When it first came out, I didn't realize that the NSX had VTEC. The truth is, in 1990, I didn't even know what VTEC was. Nobody really did though. It wasn't until one of my high school skateboarding buddies picked up a '92 GS-R a couple of years later that I was appropriately exposed to the acronym. And what an acronym it was. The idea of valve timing and lift that could both be dynamically adjusted while the engine ran was enough to pique my interest. It also became the cheapest way any of us could remotely associate ourselves with Acura's new mid-engine supercar. Honda wasn't the first to implement variable valve timing into a production engine, but it did it the best.
It's hard to believe that VTEC is now 20 years old. Two decades ago Honda introduced the technology in Japan, which has since underwent several iterations, but all of which rely on the same philosophy--to deliver serious horsepower-per-liter results but not at the expense of low-end grunt. To be perfectly honest, I didn't feel the need to grab hold of something solid the first time I felt it kick in though. VTEC impressed me, but not as much as it later would once I figured out exactly how it worked. It was around the time I'd just finished installing a B18A1 Integra engine into an '88 Civic hatchback. The non-VTEC B-series made the car fast for its day, but we were all looking for ways to make it faster. Ultimately, we installed two or three different sets of camshafts, the last of which made for poor gas mileage, an engine that would hardly idle and would certainly never pass a smog test, but was more powerful. For its day, the car was quick, and was a rare sight, as B-swapped Civics were about as uncommon as they came. And then the '94 Integra GS-R was released. It's 170hp B18C1 got great gas mileage, idled perfectly, passed EPA requirements with flying colors, yet made more power than the partial-built B-series that we had that billowed puffs of unburnt fuel out of its tailpipe on each exhaust stroke. It made me scratch my head. It made me want VTEC.
After unloading my previous CRXs and Civics I found myself in a brand-new DC2 Integra GS-R. The more I drove that GS-R, the more it impressed me. But my new Integra didn't impress me because of how easy it was to generate more power from, because it wasn't. I quickly learned how fine-tuned and well-built Honda's DOHC VTEC engines were. Conventional tuning methods like short-ram intakes, 4-2-1 headers, and cat-back exhaust systems that worked well on non-VTEC engines made little difference on the B18C. Honda did its homework when designing its VTEC engines, and it did well. The VTEC learning curve lasted for a couple of years for me. Soon after, I learned just how well thought out Honda's DOHC VTEC engines were. And it wasn't just the fact that they came with VTEC--there was so much more to them than that. Previous engines I'd assembled required careful balancing by skilled machinists. Any high-revving engine's pistons and rods must be matched weight-wise as closely as possible to one another and its crankshaft, flywheel, pulleys, and pressure plate must also be balanced appropriately. I remember the bill I got from the machinist after I dropped off my first B18C that I'd planned to build. He didn't charge me for balancing because "it didn't need it." As the industry further explored engines like the B18C, it learned that traditional cylinder head porting techniques, camshaft and intake manifold swaps, and big-bore throttle bodies didn't produce the types of power gains we'd come to expect from more conventional engines. Of course today, extracting significant power from any B-series VTEC engine is relatively easy but it wasn't always. We've come to realize the engine's strengths as well as its weaknesses. But, to be sure, the strengths outnumber the weaknesses no matter how you add it up.
VTEC has come a long way over the last 20 years. It's been implemented into DOHC and SOHC valvetrains, it's been used on four-cylinder and six-cylinder powerplants and to do cool things like switch camshaft profiles at higher engine speeds and smart things like deactivating valves when they're not needed. Honda's used it on its top-of-the-line NSX-R supercar and on its Ultra Low Emissions Accord sedans. It's transitioned into VTC, i-VTEC, and, one day, if we're lucky, Honda's already patented A-VTEC. Just imagine what we'll be able to reminisce about after another 20 years.