The impossible dream. It may have taken him half a century, but the creation of the NSX was the realisation of Soichiro Honda’s lifelong ambition, says Greg MacLeman. Photography Tony Baker.
Come great cars are the result of a sketch on the back of a whisky- stained nightclub napkin, the feverish scrawl of a gifted engineer having a flash of inspiration. Others come about through dour analysis of market segments, balance sheets and opinion polls. Then there is the Honda NSX – a supercar that represented the achievement of one man’s ambition, a dream that he worked a lifetime to make reality.
Like most of the great characters in automotive history, Soichiro Honda’s success was not handed to him on a plate. And nor did it come to him overnight. He grew up in the shadow of Mount Fuji as the son of a blacksmith, helping his father to repair swords and bicycles in his childhood. As a youngster, a wide-eyed Soichiro had once seen a motor car rumble past him on the road. Without hesitation he chased it as far as he could, before reaching down in amazement and touching a pool of oil it left behind. A fire was lit that would burn for a lifetime. Not only would Honda one day build cars, but also he would make one to rival the best in the world.
He then embarked on a long and challenging journey that would take more than half a century to complete. After graduating from school in 1922, Honda got a job working in an automobile repair shop called Art Shokai in Tokyo and, while the work held his attention during the day, his nights were spent sneaking next door to a garage that housed one of Japan’s earliest racing cars. The Daimler-engined beast was soon fitted with a Curtiss V8 aero-engine mated to a Mitchell chassis, and its first outing produced a stunning victory – with Honda in the mechanic’s seat.
Business success followed: just six years after beginning his apprenticeship, he opened his own branch of Art Shokai, before submitting a patent for cast-iron spokes and using the money to set up his own piston-ring firm. He navigated the stormy waters of WW2 by inventing a machine to cut propellers before selling the company to Toyota at the end of the conflict.
But his real work began in the aftermath of the war, when the majority of the country’s infrastructure had been flattened by US bombs. So it was that in the late 1940s Honda set up his fledgling company – Honda Gijyutsu Kenkyujo – in the fire-damaged remnants of one of his earlier firm’s factories. He quickly designed a small 50cc motorised bicycle that sold well, and in 1948 the Honda Motor Co was founded. The 98cc Dream followed in 1949, then the Cub in 1952. Two years later Honda would make a decision that would for ever alter the company’s success, direction and ethos: to enter the Isle of Man TT.
By 1961 Honda’s motorcycles had won both the 125cc and 250cc classes at the TT, and the publicity and excitement the victories produced resulted in a massive increase in sales. It was a lesson he would never forget, and one he would carry with him in the next stage of his master-plan, the transition from two wheels to four.
That change came sooner than many expected when, just a year after the firm’s TT success, it unveiled a new line of cars at the 1962 Tokyo Show-the S360, S500 and T360 commercial. It would be no coincidence that the manufacturer became a presence in top-flight motor sport, launching its first F1 campaign in 1964. Development for the new RA270 prototype began in 1962, with the firm becoming the only team apart from BRM and Ferrari to produce its own engine and chassis. The RS271 made its debut at the 1964 German Grand Prix, while Honda’s first victory was delivered by its successor – the RA272 – at the 1965 Mexican Grand Prix with American Richie Ginther at the wheel.
Honda’s initial dalliance with Formula One was short lived – just four years after its debut, the firm withdrew following the horrific death of its driver Jo Schlesser, at Rouen in 1968. All the while, however, the company continued to grow as a mainstream road car manufacturer. And as it did so, Honda lusted evermore after recognition and respect from its peers.
By the early 1980s the firm had returned to F1 as an engine supplier, initially for Spirit and then, from 1984, for the mighty Williams. The time was finally right: the Japanese manufacturer was the equal of its more prestigious rivals on the circuit (Keke Rosberg won in Dallas in 1984); all that was left to do was to take the fight to them – and to Ferrari in particular – on the road.
The NSX project was go, with the Ferrari 328 firmly in its sights. Initially, at least, because Maranello’s would-be rival took a whopping six years to develop, its target changing to the 348tb. In fact, so tortuous was the NSX’s gestation that heads might have dropped, but for the huge fillip provided by powering Williams to victory in the 1986 F1 Constructors Championship.
After analysing a number of other supercars, including the Lamborghini Countach, it didn’t take long for Honda’s engineers to realise that a mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout would provide the best handling. Traditionally, though, mid-engined cars had been very heavy due to the extra bulkheads and reinforcements that were required to produce a strong frame. Toyota’s MR2 was a case in point; it made its debut in 1984, the year in which the NSX project began, and weighed-in at 1066kg, a lot considering its size.
In contrast, the NSX tips the scales at 1340kg. While that’s no featherweight, it’s a considerable accomplishment that it wasn’t far heavier. This is largely due to the car’s unique construction; it was the first road car to feature an all-aluminium monocoque shell. Though light, it was complex and costly to produce, and was only approved for production once it was certain that the asking price could be pushed up to offset the costs of tooling and machining. By the time the NSX hit showrooms in the UK it was priced at £52,000, which was still £17,499 cheaper than the 348tb.
