HONDA CIVIC HEAD GASKET SATORI (or, Head Enlightenment with Sensei Honda)
I’ve been a closet motor enthusiast for almost a half century now, having been born into the ubiquitous ‘car culture’ of California and receiving my membership card in 1962 as the proud owner of a small Honda motor-bike. My little two-wheeled Honda was a 50 cc Honda C-110 Super Sport, the first of a new breed of motorcycle that had originated in Japan (after the end of the Second World War) in Sochiro Honda’s infernally clever oriental mind. The need for such vehicles stemmed from the utter industrial infrastructure devastation that characterised Japan’s status as a losing member of the Axis Powers in that conflict.
Honda began to think over the problem recovering Japan faced of providing cheap, effective transportation for its citizens. While immersed in that perplexing reflection, he quickly recognised that the best immediate solution to this problem consisted of adding small engines to bicycles. This soon progressed (logically) into the manufacture of a new line of inexpensive two-wheeled motor driven vehicles, not quite a motorized bicycle and unlike the traditional American motorcycle, but not completely divorced from it in basic concept. Two results followed, not long after: 1) a whole new era of high-precision Japanese motorcycles, and 2) a new line of small, economical and ‘affordable’ Japanese automobiles.
Despite my having become an enthusiastic motorcycling enthusiast since purchase of that small Honda motor-bike, it wasn’t until after I had worked my way through a number of other 4-wheeled vehicles (including Fiats, Datsuns, Porsches, and others) that I finally stumbled over my first small Honda automobile (a 1974 Honda Civic CVCC hatchback). I was working for the Santa Cruz Heart Institute at the time and already owned a Datsun 240Z and a Yamaha Seca XJ550 motorcycle, but this little car came on the market for what seemed a very reasonable amount of money ($300), so I decided to give it a home in my stable.
Although I kept the small civic for only a year or so, selling it when I left the institute for expatriate work overseas, that slight taste of typically Honda-like efficiency, economical operation, and simple driving fun remained firmly planted in my mind, not unlike an acorn awaiting transformation into a mighty oak. In 1992, the thought-acorn germinated and took root when my wife’s Toyota Cressida perished in a fender-bender and she unexpectedly found she needed a new car. A retired couple had advertised their 1979 Honda Civic station wagon for $1500 in the local paper and we so went over to take a look at it. The car was metallic blue (not my favorite color), had only 82,000 miles on it, and had been owned by two aging individuals who now wanted a larger (“safer”) car to operate.
Their little Honda was a Honda ‘two-speed automatic’ that used the 1500 cc Honda CVCC engine, a powerplant design incorporating a small pre-ignition chamber (commonly called the ‘swirl stratified charge’ technique) to help it combust fuel so efficiently that the car passed emissions requirements without need of a catalytic converter. My wife was dubious about its suitability, since it was so small, but for me it was love at first sight. I won’t bore you with any rapturous paeans about its quite obvious ‘cute factor’, or its highly personable demeanor, or even its tendency to make you uncontrollably go up to it and chuck it like an infant under its front spoiler. Suffice it to say I was ready to take it home even before we’d finished talking to its owners, who had done great job taking care of it and who had also keep all the service records on it (always important, by my reckoning, since that bespeaks an attitude of maintenance concern).
Thus began my relationship with Honda automobiles, an association that continues to this day. Sadly, thus also began the following personal tale of travail and woe that prompts me to set all this down to share with you.
The little ’79 Civic was a great vehicle, by my personal criteria for automotive transportation. It was inexpensive to acquire, extremely economical to operate and maintain, and extremely utilitarian, with the commodious rear cargo space of the Civic station wagon model. In 1995, however, I decided that a rebuilt engine would probably be a prudent investment (at 82,000 miles), so I had an independent garage in Sacramento, California (doing business as ‘Honest Engine’) install a rebuilt long block in the car. The cost was about $2400 out the door, and since they specialized in Hondas, I felt reasonably secure about having had them do the work…especially since having the local authorized Honda perform the same work would have cost about 2 to 3 times as much. However, on the way home from picking the car up at their shop, the engine died. Although it turned out to be faulty imported points they had used in the distributor, this could have conceivably been construed by the prescient as some sort of kosmic warning.
