The Honda Civic was a giant slayer if there ever was one. Rarely in history has one model done so many things so well. One of those things was racing, a facet of the Civic rarely covered in Western media. Earlier this year in the lobby of its Tokyo headquarters building, Honda held a special exhibit on the motorsports genealogy of the Civic, spanning several generations and decades. Time for a history lesson.
The origins of Civic racing began with a group of engineers at the Honda Institute, an engineering lab established separate from Honda’s corporate headquarters to provide a free-thinking environment for its researchers. In 1978, some of them formed a club to go racing, calling themselves Team Yamato.
None of this was officially approved by Honda, so all work was done during off hours and with a minuscule budget. However, the skunk works was able to throw together a car, the Team Yamato SB1, which would become the world’s first racing Civic.
The team began with a 1.3-liter engine, tuned to spew 150 PS at 7,800 rpm, which was quite a bump over its 69 PS at 5,500 rpm in stock form. Engineers stripped weight down to about 1,320 pounds, down from the stock model’s 1,500.
The Yamato Civic was entered into the Minor Touring class of the Fuji Grand Champion series. The stars of the class were B310 Nissan Sunnys and KP47 Toyota Starlets, both rear-wheel-drive models. The Civic, of course, was front-wheel-drive and thus seemingly at a disadvantage on Fuji Speedway’s high-speed turns. The Civic was also less aerodynamic than its rivals, yet another drawback on Fuji’s high-speed straight.
Despite the downsides, the Team Yamato Civic won the championship twice, first with Kazuo Oda behind the wheel in 1981 and then with Katsuaki Sato driving in 1983. Though the first-generation Civic ended production in 1979, Team Yamato continued to race the SB1 Civic until 1984. The car on display was the final form of the car, which ran in the 1984 season, its racing number 1 proof of its previous year’s championship.
By 1985, motorsports in Japan had become a very different animal. Touring car racing was now governed by international Group A rules and Honda had established an official program to develop a serious contender in the EA-T Wonder Civic.
Group A rules stated that the body of the car had to resemble production models, so Honda started with the newly released Civic Si as a base. Stock, they were powered by a twin-cam ZC engine good for 110 PS, but thanks to Honda’s in-house tuning company Mugen, in race guise it generated 180 to 225 PS, depending on which source you believe.
Honda entered Group A mid-season in 1985. Among the team drivers was one Satoru Nakajima, who would go on to race in Formula One, but the team had begun too late to accumulate enough points for the championship. In 1986, Toyota threw its front-wheel-drive Corolla FX into the ring, which became a rival to the Civic.
It wasn’t until 1987, the last year Honda would run the EA, that the Mugen Motul Civic won every single race in its class. Drivers Osamu Nakako and Hideki Okada took first in every Division 3 contest that year, giving the EA an unforgettable send-off and earning the No. 16 race car a permanent place in the Honda Collection Hall.
It should be noted, that at one Group A race the Civic nabbed pole position, surpassing even Skylines and BMW 6-series that had more than double the displacement.
In 1988, Honda’s touring car program switched to the then-new EF Civic. The so-called Grand Civic became the first of the Civic touring cars equipped with Honda’s Formula One-derived VTEC system. That helped the stock SiR’s B16A generate an impressive 158 horsepower, but Mugen, with help of the Honda Institute, pushed that to 205.
Throughout its career, the EF9 battled through an intense rivalry with Toyota and the front-drive AE92 and AE101 Corolla Levin. Though it never swept an entire season like its predecessor, the Mugen Idemitsu Motion Civic manage to take home the manufacturer’s championship for Honda in 1990.
Introduced mid-season in 1992, a new Civic touring car entered the arena and became one of the most famous racing Civic generations of all time. Based on the new EG6 SiR hatchback with the same B16A motor now pumping out over 230 horsepower, it finally put an end to the feud with Toyota.
By 1993, the class was dominated by the EG Civic. Instead of a rivalry with another manufacturer, a rivalry developed between Mooncraft and Mugen, two constructors that were developing the EG chassis. Ultimately, it was the Mooncraft JAACS driven by Naoki Hattori and Katsushi Kanishi in its unforgettable mutlicolor livery that took home the championship.
That would be the last year of the Japan Touringcar Championships (JTC), and a fitting way to send off the long lineage of Civic hatchback racers. The following year, Japan would adopt the new Japan Touring Car Championships (JTCC) rules which mandated a 4-door sedan body type.
That brings us to the Mugen Castrol Civic Ferio, based of the Japanese market EG9 sedan. JTCC classification rules put the Civic Ferio, with its same 1.6-liter B16A, up against larger-displacement Toyota and Nissan sedans with 2.0-liter engines.
As a result, success eluded the Mugen Castrol Civic Ferio, probably the least recognizable of the racing Civics. However, the lessons Honda learned did pave way for the more successful CD6 Accord touring cars.
Though the display ended here, this is by no means a comprehensive history of the Civic in motorsports. The second-generation Super Civic was missing altogether, and that was a model that had its own one-make race. Also absent were later generations, like the Gathers EK9 that competed in the Super N1 Endurance series.
Still, was wonderful to see Honda’s headquarters lobby briefly transformed into a museum of racing history for one of its most popular and beloved models. The Civic really has done it all, and yet to most it’s just an unassuming commuter that gets great mileage. The next time you see one, though, remember there’s a lot more than meets the eye.