1 June 2016

This is why everyone, including thieves, wanted a 1991 Honda Accord Wagon

An unexpectedly personal exchange transpired when I mentioned to my girlfriend’s parents that I would be borrowing a 1991 Honda Accord wagon from the Honda museum collection in Torrance, California, for a “modern classic” drive feature.

“Oh, we had one,” they told me. “We bought it new. The first week we took it home, we parked it outside. Someone tried to steal it.” The thief broke a window but was apparently unable to start it, and escaped thwarted. I was shocked. They live in the quiet suburban neighborhood of Westwood, Calif., adjacent to UCLA, where I routinely park press cars—and neighbors street-park Audis and Mercedes-Benzes—when I visit Los Angeles.

For a year, they garaged the repaired Accord wagon, understandably shocked by the instance and concerned about their Honda’s desirability factor. Time passed and they needed the space. They decided to park the Accord outside again. It was stolen before sunrise.

“Will yours be green, too?” they asked. It would be. Suffice it to say that I wouldn’t be borrowing an Accord wagon from the Honda museum overnight.

Time has passed quickly since the 1991 Accord was a new car, ubiquitously gracing schoolyards and commuter rail station parking lots. If this 1991 Accord wagon were an export market vehicle, it would qualify in 2016 for the 25-year-old exemption. Think about that for a second. It’s representative of a moment in time when Japanese automakers couldn’t build enough wagons, whether a variant of the Toyota Camry, Subaru Legacy or Mitsubishi Diamante, among others. If you needed to transport more than a carpool’s worth, you went with a minivan. The Ford Explorer was barely a toddler. The SUV craze? Not yet.

The greater takeaway, however, is that cars of the Nineties are classics, too. Just because this Accord wagon is a museum piece, like the Acura Integra that I borrowed earlier that week, this is not a low-mileage example kept in pristine condition. It’s lived a life of six-figure odometer mileage, and by the looks of it, was never babied during its time in service. Honda museum curator Dave Heath sought out a specific teal green wagon like this one as a prime example of the fourth-generation Accord. The Hampshire Green exterior—the color that everyone seems to remember—has a couple of cosmetic blemishes, but nothing that detracts from its mechanical performance. The cloth-and-plastic interior is free of screens and gewgaws that distract and detract from the driving experience.

The plan was to concoct a similar day in L.A. to the one I had in the Integra, assuming that nothing in the world had changed since this Accord left the dealership in 1991. That meant departing Torrance with nothing more than a map (OK, printed-out Google Maps directions) and heading north for a day of sightseeing in Hollywood.

The first thing I noticed, settling in to the Accord wagon’s driver’s seat, was my own size, in the relatively cramped cabin with a gorgeously light and spacious greenhouse. This was considered a family car at one point? Maybe it had something to do with the last time I took a ride in an early ‘90s Accord, which was when I was a significantly smaller human being. The seats are narrow. The belt line is average, as is the chair height, but I suddenly felt like a giant. I couldn’t imagine more than three or four adults traveling comfortably together. Three short-legged children could manage the trip in back, at least.

The route took me from Torrance, on California’s busiest freeways, where the Accord wagon struggled a bit keeping up with off-and-on 65 mph traffic. Every model is different, and the steering wheel transmitted a fair amount of vibration and harshness to the cabin. The windows were electric, but took a significant amount of time, and made plenty of noise, in their up-and-down operation. With nary a blind spot, thanks to narrow structural pillars all around and plenty of glass, it was a breeze to dart between the lanes. Less enjoyable was sitting in traffic in the subtly shaking Honda, mostly due to the traffic’s unpredictability—and not the car. This Accord’s one functional sore spot was its tired brakes, which required a heavy and steady foot to hold the wagon in place at, say, stoplights, without rolling forward. Selecting ‘Park’ did the trick even better.

Unlike the day of driving in the Integra, it was significantly hotter the day I drove the Accord wagon, and the air conditioning wasn’t exactly cooperating. Windows down, I would be fine, if not a little sweaty. The set list included a number of locations that defined L.A. in the Nineties, including a historic library, a couple of restaurants, and the beach, but time was short. I settled, instead, on a sandwich from a restaurant on Robertson Boulevard, en route again to the Hollywood Hills. I got out and tossed my gear in the capacious rear cargo area, which could have easily swallowed a week’s worth of groceries or travel equipment.

Something that never comes up while driving an Accord of this generation is wondering how much horsepower it has, or if it’s a sports car. (For your edification, it has 125 horsepower and it is not a sports car.) What buyers saw in this Accord wagon was effectively a bulletproof family vehicle, and smart owners treated it as such. The ride is a little floaty, the steering is direct but pulls a little, and handling is flat but uninspired. Cupholders? We can talk about those.

Other drivers were taking note of this dark cyan wagon from another era, especially as I wound up and through the Hollywood Hills toward the iconic Hollywood sign. Just as I was leaving, back to Torrance after a few quick, touristy photos, I stopped to admire the Accord wagon’s simplicity. So did a man, who was loading a couple of dogs into his Volvo 240 wagon, and a couple chugging by in a dilapidated Ford Escort five-door. They’re wagon guys. They got it. But so did everyone else who cherished a memory of one. Keep your hands off this one, won’t you, thieves?

Honda provided the test vehicle from its North American museum collection.

1991 Honda Accord Wagon
2.2-liter inline four-cylinder engine, 125 horsepower, 137 lb.-ft,
4-speed automatic transmission or 5-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive
18 city / 24 highway (automatic, mpg)
Base price: $17,300 (Accord Wagon, MSRP when new)

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