Bob Boileau III has an endearing memory of his late father, Bob Jr., at the 1986 SCCA Runoffs at Road Atlanta. Bob Jr., "Honda Bob" to friends and competitors, had qualified well, and while waiting for the start he called his son over to the car as officials were clearing the grid."If I stop for anything, it'll be for a beer," he yelled over the din. His son laughed, said: "Sure, whatever, Dad" and jumped over the pit wall.
Honda Bob hung with the GT5 field in fifth or sixth place in his 1974 Honda Civic 1200 for the first half of the race. After over a decade of racing the Honda oddity-which wasn't so odd by 1986-Bob Jr. and son had pretty well figured out how to keep the little machine, particularly its engine, together.
So when his dad didn't come around for three laps, Bob III started to worry. He started to organize a recovery effort when he saw the 1200 (nicknamed Tokyo Joe) come around in just about the same spot in the field. "Did we just miss him these last three laps?" he wondered.
When the race ended, the elder Boileau pulled into the pits with a half-empty bottle of Budweiser between his legs. "I had to stop and get a beer," he explained before relating events. He'd come around a corner and the car went dead. At the same time, he'd seen the LCD clock in the dash shut off and knew that a battery clamp had simply worked loose from the terminal.
He jumped out of the car, lifted the trunk panel and brought his fist down on the errant clamp. The fuel pump buzzed to life and the LCD illuminated just as a track marshal shooed Boileau from the track. No on-track repair during a hot race allowed. The driver pleaded his case to no avail and then ambled to the nearby grandstand.
"Anybody got a beer?" he asked. Several bottles were lifted in his direction. He quaffed one, then noticed the marshal had disappeared. "How about another for the road?" He grabbed the nearest Bud on offer, ran back to the car and rejoined the race.
"Dad took the checkered flag with a bottle of Bud in his lap," Bob III says, laughing at the memory of a different time, a different culture within club racing.
Bob Boileau Jr.'s story parallels that of the American Honda Motor Company. He was among the first dozen or so employees of the fledgling group, signing on before the Japanese parent had shipped a single car to US soil. His difficult job included traveling the north and southeastern states in a Chevy Impala company car, setting up Honda dealers.
Boileau had long been an autocrosser and club racer with a 1964 Mini Cooper. But when the Civic 1200 became available in America, he acquired one from a dealer he'd set up, Dobbs Honda in Memphis. He promptly cut off the roof and installed a rollcage. As far as Bob III knows, the car has never been registered.
Why race a Honda, a brand that was staking its rep on the appeal of compact car fuel economy? Bob III points to Datsun's presence on the club circuit, its 510 and B210 models, as one motivating factor. "Datsun was big into it," he says. "They made headers, cams, pulleys. It was like us against Datsun, the big manufacturer." But providing the new Honda badge with a little battle shine came with its costs.
"We were having problems keeping motors alive. One time, we blew up three motors in a weekend. We were running 12.5:1 compression and the motors had a tendency to starve the number-four rod for oil. Unfortunately, we got so good at changing motors we once timed ourselves. We had an engine changed and fired in 47 minutes."
There were three main challenges to getting the EB2 motor to hold together: learning how to split valve overlap, finding valves that wouldn't drop under race stress, and increasing oil flow. Valve overlap they solved ingeniously. When they could insert a specific diameter drill bit-used essentially like a feeler gauge (Bob III doesn't recall the size)-they knew the engine was at TDC.
Running cams that were almost all lift caused the stock, two-piece welded valves to constantly snap, a malady solved with custom stainless steel one-piece units.
As for oiling, Bob III notes that behind the plugs on both sides of the engine girdle are nipples that regulate oil flow. Grinding down the nipples increased flow enough to stop starving the number four rod. After that, the engines were always reliable. "We could run it at 10,500 rpm all day long," he says.
Braking also required some creativity. Boileau replaced the front brakes with a bigger set from a 1975 Civic wagon, but the rear drum brakes were prone to self-destruction in races, not at all designed for slicks or hard corner loading.
He took an old broken drum to a machine shop, told them what kind of offset he needed, and came back with a billet stainless steel piece that held the stock rear drum bearing and included a bracket to hold the stock front discs. Voila, quite possibly the first four-wheel big-brake kit on a US Honda.
"The car was just so much absolute experimentation," Bob III says. Boileau raced the car regularly from 1974 until 1986, then only occasionally until 1990. Honda's involvement with amateur and pro racing is vast these days. Back then, there weren't the resources to back its privateers. But Boileau did make an important connection with one serious motorsport fan within the company.
Tom Elliott, recently retired as American Honda's executive vice-president, was also in on the ground floor of the company's rise. Elliott and Boileau knew each other well and, before his death, Boileau arranged with Elliott to transfer the car to Honda's care. Tokyo Joe (aka TOJO) now sits under the watchful eye of Honda personnel in a private collection.
Bob III, meanwhile, has picked up the mantle of his father's racing enthusiasm. He runs the reconditioning department at Pikes Peak Acura in Colorado, supervising the road-worthiness of used TLs and NSXs. He races a 2006 Civic Si, done in a blue-and-white variation of TOJO's paint scheme, in SCCA's Showroom Stock B class. He proudly recalls doing his driver's school certification in the Civic 1200.
Honda Bob passed away two years ago, but one of his final requests to his son was to take him out on a few last laps, before the car was cleaned up and sent off to Honda. He made Bob III promise to position him so he could see the track. Bob III did, and he has the proof. "I've got this photo of me driving TOJO, with my Dad's ashes in a box on a modified camera mount so that he could see out the window."
Claiming firsts in anything is a dicey proposition, and Bob III will only claim that his father was "one of the first guys" out there racing a Honda, and he's got the log books, dating back to early '74, to prove it. And though the tuning scene would have likely happened with or without Honda Bob, when the history of compact car tuning is written, the man deserves his spot well up front.