A short history of Honda Type R

Automotive history
Three generations of Honda Civic Type-R

Type R – a phrase that immediately excites petrolheads. Just as with the M of BMW, the AMG of Mercedes-Benz, performance fans know that Honda cars wearing the Type R badge will be potent machines, with not a little racing DNA.

Today, Type R is applied to the most performance-focused version of the Civic hatchback, and indeed a new one, the most potent yet, is about to arrive in UK showrooms. But the first Type R model was something very special indeed, and like all the early Type Rs only sold in Japan.

2017 marks the 25th anniversary of Type R. In the early 1990s Honda, a car manufacturer with a strong racing pedigree, conceived the idea of making top-performance models for sale in limited numbers, with the expectation that their owners would use them on the track.

Honda Civic Type-R history

Formula One heritage

Such cars were put on a serious diet, their suspension retuned and engines breathed upon to squeeze out more horsepower. They gained a new, red badge and ‘Championship White’ was always among the exterior paint options, reflecting Honda’s red and white racing colours worn by the company’s first Formula One winner in 1965.

Type R branding was first applied in 1992, to the Honda NSX. Launched in 1990, this was the brand’s first supercar – the first mass-produced car with an all-aluminium body, power from a 3.0-litre V6 engine of 280hp also all-aluminium and with the then revolutionary Variable Valve Timing (VTEC) technology. Its styling was inspired by an F-16 fighter jet cockpit and development of the car carried out by F1 champion Ayrton Senna.

Honda NSX

Andrew drove a Honda NSX for the first time in December 2016. More than 20 years old, it offered a bigger thrill than many a modern supercar – the Type R version must have been something truly special…

In Type R form, the NSX gained more radical suspension upgrades and lost some 120kg in weight, mainly by removing such superfluous items as the electric windows, the audio system and the air conditioning.

The NSX, its more radical NSX Type R successor (also known as the NSX-R), and the first Integra Type R, a 200hp coupe launched in 1995, all remained strictly Japanese-market cars. Then in 1997, the Integra Type R broke into America under Honda’s Acura badge. It was still primarily focused on track use – Honda, in fact, sold all the road versions at a loss, despite motoring journalists dubbing it the ‘best-handling front-wheel-drive car ever’.

By now the Type R badge had been applied to a version of the Civic hatchback, launched in 1997 and with some 185hp from its 1.6-litre engine – at the time unheard of from a non-turbo unit. Again this was only officially sold in Japan, but the Type R story was about to go global, starting with a second-generation Integra that at last officially came to Europe. It was followed by a Type R version of the larger Accord saloon.

Type R comes to Europe

It is with the second-generation Civic where the Type R story really gains pace. This Civic Type R, launched in 2001, was based on the three-door car manufactured at Honda’s UK factory in Swindon – as would be all future Civic Type R models.

Officially the car celebrated Honda’s return to Formula One. Its 2.0-litre i-VTEC petrol engine pumped out 200hp. The chassis was seam welded just like race cars, it had a close-ratio six-speed transmission, significantly uprated suspension and brakes.

With a 0-60mph time of just over six seconds and a plus-140mph top speed, remarkably this car was not as radical an upgrade as a version sold by Honda in Japan, but motoring journalists loved it, the Civic Type R winning many ‘best hot hatch’ awards and selling in big numbers as a result.

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Your writer remembers the press launch of the ’01 car, the first Type R he drove, very well. It was held on the Isle of Man, and the highlight was discovering just how potent the car was on the mountain section of the TT course, specially closed for the occasion by the Manx police…

Type R on the Goodwood hill

For the launch of the third-generation Civic Type R, in 2007, we were based in Sussex. This time exploring the potency involved tackling the hillclimb course used for the Goodwood Festival of Speed – evocative surroundings…

Again the European market version was based on the five-door Civic hatchback coming out of Honda’s Swindon plant. In Type R form it still employed a 2.0-litre VTEC petrol engine, just one horsepower more potent than its predecessor with 201hp at 7800rpm. In Japan, the recipe was a four-door saloon with a 225hp engine.

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That model was sold for a mere three years, and then a wilderness period ensued. Not until 2015 did a new Type R appear, and this was a step change compared to its predecessors. With the Mk4, launched in 2015, Honda wanted to emphasise the ‘start of a new performance era’.

Race car for the road

The car boasted the most extreme powerplant yet. It was still a 2.0-litre petrol unit, with a surprisingly low red line of just 7,000rpm. But it boasted a 5.7-second 0-62mph time and a terminal speed of some 166mph. Bespoke adaptive damper suspension ensured it offered handling to match the power, as we journalist discovered on the launch, driving the cars around the same circuit in Slovakia that the World Touring Car Championship race versions would compete on just two weeks later (to read our review from that launch, click here).

Honda dubbed the 2015 Civic Type R ‘a race car for the road’, and indeed it was. But perhaps it was also a little too extreme to properly maintain the Type R’s established image, of matching huge performance potential to the ability to behave itself impeccably on a 30mph trip to the shops.

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Now, just two years on, there is a fifth generation of Type R. It has evolved surprisingly quickly from the latest Civic, now manufactured in Swindon for sale across the whole world and boasting a more mainstream styling treatment.

The new Civic Type R is the most powerful version of the model yet. But as you will read in our first drive, it also returns the brand to a more versatile outlook, Honda wanting owners to be able to use it as an everyday car while enjoying it to the full on the track at weekends.

Yet while you may often see the new Civic Type R in the car park of Tesco, the original ethos of the brand has not been diluted. This is still significantly the most extreme version of the Civic you will be able to buy. And yes, it is seriously potent. The Type R legacy is in good hands…

Honda Civic Type R 2017 with its predecessors

The next generation – the 2017 Honda Civic Type R with its three predecessors.

Andrew Charman

Andrew is the News and Road Test Editor for The Car Expert. He is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers, and has been testing and writing about new cars for more than 20 years. Today he is well known to senior personnel at the major car manufacturers and attends many new model launches each year.

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