• The Honda Type R Through The Ages

The Big Red "R" — sorcery, available from any Pep Boys for $4.89. Sticking one to your trunk lid will instantly make it a JDM piece. The Big Red "R" will add 90 percent to the value of your car, turn automatics into five-speed manuals, and make more power than an SR20 in a 2009 Honda S2000. It’ll allow any Kia to corner like the Batmobile, and front-drive Toyotas to wheel-stand like a 70’s Dodge Charger RT. The Big Red "R" is quite simply, magical.

But behind that magic lay the secret of The "R’s" true power: a mystical force known as "Sochiro Honda." Some say he was a half-demon born in the forests of Japan, and raised by evil spirits to master the ways of speed. Others say he hailed from parts unknown, challenging any who passed to contests of skill and absorbing their power — his soul now awaits The Chosen One in a long-lost, titanium VTEC actuator.

All we know is, Honda sure built some bad-ass cars...and The Big Red "R" was on all of them.

Continue reading for the full story.

Origins, 1992 to 1995

The Honda Type R Through The Ages High Resolution Exterior
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The Type R’s legend begins with a legendary car, exactly as it should. Back in the 1980s, everyone wanted a Ferrari. Thank Don Johnson for that. But the problem with Ferraris of the time was that no matter how advanced they might look, under their overpriced Italian skins they were about as reliable as...well, any other Italian car. In 1985, Ferrari introduced the 1985, 3.2-liter Ferrari 328 GTB. The 328 was a mid-engine successor to the 1968 to 1969 Ferrari Dino, and a direct predecessor of today’s 2015 Ferrari 458 Italia. It was said at the time to be "the most reliable Ferrari ever." And some people were impressed by that.

Honda wasn’t among them.

As far back as 1984, Honda began looking into mid-engined sports cars. They started by doing the rational thing: contracting Italian design firm Pininfarina to design a body. They called the resulting concept the Honda Pininfarina Experimental, and installed a 2.0-liter V-6 in the middle. By 1990, that design had evolved into the New Sportscar Experimental — or NSX. The 1990 Honda NSX was a hugely revolutionary car for several reasons. First, because it was the first use of variable valve timing in any car, ever.

We might take VTEC and derivative systems for granted today, but VTEC was a huge deal when it debuted in the 3.0-liter NSX.

We might take VTEC and derivative systems for granted today, but VTEC was a huge deal when it debuted in the 3.0-liter NSX.

So was the fact that the NSX used an all-aluminum unibody chassis. It was the first car in the world to do so, and this chassis was a big part of what made the NSX truly "experimental." Many had their doubts at the time that the NSX might just fold up like a soda can at the first provocation — but Honda proved the aluminum chassis safe, strong, and a perfect performance edge.

They needed it, too, because the NSX had a new performance target: the 1989 Ferrari 348, which had replaced the 328 while the NSX was in development. The Honda dropped like a bombshell on the public, which suddenly began asking why a mid-engine sports car had to be expensive, fuel hungry, uncomfortable, unreliable or (most importantly) Italian. An arms race for speed, reliability and refinement ensued.

In 1992, Honda stepped up its game further to stay one step ahead in the war it had started. The Type R was born.

Honda started with a slight bump in power, from the stock 270 to 276 horses at a screaming 7,300 rpm. But why 276 horses? Why not more, if Honda was competing with Ferrari? Mostly because at the time, Japanese manufacturers had a kind of gentleman’s agreement on power limits to prevent an all-out, turbocharged horsepower war in Japan. This is the reason why you’ll never see a Supra, GT-R, Subaru or Evo of the era advertised with more than 280 horsepower. While a few other manufacturers cheated and advertised lower numbers than they were actually producing, the ever-honorable Honda stuck to its end of the bargain. If they were going to compete with Italian supercars while limited to under 280 horsepower, Honda needed to get serious about shedding weight.

By stripping the NSX down and replacing everything they could with lightweight materials, Honda dropped almost 300 pounds from the car.

And that they did. While the original NSX was no fat boy at 3,010 pounds, it was still saddled by some excess weight. By stripping the NSX down and replacing everything they could with lightweight materials, Honda dropped almost 300 pounds from the car. The approach was the same used by most successful racers: Take out a few pounds, or a few grams at a time everywhere possible. Stuff like sound deadening, an audio system and electric windows were the first to go, but everything down to the mirrors were given a once-over to see where pounds could come off.

