrocarbons) and NOX (Oxides of Nitrogen), which often point to a failed catalytic converter, worn carburetor, failing EGR (exhaust gas re-circulation) diaphragm, incorrect ignition timing and/or worn valve stem seals and/or piston rings. While vintage bikes don’t have cat-converters, EGR and variable vacuum-operated spark timing functions, faulty ignition timing settings on points/condenser ignitions can have similar detrimental effects upon engine performance and fuel consumption.
These Honda Civic engines were the last of the CVCC series, having at total of 16 valves (displays 12v on the valve cover, though). Each cylinder is fed by two regular intake valves, plus an auxiliary valve that feeds a rich mixture into the complex stratified charge combustion chamber shape. I noticed what seemed to be excessive valve clearance noise in the engine, when delivered, so removed the valve cover to see what was under there. I found an amazingly clean valve train with the SOHC head split with intake valves on the top row and exhaust valves on the bottom row; however the auxiliary valves were also stationed next to the exhaust valves. All of the auxiliary valves were adjusted to the wider (.009”) valve clearances, instead of the .007” size recommended. The exhausts were also set to the wide side of the range at .011” which added to the clatter. I snugged up the timing belt slack and it all went silent on start-up. Amazing what a difference a few thousandths of an inch can make!
When I had first driven the car, the hot idle speed was down around 800 rpms, but when I picked it up from the smog shop, suddenly the hot idle speed was 1,200 rpms, no matter what I did to it. The smog shop owner mentioned “adjusting” the ignition timing, which is electronic and not subject to wear. I checked the two vacuum lines to the distributor and when I pulled one off and plugged it, the idle speed dropped to 800, but when reconnected to the distributor advance port, jumped back upwards, once again. The vacuum like was coming off the intake manifold, thus a hearty 18-20 in,-mg. pulling on the remains of the rubber diaphragm. Honda forums all indicate a high failure rate of this component in the dual diaphragm models. I also put the same vacuum line on the EGR valve fitting and while the engine did lose some idle speed, it didn’t die completely, which is what they are supposed to do under idling conditions. I used my little Mighty-Vac brand hand pump to test the two diaphragms and both failed to hold a steady vacuum level. So, in the quest to “correct” the emission issues, the mechanical advancing of the spark timing caused the engine speed to rise beyond the carburetor’s ability to dial it back down again. The engine speed is now out of spec for the CA calibration, because of this modification that was done to compensate for defective parts in the distributor and the EGR valves, which were overlooked and not tested at the smog shop. I’m sure that the BAR (Bureau of Automotive Repair) would not be pleased. Additionally, the repair shop that had been working on the car, previously, chose to install a second catalytic converter in the exhaust pipe below the driver’s seat floor pan, which is a Band-Aid approach to cleaning up excessive emissions which were being generated from other sources. The “not-available” standard OEM Cat is bolted beneath the exhaust manifold and the suggested cost was in excess of $500. A/m Cat was probably less than $100, plus the cost of having it welded into place. All parties seemed to be at a loss to come up with legal and effective repair parts, so it seems to have fallen to me. I probably should have just canceled the whole transaction and let them stew about how to get the car certified correctly. As it stands, both the repair shop and the smog shop could be cited for DMV/BAR repair violations. That’s the problem with falling in love with these one-of-a-kind car finds, though. You just don’t want to let them get away without a fight. So, off to the parts stores to find good/new components, if possible.
Honda has long since discontinued the distributor components, along with most everything else designated for a 25 year-old vehicle. I was aware of various aftermarket replacement items being offered, but it seemed that all the references to an exact replacement for the CA calibration components were no longer in stock/manufactured. I searched and searched, finding little in my hunt, until I called the local Carquest Auto parts store, which had an on-line catalog of replacement items indicating that there were at least 3 versions/calibrations of that dual-diaphragm distributor vacuum advance unit. I asked for a stock check on all of the numbers shown in the catalog. The parts man searched the entire U. S. Carquest inventory system and found ONE left, in Indiana, where the manufacturer (Wells, in this case) is based. I drove to the store and placed my order via credit card on the LAST ONE and was told that they can’t ship until Jan. 2, as the warehouse is closed for the holidays. I had to pay both the discounted $60 retail price, plus another $8 shipping fee to have it sent out here in California from the frozen Mid-West. I hope the inventory count is correct because Wells doesn’t make these parts now, according to their online website and catalogs.