Everything went well for the next 7,500 miles (I typically don’t put on many miles each year), but without particular warning the engine’s head-gasket spontaneously ruptured in early late 1997 (two years after the rebuild). The gasket was replaced at that time by the same garage that had installed the rebuild for me and I thought little of it, other than to briefly reflect on the irony of having a relatively recent head gasket installation go bad not long after it was installed. The cost was only $470, so I wrote it off to random chance and the vagaries of life. Then just over a year later, with only an interval of another 7,700 or so miles, the gasket blew once again. Hmmmm. This time I had the new gasket installed by the local authorised Honda Dealer (South City Honda in Sacramento, CA). The cost was nearly twice what ‘Honest Engine’ had charged me the first time, but less than a year later (only 8 months and 1050 miles!) the head gasket once more blew its merry little mind!
By this time my wife and I had relocated to nearby Elk Grove, so with some small resignation I had the new gasket installed at an independent Honda Garage named ‘Expert Automotive’, operated by a sort of ‘Click and Clack’ set of guys who were referred to me as ‘older Honda experts’ (I didn’t stop to reflect on whether the reference meant ‘two older guys who know Hondas’ or ‘two guys who know older Hondas’). At any rate, they replaced the gasket again and this time installed a completely new OEM Honda Civic aluminum cylinder head at my request, since we figured that perhaps the original head had not been properly machined for perfect flatness. The total cost for this ‘extra insurance’ job was $2300, almost exactly as much as the rebuild had originally cost me in 1995 (was destiny trying vainly to whisper something to me, I wondered…?).
Having once and for all resolved my Honda head gasket concerns (so I thought) with the installation of a brand new Honda OEM cylinder head, I put blown Honda engine head concerns to bed, tucked them in tenderly, and got on about my business without any further trepedations….until the new gasket went amok once more, three years later.
Although this time the interval between these breakdowns were significantly longer than had been the case on previous occasions, the distance in miles between ruptures was also greater, nearly 9000 miles this time. Nevertheless, these mere statistical improvements failed to cushion the blow of being faced yet again with another expensive head gasket replacement, that this time cost $700 to have the work redone by the same fellows in Elk Grove’s ‘Expert Auto’. About this time I was starting to question my life-long refusal to believe in conventional religious deities and was secretly wondering if this were His way of telling me to shape up, belief-wise, and get back aboard the Jesus bandwagon. So concerned was I about this strangely inexplicable streak of bad luck that every time we BBQ’d in the back yard, I unconsciously threw a couple of extra sacrificial chickens on the grill to placate any unknown or unsuspected wrathful gods whom I might have somehow unknowingly offended.
Nope, no luck with the sacrificial chickens. 4 years later in 2006, the head gasket let loose once more, with the now seemingly regularity of the ‘Old Faithful’ geyser in Yellowstone National Park. After about 2000 miles and a little under 4 years since the previous job, I again had ‘Expert Auto’ do the gasket replacement, although by now I could see their eyes slightly widen in horror the split-second they saw me walking into their shop. It was almost as if they had developed a phobia of bright orange (CalTrans orange, actually) 1979 Honda Civic wagons, although I could well imagine why. This time, however, they tried doubling up on the gasket material and very carefully retorqued the head bolts to the proper specs. To me it almost seemed as if they were disarming a time-bomb’s detonator, so carefully was the work performed.
And so, once more, amid much eye rolling and silent mumbles of disbelief, the damnable gasket was replaced, the head was checked carefully for flatness, and shortly the Honda was back on its treads, rolling uncomplainingly down the road as if nothing unusual had happened. ‘Surely God!’ though I, ‘this is the last trial you have set before me, heathen disbelieving pagan that I am’. As I left the garage that day, I vaguely recall a departing jest by one of them….something like ‘Don’t bring this devil car back to us, OK?’
