John Veloso's been around longer than Honda's K-series engine, but there's arguably nothing more synonymous with him than that infamous i-VTEC powertrain. Owner and founder of K-Tuned, purveyor of K-series-related performance wares, Veloso's mission is to solve every foreseeable K-swap-related problem and deliver those solutions to the masses. He's been doing just that since the company's inception nearly eight years ago when he began developing and releasing products like its alternator relocation kit that affords more room under the hood and eliminates the need for additional fabrication on space-starved chassis. Other K-Tuned developments simplify shifting, fuel, and cooling systems, waiving any need to source custom or makeshift lines, fittings, and hoses. No matter the product, the results are the same: a simpler, less problematic engine swap. Veloso may be best known for his role at the Canadian-based K-centric company, but his roots transcend those 2.0L and 2.4L mills to the late-1980s when he first discovered the Honda brand or, as he's quick to point out, when the Honda brand discovered him. It wasn't until legendary tuning house owner and Spoon Sports founder and president Tatsuru Ichishima sought K-Tuned goods for his personal car, though, pointing out just how "smart" they were, that Veloso truly comprehended the sort of impact he'd made.
HT: You're best known as the owner and founder of K-Tuned; tell us about your automotive formative years, before creating the company.
JV: I've been into cars since before I had my license. I have two older brothers who'd always had a passion for cars. They had good taste but didn't know how to work on them. I always had the passion to push them to do stuff to their cars and tinker with them. By the time I got my license my dad helped me out and gave me one of his hand-me-down cars, an old Datsun 310. I drove that for a while and then got into an old '66 Ford. It was nice looking and it was fast, but when you took a corner, it just didn't handle very well. From there I got into an '86 Camaro—an IROC-Z. It looked nice, it handled good, and there was lots of power. I modified that from engine to rear end but the car started falling apart on me. I used to drive by this one Mazda dealership and they had an '87 RX-7 Turbo II there. I loved the look of that car. I went in there one day, worked out a deal with the guy, and traded in my IROC. I modified that, and that's what basically got me into the whole tuner thing. This was around 1988.
HT: How did owning the RX-7 ultimately lead to your interest in Honda?
JV: Well, I think the Honda brand found me [instead] of me finding the Honda brand. Living in an area where we have four seasons, I always needed a winter car. My winter car was almost always a Honda. I knew that they were reliable cars. As I built my [other] cars up and put more time and money into them, I relied on my Honda [most of] the time. Even in the summer I'd drive my Honda. I was sold on [its] reliability. When I opened up my detailing shop in 1996, I had guys coming to me [asking me for parts] so I started bringing in parts and modifying cars. A lot of the cars that were coming to me were Hondas. We started off by lowering them and doing intakes. Those were the common things back then. From there, it grew to doing headers and exhausts. For me, though, it was always a no-brainer to mod the hell out of a Honda because I knew they were so reliable. We'd beat them up all the time and those cars just did not want to die. Eventually, when turbos started coming around, I was just waiting for a customer to come in saying, "I want to put a turbo on my car." The first one that came in, I didn't make any money on it; I just wanted to do it for the experience.
HT: Was there a particular Honda engine that you were especially impressed with initially, that led you to later devote your entire company to the brand?
JV: The first Honda motor that we started working with was the D-series Si motor. We did a GReddy turbo kit on it, but then we started modifying everything. Back then we didn't have much. We had an FMU, we could play with the distributor for timing, or we could buy an ECU from Japan that had a different program in it that you never really knew what you were getting. We were basically playing with fire, but I always had luck with not burning motors. I knew from building dirt bikes and two-stroke engines as a kid that you could tune by reading the spark plugs. When we started [applying] more boost, it became harder to do that. We needed a wideband [controller], but nobody had [one]. Back then, my first wideband cost me $2,500 and was the size of a shoebox. Nowadays, you can get one for $200. The motors were bulletproof, though. They just wouldn't blow.
HT: How did you transition from a small detailing and accessory shop to ultimately forming K-Tuned and taking on a manufacturing role?
JV: In 2002 we were running about five cars on the quarter-mile—some customers and some sponsored. One was a well-known turbo car that we broke a lot of records with. We were approached by Vibrant [Performance] to run their all-motor CRX. They were manufacturing exhausts, intakes, strut bars, and shift knobs. That's all they were doing. That's all everybody was doing. That's when the market hit the fan and all of the Asian suppliers were bringing stuff over and selling it for cheap. That slaughtered the market. Now, when Vibrant started coming around, I was a turbo guy, and I was very resourceful at finding the products I needed. I'd say to them, "You need to carry this." Every time I'd see them I'd say, "You need to carry aluminum tubing, or silicone, or whatever." I gave them a list of everything I was getting asked for and that I was selling and I slowly helped convert that company from doing what they were doing into a turbo company. All of the stuff that I knew I was looking for, that's what I told them they needed to carry.
