One of the biggest mysteries of the universe will always be why Honda never capitalized on the whole “tuner” phenomenon of the 90s. Back in the era of front-wheel drag racing and underglow, car enthusiasts in the 18-34 age range thought Hondas and Acuras were the coolest ticket on the street. It was a marketing department’s dream, a demographic most companies would kill for, and yet, Honda completely ignored them.
The reason the 18-34 demo is so coveted is that consumers at that stage in life are typically making money, but have very little responsibility. They’re not paying for mortgages or college tuitions for three kids, and essentially all their disposable income is going to their hobbies. In the case of Honda owners, that meant modifying the crap out of their daily drivers.
Plus, with youth comes the veneer of cool. In the years before Google put every car review stat at your fingertips, these car enthusiasts would be the go-to advice givers for all their peers. And if you could hook them while they were young and impressionable, you might have a return customer for decades, maybe even life. Today, we’d call them influencers.
Honda, due to sheer strength of product, had accidentally created an army of evangelists. It didn’t make sense on paper. Somehow, especially on the trend-setting west coast, a 1.6-liter four-banger from Japan had become a more desirable ride than an all-American 5.0-liter V8 Mustang. But rather than deploy them across the land to preach the gospel of Soichiro, Honda acted like they never existed.
It wasn’t until 2003 or so that Honda threw the loyalists a bone. After the unexpected success of the original The Fast and the Furious, a series of “Civic Nation” ads tried to capture the cool by casting dozens of “tuned” (though the word was never said) cars that looked like extras from the film.
But it was too late. This was just around the time that Honda watered down their products with money-saving MacPherson strut suspensions and localized designs. The magic had evaporated and followers of the JDM scene began discovering other Japanese car subcultures and moving on to scenes like drifting and VIP.
The Civic Nation marketing campaign had its hits and misses, too. Good ads like the one featuring Steph Papadakis in his 7-second drag car proved there was something behind the garish paint jobs and body kits. However, while the earlier Civic Nation ads got some airplay, I can’t remember ever seeing this spot on TV.
Others, like these Canadian market ads missed the mark. Soorey, a car with bright orange paint, a wavy Home Depot mesh grille, and stock ride height is not speaking to enthusiasts.
In a somewhat amusing sidebar, the Civic Nation campaign was still going strong in Canada in 2016, when the tenth-gen debuted. There’s no longer any hint of tuners, and the ad is nearly indistinguishable from every other car commercial out there. People are having way too much fun in cars, and there’s a backup camera!
As part of Honda’s 50th anniversary this year, the company has created a series of videos looking back on the decades. They aren’t the greatest, but we had to laugh at the third installment when the narrator enthusiastically proclaims, “The Nineties! The era of tuners is finally here!” as if Honda had been in on it the whole time, patiently waiting for the day when it could tear off its corporate suit and embrace its inner Dom Toretto.
Still, better late than never. Back in the tuner era, we could only look on forlornly as the best Civic was kept beyond our reach. At least Honda is now giving enthusiasts the actual cars we want.