Honda City Turbo II 1983

Over the years, VTEC has become a true religion for fans of the Honda brand. But was there hot hatch life before Civic, and were there technologies before variable valve timing?

The answer to this question needs to be sought far back in history, which is what we’ll do today with this tiny Honda, arguably the first truly fast microcar in Japan. Here is the Honda City Turbo 2 – a small but very formidable precursor of the ultra-compact yet extremely fast cars class.

It all started in 1981 when Honda launched the base model Honda City – a compact 3-door little car, whose name implied its readiness for urban use. Its appearance and development, which began in 1978, had several reasons. First, traffic jams started appearing in Japan’s million-plus cities – no, it’s not a Moscow or New York invention, as many might think. Second, environmental concerns were already troubling the Japanese government and, consequently, Japanese car manufacturers. Third, the example of the Mini in another part of the world showed car enthusiasts that happiness is not about size, but about skill – the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965, and 1967 is a testament to that.

The resulting supermarket cart-like vehicle had an engine from a tiller – a CCVC 1.2-liter with 61 hp, thin and small R12 wheels, and a relatively high center of gravity with not the widest track – all strictly according to Honda bosses’ technical specifications. Along with the City, Honda offered a small folding moped called Motocompo, which fit perfectly in the trunk – you get stuck in a traffic jam, pull out the moped, and off you go. Few Japanese appreciated this innovation, although sales were still there.

And everything might have stayed that way, had it not been for Soichiro Honda’s son named Hirotoshi, who was “infected” with motorsport and assembled engines for various racing cars. His company, Mugen Power, was then known only to motorsportsmen and had no business ties with his father’s company, but had already gained respect in racing.

One day, the son suggested to his father to try building something really interesting out of the City. The first thought that came to the engineering mind was to replace the modest 1.2 engine with the “combat” Civic Mugen FJ1300, and even place it in the center, to immediately solve all the weight distribution issues. But the chassis had already been developed, and no one allowed attaching a racing engine to a civilian car – and in the center, Carl – so Hirotoshi had to work magic over the existing civilian engine. VTEC was not yet invented, and there was a desire to go fast, so what to do? The logical answer for us now and absolutely uncharacteristic for Honda – just attach a turbo!

But Mugen wouldn’t be a sports atelier if everything was that simple. The first thing that needed to be done was to choose a turbocharger. Considering the modest engine displacement, the “snail” also had to be of small size. There was no ready-made solution on the market, and the company IHI, a manufacturer of turbochargers, and Honda developed the model RHB51 – a tiny turbine, ready to spin up to 150,000 rpm on the original 1.2-liter block.

But not everything was so simple, and the discussion will specifically be about the Turbo II model. Then it was time to use technologies from the world of Formula 1. The queen of motorsport at that time, as now, was a kind of testing ground for engineers, where factory teams tested solutions, partially transferred later to production cars. One of such solutions was the PGM-FI – Programmed Fuel Injection engine management system. Its operating principle is comparable to modern ECUs: the system constantly collects data from sensors, processes them with an 8-bit computer, and applies one of the 5 fuel maps depending on the fuel quality and external conditions. Then, the system controls the opening of each of the 4 independent fuel injectors separately and adjusts (yes, electronically) the pressure generated by the turbine. The system is based on MAP and exhaust gas temperature sensors. Talking about the turbine pressure, at its peak it is about 0.8 bar and has 2 modes: aggressive, when the driver accelerates quickly and constantly spins the engine above 4000 rpm, and measured, when the tachometer needle does not cross those 4k. Unfortunately, much was controlled semi-mechanically, and the system of vacuum tubes, resembling an explosion at a spaghetti factory, can start causing a lot of problems for the unprepared pilot over the years.

But that wasn’t enough. Artificial air induction into the engine required modifications – that’s understandable, but manufacturing the cylinder head from a titanium-aluminum alloy (60% titanium), and the valve cover from magnesium – you have to really confuse an F1 car and a city car! However, this was done, as well as changing the shape of the combustion chamber and the R/S – the ratio of the piston stroke to its diameter, which later allowed tuners to “blow” significantly more into the engine almost painlessly without risking detonation. A separate innovation in Turbo II was the use of an intercooler in the intake tract. It was located on top (Subaru used this solution too), which allowed adding a fashionable “hump” on the hood and lowering the intake air temperature by 45 degrees! The intake and exhaust tracts were also modernized. Only 10% of the parts were interchangeable with the base engine. All these measures combined allowed reaching 110 hp! It may not seem like a great result, but it was 1983. In the USSR, the first 2108s with a carburetor were just waking up.

A car with a good power-to-weight ratio – the so-called specific power – is only good on a straight line without modifying other components, and this, as we know, is not the Japanese approach, otherwise, there would be a five-liter V8 with 200 hp. Therefore, engineers from the suspension and brakes department had to be involved. As a suspension, it was decided to use McPherson “around”, which was additionally reinforced with reactive rods – standard arms were simply bent from loads. At the front, 13″ ventilated (space technology) brake discs were installed, which allowed avoiding overheating and loss of efficiency. A larger diameter vacuum brake booster was also attached. The use of larger brake discs forced the transition to 13-inch wheel discs – the basic size became R13 185/60.

The Japanese couldn’t leave the wheelbase unchanged, so the front track was widened by 30mm – to 1400mm, and the rear by 20mm – to 1390. Here is an important point – moving away from the same track in favor of a wider front. This solution was dictated by the need to give the front-wheel-drive car a bit of oversteer – excessive maneuverability.

Turbo II received a genuine aerodynamic body kit, covering arch liners, bumpers, a spoiler, and a radiator grille… Yes, the grille is asymmetrical not because “the artist sees it that way”, it’s really dictated by cooling and air resistance issues. True, the drag coefficient still became a bit higher – 0.4. But how the car transformed! In the advertising campaign, the new car got the name “Bulldog” – the TV commercial delivers an incredible amount of emotions. No matter how the Japanese tried to depict a monster resembling a bulldog-robocop, it still turned out to be Godzilla. But the new name suited the car just right: compact, small. Potentially aggressive, but it all depends on the owner. An excellent analogy!

Looking into the cabin, the eye catches a 3-spoke steering wheel, a genuine Momo – similar steering wheels are still popular to this day, and I myself own one of the derivatives of this model. The gear shift lever is quite close to the steering wheel in the best sports traditions.

The interior itself remained just as ascetic and simple. The true nature of the car in it is betrayed by the boost gauge and the excellent electronic dashboard – again, where were the technologies! But later it was replaced with a simple, analog one from the base version. The tachometer goes in a semicircle around the speedometer, all necessary gauges are present – for participation in competitions, you could even not invent anything special! And do you know what these square indentations in the door are? These, friends, are cup holders, since in the 80s in Japan, soda was popular in square bottles.

Thus ended the story of the Turbo II, one of the most ultimate cars of the eighties and of Honda in general. Such a leap in technology is simply unattainable now – Moore’s law is failing and there are no engineering breakthroughs on the horizon. But this makes this engineering specimen all the more valuable, one that will forever remain in the annals of automotive history.