Posted on: Jun 24, 2012
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Japanese Tuner Icons: Honda Civic


The cheapest way to go fast for an entire generation of enthusiasts.
Long before "The Fast and the Furious" brought the world of import tuning into the national spotlight, imported cars, and Japanese cars in particular, would receive an increased amount of attention from performance enthusiasts. A number of Japanese cars would offer the same kind of stripped-down pure driving experience one common with American cars during the golden age of the pony car. With a wide variety of relatively cheap performance parts on the market, the idea of going fast without the need for a V8 suddenly became popular.

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It goes without saying that this is a trend which attracted a huge number of poseurs. This is why we're doing the Civic first, it seemed the best place to make the distinction between the genuinely fast and the cars decked out in neon and pointless body kits. So before you get worked up, we're not saying that a fart can exhaust and a huge wing will make a Civic faster than your Camaro, so just relax. The Civic has grown over the years, and what was once a bare-bones subcompact is now a compact, having grown more than two feet in length and gained over a thousand pounds.
Given these facts, it's not always easy to look at the current Civic model and think of it as something which was once used to go fast. But back when imports were fist taking off as performance machines, the Civic had tons of potential. The Civic was launched in 1973, and though the engine produced just 50 horsepower, the car weighed a mere 1,500 pounds, and this made for a fuel-efficient car which wasn't entirely terrible to drive. Nobody really thought of it as a performance model though, and in those days it wasn't so easy to make it into one. But ten years later, Honda came out with the CR-X.
This was a fastback version of the Civic which still managed to weigh in at less than 2,000lbs, early models weighed as little as 1,700lbs. A wheezy 58-horsepower engine served in the base model, but in 1988, the CR-X Si became available in the US, complete with a 105 horsepower engine. Although the Volkswagen GTI had already emphasized the importance of power-to-weight ratios several years earlier, the CR-X Si showed that offering the same power and weight but for a lower price was even more important. Economics played an important role in the popularity of the Civic as a tuner car, probably more so than any other car at the time.
By the mid-Nineties, you could pick up a used fourth-generation Civic hatchback or CR-X for a song. Something as simple as dropping in a B-series engine from a junkyard Integra and bolting on a turbo kit was something that would only set you back a few thousand dollars. The result was something with a power-to-weight ratio similar to that of the Lotus Elise, but for a fraction of the cost. Of course, making your Civic merely appear as though it was fast was even cheaper, but we've covered that. By the fifth generation of the Civic, Honda made available more powerful engines, including those with their F1-derived VTEC variable valve timing system.
The weight of the car remained low, and it is these Civics which tended to be the most popular with tuners. A version of the fifth-gen Civic made specifically for the South African market was built with Honda's 1.8-liter B18B3 engine, the same one used in the Acura Integra RS, and it is this setup which many tuners would imitate. Dropping in the bigger engines would not only give the car more power right from the start, but this engine was also better for turbocharging, and a good deal of power could be coaxed out of it without even needed to change out any engine internals.
There were downsides to this, naturally. The brakes on the Civic would usually need to be upgraded if you planned to do any really fast driving, and the factory suspension wasn't exactly what you'd call sporty either. Such large amounts of power going to the front wheels meant that monstrous torque steer was a normal occurrence as well, and really powerful Civics tended to be good mostly for straight-line speed. Then the biggest blow to the Civic was struck by Honda themselves. The Civic would put on several hundred pounds in 1996, and several hundred more in 2001, all without much in the way of increased power.
Tuning the engines would become an uphill fight, as Honda added more and more for them to pull around. Lightweight Civics are rapidly becoming vintage, and tuning trends no longer favor the model which used to thought of as Japan's Mini. The Civic is still important to the world of tuning though, albeit in a more symbolic sense. For kids in the Nineties, the iconic Sixties Mustang wasn't relevant to their lives. It had meant cheap speed to their parents, but for them, the cheapest way to go fast was the Civic. And even if (sorry to bring this up again, last time, I promise) this often had more to do with how the car looked or sounded than it did with how fast it was, it still meant something.
The Civic carried the banner for a new generation of hot rodding, when going fast was an option for a high school kid with a part-time job for the first time in decades.

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by Jacob Joseph
Japanese Tuner Icons: Honda Civic
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