High performance machines are no stranger to Honda. The Japanese carmaker may have spent recent years perfecting mass-market consumer runabouts, but its legacy in high-revving precision-handling vehicles is well cemented in the hearts of car enthusiasts. With the new-age NSX and Civic Type R and the likes of S660, Honda seems to be getting back in touch with its passionate side. All these Honda performance cars now sport turbochargers, and while Hondas have traditionally been associated with incredible power-to-displacement ratios from naturally aspirated engines, forced induction is not new to the marque. As such, it seems appropriate now to revisit this forbear of modern Honda performance, the Honda City Turbo, one of the most iconic hot hatches of the 1980s.
Choice of a New Generation
The City Turbo — or any Honda City — was never sold in the US. For some Honda enthusiasts unfamiliar with this car, the “Hyper Turbo” appellation may seem a bit odd. For one, turbocharging was not a Honda tradition. In addition, its looks are not in line with contemporary Honda siblings. Those round headlights are actually a bit contrarian for the 80s. The City may be a Honda, but it was not a conventional one.
That was, in fact, a major part of the City’s identity during conception. The City was developed at Honda R&D in Wakō, Saitama starting in 1978. The ethos of the project was “the ultimate fuel economy car for the 1980s.” Importantly, the development team was young, with engineers averaging 27 years of age. The car they were making was one that they themselves wanted, something fun and unique that would attract young drivers.
Code named “SA-7,” what was to become the City was to defy existing categories and types. In addition to conserving energy resources, it had to possess desirability, a reasonable amount of performance, and technical innovations that showcase Honda’s creativity. It was thus pitted from the beginning to be a non-conformist Honda product. So much so that near the end of development, the team feared that their creation would be watered down or even rejected by Honda’s top brass.
The SA-7 team thus visited Toru Arisawa, Honda’s head of Sales Promotion, in 1980 to seek his support. Upon seeing the SA-7, Arisawa was blown away, believing that it both possessed that essential Honda magic and sales potential. To preserve the car’s unconventional nature from being meddled with on the way to production, he devised a clever campaign to present the car internally as well as promote it to the public.
This plan included an emotional appeal to Honda executives in the form of catch phrases for a younger generation of car buyers. From this came the famous terms “Tall Boy” design and “Pocketeria”. The result was a dynamic, funky, and anti-establishment image for the car. Arisawa also coined the name “City” for the SA-7 and hand-drew the City typeface after being shown the design prototype — C-I-T-Y in tall, skinny letters against lines that evoke silhouettes of skyscrapers as the Tall Boy design drives by them.
The internal campaign successfully helped bring the City to market, and the public promotional campaign that ensued was even more flamboyant. The outgoing and expressive image permeated print and television ads, clearly aiming at the youths and pitting the City as an integral part of daily life. Honda even went as far as commissioning the English ska band Madness to create an original song for the City along with the infamous “centipede” dance commercial.
Formed for Function
Tall Boy design referred to its upright stance to extract maximum usable space from a minimal footprint. Though it was not a kei car, it was the entry level four-wheeled Honda at the time, slotting below the second generation Civic and effectively taking the position of the smaller first-generation Civic. Befitting for Honda of the early 1980s, the design and technical sophistication belie its economy car status.
The Tall Boy look may be cute, but the details are what really speak to enthusiasts. The trapezoidal wheel wells are flanked by subtle over-fenders. The roofline ends with an integrated spoiler kick. A discreet red pinstripe wraps around the top of the bumpers, like Civic S and CRX Si models, bestowing a hint of sportiness. Even the door handle has an unconventional, slightly funky shape. Paired with period yellow fog lamps, the sportier trim City R was a particularly purposeful looking machine affordable to many youths.
Inside, the design theme can only be described as geometric. The dash lays flat and horizontal, with plenty of negative space common to classic Hondas. Every meter on the instrument pod is contained in a rectangular box except for the tach, but even that has a large, square digital speed readout embedded in the center. The door panels, too, are very graphical, resembling somewhat the futuristic facade of a background skyscraper in anime. Even the cup holders are square, perfectly sized for the rectangular PET beverage bottles common in Japan.
We counted eight storage compartments, four of them with lids. Of course, too many squares would be contrived, so the vents are obstinately round, a callback to the headlights and simple steel wheels.
On the technical side, the City was powered by the COMBAX-equipped SOHC ER engine. That was acronym for Compact Blazing-Combustion Axiom, which was generation II of Honda’s clever CVCC emissions control system. Suspension was independent all around, and the body claimed zero lift aerodynamics. Other innovative features included an optional moonroof, digital dashboard, a fuel-efficient E model that incorporated a trip computer, an industry-first fiber-reinforced aluminum alloy connecting rods on later models, and a tall-roof “Manhattan Sound” model that included a flip down Hi-Fi boombox and front seats embedded with subwoofers dubbed “Bodysonic.”
