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1996 Honda Prelude Si - Backwoods Badass

Rural Tennessee is the last place we expected to find one of the hottest Preludes in North America. But that's exactly what we found, Matthew Thornton's killer confluence of H-series power and JDM swagger in a fourth-gen. chassis.

Mar 14, 2007
Photographer: Henry Z. DeKuyper
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About a half hour north of the state capital of Nashville, just off of Interstate 65, lies the pastoral community of Portland, Tennessee. By most accounts, the town is the picture of countrified living, home to just 10,000 and, at one time, a lot of agriculture. In fact, its claim to fame is an annual Strawberry Festival that's a holdover from the '40s when strawberries were mainstays of the region.

Outwardly, Portland seems an unlikely place to find true-blue Honda devotees, given its heartland proximity and particularly with a bustling metropolis only 35 miles away. That's probably why we were more than just a little surprised to discover Matthew Thornton and his sick '96 Prelude Si in the sleepy little town. Thornton would appear to bleed Honda; in addition to the Si 'Lude, he's also owned a '93 VTEC, a '98 Accord, and a trio of CRXs (lest anyone doubt his H-badge allegiance). Guess Honda guys get around.

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Purchased in 2001, Thornton set out to build the cleanest and fastest Prelude he could simply because they "are nice cars and no one really does anything with them." Little did he realize the rocky road ahead, one that would ultimately force him to pull and rebuild the motor more than once. We sat down with the owner/builder and spoke with him at length about the trials and tribulations in bringing his Prelude vision to life.

Honda Tuning: You indicate on the tech sheet that you wanted to create the "baddest 'Lude on the planet"-would you say that was the main objective? How important was employing JDM gear into the build?
Matthew Thornton: Building the baddest 'Lude was definitely the goal! As for the JDM stuff, it was fairly important; I don't go as far as some people, but I was interested in the main components. [JDM parts] seem to fit cleaner and are just a little bit different. The way I look at it, [Japanese-spec cars] are built the way Honda intended them to be. When they bring cars here they have to change a bunch of stuff [for this market], so I was just putting this Prelude back to the way it was supposed to be.

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HT: You've clearly tried to make the car fast, too, though. I mean, reading through your tech sheet, it seems like you were trying to strike a balance between looks and performance.
MT: Exactly. When I bought the car, everyone wanted me to get a Civic, telling me the Prelude is heavy and blah, blah, blah. I just like them, so it was important to build something strong and fast, that the car be pretty bad motor-wise, that way I could get everyone to shut up about the whole thing. Yeah, it's a little heavier than a Civic, but it doesn't really matter that much.

HT: You also appear to be a fan of all motor, commenting proudly on the tech sheet that your car is "NA, baby!"
MT: Especially with Honda motors. I've seen turbocharged ITRs and the like and it just kills me, because that motor was developed to be a bad-ass naturally aspirated engine, and someone decided to slap a turbo on it. I know turbo cars are always going to be faster, but there are so many parts to it, so much to jam in there, and so much tuning. We're rebuilding my friend's turbo car right now, and it's driving me nuts. It's just not me.

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HT: Do you work on cars for a living, or is it just hobby?
MT: A little of both. It's been a hobby forever, and recently, we built a house and moved in, and I've never had a garage until this house. I built the motor in a spare bedroom in my last place. I had my tools and the engine stand in there, and then we had to wheel the stand through the house and out the door to get it out to the carport, where we put it in my car. I was putting that thing together for a year, laying it on boxes in the closet before we got it on the engine stand.

So with the new house I built a fairly large shop out back to finally have somewhere to do all this stuff. My friends and I now have a place to work on our cars. On the side I started building engines for people I know, and installing them and doing wire tucks and stuff. It's not enough work to be a full-time gig, but it's something to do on the side.

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HT: What's the shop situation like in Portland? I imagine there aren't a whole lot of places to go to for the kind of work found on your car.
MT: Especially if you like "real" performance parts and the JDM look. There is just nowhere that does anything like that here. There's like one shop, I think; it's in Mount Juliet, which is probably an hour and a half away. You can get body kits and all the generic garbage everywhere here, but not anything real fancy.

There is a group of us that [frequents] Honda-Tech.com and goes to the meets and is into that sort of thing, and everybody else is into gull-wing doors and all that mess. That's the majority of the scene here. While I was building the car, I got asked a million times, are you gonna put Lambo doors on that thing? Or paint it green? Or a big wing? I had to tell them, "No, it's not even the same thing." Look at this car-it has no factory spoiler, nothing. I'm not going to put holes in the trunk!It's perfect!

