When Honda was entrenched in Formula One with its supply of engines and engineering integrity to first Williams and then McLaren, the company began looking for a car that would bridge the gap between its mass-production front-wheel drive cars and its championship-winning status in the pinnacle of world motorsport. The company needed a car that would become the new face of Honda, while satisfying a similar request from the company’s fledgling American division, Acura. The answer came in the form of a supercar called NSX, the acronym for New Sportscar eXperimental, and the benchmark – later to become the target – for the project was the Ferrari 328GTB.
The NSX’s development began in 1984 with the 2.0-litre V6 HP-X (Honda Pininfarina eXperimental), a concept car aimed at challenging the V8 Ferraris. A team led by chief designer Masahito Nakano and executive chief engineer Shigeru Uehara began in earnest in turning the HP-X into a flagship Honda. The car was envisaged to have a number of what were then cutting-edge features including ABS, traction control, climate control and power windows. But such niceties come with a weight penalty and Honda did not want to be forced into adopting a larger, heavier engine to overcome the weight problem in order to deliver the required performance. So, after initially thinking in terms of a steel and aluminium body, the engineers finally opted for an all-aluminium monocoque, which was a world first for a mass-produced car, and required a dedicated plant to manufacture. The alloy was said to have saved no less than 135kg over a steel-bodied equivalent. However, the NSX still tipped the scales at around 1300kg.
Such was the team’s dedication to its task that it turned to aircraft design for inspiration, using an F-16 fighter jet to create the NSX’s cockpit, which offers an all-round vista. Wind tunnel testing helped develop the car’s distinctive overall shape, which incorporated a faired-in full-width wing across the tail. The car even boasts a usable boot, something many supercars fall short on.
Under the skin, aluminium was used for most of the suspension components. The NSX featured double wishbones, coil springs and an anti-roll bar both front and rear, and all-round disc brakes boasted four-channel ABS, the use of which was still in its infancy in the auto world. Rack-and-pinion steering operated on cast alloy road wheels, 15-inch with 205/50 tyres up front and 16-inch with 225/50s at the back. Manual NSX’s did not have power steering, whereas autos had electric power assistance, which was another of the car’s technology advances.
As for set-up, in the closing stages of the car’s development, the late F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna (who was then contracted to McLaren-Honda) was taking part in a McLaren test session that happened to coincide with an NSX test and took the opportunity to drive the car. Afterwards, Senna’s only major concern was that the car flexed too much, so Honda’s engineers went away dialled-in 50 per cent more torsional rigidity in a remarkably short time before the car was revealed at the 1989 Chicago Auto Show. Senna continued to help develop improvements to the car’s dynamics up until the car went on general sale the following year.
Someone else impressed with the NSX was Gordon Murray, who was busy conceptualising the McLaren F1 road car. He too, had a chance to drive a prototype and remarked that ‘the NSX’s very rigid chassis is excellent and would easily be capable of handling more power. Although it’s true I had thought it would have been better to use a larger engine, 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. Of course, the car we would create needed to be faster than the NSX, but the NSX’s ride quality and handling would become our new design target’.
Powering the NSX was an all-aluminium 3.0-litre V6 engine mounted transversely amidships. It featured Honda’s then still new VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) system, and was the first production car to feature drive-by-wire throttle actuation. With a compression ratio of 10.2:1, the fuel-injected 2977cc quad-cam 24-valve motor pumped out 205kW (191kW for the auto) at 7300rpm and 285Nm of torque at 6500 – the rev limit was 8000. Drive to the rear wheels was by either a five-speed manual or a four-speed SportsShift auto, both of which were attached to the end of the engine rather than underneath, as is common with a mid-engine location.
Once on sale, the NSX received critical acclaim from all who drove it. South African business tycoon Johann Rupert says it is one of his favourite cars and personally owns the car that is part of the Franschhoek Motor Museum collection. His metallic purple Targa-topped auto example is quite stunning, and with just under 18000km on the odo, it is as fresh as the day it was built. Every car was assembled by a hand-picked team of 200 people, each with a minimum of 10 years experience. The paint process alone had 23 steps.
Stepping down into the cockpit, it epitomises the solid build quality for which Honda is renowned, and the driver’s seat offers plenty of legroom even for my 1.86-metre frame. Controls are clearly labelled and easy to operate, although the two control-laden stalks that protrude from the steering column are a little at odds with the rest of the cabin layout.
Typical of VTEC engines, the V6 thrives on revs although the expected rasp from the exhausts only becomes apparent when the tacho needle attacks the red line. Numerous 0-100kph times have been quoted for the NSX, with six seconds being a realistic average, which it delivers with admirable ease. Top speed was given as 270kph. The SportsShift torque converter autobox has two shift modes and manual override of the transmission is via a single, small lever mounted on the left behind the steering wheel – paddle shifters were not yet the fashion. Gear changes are leisurely by today’s ultra-quick standards, but if only by dint of its engine capacity the NSX is more a Grand Tourer than a road/race car. In its day it was perceived as a supercar.
Combined with a firm but not harsh ride, benign handling and solid, communicative steering, the NSX set a yardstick in user-friendly superformance that did not cost a fortune to experience. ‘As easy to drive as a Civic’, it certainly rattled Ferrari, who quickly replaced the 328 with the 348GTB and, later, F355 as a riposte to the outstanding overall qualities of the NSX. Yet for all its engineering excellence, total NSX sales were reported to be less than 20000. This total included a 120kg lighter Type-R with a blue-printed engine that was made available in 1992, the targa-top version introduced in 1995, and in 1997 the manual version’s powertrain became a 3.2-litre V6 coupled with a six-speed gearbox. A facelift took place in 2002 but the model was discontinued in 2005. In America, the car was named the Acura NSX and marketed as the brand’s halo model.
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The first-generation Honda NSX has to be one of performance motoring’s best kept secrets, a car that set a few trends 27 years ago, yet is not out of place today. Many pundits believe it lacked the visual drama and the cachet of an established supercar such as a Ferrari, but perhaps Murray best sums it up. ‘Firstly, at the time, the public was not ready to accept a Japanese car that was this expensive. Secondly, for supercar customers the power figures were not quite high enough. With just a slightly lower price, or possibly selling it with a different brand name and a different badge, or perhaps endowing it with a touch flashier and more aggressive styling and additional power, there is no question the NSX would have reigned as a cult star of the supercars.’ Enough said.