Can the perfect Honda be quantified? Does it even need to be? If it's numbers you're after, then the answer is yes. And yes. Quarter miles, lap times, and dynos don't lie, and it's numbers like these that determine a car's rank.
How then do you quantify the subjective when quarter miles, lap times, and dyno data aren't yet known? Can red be wrong? Can something be too shiny? Not shiny enough? Or do you just trust an organization like SEMA and its Battle of the Builders competition that recognizes Ryan Basseri's Porsche GT3 RS-themed Integra Type R and Big Mike's Prelude with its Formula 1 livery as among the best of the best?
Are these the ultimate Hondas? Does it even matter? That's for you to decide after our one-on-one interview with Ryan and Mike.
pbskids: You've both owned cars that've achieved recognition and that you were able to enjoy on a regular basis since they were primarily street cars. Do you miss that?
Big Mike: The ability to just start up a car and drive it on the street, there are many times that you do miss that. But that's why you have other cars.
Ryan Basseri: The amount of hassle you could potentially have with police or other people, you have a really big investment in your vehicle, and you don't want to just drive it and get rear-ended by a little old lady. Having another car to fill that void helps. [The Type R] was a car on the side that was built for a purpose, for my business and to challenge myself.
SS: Why a Prelude, Mike? It's one of the most under-appreciated classic Hondas and yet you continue to update yours.
BM: Even in high school in the '90s, the shape of the fourth-gen Prelude—the sweeping dash, the electroluminescent gauges—I thought it was this really good-looking, classy, ahead-of-its-time car. It's not a complicated thing; I enjoyed the car's lines and was able to get it for a fair price.
SS: Why do you think more people don't modify Preludes?
BM: I suppose it's their comfort zone. The aftermarket support for Civics and Integras is massive. Stepping out of your comfort zone, learning about a Prelude or an Accord, that's not easy.
SS: Ryan, why did you choose the Type R?
RB: I was into CRXs and Civics and never really thought about a Type R. A guy I knew was selling an unregistered Japanese shell; it was under a thousand bucks, so I figured I'd be stupid not to grab it. After that, I got a really good deal on a rollcage and then it just turned into this whole thing that I never really planned on.
SS: Mike, how difficult has it been to not swap a more modern K-series engine into place, if at all?
BM: I think the K better responds to making power, but there's nothing about that setup that appeals to me or my car. I like the look of what I grew up seeing in the '90s—that H/F look.
SS: There's an argument to be made for the guy who starts racing a bone-stock Civic and continues upgrading it over time. Instead, both of you have followed an all-or-nothing approach. Do you stand by that method?
RB: We've done it the other way, too. I think there's good and bad to both ways. With the Integra, it was a slow-moving process but with big steps. Doing things the other way, where you save up, you do a swap, and you add more parts, I think that can definitely be more fun. The way I did it was more stressful and costs more money at once. It's not really an enthusiast's approach to building a car.
BM: I've done it both ways with the Prelude. What we're trying to do and create is just so far out there that you really couldn't do it piece by piece. When you've designed a car in your head from front to back, it would only make sense to build it all at once in order for everything to be complementary. Starting stock and going piece by piece and relearning the car in, let's say, Time Attack, feeling each new part, that's ideal. But there's a certain level of experience where you know what [certain modifications will result in]. You're not taking any risks at that point.
SS: How did you overcome any setbacks you'd encountered during your builds?
RB: I threw money at it [laughs]. There were a lot of things we needed [custom-made] that just didn't work out. You'd look at the part that you just spent X amount of dollars on that was now trash and you'd just start again. There were pieces made that, when test-fitted, we realized weren't gonna work. It's not Target; you can't send it back for credit, so you lose out.
BM: So many parts are one-off pieces that you're reliant on somebody who does that for a living. If they don't do it within the time frame that you want them to, you have no choice. The biggest setback for me is the deadline that we put ourselves on. It's the catalyst that makes you go but it's the part that makes it so brutally fatiguing—financially, mentally, and physically. It's a very brutal thing to try and do in your spare time.
