The history and development of the original Honda NSX



In the mid eighties, Soichiro Honda decided he wanted to produce a super car that would hold its own against the supercars produced by the established European car manufacturers and he boldly commissioned the development of a mid engine rear wheel drive supercar. In his sights were the Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches of the eighties and more specifically he wanted to take on the Ferrari 328 (eventually 348tb) directly. The brief was to have a car that was faster, more reliable, more useable and importantly cheaper than the Ferrari. Initially Pininfarina was commissioned as designer on the Honda Pininfarina eXperimental (HP-X), and eventually Ken Okuyama and Shigeru Uehara were tasked with developing the New Sportscar eXperminatal (NS-X) prototype. Uehara and Okuyama were also responsible for the design of the Honda S2000[1]. The car took a very long time (six years) to develop and luckily for Honda, this coincided with their engines powering William’s Constructor’s Championship victory in Formula 1 in 1986.

The NSX had to be reliable, fast, dynamic and useable whatever the weather conditions. The aim was to create a car that is easy to drive around the city but which is also capable of behaving like a true sports car when pushed to the limit. Interestingly, the adverts at the time stressed the fact that the car was useable in heavy rain fall, presumably due to the fact that in the seventies and eighties exotic cars were notoriously not reliable in adverse weather conditions. Most importantly the car needed to handle and excel on the track. To this end, Ayrton Senna famously tested the NSX at the Suzuka Circuit shortly before the car was meant to be released for sale and following his advice Honda went back to the drawing board very late in the day and considerably stiffened the all aluminium chassis. Senna enjoyed an excellent relationship with Honda at the time especially considering that each of the three championships he won with McLaren were powered by Honda engines. Senna also tested the NS-X prototype at the Nurburgring and advised Honda on the development of the then ground breaking aluminium suspension which to date is regarded as one of the most innovative suspension systems ever designed due to the introduction of a suspension compliance pivot that helped maintain wheel alignment changes to virtually nil. The NSX was the first production car to use an all aluminium monocoque chassis and aluminium was also used for the body panels saving 200kg in body panels alone. The chassis is as stiff as a steel chassis but with half the weight which contributes to the car’s ergonomics, shorter braking distance required and faster acceleration. The obsession for lightness is echoed in the car’s unsprung weight such as suspension arms and wheel hubs (forged aluminium) and the scissor jack for replacing flat wheels was also constructed specifically for the car from light weight aluminium.  There were further innovative features on the car such as the titanium connecting rods enabling high revving on the engine, variable valve timing (VTEC) as well as the introduction of drive by wire electronic throttle (a first for honda) and the car was enabled with a standard four-channel anti-lock braking system and all-speed traction control.

The F-16 Falcon fighter jet inspired the car’s low drag looks, all round visibility from the ‘cockpit’, as well as the fact that the cockpit sits far forward on the body and in front of the engine. The car’s dynamics, ergonomics and handling were also derived from Honda’s Formula 1 motor-sports program and the car’s mid-engine long tail design was meant to enhance high-speed directional stability. Honda’s F1 engines also inspired the development of the ultra reliable and natural aspirated 24-valve DOHC 3.0 V6 which was capable of revving up to 8,300 RPM and developed 270 BHP and 210 N-m of torque at 5,300 RPM. Thanks to the use of VTEC variable timing, the car retained ultra drivability at low revs while engaging a more aggressive third cam at 5,800 revs. This system had been previously used in the Honda CRX and went on to be used in Type R versions of the Civic, Accord and Integra as well as on the extraordinary F20C engine which was used on the S2000. Honda decided against a supercharger because of the weight it would have added whilst turbo charging was deemed unreliable and expensive to maintain. Owners of NSX’s went on to drive their cars over the 200,000 mile mark with trouble free motoring and only regular servicing and the car today enjoys an excellent reliability reputation twenty years after its debut.

A new factory was built especially for the construction of the NSX located next door to Honda’s R&D facility in Tochigi and all cars were constructed in this plant until 2004. Honda wanted to build an employee friendly factory with limited production numbers and to work on the NSX an employee required ten years previous experience with Honda. Honda planned to build only 25 cars per day and to this effect at any one time an average of two hundred high skilled workers would work on the NSX production line. One technician was assigned to each engine and all cars and engines were be hand built. A four-coat 23 step waterborne painting process was developed by Honda for the NSX and metals were chromate coated to avoid galvanic corrosion.

The NSX eventually went on sale in Japan in 1990 and the hyphen used in the prototype NS-X was dropped just before its launch. In 1992 Honda developed the NSX-R, a track oriented car that managed to shed a further 120 kilos by the removal of sound deadening, spare wheel, air con and sound system as well as the installation of Recaro carbon-kevlar seats. Enkei shod the car with lightweight alloy wheels and the leather gear-knob was replaced by a titanium one (the Integra Type-R echoed this feature in 1998). In 1995 Honda introduced the NSX-T Targa version. Compensating for loss of chassis rigidity meant that the A-posts and sills had to be strengthened and this added 40 kilos to the weight of the car. Prior to 95’ roofs were black irrespective of the colour of the rest of the body, and with the Targa, roofs were painted in the same colour of the body. In 1997 Honda increased the displacement of the engine to 3.2 litres from 3.0 and re-designed the exhaust manifold of the car which resulted in an extra 20 bhp taking the power up to 290 BHP and 305 N-m of torque. A six speed close gear manual transmission was also mated to this new engine and the car switched from a twin disc to a single disc clutch system. Finally in 2002, more than ten years after its debut the NSX received a face-lift and the original pop up lights were replaced by fixed xenon HID headlamp units. The NSX stopped production in 2005 and approximately 18,500 cars were built over a fourteen year life-span.

Honda has produced a car which is unique in many aspects. The NSX has its own special place in automotive history and deserves a chapter in any book outlining the development of supercars in the last century. Most impressive are the all aluminium monocoque chassis, the innovative suspension as well as that screaming VTEC which lies at the heart of the car. The NSX’s equivalent today is arguably the Nissan GT-R. Japanese precision weapons which undercut their equivalent European’s prices considerably but which punch way above their weight performance wise while providing their owners with exhilaration, practicality and reliability. There might not be the flair, extravagant design and materials and cabin quality which Italian exotics provide their owners with but there is something ‘manga’ about Japanese cars. A cult which has a religious following worldwide. And I must admit, I do worship the screaming god that powers Type R engines. Writing this article has got me itching for the addition of a Type R to my garage.

[1] Okuyama took over a project which was initially entrusted to Pininfarina and twenty years later he actually joined the Pininfarina design team as a team designer.

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