During my formative years, back in the Old Europe of the ‘90s, the cars that most teenagers lusted after were the famous hot hatches. The Golf GTI, 205 GTI, Delta HF, Fiesta XR2 and many more – those were the ones you had to have, and there was a slight chance you might be able to get one. Or at least something close to the real thing. BMWs, Porsches or Jags were not on anyone’s radar, as nobody could afford those. Same for anything Detroit-made, and Korean cars hadn’t yet become a thing.
Japanese cars, on the other hand, were definitely on the menu: the Civic CR-X and the Corolla GTi 16, to cite but two, were known quantities and had an audience. But we never had the City Turbo II over in Western Europe, as far as I know – a real shame, too. Surely Honda would have sold boatloads of these to folks who lamented the passing of the Renault 5 Turbo or who thought the MG Metro was too lame.
That’s not to say that the first generation Honda City was never exported to Europe. They did ship those over, albeit renamed as the Honda Jazz, as Opel owned the City nameplate for the European market. But these hairy-chested Turbo versions never left Japan. They tended to keep the good stuff for themselves in those days, and who could blame them?
The City was launched in late 1981 and slotted right under the Civic as Honda’s smallest car, given that the carmaker had given up kei cars in the mid-‘70s. It was small in terms of wheelbase, but somewhat wider and a lot taller than the average early ‘80s Japanese subcompact. Honda called it the “Tall Boy” design, and it eventually caught on – particularly on kei cars.
However, the City is not a kei car. It’s a bit bigger than one size-wise and quite a lot engine-wise: under that small sloped hood lays an all-alloy 1231cc OHC 4-cyl. driving the front wheels. The European variant was calibrated to be economical, not exciting: the Jazz got a simpler 8-valve head and produced a modest 44hp in base form; on the JDM, the standard City had a 12-valve setup that, coupled with CCVC, churned out a minimum of 60hp.
Alongside the standard-issue hatchback, the full City range eventually included the 100hp Turbo (top left), a high-roof version dubbed Manhattan (top right), a two-seater City Pro “van” (bottom right) and finally, by 1984, the Cabriolet, a Turbo II (minus the engine) allegedly decapitated by Pininfarina. Still, kudos to Honda for squeezing so many variants out of so tiny a platform. Plus, they created the Motocampo, a 50cc folding scooter shaped and styled like a toaster that could fit in the City’s cargo area.
The 110hp Turbo II, freshly provided with an intercooler, arrived in October 1983 and was thus spared the goofy fender mirrors seen on Turbo number one, which continued to be sold alongside its bulkier and brawnier brother.
A lot of muscle was added to the Turbo II, giving the City a far more squat and chunky appearance, hence the nickname “Bulldog” that came to be associated with this particular iteration of the Honda City. And you really can see it, with that scrunched-up face and those bulging sides. This really is a case of City by name, Bulldog by nature.
The City Turbo and Turbo II were given the R treatment by Mungen and turned into bona fide racers, lightened to about 650kg (standard-issue Turbo IIs weigh 745kg) and their engines given a 25hp boost. “City Bulldog Races” were organized in mid-‘80s Japan and much merriment was had, although the “Tall Boy” body gave the City a higher centre of gravity than was ideal for track use, causing a number of Bulldogs to engage in uncommanded roll-overs. Woof, woof.
Our feature car is not a racing special, fortunately. As can be seen inside, it’s a completely stock time-capsule with all the creature comforts one might expect from a 40-ish-year-old JDM city car. And that apparently includes a refrigerated glovebox, a digital speedo, and a very decent sound system, by all accounts.
In non-racing guise, the Turbo II is said to be great fun to putter about with, thanks to its all-independent suspension, slightly wider track and “scramble boost” function (which adds 10% of turbo pressure for ten seconds). The Bulldog was a real-life Mario Kart before Mario Kart even existed. Actually, the Honda City was so charismatic in its home country that in 1985 Nintendo actually d a game, City Connection, where the character jumping about the platforms is an orange Turbo City. Few cars were rendered so faithfully in 8-bit form – another testament to the City’s design… I think…
But no matter how iconic the City was, it wasn’t an incredible sales success that brought new customers over to Honda: just over 300,000 units were made over five years, which is not that impressive a result for a small hatchback. A second generation was nevertheless launched and, eventually, the City grew and grew, as cities are wont to do, until it turned into something of a bland, cut-rate four-door Civic, chiefly seen in Asia-Pacific and South American markets. Some markets used other appellations, like Fit or Ballade; the JDM ones were dubbed Grace until recently and the European ones kept the Jazz name.
The Turbo II lasted until late 1986, like the rest of the first gen City range. In the end then, the Bulldog got “fixed” and sent to a farm upstate. Such a shame. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but when the old tricks are as barking mad as this, there’s no need for gratuitous novelty. Doggone cute little pooch, this little City.
CC Capsule: 1981-86 Honda City – They Grow Up So Fast!, by William Stopford