For over a decade, the West Coast of the United States has been a breeding ground for modified Hondas, with a huge, multi-faceted community pulling apart econoboxes and transforming them into whatever they pleased. It's a true melting pot of styles, with Hondas prevalent in everything from street to shows, circuit and drag racing. Over the years the Honda scene has constantly evolved as each wave of trends hit, and as a new generation came to embrace them.
In terms of the sport compact community, I think few would argue that Hondas played an integral part in the scene's development. Being our Honda month, we decided to sit down with a group of folk who've been involved in one way or another to get their take on what Honda means to them, what the future holds, and how the term 'JDM' became part of the tuner vocabulary.
The group of people we invited to take part in the discussion is certainly eclectic, and I think each of them brings a unique perspective to the table. A few of these guys are from ‘my era’ so to speak, who have seen how the Honda culture evolved over the years. One of the first people we lined up was Jonathan Wong, the Editor of Super Street Magazine.
Diehard Honda enthusiasts will be quite familiar with our next participant, although most will only know him by his online username Katman. Jason Katman is one of the long-standing members of FF-Squad, a crew of Honda owners that was formed over a decade ago and is still going strong. Jason’s well known for tinkering with Honda ECUs, and also works over at JHPUSA (formerly JDMHONDAPARTS.COM).
Depending on how old you are, the name Brandon Leung may or may not ring a bell. Brandon was the Editor of the original JTuned website which, in my opinion at least, revolutionised automotive sites and car photography. I’ve known Brandon from when I used to be at ASM, and he's now spearheading BOWLS LA, a boutique that also caters for the Honda Ruckus.
When the Speedhunters team decided to do a Honda discussion, we knew that Stephan Papadakis would be a perfect fit. As you would've read in our interview with him, Stephan plied his trade on the drag strip, smashing – and re-smashing – multiple records in his Honda Civics.
And lastly, we have Joey Lee [far right], who you may know as StickyDilJoe. Joey is a freelance writer and photographer for Honda Tuning Magazine, and is also the man responsible for The Chronicles, a popular Honda-focused blog.
Speedhunters: What do you think is the attraction of Hondas to enthusiasts? What makes them special in your eyes?
Joey Lee: Hondas are attractive to enthusiasts because they’ve always been the ‘entry-level’ import automobile. They are everywhere and easily accessible and we as enthusiasts were exposed to them very early on when many of us first got into modifying cars. When the whole import community blew-up, Hondas were the ‘it’ car to modify. Hondas have always been special in my eyes because they were an essential part of the community’s growth at the onset of the import automotive movement.
Stephan Papadakis: Honda just had the combination of reliability, easy to work on, and had aftermarket support on both sides of the Pacific. Another great feature was the relatively easy crossover from car to car. Parts were interchangeable between U.S. and Japanese versions and sometimes from model to model.
Brandon Leung: I believe the Honda market grew with enthusiasts due to the fact that these vehicles were being passed down from older siblings or parents who originally bought these vehicles for reliability, gas mileage, and low insurance costs. Little did they know about the large aftermarket support and the ability to make horsepower gains quickly and easily! Basically anything you do to these cars gave instant gratification, whether it be slapping on an intake/exhaust or installing some lowering springs or coilovers, these cars just loved the mods and owners could immediately feel the performance gains with just a few bolt-on bits. Most were hooked from there.
Jason Katman: Number one, they were visually appealing. Number two, there were lots of engine and parts swapping compatibilities between familiar Honda/Acura chassis'. Thirdly, there’s a plethora of performance parts on the market for most models. What makes them special is they're all little grocery getters that can be turned into fun little show cars or underdog race cars.
Jonathan Wong: Hondas have always been the best entry-level car for enthusiasts because of the low price and high modification potential, not just because there are so many parts out there but because you can also build a Honda for relatively cheap compared to a lot of cars out there. For me personally, Hondas and Acuras were just that cool car to have back in high school, especially if you could get an EF or a DA. Nissans such as the S13 and S14 were considered a step down back then. Might’ve been a SoCal/LA thing.
Speedhunters: In your opinion, what was the best model that Honda ever produced, and why?
Stephan Papadakis: The EG Civic would be my pick. It was a very simple car that allowed the installation of many different engine and transmission combinations. Also companies made almost every part in the aftermarket.
Brandon Leung: The Civic because of its long heritage and it is probably the most iconic model in their entire line-up which appealed not only to enthusiasts but to the masses. It is also one of Honda's least expensive, smallest, and lightest passenger vehicles which made it more accessible to younger enthusiasts and made for a good starting platform for tuners.
