Why Honda's B-series engines are so legendary

Why Honda's B-series engines are so legendary

The recent addition of a spicy little EK Honda Civic to the MCM garage has ignited a debate about whether the boys should stick with the mystery B16A that came with the orange-utan hatch, or go for a modern K-swap. The latest episode (CLICK THIS LINK) sees the lads start working on the B16A, so I figured I'd take you on a little trip to the Back In The Day Times to learn why the naturally-aspirated 1590cc four-banger is worth fixing...

While K-swaps have taken over the Honda world in the last 15 years, some 20 years ago the VTEC-equipped double-overhead cam B-series four-cylinders really helped launch the sport compact tuning scene in America and proved you didn't need a turbocharged WRX or Lancer GSR to take on the old V8s. 

MOOG's most-prized posession is his JDM Mini that he stuffed a B16B into from a Civic Type-R, with the 136kW 1.6-ltire hand-assembled beastie turning the formerly-supercharged Rover-powered classic into a bona-fide weapon.

But the B-series story starts a long time before that, back when hair metal and hip-hop music were all the rage, and people wore oddly colourful clothes that changed temperature if they were cold or hot (shout out if you also remember Hypercolor, Guns 'n' Roses, or Oakley Thermonuclear Protection). 

It was way back in 1989 we first saw the B16A engine in the second-generation CIvic-based CR-X and larger Integra. Producing between 110kW (Europe) and 118kW (JDM) the CR-X quickly became an icon of small, nimble and efficient performance cars, from an era when even big 5L V8s barely made more than 115kW.

While Honda have always been good at building great engines (eg: F20C, C30/C32B, and so on and so on) the B-series brought high-end-quality engineering nous to regular old street cars anyone could afford. Then, when VTEC kicked in, you really got the full load of big H magic (and heard the boo-baaa).

VTEC stands for "Variable valve Timing & lift, Electronic Control", and it is aimed to improve the volumetric efficiency of a given engine. This is basically an engineering way to say you want a super-efficient engine that squeezes every drop of horsepower it could possibly ever produce, and Honda did this by using a hydraulically-activated system that switches different cam profiles at certain RPM points - mild for running nanna to church, and Kill Death for when you're trying to outrun a tofu delivery driver called Fujiwara down the side of Mount Akina.  

Honda had actually been experimenting with variable valve control since 1983, but continual refinement meant that, by 1989 they were at a point they could trust the reliability of the complex valvetrain set-up in some of their most popular cars. Interestingly, there was a claim doing the rounds a bit over a decade ago that Honda hadn't ever had a warranty claim on the VTEC system, despite more than 15,000,000 being put to use in the wild.

The aftermarket has certainly tested that durability, too. With the B16A seemingly fitted to millions of Civics and Integras, it didn't take long for these engines to turn up in junkyards, where the original car had been crashed and was uneconomical to repair. Just as hot rodders in the 1950s ripped the latest powerful V8s out of junkers to cram in their 1930s rides, tuners were soon grabbing the B16s and B18s to jam into their older, lighter Civics and Integras - welcome to the sport compact boom of the early 2000s.   

Along with the B18C fitted to the DC2R Integra, the B16B is something of a JDM unicorn today. Fitted to the EK9 Civic Type R, the third Type R model Honda built, the B16B took the A's great engineering and fine-tuned it.


Hand-assembled these 136kW high-performance, track-tuned variants of the regular VTEC 1600 were among the most powerful engines on sale in the day, when measured against a power-per-litre scale. Honda had released the DC2 Integra Type R with its 142kW B18C 1.8-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder not long before the EK9 Civic Type R came out, and similarities between the B18C and the B16B were soon noticed. 

Despite all their success and legendary name, the B-series was replaced by the new, larger K-series engines in 2001. Having brought the magic of VTEC to the masses Honda's NA four-cylinder still holds a special place in the hearts of people old enough to remember when Fast and Furious movies were centred around car culture and illegal street racing.

For anyone who still doesn't get it: the Honda B-series has a cultural impact to 1990s cars equivalent to the Chevy small-block V8 of the 1960s.   

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