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HT: How did you hook up with the shop that did the bottom end, USA Machine? Do they work on a lot of sport compacts?
MT: They do more than I thought. I was looking at different places and talking to people who had machine work done, and the closest place I was being told was in Chattanooga. I didn't like the idea of going that far for machine work (roughly 160 miles). I don't remember exactly how I heard of [USA Machine], but I just called and talked to them. They seemed like they knew a lot about imports and weren't just V8 domestic guys. They said they could also do the port and polish on the head, but I really wanted to send that to someone who does a lot of headwork. A lot of places will just bore out the runners and try to ram in as much air as possible, but with a Honda, you can't be so aggressive.

HT: The engine crapped out after you built it the first time, though. Like a lot of people that work on H motors, you had issues with the Fiber Reinforced Metal sleeves.
MT: Yeah, I took [the block] to USA the first time and built the motor up myself. Then after the pistons ate themselves I took the bottom end back to USA a second time and they knew all about the [FRM] sleeves.

Interestingly, about 80 percent through the first build, a thread pops up on Honda-Tech.com about using forged pistons with the FRM cylinders. Half the people were commenting that it would work, and the other half were saying it wouldn't. I decided to go for it and see what would happen.

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The motor started and ran, no problem. A bunch of us drove down to the NOPI Nationals [outside of Atlanta, some 285 miles away] and on the way back [the engine] started overheating. I checked the oil and it was down quite a bit, and [the car] was smoking out the back. We got it back, pulled the head, and there was just tons of gouges and scratches in the holes. So we pulled the engine out and tore it all apart again.

HT: Tough lesson.
MT: Yeah, really. Now I know for sure it doesn't work. Anytime I see anyone pop that question on Honda-Tech.com, I'm like: 100 percent it will not work! Trust me!

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HT: How did you hook up with South Florida Performance, the team that did the head?
MT: I've seen them in magazines. They had a little Si with a turbo kit, and it was just unreal how quick it was. At the time, my friend had a 2000 [Civic] hatch with a B16 motor and he ordered the full turbo kit form SFP. Everything was really nice, so I called and talked to them about doing the head work, and they took care of it. They did a full hand port and polish, and they just enlarged the ports a little bit and smoothed everything out; they didn't go in there and just hog it out.

HT: We thought it was cool that you went to the trouble of disassembling the 2-piece Volk wheels to refinish them. Did you do that yourself, or did you send those out? If you did them, how hard were they to do?
MT: No, I actually did them myself. The only other person to touch them beside me was my brother, who sand blasted them for me. He blasted the centers and the center caps for me, and I coated everything, and polished out the rims and bolts.

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HT: How long did that take? You have to remove every bolt, right?
MT: Yep, I had to take every bolt out. I think I did it in one night sitting on the living room floor watching TV. It took about 2 hours.

HT: Once you have the bolts out, are the two pieces easy to separate?
MT: I had to hit the wheels with a dead blow hammer. That was the first time I ever took apart multi-piece wheels, so I didn't exactly know what held them together. The fit of the center section versus the rim was really tight, and I guess the centers had been in there for so long with the powder coat that they wouldn't budge. I tapped around the outsides of the wheel with the rubber dead blow and broke them lose.

I totally had to guess at putting them together, too; I had no idea what to torque the bolts to. The first time driving it I was hoping the center sections wouldn't break off at the rim! I searched around, asked people, and in the end I was like, 'We'll try about 30 lb-ft. and hope that'll do it.' I put Loctite on the bolt threads and went around and tightened the bolts, all 43 per wheel, in a cross pattern. I used a Sharpie to mark the heads of the bolts so I knew which ones I had torqued-it took forever.

HT: It looks like you were able to keep the Volk label on the wheel spokes, too.
MT: Yeah, the stickers were on the wheels when I bought them from Password: JDM, so I did a rubbing of the logo with a piece of paper and took it to my cousin, who has a vinyl plotter, and asked if he could duplicate the stickers. He worked on it and printed me out a whole sheet of stickers that were the right size. We used those and did a clear powder coat over the stickers so they can't be picked off.

HT: So what was the most challenging or difficult element of the build?
MT: The hardest part was probably having to do the motor a second time, because that was basically the first motor I'd ever built from scratch. I've done plenty of bolt ons and stuff like that to other motors, but I've never done all the internal work and put the whole thing together.

