In praise of VTEC

integra_r_21_3_4925bd9e26d82-lightboxThat is until I experienced it first hand in a ten year old 1.5 Honda Civic. The said car was owned by a friend of mine called Jon, and he regularly drove from Coventry back to his home in the Orkney isles, a journey of some 600 miles.

The single overhead cam engine that was fitted to his car, hid under its valve cover a Jekyll and Hyde personality. The car was very quiet and sensible around town, but when there was a chance to accelerate; our Scottish friend would floor the throttle. As the needle sprinted towards its 7,500rpm redline there was a change in tone from the engine and a noticeable strain on the seatback, Mr. Hyde had been released. I was impressed.

VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) is the name given to Honda’s patented system where at high revs the ECU engages a second cam lobe which gives a higher lift, thus allowing the engine to gulp in more petrol and air in each breath, which gives a useful boost in performance. More mechanical trickery than electrical, but one that enables the Honda S2000 to reign supreme as the highest specific output for a normally aspirated engine at 120bhp per litre.

In early 2005, a while after the VTEC experience, I was getting ready for a car swap, and good though it was, my tidy, tinkered with Ford Focus 1600 had to go. I was after something with more oomph that retained the telegraphed handling that I had enjoyed after many miles at the Focus’ wheel. Obviously a good drive was paramount but the load swallowing abilities had to come into the new car equation too. The loads came in the shape of 4 adults, a mountain bike, and musical instruments – 50kg Laney guitar amp, guitar cases and my youngest brother’s drum kit. I considered a few cars, an ST170, Fiat Coupe, Subaru, even a pretty 70’s Alfa 105 series coupe (I’d find room for the stuff, and get busy learning my spanners. Honest!), but found myself thinking back to Jon’s Honda. As an avid reader of EVO magazine, I had seen articles and a buying guide for the Honda Integra Type R and always liked the idea of a paired down road racer. It was a 5 star car too! With an 1800cc dohc VTEC engine at the heart of the car, 189bhp, and many performance derived parts as standard, it was worthy of the type R ‘red badge’ and worth checking out. I began my research, and found a lively owner’s forum in the states and then later a dedicated ITR UK forum. This gave me everything I needed to know, and a 98 spec UK car was within my budget and criteria.

The Integra is sold in Japan and the States in the same market as an Astra or Focus. The Type R was the range topper and the only model to make it to British shores. With around 1,500 UK spec ITRs and a few hundred Jap imports, known as JDMs (Japanese Domestic Market) in the UK, finding a good one was going to be more difficult than buying another Focus. I wanted an unmolested example and after a few false starts found a good one on the Autotrader website. The only slight problem was that it was up in Warrington. Having sold the Focus to the first chap, on the first day of advertising, for cash, I was driving my brother’s poorly Astra whilst he was away at University. With the Vauxhall not being capable of the trip from Derby up North, I relied on my Dad, Jim, to take me up to Warrington in the ‘mile muncher’ XJR to take a look.

After meeting the car’s owner, who worked for the local law enforcement, I took a look around the low slung, championship white Honda. I checked that all the features were there: Front strut brace, Rear strut brace, boot mounted stiffening bar, red Recaros, Championship White lightweight Enkei 15″ alloys, 195/55 Bridgestone Potenzas, Titanium gearknob, tacho that goes all the way to 10, yes all present and correct. Plus an added bonus of mudflaps, alarm and ITR mats! Let’s get it out on the road!

After falling into the comfy and very supportive red Recaro buckets, we set about warming the oil around the suburbs for a performance test. The controls were nicely weighted and progressive, especially the steering. We turned onto a dual carriageway and gave the Teg some stick. It pulled keenly in third from low revs considering the engines lack of torque. I glanced from the fast approaching road to the tacho and that 8,500 redline. The engine started to hit its stride through 4,000rpm and then at 5,800 there was a kick in the back and the needle started sprinting towards the red zone – VTEC had arrived. At the same time the engine note changed from a 4 pot thrum to a wailing mixture of superbike and F1 car. I sometimes liken the sonorous VTEC crossover to humming a note and then opening your mouth. The moment of change into VTEC is always an occasion.

We went back up to Warrington a few days later to pick the Integra up for the agreed sum of £7,000. A good price for a 1999 S plate with 42K on the clock. I’d sorted my insurance out with Greenlight for around £800. I thought this good value for a 24 year old with a couple of years no claims; the Integra is a group 20 car after all.

The trip back down to Derby late evening was something to remember; Down the M6 and then the terrific A50 from Stoke to Derby. With all the trick kit keeping the car’s structure stiff, it was built for the twisties. Dispatching the roundabouts on the A50 was a joy. I took it easy, but could feel the LSD helping the front wheels find grip when the power was added into the mix. With neutral handling, and then a slight scrabble from the modest tyres, we pulled away from the low winter sun and the chasing XJR.






Alastair Campbell