To my great relief, all seemed well for once…..until 18 months later, when exactly the same thing happened again. This time, only 2650 miles had gone by and once more, the car gave classic symptoms of a rupture that is usually heralded by 1) the sweetish smell of glycol coolant in the exhaust, 2) slightly white exhaust emissions, and 3) intermittent cylinder misfiring.
It was traumatic enough for me to experience this unhappy problem once again, but by this time my ever patient and supportive wife was all for ending our collective economic hemorrhaging by driving the poor little Honda off the nearest sea cliff at the Fort Bragg Headlands (it’s almost a 1000 feet straight down into the cold blue waters of the California North Coast’s Pacific ocean from those bluffs). Despite the logical cogency of this plan, I remained firmly on the side of the little Honda, feeling that there was surely, somehow something we had overlooked, some logical if perhaps extremely obscure explanation for all of this extraordinary bad luck. With that resolve firmly in mind, I and the car headed once more to a Honda garage in hopes of finding a permanent resolution to this by now persistent economic nightmare.
Since we had again relocated to Sacramento for some time now, and due also to Elk Grove’s substantial distance from us (mindful as well of the ‘Expert Automotive’ shop’s phobia over the vehicle), I decided to find a new shop to take the poor little Honda to for some urgent TLC. It’s always somewhat of a gamble when you select a new automotive repair/service shop for the first time; not unlike playing the Lotto, I would imagine, as far as the chances of connecting with reputable and skilled mechanics are concerned. Since I am not a gambler and never have been, this is always an anxiety producing moment for me, but I looked around and soon selected a shop in Sacramento named ‘Japanese Auto Repair’, seemingly well regarded by some I knew, and supposedly service & repair specialists in Hondas and Toyotas.
Little did I suspect that the TRUE nightmare was about to begin, as I explained what had happened to the manager of the place. After hearing my tale of woe, we both agreed that there was something mighty strange about the recurrent head-gasket blowing crisis, and we also agreed that putting more money into an already expensive lame horse was just not really prudent economic thinking…no matter how much one love’s the vehicle. Unfortunately for me, my wife, and our economic solvency, I had a strong emotional attachment to my little orange Honda.
At length, the manager agreed to attempt a fix, assuring me that whatever it was, he COULD fix it permanently. With that I left the potential miracle-fix entirely to him, handed over the key and silently wished ‘God speed!’ to whatever cosmic deities specialize in miraculous feats of automotive repair. That was over three months ago! The vehicle remains at their shop with its head off now, as it has for almost 90 days!
I waited a week, hearing nothing further about this from the shop; ‘No problem’, I quietly reassured myself. Waiting several days more and still hearing nothing, I finally called to ask about what they had found. That’s when I was told that the gasket had indeed ruptured again and the site of the blow-out was between the two middle cylinders, a spot that apparently suffers from an inherent (and rare) Honda engineering design flaw.
Armed with that knowledge, I took to the internet and started researching every possible clue I could scare up on the subject of Honda Civic head-gasket ruptures. As it turns out, there were thousands! From what I gathered, when Honda had designed the original Civic 1.5 liter CVCC engine, they elected to use an aluminum cylinder head on a cast iron engine block. This contrasted from the design of the Honda 1200 CC (non-CVCC) engine, coincidentally, that used an aluminum head on an aluminum block. When the CVCC engine block was subsequently manufactured, due to engine cooling requirements and the design layout of the coolant circulation ports around the cylinders, there was a tendency for a so-called ‘hot spot’ to occur during engine operation that was located on the front edge of the block, between cylinders two and three. Thus, a heat-susceptible ‘weak area’ existed on the block that made it more prone at that spot to rupture a gasket than anywhere else. Additionally, in choosing an all-aluminum head design for use with a cast-iron block, Honda had failed to foresee that the differing metallurgical thermodynamics of aluminum and iron made the two metals prone to expand and contract at differing rates from each other (not a problem on an aluminum head and aluminum engine block car). The combination of these two effects (an potential hot spot on the engine’s front deck-to-head juncture, with the shearing forces created by aluminum and iron pulling away from each other as things heated up) set the stage for a recognised head-gasket blowing notoriety of early Honda Civic CVCC engines (1976 through 1977), as pressure and heat extremes literally ripped the gaskets to shreds. In other words, the early Civics with CVCC engines (as well as Accords with the same basic engine design) had a remarkably bad rep for blowing head-gaskets, with all the enthusiastic abandon of a teenaged street walker selling her body to stranger who flashes a hundred dollar bill.
