HERE’S WHAT HAPPENS WHEN ENGINEERS OVERPOWER MARKETING PEOPLE. LONG LIVE THE ENGINEERS
WAS THE HONDA NSX a failure? Bit of a loaded question, but consider this. In 16 years on sale, it shifted 18,685 units worldwide. By contrast, between 1989 and 2004, Ferrari sold nearly 38,000 examples of the V8-powered 348, F355 and 360 models, the very cars that the NSX had been designed to shuffle off into obsolescence.
Of course the alternate view is that Honda came from nowhere to carve out a significant part of the junior supercar market, which would tend to ignore the fact that the Porsche 996 alone sold over 175,000 units between 1997 and 2005. It would also ignore the fact that the NSX was never a car defined by mere numbers. By today’s standards, its power and performance figures are those of a respectable hot hatch rather than an Italian exotic, but the Honda’s real power was manifested in a seismic shift in how Japanese performance cars were perceived.
Wheels’ first encounter with the prototype NS-X (the hyphen was ditched for the production car) came in September 1989 when Phil Scott got to sample it at the Tochigi Proving Ground. The Japanese bubble economy was just starting to kick into top gear, with Nissan’s 300ZX and Skyline R32 GT-R appearing earlier that year, but nothing prepared Scott for his first encounter with the Honda.
“It swoops off the banking and flashes down the long straight, breaking the radar beam at 242km/h. Sun glints off the glass canopy as it rushes towards us, cleaving the thick, still air of a midsummer afternoon. At once it is here and gone. Now just a winking red mirage a kilometre away, trailing a rich, bellowing wake. It is a sound to ignite the emotions; a cammy crescendo that rips and soars, triggering images of northern Italy, of racing engines and supercars.”
Perfect. Not quite so pin-sharp was Scott’s prediction that Honda would sell every one of the 6000 units it planned to produce each year. Australia was earmarked for a 200-car allocation in 1991, initially pitching the NSX just below an entry-level 911. That prediction came to pass, the NSX selling at $159,900 versus $165,770 for a 1991 964 Carrera 2 coupe, a car 17kW down on the Honda. The difference between the two vehicles was stark, the Porsche leaning on its sporting heritage and Honda moving heaven and earth to create one of its own.
The NSX’s genesis was the striking wedge that was the 1984 HP-X show car, with exterior styling by Pininfarina. It was from here that Honda’s vision diverged from the supercar norm where shortcomings were sold as character. Practicality and reliability were also factors Honda wanted from a supercar that would help it leverage its Formula 1-derived something that would shift the datum on what buyers expected.
It was called Project New Sports Experimental (NS-X), and an in-house design team, lead by Masahito Nakano with exterior input from Ken Okuyama, who would later go on to pen the Ferrari Enzo and Maserati Quattroporte, sketched a distinctive shape. With a transverse naturally aspirated six amidships, room for golf bags in the big boot, and panoramic sightlines from the two-seat cabin featuring a low cowl, the basic silhouette was that of a mid-engined supercar but with distinctly Japanese detailing.
Much has been made of Ayrton Senna’s involvement with the development project. While F1 testing at Suzuka in February 1989, he hopped into a development car for a blat. He gave corrective feedback on a sticky shift action to second, wind noise, and braking instability at speed. “I’m not sure I can really give you appropriate advice on a massproduction car,” Senna said, with unusual diplomacy, “but I feel it’s a little fragile.” Chassis engineer Keinosuke Taki admitted as much at the September prototype drive. “I would like to add more stiffness to the suspension for higher stability,” he conceded. “While cornering I would like more support from the suspension.”
Honda regrouped in Germany after beefing up the torsional rigidity of the chassis and tuning the suspension, re-enlisting Senna to pedal the near production-ready car around the Nürburgring, and finally earning the Brazilian’s tick of approval. After unveiling the final design at the 1989 Chicago auto show, the NSX went on sale in Japan in 1990.
The NSX was the first production car to feature an all-aluminium body, saving nearly 200kg over the steel equivalent in the body alone. Aluminium suspension componentry shaved another 20kg of unsprung weight. It’s hard to overstate quite how revolutionary the body construction was, arriving fully five years before Audi’s celebrated aluminium A8. Three different grades of aluminium were used. The body panels are made of 6083 T4, Honda adopting an aircraft industry painting standard, with a chromate coating designed to chemically protect the aluminium bodywork. The chassis frame is mostly 5182 grade, with the sill being an extruded 6061 T6. The suspension arms are forged 6061 T6. Honda was so obsessed with weight saving that even the jack was built from aluminium. Pro tip: don’t grab the jack when the car’s hot because it sits right atop the exhaust.