After some suspension tuning and new wheels and tires, the end result was good for 4.9 seconds to 60 mph, and about 13.3 in the quarter. Top speed was a theoretical 170 mph with the 155 mph governor deactivated. By way of comparison, the first generation, 1992-2010 Dodge Viper beat the NSX to 60 and through the quarter by a mere 0.3 seconds. The Viper had an edge off the line because of its massive V-10 engine, but the NSX Type R and its more aerodynamic body quickly begin to equalize the race once speeds hit triple digits. And it almost goes without saying that at the first corner, an NSX would leave that Viper in the weeds. Around any road course, the NSX would absolutely decimate its American counterpart, even with a 120-horsepower disadvantage. And for about the same money.

But what about the Ferrari 348? The lightweight NSX beat it to 60 by 0.4 second and ran nose-to-nose with it through the quarter mile and around most race tracks. The Ferrari’s extra 32 horsepower kept it competitive with the NSX Type R at high speeds, but just barely. The fact that the 348 would explode into a haze of expensive Italian smoke after five laps — not so much.

1995 to 2000

The Honda Type R Through The Ages High Resolution Exterior
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By 1995, the Big Red "R" was fully established as a real threat on the race track and the street, and Honda was ready to cash in by applying it to more bread-and-butter models.

The next car to get the Type R treatment was the Integra. From the time it debuted in 1985, the Integra was marketed as the Civic’s sportier sibling. It sat above the CRX in the Honda sport heirarchy, and featured upgrades like bigger disc brakes, sportier suspension, and a 113-horsepower, DOHC D16A1 four-cylinder. By 1993 the Integra was in its third (DC2) generation, and two years later Honda introduced the first 1995 Integra Type R in its home market as a 1996 model.

In a big way, the Integra Type R was to normal ’Tegs what the 1992 to 2000 E36 BMW M3 was to garden variety 3 Series models. Practically every part of the car, including the body, engine, suspension, brakes and interior were altered from the basic Integra for Type R duty.

The first-generation JDM Integra R ran 6 seconds flat to 60 mph.

The most noticeable was the inclusion of the biggest of Honda’s "small block" four cylinders, the "killer" B18. In Japanese trim it produced 200 horsepower; American cars got 195 horses. By 1997, when the Type R was introduced in America as an Acura with 197 horsepower, the Integra’s B18 had officially set the world record for most horsepower per liter for a production engine. The Killer B’s 108-horses-per-liter record would stand until the "big block" S2000 eclipsed it with 120 horsepower per liter.

The first-generation JDM Integra R ran 6 seconds flat to 60 mph, but Motor Trend tested American spec models at 7 seconds to 60 and 15.3 seconds through the quarter. By comparison, the JDM model would run nose-to-nose with a contemporary BMW M3, but American spec cars were about a full second behind in contests of acceleration. Maybe it had something to do with the goofy "bug eye" headlights, which the Japanese hated. JDM cars quickly switched back to the flat, elongated headlights that previous models used, and that remains a popular retrofit for American Integra enthusiasts.

But the Integra wasn’t the only Type R to hit in 1997. That same year, Honda gave us what ultimately became the definitive Japanese sport compact. You know what it is...the much loved (and much loathed) Civic Type R.

Full disclosure: As a musclecar guy who was at this time driving a 500 c.i. Caddy swapped Buick Regal, I grew up to hate this car like none other on Earth. But, with a couple decades and some experience gone by, even I have to appreciate what everyone else saw in the thing.

The Civic Type R hit with a 1.6-liter B-series engine, which was predictably a bit lower than the 1.8 liter at 183 horsepower. However, the hatchback was lighter than the Integra, so American-spec models were actually 0.2 seconds quicker than the Integra. That’s a big part of the reason for this car’s popularity among American rice boys (err, sorry — import enthusiasts) at the time. Apart from the NSX, it would have been the quickest Honda available here, and bar none the quickest thing with a Honda badge. Unfortunately, the Type R Civic was never available here, which meant that Honda boys had to build their own according to JDM specs. In theory, this was actually the impetus behind the JDM-spec trend that swept America around the turn of the century. In practice, though, it meant a lot of "enthusiasts" with stick-on "R" badges, fart-can mufflers and cosmetic upgrades.

The Civic Type R hit with a 1.6-liter B-series engine, which was predictably a bit lower than the 1.8 liter at 183 horsepower.