RB: For SEMA, look at who else is building high-profile cars—shops that have 15 employees to help work on them.
SS: Is there anything you'd tried implementing that you just weren't able to?
BM: My cooling system ended up being designed three times. It's part of the learning process. I had an entire aero package fully designed that just flat out couldn't happen in time.
RB: I have custom fenders on the car, but they weren't what I had in mind. Everything else ended up getting done the way I wanted it.
SS: What keeps drawing you back toward classic Hondas? Both of you have primarily owned pre-'00 Hondas. How would you compare those to something like the current Civic Si?
RB: I would buy a brand-new Civic Si for my wife. I think it's a good car and it's reliable; as far as modifying one, I'd never buy one for that.
BM: We're building '90s cars—new technology in an old car; you can't do that with a new car.
SS: Do you envision 20 years from now a '17 Civic Si being built similarly to your cars?
BM: I do. I don't know to what scale. The '90s was the golden era for music, for a lot of things, and for us it was cars. For me, I stick to the classic, Japanese '90s cars because that's what I grew up seeing and wanting. I also don't aspire to have a car payment.
SS: How difficult was it for you to obtain the information and parts you needed when you started building cars compared to now?
BM: Today, there are DIY and FAQ threads and YouTube tutorials and everything that could help someone learn. I used to pay shops to do everything because I didn't know how to do it. I had to get screwed over and burned and had to learn before I started doing stuff myself. Those experiences made me learn. I had to pay a lot of money and get burned a lot before I got to this point where I have the acquaintances and support that I do now.
RB: I heard that there was a teacher at a college near my house who was a Honda technician and was teaching a course. I decided I'd sign up for his class and see if he'd let me do an engine swap. My B16 swap in my CRX was done at that college. I was 17 or 18. It was actually easier than I could've imagined, and I learned so much.
SS: What's something unique about your cars that you haven't seen done before?
RB: I would say the pneumatic paddle shifter that I designed. It's a combination of F1 technology and some of the cutting-edge stuff that my ECU can control. When I heard that the ECU had strategies for shifting, and I already had a sequential gearbox, I was like, well, let's do something crazy.
BM: I don't know if it's so much one thing as it is everything. I think it takes a certain level of balls to take cues from off-roading to drag cars to Time Attack cars to hot rods to show cars. I took cues from all of these worlds and put them together in one place. From the F1-inspired livery to the hot rod-esque panels in the back.
SS: Is there a wrong way to build a car? Are there modifications that shouldn't be made or is everything fair game?
BM: I think the motive behind something can very much be wrong. If you build a car for attention, it's wrong. That attention will be based upon what's popular at that time and that will constantly evolve, which means you'll never be happy with it.
RB: Ryan from Rywire says that everybody has the right to do whatever they want. Ryan Basseri thinks the opposite [laughs].
BM: You can't build a shitty car and get mad if people call it shitty [laughs]. There is math and science that will tell you that a certain thing is wrong.
SS: Both of you have fans who aspire to build their cars like yours. How can they get started?
RB: Don't think you're gonna build a perfect car the first time around or even the third time around. You're gonna have a lot of failures. Even I still have a lot to learn.
BM: Envision the car in your head, and once you know exactly what you want to build, write down every single part you need, price it out, then do the math. When you get the total number, stare at it. If you still want to build the car, start there.
SS: What would you have built if Honda didn't exist?
BM: An FD RX-7 or a Mk IV Supra.
RB: My options when I was kid were a CRX, a Volkswagen Corrado, or a Toyota MR2. Probably an MR2.
SS: Where do you go from here? Is this the peak as far as building a Honda goes?
BM: I believe you can always be better. When you build something that people believe is a masterpiece, you still see the flaws. I don't intend to redo the Prelude again, just make it better.
RB: I've thought about building a Fox body Mustang. I don't really plan on building any kind of car that will be any less than the Integra. That Mustang would have to outshine the Integra in my mind and would have to be pretty gnarly.