The ultimate in lightness was the NSX Type R, a JDM special introduced in 1992. This tipped the scales at just 1230kg and was sold for three years, with a mere 483 units leaving Tochigi. With carbon-kevlar Recaro seats, no air-conditioning, no spare tyre, no traction control, no stereo and no sound deadening, but bigger anti-roll bars and beefier dampers and springs, it’s hardcore. Maybe too hardcore for regular road use.
The standard NSX received incremental changes for every year of its production. Owner complaints that the aggressive toe-in was seeing them destroy rear tyres in 5000km saw Honda ease 2mm from that alignment in 1993. A passenger airbag and a reconfigured centre console were also introduced. The following year, wheel and tyre size were increased.
Some major changes were introduced for the 1995 model year. The automatic ‘box was configured for Tiptronic-style shifting, while the manual models got a more aggressive torque-reactive differential. Power steering became standard on manual cars as well as automatics, a drive-by-wire throttle debuted, and bumper sections featured extruded aluminium rather than stamped steel. The NSX-T targa model was also unveiled, featuring a removable aluminium roof panel.
Project leader Shigeru Uehara was in no doubt where his engineering focus for the car lay. “We always made a big effort for weight reduction from the beginning to the end of the NSX project,” he said. “The NSX finished its production just minus 10kg compared to early models, in spite of a lot of component weight increases... such as wheel size up, brake size up, engine size up, transmission from 5MT to 6MT. Always for the NSX, weight reduction was the most important item.”
The NSX even influenced the design ethos of the iconic McLaren F1. That car’s designer, Gordon Murray, saw early examples of the NSX, Honda being an engine supplier to the British F1 team. “The moment I drove the ‘little’ NSX, all the benchmark cars – Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini – I had been using as references in the development of my car vanished from my mind,” said Murray. “Of course the car we would create, the McLaren F1, needed to be faster than the NSX, but the NSX’s ride quality and handling would become our new design target.”
Murray also went on to claim something a little confusing in an Autocar interview. “The NSX was also the first car to use DBW (drive by wire),” he said. “It felt very pleasing. It achieved a very natural, linear-feeling throttle, and I can now hide my embarrassment and confess that I copied the idea during the development of the McLaren F1.” The F1 arrived in 1992, while Honda introduced DBW on the NSX in 1995, so I’m not exactly sure what Murray had access to, or whether something was lost in the translation during his early prototype drive. Electrical actuation was also used for the NSX’s steering. ”Too light,” harrumphed our Peter Robinson. “Simply too light and dead,” opined Phil Scott. By the standards of 1989 they were both spot on. Drive an NSX in this era of electrically assisted tillers and it doesn’t feel unusual or deficient. Make of that what you will.
The enlarged 3.2-litre engine and six-speed manual combo arrived in 1997, the automatics still persisting with the 3.0-litre lump. Other big changes came in 2002 with the NA2 revision. As well as the debut of the gawky fixed headlamp units, the OE tyres changed from Yokohama A022s to Bridgestone RE050s. A Japanese-market-only NSX-R also debuted, featuring carbon-ceramic brakes and some carbonfibre body panels, with power stepping up to 216kW. Production amounted to around 150 units, and it remains the most highly prized of all NSXs.
The NSX is a car that feels of its moment. That moment was the moneyno-object Japanese bubble economy of the late ’80s, of Ayrton in his loafers and white socks, of giving it to complacent Eurotrash. It’s still a delightful thing, breathtaking in its ambition and execution, all addictive induction howl, perfect shift action, sympathetic damping and sheer consideration of design. It’s one of those cars. If you know, you know.
Model Honda NSX NA1
Engine 2977cc V6 (900), dohc, 24v
Max power 201kW @ 7100rpm
Max torque 285Nm @ 5300rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
0-100km/h 5.6sec (tested)
Economy 10.0L/100km (claimed)
Price $159,900 (1991)
$646K 2019 RECORD AUCTION PRICE FOR A 560KM 2005 NSX R
50 PRODUCTION RUN OF US -MARKET ALEX ZANARDI EDITION
1991 NSX WINS WHEELS COTY
1168 AVERAGE ANNUAL SALES 1989-2005
14 SETS OF REAR YOKOHAMAS THAT GORDON MURRAY KILLED ON HIS NSX
Light weight; V6 soundtrack; agility; ride quality; manual tactility; depth of engineering; bold styling; practicality; outstanding durability
Autos slightly lame; appetite for rear tyres; razor-edge geometry requirements; can be tricky at limit; torque deficit; aftermarket mods
“It attracts a lot of attention. When I’m driving it, I keep saying, ‘Don’t look at me, look at the road!’”
SIDEWAYS AT SECA
Senna might be the racing driver most closely linked to NSX development, but Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal also gave feedback. “I thought the car was a bit too oversteery for most consumers,” he noted at a Laguna Seca test. “Honda didn’t have traction control per se [in the prototype] and I didn’t want to back it into the trees.”