The real Type Rice (dammit, sorry —Type R) came with red Recaro alcantara seats, red door cards, Type R floor mats, and a titanium shift knob. Which made it go faster. But even without the titanium knob, the real deal was plenty quick, and its suspension tuning and brakes meant it could easily keep up with an Integra R around a race track.

Honda upgraded the Integra again in 1998, and it quickly gained cult status on these shores, mostly because it was the only legit Type R available here. Though "available" is a relative term, since Honda only produced 3,823 of them. Still, with 187 horses and a 60 mph time of 6.5 seconds, it was a serious speed machine compared to its compact contemporaries.

In 1998, Europe got a gift in the form of the Accord Type R, which was never sold in either the United States or Japan. It debuted with the newest and biggest of Honda’s Big Block engines, the H22A7. This "red top" VTEC motor (closely related to the also legendary Prelude, which was sold here) pumped out 217 horsepower at 7,200 rpm, and made the Accord Type R the most powerful four-cylinder Honda available at the time. Otherwise, it got the full Type R treatment, which included chassis stiffening braces, a double wishbone suspension and a Torsen limited-slip differential. The Accord R battled mightily against Audis, BMWs and Alfa Romeos in the 2000 European Super Touring Cup season.

So, why didn’t the Japanese want a Type R Accord? Mostly because they already had the Si, SiR and SiR-T, which were functionally identical to the Type R but weren’t completely stripped down for racing. Japan even built for itself an AWD model. We, meanwhile, got the standard Accord SUX. Which if you didn’t notice, is an acronym I made up because it spells the word "sucks."

Still, all was not dark over here, because we also had the Civic Si and the Integra Type R. Honda performance was alive and well on these shores — though for the most part, the magical Big Red R eluded us.

2000 to Present

The Honda Type R Through The Ages High Resolution Exterior
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At the turn of the century, Honda came out with a whole slew of new cars. There was a new Civic and Integra, new Accords and of course, the Honda S2000. Overseas, all but the last continued with both Si and Type R models under variations of the name and designations. Here, the Type R badge has been gone since the last Integra rolled off Honda’s lines in 2006.

You can’t really blame Honda for that, though. Fact is, Type Rs have always been for the hardcore. They’re the modern incarnation of all that was great about those legendary stripper musclecars of the 1960s. Granted, the focus has changed, but any Type R might stand beside those acid-dipped Hemi Super Stockers and radio-delete Camaros in our own history. But funny thing — you don’t see GM selling many radio-delete Camaros now. Dodge doesn’t even offer the 2015 Dodge Charger without air conditioning. And try buying a 2016 Ford Mustang with no floor mats. Not gonna happen. We’ve gotten to like our little amenities and comforts, and prefer our hardcore performance cars a bit less hardcore than Type Rs traditionally have been. Even the Civic Type R disappeared from Europe five years ago.

Sure, we have the Si, and even a new NSX...but it’s not really the same, is it?

The Type R magic is dead.

R.I.P. 1992 to 2009.

I do Believe in Type R, I do Believe in Type R...

Wait...what’s that? Is there something in the wind? Is it...an SR20 motor in an S2000 maybe? Could it be? No..


Yes, there it is! Behold, The Chosen One is upon us, bearing the titanium VTEC actuator of myth! The half-demon soul has come to set things right, and The Big Red "R" is made flesh once again!

That’s right...not only is the Civic Type R back for 2015, it’s coming to America next year! Details aren’t out in full yet on what our version will come with, but if the Euro Spec 2016 Honda Civic Type R that debuted at the New York Auto Show is anything to go by, the Civic reboRn will be hotter than ever, thanks for the first time to the wonders of turbocharging. Yes, some will certainly decry the fact that it’s turbocharged, since Honda has long been synonymous with naturally aspirated performance. But the times are what they are, and there’s no arguing with 306 horsepower. With a projected 60 mph time of 5.7 seconds, this new Type R will be the quickest to wear the badge since the NSX, and far and away the quickest Type R ever to hit our shores.

It’s going to be stupid-fast, too. With a top speed of 167 mph, the Civic will almost run with the speediest NSX Type R to date. Granted, the new NSX will almost certainly blow that out of the water — but the new Civic R’s power should allow it to almost keep up with an original NSX in any contest of speed.

Wait...where have we heard that one before?

Oh, that’s right. Ferrari.

But who cares? The "R" is back, and coming to these shores bigger and redder than ever. It might cost slightly more than $4.89 for the real thing — but at least you’ll know that this bit of sorcery is no mere smoke and mirrors.

Richard Rowe
Richard Rowe
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