My first daily driver was a 1979 Honda Accord. I phrase it that way because for a short time I had a ’71 Cutlass Supreme, but a kid generally has a hard time running a beast like that and I ditched it in favour of something I could afford fairly quickly. Anyway, I think something lost on us now is the appreciation of basic engineering in our vehicles—we’re obsessed with supercars and how expensive they are and hold a narrow view of what makes a good car. Not that I mean to downplay fast cars . . . of course they’re cool and have their own set of engineering landmarks, but those shouldn’t come at the expense of some of the more mundane aspects that are actually pretty neat.

One thing that confuses me is what we consider good fuel economy right now. Why? Well, a first-generation Honda Civic with a CVCC motor and special Weber side-draught carbs could achieve economy nearly on par with the collection of random junk we call “hybrid” cars. There would be no extra cost and environmental concerns associated with batteries and so on, no extra moving parts, and the car would cost practically nothing to make nowadays. How does it make sense that today’s compact car struggles to reach 30mpg? And even stranger, why do we now consider that to be pretty good, even for a 4-cylinder economy car?

But let’s get back to less abstract things, like Honda’s CVCC engine. CVCC means “Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion.” The cool part about it is that this and other stratified charge engines is that it separates the fuel into a lean mixture, which goes into the cylinder, and a rich mixture at the spark plug. And if the reader is wondering what this could possibly have to do with dieselpunk, the idea of a stratified charge came from Rudolph Diesel. In fact, the direct-inject direction most engines are taking now seems to refer back to the diesel engine.

What was the result? Meeting emissions standards without using a catalytic converter. Sounds boring right? Well, it’s not that easy to do. I don’t think anyone even tries to anymore, possibly due to a massive conspiracy perpetrated by Big Catalytic Converter, and perhaps to a lesser extent, Big Lithium Ion Battery.

 

My Honda CVCC was in rough shape, but still worked pretty well. The whole thing seemed like a mess of vacuum lines, and perhaps this mechanically-derived route to emissions control was part of what killed this type of motor. Mine had a manual choke, which I found hilarious and still do. It was slow as hell, no thanks to the 2-speed Hondamatic transmission—although this was itself a fascinating piece of machinery. If I remember correctly, the Hondamatic wasn’t just a powerglide knockoff, but an automatic transmission that used gears more like the ones you’d find in a manual. I once drove this car for a week with the oil light on, and the thing didn’t give me any more trouble than it did before that erm . . . minor oversight.

Strangely enough, CBC News is on as I type this and I just caught a bit about an epidemic of catalytic converter thefts . . . see, people? That entire rash of minor inconveniences could have been avoided simply by driving a 200-dollar car from 1979.

Okay. So fuel injection comes along and is supposed to be more efficient. But . . . but it’s not? Why do these carbureted dinosaurs offer better economy?

I have no idea. The cars now, compact ones, are a lot heavier, perhaps. New safety standards and such. I don’t think anyone would ever accept a car with 80 horsepower these days, even if they just wanted a basic grocery-getter. But I think in Japan they might have turbocharged a later version of the CVCC and gotten decent performance out of it.

The importance of this isn’t lost on absolutely everyone though, since it has been designated as part of the Mechanical Engineering Heritage of Japan. I’m not entirely sure what that really means, but I assume it’s like a monument in Civilization XXX (I’m too old to know what version of Sid Meier’s Civilization we’re on . . . I ran out of time for that game around Civ 3 . . .) and when you look at the other, erm, “things,” on the list, it seems like quite a big deal.

As to why our expectations have changed, I can’t quite get it. Maybe the phrase “fuel economy” needs to be taken more literally—that is, to mean the optimum amount of consumption given the market, not necessarily some absolute race to the bottom. I know to a conspiracy theorist that sounds like stating the obvious, but I do think there’s a difference between “oil companies want you to use all the oil that is humanly possible so they can make tons of money right now” and “our perception and expectations of how we use resources changes depending actual conditions.”

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