“It Wasn’t Going to be Easy” — The Story Behind the Development of VTEC

VTEC has become synonymous with Honda.  First deployed in the 1989 Integra, then the Civic, and then the CRX, the VTEC engine has evolved over the past 30-plus years to provide multiple benefits, including increasing horsepower and torque and improving fuel efficiency. It’s not an overstatement to say that VTEC has been key to making Honda the global automotive leader that it is today.  

VTEC stands for Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control. In the simplest terms, VTEC is all about fuel efficiency and economy. It’s what enables your Honda to accelerate quickly and maintain its speed without burning itself out or consuming a ton of fuel. 

The development of VTEC is a classic engineering story. It’s a story about a team of engineers embarking on a journey to achieve what was believed to be unachievable.

NCE—The New Concept Engine Project

The story begins with Honda launching the NCE (New Concept Engine) project in 1984. The project aimed to push the limits of top-end torque production without sacrificing low-end performance. In the minds of Honda engineers, the ideal engine would have better fuel economy and higher output.  

The goal set by then Honda R&D President, Nobuhiko Kawamoto: 100 hp per liter, or 20 to 30 hp more than what was possible at the time.   

“It felt like a dream,” Nobuo Kajitani, a lead member on the NCE team, recalled. “Conventional engines in those days could only produce 70 or 80 hp per liter. But here we were, being asked to increase it all the way to 100 horses. It wasn’t going to be easy. An engine becomes subject to a higher load as you increase its rpm,” Kajitani said. 

Put simply, the challenge was to build a high-performing engine that wouldn’t burn itself out.

“We also had to keep in mind the quality-assurance target of 15 years, or 250,000 km, for a mass-production engine. We all wondered how on earth we were going to reach that number while ensuring the required quality of mass production.”

In the end, Kajitani officially set the goal for the new VTEC Integra engine: 160 hp and an 8,000 rpm. After three months, Kajitani put it all on the line, ordering his team to move forward. A technology proposal would soon be chosen and developed.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The VTEC Legacy

The genius of the technology behind VTEC was that it allowed for only one intake and one exhaust valve per cylinder to operate below certain engine speeds, but for two intake and two exhaust valves per cylinder to function above that threshold.  In short, it allowed the valve operations to switch over automatically based on engine speeds.

In addition, the materials used for this new engine had to be durable. To this end, VTEC camshafts were made from a completely new high-carbon, high-chrome cast steel alloy, which was given a combination of heat and surface treatments. The exhaust valves were made of nickel-based, heat-resistant steel combined with molybdenum, titanium, and tungsten—all novel technologies back in the 80s.  

The impact that VTEC has had on Honda’s business and the auto industry has been huge.  In addition to catapulting Honda to the top ranks of the global auto industry, VTEC transformed the industry itself. It made the dual benefit of power and fuel efficiency a “must-have” for all automakers.  

As EVs go mainstream, it’s an idea that lives on to this day.

Stay connected with Hayward Honda, your East Bay Area Honda Dealer, for the latest Honda news, reviews and offers. Shop online and visit Hayward Honda in Hayward, CA, to test drive a VTEC-powered Honda today