The use of aluminium didn’t stop there; forged components were used extensively in the double-wishbone suspension set-up, which greatly reduced unsprung weight, while a forged compliance pivot that rotated outwards helped to dissipate road shocks and improve the ride.
The greatest achievement of the NSX, however, is its engine. Honda was sitting on a wealth of knowledge in the late 1980s after its motors had become the acknowledged benchmark in Formula 1. And it showed. Despite the rumour mill suggesting that the car would be powered by a V12, it was a 2977cc naturally aspirated V6 that found its way into the prototype. A supercharger would have added too much weight, while turbocharging was thrown out because it would make the car unreliable and expensive to maintain, both problems that Honda sought to avoid.
The twin-cam’s pedigree is obvious through its use of titanium conrods, which allow the engine to spin safely to an electronically limited 8300rpm and which, until that point, had been seen only in top racing cars. Meanwhile, the VTEC variable valve timing, which first served in the Honda CRX, keeps torque levels high during everyday driving, but engages another, more aggressive central cam at 5800rpm.
It sounds impressive on paper, but it’s not until you experience it on the road that you truly understand the ground breaking technology at the heart of the NSX – though you could be forgiven for not realising it immediately. For a start, there’s the shape of the thing. Though Pininfarina was involved in styling the early HP-X concept, it’s clear straight away that the production car lacks the sheer aggression of a Ferrari from the same period. It’s attractive, certainly, and has stood the test of time incredibly well, but it’s also a touch ungainly. Part of the reason for that is the transversely mounted V6 – the tail was lengthened in order to meet luggage capacity targets. The wheels also draw the eye – they’re an inch bigger at the rear to improve handling, although this example has done away with the Ferrari-esque five-spokes in favour of later seven-spoke forged wheels from 1994.
The interior is also an acquired taste. Forget any thoughts of polished metal gates and supple brown leather: the NSX is strictly business when you open the door. A sea of black plastic melts homogenously into black carpet and black leather, highlighting the utilitarian, sloping centre console that is festooned with buttons. The driving position, on the other hand, is excellent. And if it isn’t, there’s no need to worry; the steering wheel and the electric seats are adjustable.
Above: the pop-up headlamps were ditched in minor facelift in 2002 that gave a 4% boost in speed purely by aerodynamic improvements. Left: rear wing is subtly styled in and barely visible in profile
For a car that had usability and practicality at the heart of its ethos, it comes as no surprise that visibility is excellent. Even less so when you discover that the F16 fighter jet played an important part on the mood board because of the all-round view it gives pilots. The back window is even large enough to consider reversing into tight supermarket car-parking spaces. But you’ll be much more eager to get it out on the road.
Don’t expect fireworks from the off or you’ll be disappointed. Turning the key results in a muffled drone as the 3-litre V6 kicks into life, such is the excellent soundproofing. Pulling the gearlever back engages drive, and all it takes is a tickle of the impressively sharp throttle to shake the car park and navigate onto the open road.
Unlike the manual version, which featured no power assistance (again a luxury that was deemed too heavy), automatic cars were fitted with an interesting electronic power-assistance system, which uses a servo to lighten the load at lower speeds. You’d struggle to tell, and will probably undercook your first turn: the steering response is initially quite dull, requiring more turns lock-to-lock than you expect. As soon as you get used to it, however, the steering seems perfectly matched to the rest of the car. Threading a series of corners together is effortless, and the weight of the car combined with its complex suspension system ensures the ride is smooth and bump-free.
Pressing on, your confidence grows and you begin to realise the full potential of the NSX’s Ayrton Senna-developed handling. Leaning the car into ever-harder corners illustrates the copious amount of mechanical grip, but also a touch of understeer, which you feel has been dialled in purposely by the engineers. Once again following the maxim that the NSX ought to be simple to enjoy by anyone, regardless of their driving skill, the understeer offers a predictable safety net – a gentle warning that it’s approaching the edge, which is given long before the big rear end gets out of shape.
That’s not to say that it won’t; many have been caught out by the NSX’s ability to snap, though usually in the wet. The test car, which we borrowed from Honda, has been rebuilt a number of times for exactly that reason. The life of a pre-production hack is rarely an easy one.
Despite being fitted with a four-speed auto, it’s still possible to prompt the rear wheels to lose grip with a stab of the throttle. Even more so if you take advantage of the option to manually select the first three ratios, bypassing the some-times clunky self-selector. It also has a secondary benefit: the ability to hold on to the gear into the dizzying heights of the 8300rpm rev range. Let’s make no bones about it – the engine sounds almost curmudgeonly during everyday driving, but slot it into second and kick the throttle and it starts to get more rewarding. The dirty, muffled noise transforms above 4000rpm, and you can finally hear the cylinders singing in unison. Take it further and it truly comes alive; by 8000rpm the ethereal howl is mesmerising.