Jason Katman: Oh CCU….the EG civic hatchback chassis of course! It's just damn sexy! The contour round body styling, the ergonomic interior, dash, gauge cluster, all of it just flows real buttery on top of being easy on the eyes when done properly.
Joey Lee: The best model Honda, hands down, has to be the Integra Type R. It showed us that a car like an Integra had potential and before the Type R was ever available in the U.S., it was a dream car, a fantasy—guys were trying to bring in parts from Japan just so their Integras could remotely resemble an ITR.
The ITR as well as the Civic Type R have reached legendary status among Honda guys. You can say that the NSX would be the obvious choice because it was Honda’s first super car, but it didn’t have that attainability factor that Honda guys were looking for. If you had a Civic or Integra, you could build towards an ITR or CTR. You could never build towards an NSX. S2000s also changed the Honda scene in a great way but those cars weren’t really financially feasible to fully build until the last couple years. There is still a lot of growth within the S2000 crowd.
Jonathan Wong: Most people would probably say the NSX, ITR or CTR but I hold strong to my belief that the EF9 is the best Honda model ever produced. I’ve owned two of them in my lifetime; they just look so nice slammed!
Speedhunters: What's the biggest drawback of Hondas?
Joey Lee: Personally, I think the biggest drawback of Hondas today is the unwanted attention that it brings, especially out here in the west coast. It’s hard to drive a Honda nowadays without having to look over your shoulder to see if you are going to get pulled over by local law enforcement or if you were going to get your car stolen the moment you left it alone for more than five minutes. You almost have to strategically plan your day out when you even think of driving a modified Honda on the streets. If you do manage to take it out for a cruise, your day is ruined because you constantly have to worry about your car and if something is going to happen to it. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Getting rolled by the cops or get your car stolen, you pick.
Brandon Leung: There really aren't many besides being front wheel drive [laughs]. I’m kidding! I agree, the biggest drawback of owning a Honda in the Los Angeles county is the theft rate. Everyone I know that has owned a Honda has either had one stolen or broken into at least once. Their popularity among the tuner crowd is like a double edged sword.
Jason Katman: For me the biggest downside is the ‘ricer’ stigma for sure. Also the plethora of thieves running rampant in this scene. I hate the 'only immature kids drive Hondas' stigma where you man-up by moving onto a non-Honda vehicle. This last stigma is a real b*tch, because when you get pulled over by the fuzz, they really do think you’re some kid in a toy ass car who's racing [ahem] ‘ricing’ around town with an illegal parts filled car. Getting thrown under the bus for this is common place.
Jonathan Wong: This probably goes against all that a Honda stands for in most cases, but its FWD configuration. That and they were always prone to being pulled over, which was a ***. You can never find a clean chassis to build these days either unless you’re willing to overpay for it.
Stephan Papadakis: It would have been nice to see proper support from Honda corporate. For a few years they did notice the aftermarket and came out with the 2001 Civic SI and Integra Type R and had the ‘Civic Nation’ ad campaign, but that was all short lived. If you look at their line-up of cars now… well it is not as exciting or good for the aftermarket.
Speedhunters: What are some of the common mistakes you see Honda enthusiasts doing?
Brandon Leung: Just because you can doesn't mean you should. With the low cost to own and maintain, many import enthusiasts often start off with a Honda as their first tuning platform. Because of this, many often make the mistakes of lowering the vehicle too low or just experimenting with their vehicles in weird ways due to lack of funds and experience.
Joey Lee: The biggest mistake I feel that Honda enthusiasts are making nowadays is that many are just trying way too hard to stand out. It’s become a ‘Me-me-me’ scene where everybody wants to get noticed and people are taking shortcuts to get ‘love’ from other enthusiasts. Things have become very cookie-cutter because of it and it’s sad. It’s made the Honda scene very saturated. Style and individuality in many instances, has become a lost art.
Stephan Papadakis: There are many high quality aftermarket parts for Hondas out there, but the biggest problem I see is some companies will have a low quality part that will possibly fail. Sometimes sold to make more power but will actually lose power. My advice is to do your homework before making the investment.
Jason Katman: The lack of long-term love for being a Honda 'enthusiast'. Too much fashion, not enough function. Extreme negative camber. Too much ‘one-upping’. Unfinished build threads. Multi-colored engine bays. One build-wonder magazine sellouts. Cheap purchases that are made to regret later on. Hey, but each his own, right?