In the meantime, more local searching in the web sent me to Amazon.com site, where someone had listed the correct calibrated a/m part for sale. I decided to order it, just to see if it would actually show up, but the next day the order was canceled because it was no longer in stock. The local NAPA dealer indicated an Echlin-branded replacement was available to order for $80+ dollars. Later searches on eBay came up with more non-spec, but usable replacements in the $80+ range as well, but considering how many Honda Civics were made and sold in the U.S. in the 1984-87 era, it is shocking to find so few parts available now. I wound up ordering a good used OEM EGR valve from an eBay seller in L.A. after he assured me that it was, in fact, tested as a good used part.
Hopefully, when all is said and done, I will have a car that is running clean, performing properly and getting close to its 35 mpg sticker rating. If not, I have 90 days to get the car resold again, hopefully outside of California so someone else doesn’t have to tackle more high-dollar repairs of a low-dollar Honda Civic wagon. It is becoming more and more evident that tackling these “vintage” Honda machines is financially hazardous to your wallet’s health. So, what does this have to do with vintage Honda (or other brand) motorcycles?
Honda cranked out thousands and thousands of various motorcycle models in the 1980s, many like the Civic have a long life span, when cared for appropriately. Even with the best of care and maintenance, there are going to be certain parts which are going to fail due to age and use, which are just no longer available for sale from the manufacturer. As a volunteer “Expert” at the www.allexperts.com website, where one of my categories is “Vintage Honda motorcycle repairs.” I am seeing more and more questions concerning the bikes being resurrected from the 1980s-era. People are looking for intake manifold connectors, fuel pumps/relays, clutch and master cylinders, water pumps and electronic ignition modules, among many other requests. Sadly, most of these items were OEM-only and few if any aftermarket manufacturers ever bothered to take up the considerable time and expense to reproduce a low-volume item. The kinds of parts being sought are going to be the ones that everyone with that series of machine will be seeking, world-wide. When the OEM parts can’t be found, the Plan B is going to have to be tracking down a good used part or substituting something from another model or even another manufacturer that has something in common with the machine in question.
Charging system failures are becoming more and more apparent as these machines age and are put through years of use. There are a few aftermarket companies who are providing replacement voltage regulator/rectifiers and rewound stators for many popular models. CV (constant velocity) carburetors which use rubber diaphragms are becoming an increasing headache for riders, these days. Many of the carburetors seemed to share similar dimensions for the diaphragms and a few companies are manufacturing new rubber diaphragms, however special techniques have to be employed to remove the old ones and install new ones successfully.
Today’s alcohol fuels are causing havoc with the rubber parts of motorcycle carburetors and fuel petcocks. Many replacement carb kits used materials which were never designed for the introduction of alcohol-added fuels, which cause the rubber to expand rapidly and often permanently. Simple tasks like removing the float bowls from Honda 350 twins and the smaller Honda 350-400-500-550 Fours turns into a nightmare once the float bowl gaskets and packing o-rings are released from their recessed slots. Sometimes the gaskets and o-rings will contract once they are washed in hot water/soap or just left in the sun to dry out for a few days. That’s not handy when you just wanted to change out a main jet or float valve and then go riding right away. Most sharp owners will stock up on spare float bowl gaskets and packing o-rings, to prevent unnecessary repair delays. You really have to begin thinking far ahead to prepare for these kinds of repair issues, if you are going to continue to ride vintage motorcycles into the next decade.
Not everyone is aware that the Honda parts system has a special function to search participating dealer inventories for discontinued or non-stocked parts. Many modern dealerships have their hands full just dealing with the parts challenges for the current models of machines that they carry now. If you establish a good working relationship with the parts department or the store owner/manager, you should be able to coax them into taking a few extra moments to do a nation-wide search for that LAST PART you need to keep your bike on the road for another few years. A couple of years ago I picked up a very nice 1989 Honda NT650 Hawk GT and all it needed was a new front fender and a left turn signal switch. I ordered the fender and it arrived in a couple of days from the L.A. warehouses. The turn signal switch was NLA/Discontinued and it is a model-specific switch assembly. My buddies at the parts department took a few moments to search the Honda parts system and discovered a brand new switch in the box at a dealership in New York. A quick call and credit card number had the switch winging its way to San Diego for installation on this great daily-driver bike. For bikes more than about ten to fifteen years old now, the parts supplies are going dry for new OEM parts, unless they are a high-demand item. Take a good long look at your vintage ride and think about what it may need in the next few years and start searching now!