But not without precedent. The NSX may have been a technical marvel showcasing Honda’s ingenuity, but it wasn’t a bolt out of the blue. As with everything Honda did, it was a plan many years in the making. Remember the S800? Its little four-pot screamer could spin round the tacho to 10,000rpm, making it the most powerful sub-1-litre production engine in the world. The NSX was standing on the shoulders of giants. Fittingly, Soichiro lived long enough to see his dream come alive.
The next chapter
The NSX was a technological tour de force when it arrived in 1990, but the story didn’t end there. Just two years after the car’s launch, the NSX-R hit Japanese showrooms. The new model was track-orientated and, while no extra power was on offer, its weight was reduced by 120kg by installing Recaro carbonfibre seats and removing sound deadening, the spare wheel, sound system, air conditioning and traction control. The suspension was firmed up to reduce weight transfer under heavy braking.
Away from the track, by 1995 the road-going NSX adopted a targa-style roof, allowing it to compete directly with the 911 and 348ts. Sills, bulkhead and A-posts were strengthened, adding 40kg to the car’s weight, but because it was targeted at the less demanding US market, this was of little consequence.
Impressively, Ken Okuyama’s design was built for 12 years before it was given a major refresh. Mechanically, things stayed the same, but the bodywork received a gentle tweak. The ; pop-up headlamps were replaced with fixed projector units reducing weight and cost, plus a cleaner front bumper, side skirts and rear valance improved airflow, boosting speed by 4%.
The 2002 facelift brought with it a new NSX-R (unavailable since 1995). An uprated engine with a hand-balanced crank, flywheel and blueprinted rods and pistons was mated to a six-speed gearbox for greater performance. The suspension was uprated from the standard NSX, while aerodynamic improvements – including a lightweight carbonfibre front lid – helped to increase downforce.
Above: the Honda’s cabin is very of its age – plush and well appointed, but black and lacking much in the way of luxury or warmth. Right: pop-ups were replaced with fixed- projector units in 2002
The engine is the jewel in the NSX’s crown. Many predicted a V12, but Honda delivered a 3-litre V6 good for 168mph in manual form, plus it was naturally aspirated to save weight and add reliability
All that was left for Honda to do was to take the fight to Ferrari on the road
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
• Check front hatch, rear boot floor and radiator for signs of crash damage
• Inspect wheels for kerbing or repair – the ally suspension is fragile, and can distort
• Panel gaps should be tight and consistent – uneven gaps suggest poorly executed repairs
• Ensure that the car has been well maintained – check that all four tyres match and that the oil is the colour of straw
The beauty of the NSX is its usability. It’s equally happy as an everyday car for mundane driving, but when you open it up it’s a true supercar, and by the time you’re touching 8000rpm, it’s a giant S800
|Sold/number built||1990-2005 / 18,685|
|Wheelbase||2,530 mm (99.6 in)|
|Overall width||1,810 mm (71.3 in)|
|Ground clearance (unladen)||4in|
|Front headroom (seat uncompressed)||–|
|Rear headroom (seat uncompressed)||–|
|Front legroom (seat forward/back)||–|
|Overall length||4,405 mm (173.4 in) (1991–1993) and 4,425 mm (174.2 in) (1994–2005)|
|Overall height (unladen)||3ft 10in (1170mm)|
|Front shoulder room||–|
|Rear shoulder room||–|
|Rear legroom (seat forward/back)||–|
|Weight (in lbs kerb)
|Steering||rack and pinion with speed-sensitive electric power assistance as no-cost option|
|Turns (lock to lock)
|Brakes||282mm ventilated discs all round with four-channel ABS|
|Material||all alloy, V6|
|Main bearings (number)
|Valve gear layout||dohc-per-bank|
sequential multipoint fuel injection and VTEC variable valve timing
|Power (net bhp/rpm)
||274bhp @ 7300rpm (automatic spec 255bhp @ 6800rpm)|
|Torque (net lb ft/rpm)
||224lb ft @ 5300rpm|
||five-speed manual with twin-plate clutch or four-speed automatic, torque-sensing differential, traction control, RWD|
|Top gear mph per 1000rpm||–|
|Final drive ratio
|Clutch : Make:
|spring single plate||–|
|Wheels and Tyres|
|Wheels (type and size)||five-spoke alloys 15 front and 16 rear inches|
|Tyres (type and size)||205/50VR15 (f), 255/50VR16 (r) Yokohama|
|Replenishment & Lubrication|
|Type of oil||10W/40|
|Engine sump capacity (pints)||–|
|Engine oil change interval (miles)||–|
|Gearbox and final drive capacity (pints)||–|
|Gearbox capacity (pints)||–|
|Final drive capacity (pints)
|Number of lights||–|
|Braking (Actual stopping distance in feet)|
|Driven carefully (mpg)||29|
|From standstill to mph. in seconds|
|0-62||5.8 secs (7.3 secs auto)|
|Max speed||168mph (162mph automatic)|
|Price new (1990, USA)||$33,500|
|Cost new (2003, GB)||£55,000|
|Value now (2014, GB)||£25,000+|