Honda, recognizing this problem to be significant enough to take broadly corrective action, instituted a recall in early 1978 wherein specially designed Molybdenum-Disulphide coated reinforced gaskets and unique spiral-shanked head bolts were retro-installed on the early CVCC blocks. The MoS2 impregnated gasket and the new bolts, cut with a lateral groove in them to allow a bit of stretching to occur, seems in retrospect to have largely taken care of this notorious gasket problem that was characteristic of early Civics and Accords.
A further bit of useful intelligence surfaced as well, and that is a completely false assumption in apparently wide currency that a special ’Fel-Pro’ reinforced gasket could be used to help solve this recurrent head-gasket blowing tendency in Honda Civic CVCC engines. In actual fact, a ‘Fel-Pro’ type gasket is excellent for use on similar metal engines (that is all aluminum or all cast iron designs—i.e. engines in which there are no dissimilar block and head metal combinations in use), but a ‘Fel-Pro’ gasket on a Honda CVCC engine simply wears out as fast (or faster) than an ordinary after-market gasket.
The shop manager did reveal one particularly important result from his inspection, however, and that was that it wasn’t the head being warped (out of plane) that had helped create the problem in my car, but the fact that the engine block’s upper surface (called the ‘deck’, by mechanics) actually had a warp in it. According to his measurements of the engine’s deck, it deviated from a perfectly smooth plane by at least .0003 of an inch—enough to cause a severe stress right where that inherent ‘hot spot’ flaw in the CVCC engine’s design was located! The only thing I can conclude from that information is that when I had the engine rebuilt back in 1995 by ‘Honest Engine’, they had failed to check the rebuild’s deck for perfect planimetry. In other words, they sold me a defective block. Possibly it was an early 76 or 77 CVCC block that had suffered from severe heat damage from a prior gasket rupture that had distorted the block’s deck.
Holy crap! You would think that any automotive outfit selling rebuilt engines would have checked their ‘recycled’ iron blocks for defects such as that before using them, and in fact all it takes is a quick check with a perfectly straight edge to make sure the deck’s plane is true. They had not (so it would seem—caveat emptor!). Thus, all of my persisting head-gasket blowing problems apparently stemmed from negligence by the engine rebuilding outfit, although in fairness, it was somewhat a combination of human carelessness, failed engineering design, and mechanical ineptitude that actually created my particular expensive problem with Honda CVCC head gaskets!
Armed with that information and satisfied that I had finally found the long-elusive explanation for all my expense and misfortune, I had turned my Civic over to ‘Japanese Auto Repair’ and told them that they could go ahead and replace the gasket.
At that point I was told that since the engine would have to remain in the vehicle (to avoid all the expense involved in removing it from the car), the work required to plane down the engine’s block deck could be accomplished by simply removing the cylinder head and manually smoothing the out-of-plane deck to achieve the desired perfectly flat surface. It seemed a logical enough plan to me at the time, so I told them to keep the car as long as they needed to, assuming that ‘as long as you need to’ would translate (by common consensus) in just about any language into ‘a week or two, at most’. At the same time I failed to get an all important written estimate from them as to what the work would cost (something that is technically unlawful under California’s Bureau of Consumer Affairs statutes governing auto repairs that specify an estimate must be given and signed by the customer before work may begin).