HT: Your involvement with Vibrant didn't end with just your recommendations, though, did it? What happened next?
JV: We were on the dyno one time, I was watching the engine, and every time we got on the throttle I'd notice the [timing] belt moving around a lot. I thought, "You know what? I've got to do something about that. My timing's got to be jumping around a whole lot." So, I developed a timing belt tensioner for Vibrant. That was the first part I ever designed and had built. That was my first taste of manufacturing. I did a couple more parts for them before K-Tuned came around. There was a customer of mine, Shant, who was a racer and asked me to build his car. He wanted to go K, but the K was still kind of new. They still had a lot of hiccups. We had done a couple of swaps for customers, but nothing really crazy, like for this full, pro all motorcar. Anything I'd ever done, I couldn't be second-best at doing it, so at that point, I really didn't want to touch it. Four months later he called me during our slow season and was like, "John, you're the only guy I trust to do this." Finally, I said, "Okay, bring me the car and I'll do it." He dropped the car off and said the one thing he wanted was to not run a 16-volt system; he wanted to run an alternator. The first part we actually made was the water pump-delete kit with the built-in alternator [mount]. We made that for his car and then, after that, we said, "Hey, let's market this." That was the first part we ever did and that's how K-Tuned started.
HT: What were your initial thoughts on the K-series engine when it was first introduced? A lot of people were intimidated by it and thought it meant the end of Honda performance.
JV: You're right. My brother, who works for Honda Manufacturing, brought an RSX to my shop in 2001, a P2 car. I was used to the older Hondas; this looked futuristic, fat, and heavy. I jumped in the driver's seat and let it go—First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth. I said to him, "It's okay. It's got some midrange pull to it, but it feels heavy." I didn't really know what to think. After a couple of years, guys were starting to show up [with them], asking us to lower them or for intakes. The cars started to look nice, but when it came to doing anything with the computer, we were screwed. There was no distributor so we couldn't play with timing. We couldn't adjust the cam gears. We just thought, if we touched anything on those cars, we were going to screw ourselves and lose power. We thought the Honda market was going to die within a couple of years. Sure enough, it didn't.
HT: A lot of K-Tuned products seem to solve specific, almost niche problems rather than trying to make the same things every other company does. How was that attitude formed?
JV: My company's always been about [coming up] with solutions. Owning a shop, we'd always have customers coming in [with problems]. We'd try to fix them, whether it was ordering a part and putting it on or ordering a part and modifying it to make it work. Today, we try to do about five swaps a year, and whenever there's an issue, we create a new part for that. It might be a part that we'll only make $15 from and only sell 200 of a year, but to us, we don't look at it from a dollar-perspective; we look at it as helping the customer getting the engine in the car. We look for the long-term gain. Even though we might not make a lot of money from it at the beginning, down the road we benefit from it. And it's not only that—I really like to push my brain. I like to troubleshoot. I'll design a product in my head, and then I'll question myself as to how someone else could make it better or how it could break. I always try to overbuild it so that no one can say, "Oh, he didn't do that. I'm going to copy his part and add that." I think that's how we've become successful. If I wanted to get rich overnight, I'd be selling suspension, like a lot of companies do. That's where the money is. The percentages are higher and the parts are available through everybody in Asia. I try to make every part as though I was putting it on my car. I'm proud of everything that I make and I want my customers to be proud to put the parts on.
HT: Can you tell us what your process is for developing a new product?
JV: It all depends, but it usually [starts] with a problem that we know a customer has or is going to have. We look at how we can fix that problem and then I try to guess what the cost would be to make it. Next, I preach the idea to the guys in the shop and if they like it, I make a prototype. I do [prototypes] differently than most people do. Most people will turn on their computer and draw it [using] CAD; I actually take a raw piece of billet material, put it up on my Bridgeport, and machine it by hand. Once I figure out any problems, it goes into AutoCAD and we make it look pretty.
HT: Is there a specific K-Tuned product that you're particularly proud of; that you feel has really impacted the engine swap process?
JV: For me, I look at everything as a whole. There's not a particular product because once I'm done, I'm on to the next one. I'm always proud and excited of whatever the last product is that I've made. Once my customers have seen it, I'm over it and on to something new. For me, there's just so much excitement while I'm building it. It's almost like I'm walking around being sneaky. Nobody knows what I'm up to. It's like buying [someone] a gift: you're so excited to give it to them, but you've got to wait. That's what it's like for me from concept to [completion].