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Originally, I planned on pulling the H23 and just sticking an H22 in the Prelude, but when I looked at buying an H22 it was $3,500 with the swap, and it's still a stock motor! It was just going to be like every VTEC Prelude ever made, so I have a friend that works for Honda, and he got in an H22 head with bent valves, and we already had the H23 block from a previous blown motor. They were just sitting at his house, and we took the head and put it on the block to see if the bolt and oil holes aligned, and they did. And he made me a deal; I think I paid $400 for it all, the crank, block, head, and 2 stock cams. I told him, 'I'll take it, just throw it in the truck;' I'll figure out what to do with it.

HT: What's next? You mentioned NSX calipers and Goodridge lines for potential brake upgrades, and I think I read somewhere that you want to remove the sunroof and ABS, too.
MT: I'm in the process of doing all that right now. I've got another H22 tranny with a polished case that I'm getting ready to put in. At the same time, I'm going to pull the intake manifold off so I can get to the brake lines on the firewall easier, and maybe put it back together with some individual throttle bodies instead of the manifold. I'd really like to have a better ECU, too; I've been looking at AEM's EMS.

I still need seats, and I've been talking to people about making a carbon [fiber] sunroof. Instead of just installing something that just covers up the sunroof hole, I would like to have a lightweight panel that fits more like factory. That way, I can bolt it to the track but leave the [sunroof] motor out and still use the bottom cover [integrated] in the headliner. I'd like to have 3 or 4 more sets of wheels like everybody else does, too, but I'm fairly happy with the way it is right now.

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Bolts & Washers
Matthew Thornton's 1996 Prelude Si

Propulsion
The hybrid H-series mill under the hood is an impressive work of naturally aspirated art. USA Machine in Nashville prepped the H23A1 block, sleeving it, boring the cylinders to 88mm (+1mm over stock), and raising deck height. The shop knife edged, chamfered, and polished the crankshaft, and also balanced the array of rotating assembly components, which includes Crower pro billet rods and custom 12:1 compression JE pistons (the stock ratio is 9.8:1). For a measure of reliability, USA installed ARP head and main studs.

The H23 bottom is topped with an H22A1 VTEC head, ported and polished by South Florida Performance in Miami, Fla. SFP also gave it a 3-angle valve job and installed the titanium REV valves and Skunk2 Racing springs and retainers. Thornton then set up the Skunk2 stage 2 cams and AEM cam gears.

Air is drawn in through a K&N filter and sent down a 3-inch 5th-gen. Prelude AEM intake, past the STR throttle body to a manifold that's been port matched to the head. The combustion event is further augmented with an MSD SCI ignition and Blaster SS coil and an A'PEXi VAFC fuel controller piggybacking on the stock P13 ECU. Exhaust gases are then sent down a JDM RS*R EXMAG header, through a Catco converter and ultimately out RS*R EXMAG plumbing.

Engine power spins a Clutchmasters flywheel and ACT street clutch disc and Extreme pressure plate, while Thornton employs a DC Sports shifter kit to shorten throws between gear selections.

Stance
Sets of KYB AGX dampers and Skunk2 coilovers help the BB2 chassis hug the road. Making it rigid are Tanabe Sustec front and rear strut tower bars and front and rear under braces.

Resistance
Thornton opted for Power Slot front and rear rotors for now, with an NSX caliper upgrade coming soon.

Rims & Rubber
Refinished Volk Racing 2-piece Group AV rims, 16x7 in front and 16x8 in back, are shod in Yokohama AVS ES100 225/45ZR16 rubber.

Fashion
Outside: In the spirit of the Japanese aesthetic, Thornton sourced JDM front and rear bumpers, painted side skirts, headlights, and clear (not amber) bumper lights to beautify his Prelude. He also worked in an out-of-production Wings West Aeroware-style front lip and a custom Accord rear lip that was cut and sectioned in 4 places for a perfect fit. A VIS hood and Vision Type MC mirrors make up the carbon-fiber bits, and Thornton kept the stock Heather Mist Metallic color, polishing the heck out of it for our cameras.

Inside: Proving that swaps aren't just for engines anymore, Thornton exchanged the Prelude's tan interior for the same in black, throwing in a black suede headliner to boot. Razo pedals and knobs and a Sparco Chrono steering wheel supplant the OE controls, and one-off touches include a shift light in the driver's side vent and a custom aluminum dash plate for the VAFC display.

ICE
A Sony CDX-L550X receiver feeds signal to a complement of Infinity speakers, to which Thornton incorporated an OE Prelude VTEC amp and 6x9-inch subwoofer. An Optima Red Top battery provides juice for the system, and a DEI Avital 4400 alarm keeps everything safe.

Love
Thornton thanks his wife and Randy, Tim, and all the people on Honda-Tech.com for the help and parts.

Bob Hernandez
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