However, the most unforgettable and most creative option for the City was the Motocompo. Introduced along with the City in 1981, the Motocompo was a 50cc folding scooter designed to fit into the City’s trunk. Its handlebars and seat folded into the scooter’s plastic body — available in a palette of primary colors — and turning it into a rectangular box weighing under a hundred pounds. As far as gadgets go, the City+Motocompo spoke simultaneously to fears about the megalopolises sprouting up in Bubble Era Japan and the sheer child-like joy of having a bike within a car.
For car enthusiasts, however, the City’s best piece of innovation was the turbo. This is partly because on the Turbo model debuted PGM-FI, the first automotive application of Honda’s digital electronic fuel injection system. With an IHI turbocharger, the engine produced 100 PS, a nearly 50 percent power increase. With a power bulge on the hood, standard fog lamps, red seat inserts, and the word “Turbo” emblazoned on no less than eleven places around the car, the City Turbo was the hot hatch of 1980s Japan.
City in City
The car you see here is part of the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, a collection chock full of intersting cars that are not your standard horse and bull exotics. The museum was actually searching for a City and Motocompo when the owner of this particular one contacted them and said he had one for sale.
Apparently, it was purchased new in 1986 by a US serviceman in Japan and brought back when he returned home. In the mid- to late-2000s, after he passed away his son, rather than let it go to waste, went about finding a good home for it. At the time we drove it, it had only 35,539 km (22,083 miles) on the clock.
The first thing we noticed when sliding into the City is just how TARDIS-like the cabin is. It really does feel larger than the external dimensions would imply. The seats, replete with the word “TURBO” of course, have superb lumbar supports. With the wheels pushed out to the extremes of each corner, the body remained remarkably flat and planted thorough quick urban turns and lane changes.
At low rpm, power isn’t exactly prodigious, but the airiness and lightness of the car easily made up for it. Magazines of the day tested its 0-100 km time at 8.9 seconds. Once you crossed the 3,000 rpm mark, the turbo would kick in, scooting the car forward like a startled sea creature and sending a jolt of torque steer up the steering column.
However, since it was an 80s Honda the chassis was unflappable. Steering feel communicated through the flat, three-spoke wheel stayed linear and direct. Each shift of the 5-speed transmission ended with a slide into the proper gate as effortless as it was precise. And the visibility between its thin pillars was second to none. You always knew exactly where each corner of the car was.
The result was a car you could really hustle through traffic even though it wasn’t face-peelingly fast. It quickly became obvious why the City was such a huge hit in rapidly urbanizing 1980s Japan.
Perhaps even cooler, the City Turbo’s provenance was essentially an early product of the famous Honda tuning house and race car constructor Mugen. Befitting the City’s youthful origin, the Turbo was created by Hirotoshi Honda, son of Soichiro Honda and Mugen’s co-founder. The result impressed Honda so much that the Turbo was developed into the production model for 1982.
A year after the Turbo’s debut, Honda introduced the Turbo II featuring an intercooler good for an additional 10 PS. Part of the mid-model update, the Turbo II “Bulldog” also sported a wider track, more pronounced blistered fenders, and a ten-second “Scramble Boost” function that increased turbo pressure by 10 percent for ten seconds. All the while, the City’s spry promotional campaign continued, now featuring a stop-motion robo-bulldog for the Turbo II.
Given the City Turbo’s Mugen connection, it is not surprising that the car saw ample track action. Mugen built City Turbo R and subsequently Turbo II R models for the one-make “City Turbo Race” and “City Bulldog Race” that they helped organize. The Turbo R put out 126 PS, while the Turbo II R put out over 138 PS. With the cars weighing less than 1,500 pounds, the City Turbo racers were spritely, though the Tall Boy center of gravity tended to induce roll overs. There’s a bulldog joke in there somewhere.
Suffice it to say, the first generation City was a runaway success. It sold well, spawned a rich spectrum of variants (we didn’t even touch on the convertible and commercial versions), and left indelible marks on the public helped in part by a colorful and earwormy promotional campaign. It was an early example of designing and selling a car as a lifestyle product, a desirable and indispensable part of your daily existence. The City left imprints across many aspects of pop culture, from a Nintendo game to a Transformer to a classic Tamiya radio control model that has since been re-released and inspired a Hot Wheels or two.
As a member of the Honda family, the City was no doubt a colorful character, creative and unconventional. The Turbo was also the first of the modern Honda performance specials, being the highly tuned version of a surreptitiously engaging to drive production model. As such, it should be considered the progenitor of the Si, SiR, and Type R models to follow. With its charisma and cultural impact, the City Turbo also should also be placed in the same echelon of iconic high performance compacts such as the original Mini Cooper, Fiat Abarth, and VW Golf GTI.
With the Civic Type R’s return, we may be entering a new era of Honda performance. Many bemoan the new CTR as unfaithful to the true Type R spirit due to its turbo engine, relatively low redline, and lack of simplicity and lightness. Perhaps a better way to appreciate it is to look further back at Honda’s heritage to the City Turbo. An unconventional and expressive oddball of a Honda that is now very much a bona fide Honda classic.
Some images courtesy of Honda.