It has now been three full months since I took the car in and the frustration resulting from this final phase has become nearly impossible to deal with. Each time I call to inquire about progress, I am told that they are having to do it bit by bit, sandwiching the manual work in between their regular service work (tune-ups, adjustments, minor repairs, et al) and that it ‘takes a while to plane the deck down perfectly’ without taking the engine out so as to do the work by machine. My wife, of course, thinks I am certifiable for tolerating this status quo and frankly I am flummoxed as to how to go about bringing about the quick resolution needed. Clearly I can’t wheedle or threaten, since alienating them won’t encourage them to get the job done quickly and satisfactorily. At the same time, since I haven’t any sort of written estimate on the job, there’s nothing down in writing to refer back to as leverage in the matter. And so the situation remains at this time, with me wondering whether its even possible to deliver a perfectly smooth engine deck without having removed the entire engine first. The only thing I have is a word of mouth assurance that the job will cost about $1200 and that ‘we won’t charge you for the extra labor’. By virtue of hindsight reflection, that’s a pretty flimsy reassurance, so it would seem to me.
Two possibilities exist, to the best of my perceptions. One is that they will not be able to successfully complete the job, leaving me out $1200, with an engine still apart, and the other is that they will complete the job, but many further weeks down the road (also unacceptable). The idea of having paid $1200 for a failed repair job, requiring an entire new block rebuild is really pretty ghastly. Meanwhile, I am forced to use my Chevy truck for daily transportation, at a time when gasoline is peaking at nearly $5 a gallon. At a mpg rating of 11, using my truck for transportation costs about $72 for a fill-up and a full tank lasts for only a very short distance at a consumption rate of 11 mpg. Did I say the nightmare was hardly beginning? That sentiment strikes me as a rank understatement as I think back on all of this now!
So, with all of this experience under my belt and STILL having perversely warm, cozy feelings about my otherwise great little Japanese wagon, I present all this for your reflection, hoping that if you are having a similarly recurrent head-gasket rupturing problem with your little early model CVCC Civic, perhaps some of my painful ordeal will benefit you in your own situation.
One last word, and that is that I’ve encountered in my research on this subject, a tremendous amount of misinformation on the question of the subject of Honda Civic head gasket failures. In particular, Information such as the recommendation of using of a ‘Fel-Pro’ type gasket to cure the gasket blowing problem on a Honda Civic CVCC is so bad that use of that particular type of gasket might actually create worse problems for an early CVCC owner. If a gasket-blowing problem exists that seems recurrent and persistent, keep in mind that it may well not be a warped cylinder head exacerbating the situation as much as a warped engine block deck (no one thinks to check the deck for perfect plane, seemingly, although almost everyone knows that checking the head for proper plane is standard procedure in repairing head gaskets). If you get a rebuilt Honda Civic CVCC engine from anyone, take some pains to be sure they haven’t sold you a rebuilt block from a ’76-’77 CVCC that has a warped deck (due to severe heat damage from an earlier blow-out). Not un-ironically, that’s one of those things hardly anyone would even stop to think about, in terms of possible problems associated with a ‘new rebuild’.
Lastly, the bottom line for all of us is that in today’s increasingly complex world of advanced science and applied technology, hardly any of us ‘consumers’ are fully abreast of the learning curve required to be adequately prepared to cope with modern automobile problems. We must of necessity rely on the flimsy hope that those whom we are paying high mechanical labor rates actually know what they are doing, and that is a tenuously insubstantial thread of hope to cling to at best! In the end, we’re likely all screwed when it comes to our relationship with automobiles. But don’t let that put you off, since although costly, you may actually achieve some vestige of enlightenment in the process…call it a Honda Satori, if you wish…after all of these problems have been sorted through. Of course, by that time you’ll be penuriously living in the poor house, divorced, penniless, and thoroughly humbled to distraction. And that’s only if they haven’t already committed you to the local ‘Happy House’.
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