Jonathan Wong: Too many Honda enthusiasts aren’t willing to break out and try something original, although it’s tough to do that at the same time. A lot of nutriders out there and too many people who build the cars not for the sake of enjoying the car after, but going and trying to sell it for profit or for a magazine cover. Are you a true enthusiast? Why not enjoy the car? Also, I see a lot of people not doing their homework, in terms of research; there is so much information out there that it’s hard to not find out what you need, especially if you’re at the basic/beginning stage of a Honda build.
Speedhunters: There's a certain type of stigma associated with Hondas. Why do you think that is?
Stephan Papadakis: That is such an open question. Depends on the generation you are asking. Older folks 40+ seem to think of Hondas as rice rockets that punk kids drive. But the younger people know how big the scene is and you have all types of owners.
Brandon Leung: I don't know about now but when we were growing up we would get laughed at by all the domestic guys when we rolled up to the street races. It took a while before FWD vehicle owners started taking money from these guys and shutting them all up. I guess they looked at Hondas as toys or econoboxes, which they kind of were, but with the right amount of modifications they turned into monsters that could keep up in the quarter with a lot of street driven V8s and still get 20+ mpg.
Joey Lee: I think the stigma exists because the community has become so incredibly saturated. I also feel like a lot of the negative connotations come from people who have never been a part of the Honda community and are on the outside looking in. It’s very easy to derive ill feelings towards something that isn’t understood than it is to actually devote the time and effort into understanding.
Jason Katman: Older Hondas are cheap nowadays and easy to fix up, making it easy for anyone to get into Hondas.
Jonathan Wong: I think just because it’s easy to use a Honda as the butt of a joke. Everyone always says ‘Hondas suck’, they’re ‘too slow’; whatever kind of negative connotation you can think of. I just think they should respect the brand a little bit more for helping to create a hobby they’ve fallen in love with. This is probably a question that could have a much meatier debate!
Speedhunters: In your opinion, has the Honda scene hit its peak?
Joey Lee: Definitely not. If anything, I would say that this is the 'golden age' of the Honda scene. While many have gone the way of the bike rack/sticker phenomenon, there are still many who continue to evolve the Honda community in a very positive way. These individuals have looked past the whole JDM-themed builds and have gone the way of full custom fabrication. Japanese-spec parts are still highly sought after but they have just become a standard.
Brandon Leung: It's really hard to say because my era saw the birth of the CRX and Integra. Both are no longer available Stateside even though Honda is trying to resurrect some of these models, albeit with lackluster fanfare. I don't know if Honda will ever regain the market share it once held when import drag racing and the show scenes were at their peak.
Stephan Papadakis: I think the peak has passed since other vehicle manufactures have caught on and are building cars that enthusiasts want. That being said I believe that there is a new Honda scene rising right now. It includes older Hondas from the 80s and 90s that are my generation’s new ‘hot rods’. Most of my friends including myself own an older Honda that we use once in a while.
Joey Lee: The introduction of the K-series engine has reinvigorated the Honda community. K-series swaps into older model Hondas have opened a new door of possibilities for Honda guys. Full customization of engine bays and parts is now held in high regard. Honda enthusiasts in the U.S. have created their own style and look and even have a dedicated following from others outside of the country. I’ve actually met a number of Japanese who come out every year from overseas to major events that we are involved in just to see what is new with Hondas here and what new trends have developed—it’s wild. Americans got into Hondas by mimicking and idolizing the Japanese and now the Japanese look to Americans for inspiration. Things have really come full circle. It’ll be difficult for the Honda scene to ever peak thanks to full customization. As long as there is a creative mind out there willing to push their builds beyond the limits that have been set by the previous generation of enthusiasts, the scene will continue to evolve.
Jason Katman: Yes and no. It definitely fluctuates. Being that I work at JHPUSA, our monthly sales can help gauge where the markets currently at. Personally, I think the scene hit the 'JDM' peak from '99-03, then sorta leveled out and continues to fluctuate.
Jonathan Wong: In all honesty, I think it came back. There was a point in 2006-08 when it was just over the top ridiculousness, but then some fresh blood came in with the custom offset wheels, wire tucking and revived it a bit. It’s exciting to see how far the Honda community has come since the early ’90s.
Speedhunters: In your opinion, what was the most iconic modified Honda? The car that really caught the imagination of enthusiasts?
Joey Lee: That’s really hard to say. I can’t honestly pinpoint one Honda from over a decade that would be considered the most iconic. There are a couple cars that stand out though. In the drag racing world, it had to be Stephan’s AEM drag Civic hatchback and Coupe. As for street Hondas it would probably be guys like Jay Smith, FF Squad, and AM7 when they were in their prime. Rodrez, who is the Head Editor now at Honda Tuning magazine, had a Civic hatchback that was a great example of what looked great and was a car I always looked up to. In terms of pure show cars, LJ Garcia’s FEEL’S wide-body Civic had to have been at the forefront of the industry in the early 2000s. The car came out of nowhere and shocked everyone. Today, the most recognizable Hondas are probably Big Mike’s Honda Prelude and the guys from ATS Garage, who continue to push out amazing Honda builds every year.