HT: How does it affect you when you hear about or read negative reactions to something you've developed?
JV: It bothers me. That's why I try to make it as bulletproof as possible. What I hate more is people who are just haters. It doesn't matter what you do; you could invent a way to make gold or cure cancer and they'll still have a problem with you. As much as somebody can bother me, though, I'm my worst critic.
HT: Are there any products in particular that proved to be especially challenging during the development phase?
JV: We did a sequential shifter box, which worked quite well, but it left a lot of room for human error and [not being able to move] the shifter far enough to get into gear. Another problem was the price. We had it working, despite a major challenge that we had with one part (we figured out that Honda has a certain flaw with its transmissions, which we're not about to tell anybody about). I found that problem after two days of fighting with it, we fixed it, got the thing shifting 100 percent, but there was still room for human error so I decided that it just wasn't worth it.
HT: K-Tuned prides itself in manufacturing most of its products in North America. Can you tell us why that's so important for you?
JV: That is a big thing for us. Everything of ours that's CNC-machined is made in North America. If it's not made in the U.S., it's made in Canada. There are two main reasons we do this: for quality and to get our customers the products as fast as possible. Say you make 100 parts, everybody loves it, and they sell out within a couple of weeks. If you're dealing with Asia, you're talking 8-12 weeks before you can get more. Also, if there's a problem, you're now pushing that onto your customers. A lot of the big companies do it, though, because they don't care—they're all about numbers. My other reason is that [the process] has to complete a circle. For me, this is how I look at it: a person who works in Michigan or California has a job loading a truck with materials and there's another person driving that truck to our CNC machine shop; anything that happens in that shop, people there are eating because of us. Everybody is making money because of this, from start to finish. We're employing thousands upon thousands of people in North America by doing what we do. By everybody being able to make money, kids are able to buy parts. If we don't do it this way, this industry's going to fail because there won't be any jobs or any money. I think a lot of big corporations don't look at that. All they see are bottom lines and numbers.
HT: What are your thoughts on the future of Honda tuning and high-performance
JV: I've learned ever since 2003 when it looked as though everything was going to go away and the fad was over that it may change, but it's never going to go away. I've learned to look at the domestic market. I look at those guys and what they do. They're all car guys, like we are. I see a lot of my generation who grew up in the '90s and tinkered with Hondas who are now married with kids and want a hobby or want to tinker again. They [generally] go back to what they know and love, which is a Honda. I don't think it's going to die. We're going to be talking about Hondas until the day we die.
HT: Is there anybody in particular who you sought advice or help from throughout the years?
JV: When I built my first race car in 2000, I got a lot of help from Kurt Gordon. He taught me a lot of stuff. If it weren't for me knowing the right people or having the right team, K-Tuned wouldn't be where it is today. I believe in employing [people with] talent and skills and [nobody] but car lovers. A lot of guys who aren't around anymore don't get the appreciation. If it weren't for guys like them, things would be a little bit different now.
HT: What do you think about Honda's current vehicle lineup?
JV: I like the new NSX, and I'm glad to see that they'll be bringing it back, but I don't like a lot of stuff that they'll be doing with that car or the [other] newer cars. They're getting too futuristic looking, which they kind of have to, but what I don't like is that they're doing stuff to them that makes it harder for tuners to tinker with them. When they first came out with a computer that we couldn't play with on the RSX, that's when we thought we were doomed. Well, they've done it again, and now that they're going with high-pressure, direct injection, that stuff's scary. There's a lot of fuel pressure there. If you get a backyard guy trying to take apart a fuel line that's under 1,300 psi of pressure, it could kill him. I think that's going to change the game a little bit. Hopefully that's not going to be a problem.
HT: What is your all-time favorite Honda, the car they got right on almost every front?
JV: I've got two favorites: the Integra, which is an all-around nice car, but I think the Holy Grail is the '92-'95 [Civic]. I've always called that the '69 Camaro of Hondas. That's the car that everybody looks at. I drove one for many years. It's still one of my favorites.
HT: What does the future hold for K-Tuned?
JV: We're going to keep doing what we've been doing for the last seven or eight years. We're going to continue to come out with parts to make the swap easier. One thing we plan on doing is touching on more K-series-platform cars, like the RSX, the eighth-gen [Civic], and the ninth-gen [Civic]. We'll never go after the commodities; it will always be what we think works and what we think we can offer our customers that's different. We'll never really look at the dollar value.