Stephan Papadakis: I think it would be the old 1986 Mugen CRX road race car from Japan with the red and gold decals. In my mind it’s the most iconic.
Brandon Leung: For street cars, Junior Asprer's EF Honda Civic really set the bar for me back in the day. He was rocking OG Mugen parts before most people even knew of the company here in the States and long before the term ‘JDM’ was even coined. I remember seeing this car at the local street races and Japanese festivals and it blew my f*cking mind. For race cars, I would also say Stephan’s EK drag car that he built with Shaun Carlson and NuFormz Racing. It was so revolutionary at the time with its tube frame chassis and being the first FWD Honda to break into the 9sec realm when everyone said it couldn't be done.
Jason Katman: Hands down, I'd have to say any of the Spoon Sports race cars from the '92-00 era. The EGs, EKs and DC2Rs. Everyone went after that look in the late 90s and early 2000s, and still do to this day.
Speedhunters: So where to from here? Over the years we've seen the Honda movement evolve and spread through various guises; the import show scene, drag racing, circuit racing. What's in store for Hondas in the future?
Jason Katman: More racing I hope! Personally, it feels like more Honda-heads are leaning towards circuit racing more than ever, at least here on the West Coast thanks to Super Lap, Redline Time Attack, Speedventures and new tracks opening up like Chuckwalla Valley Raceway.
Jonathan Wong: That all depends on what Honda decides to do as a manufacturer and the type of cars they’ll be offering consumers in the future. The 2012 Civic Si looks very promising but it’d be nicer if they offered a JDM CTR. Here’s to hoping they have a Euro CTR!
Joey Lee: The Honda movement is not going anywhere. What’s so great about Hondas is that they are multi-faceted and are still very prevalent in all guises. When drifting hit the U.S., Honda enthusiasts stepped out of the spotlight for a bit but the community is as strong as ever now. Drag racing definitely isn’t as popular as it once was but there is still a huge following among Honda drag racers. The show scene continues to evolve because guys are now into doing full-on restorations and builds from the ground up.
Time attack is as popular as ever and guys like Loi Song and Tage Evanson continue to push FF Hondas to new limits so it’s great to see that people are still very much into Hondas, no matter what direction enthusiasts choose to take.
Stephan Papadakis: They will be the 21st century Hot Rods! Mine is the 1988 CRX Si. I don't want a 69 Camaro.
Brandon Leung: There are still a ton of die-hard Honda fanatics that are buying and building some sick mid-school (late 80s/early 90s) Civics and Integras now that parts are more accessible and older owners may have more expendable income than when they were struggling teenagers. This resurgence has sparked a new generation of followers and I'm glad to see some of these classic silhouettes being built with a modern flare.
Speedhunters: So when did the JDM term become parts of the enthusiast vocabulary?
Stephan Papadakis: In the late 90s when Americans really started to put the Japanese parts on their U.S.-built cars.
Joey Lee: The existence of the Type R probably started the whole ‘JDM’ movement because people started looking to Japan to see what we didn’t have here in the U.S. We then discovered that there were engines that we didn’t have, interior parts that weren’t made for us. Everything changed at that point because there were options outside of just a simple drop and sound system. To this day you will still find hardcore Honda heads that are looking for a mint Integra Type R to mess around with.
Brandon Leung: I'd say the mid-late 90s. Sheng from JHP helped make it a household term. Prior to, the main source for go-fast and dress up parts for your Honda/Acura came from Japan which was really weird since Hondas weren't very popular tuner cars there. We never really used the term because all the items we bought for our cars were from Japan and we were trying to get our hands on any and every cool part that would differentiate our vehicles from the masses.
Jason Katman: I'd say the word started popping around 1996, and then it really became a household term 1999-onwards. No thanks the internet and JDMHONDAPARTS.com of course! [laughs]
Jonathan Wong: Agreed it would be the late ’90s or so, thanks to Katman and the FF Squad. Super Street just pushed the word out a little bit further to the masses. But even before then, we in LA used to call it Japan- or J-spec.
- Charles Kha
Photos by Mike Garrett, Linhbergh Nguyen, StickyDilJoe
A big thank you to Jonathan Wong, Stephan Papadakis, Brandon Leung, Joey Lee and Jason Katman for taking part in our group discussion!