Nearly thirty years ago, on 14 June 1990, Honda began production of its NSX.
Described at the time as a supercar, it was the first vehicle of this type the company had ever attempted, yet it has a place in history as one of the greatest of its era.
It was so good that Honda was able to keep it on sale for 15 years with only relatively minor updates. Finding a secondhand one for under £30,000 may prove difficult, while a really spectacular example could be worth a six-figure sum.
At an early stage, Honda decided that the car would be mid-engined, and would be built around an aluminium bodyshell. Aluminium was a far less common material for bodies than that it is now, but Honda knew it was necessary to give the NSX a combination of low weight and high structural rigidity.
The engine, originally a 3.0-litre, was a V6 with Honda’s VTEC technology, which brought in a racier inlet cam profile at high revs. The V6 layout was shared with an extremely successful F1 unit, though by the time the NSX went on sale the race team had switched to a V10.
Influences and influencer
In a 1999 interview, NSX project leader Shigeru Uehara said that during the car’s development Honda used many existing models as ‘reference vehicles’. The astonishingly varied list he gave included the Audi Quattro, Chevrolet Corvette, Ferrari 308, Fiat X1/9, Peugeot 205 GTi, Porsche 911 and Toyota MR2, a line-up which might never have been mentioned in the same sentence before.
By contrast, when designer Gordon Murray first drove an NSX he immediately stopped thinking about all other sports cars and made the Honda his sole inspiration for the handling and ride quality of the McLaren F1 (pictured).
On the inside
NSX occupants did not have much to look at in their immediate neighbourhood. Honda resisted the temptation, if it had ever felt any, to add drama to the interior, which was hardly more exciting than that of the contemporary Civic or Accord.
The view outside was much better. The ‘cab forward’ body shape and a policy of providing as much glass as possible gave the car excellent visibility.
Race driver input
Japanese F1 driver Satoru Nakajima (who would later run a team of NSXs in sports race racing) was asked to evaluate the NSX on track, and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal (whose non-sporting interests include selling Hondas and Acuras) advised on the suspension set-up for the US press launch at Laguna Seca.
More famously, three-time F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna (pictured) tested an NSX. “I’m not sure I can really give you appropriate advice on a mass-production car,” he is reported as telling Honda, before going on to say that he felt the chassis should be stiffer.
A late prototype of the NSX (or NS-X as it was referred to at the time) made its first public appearance at the Chicago Auto Show on 10 February 1989 (pictured). The European debut took place in Geneva almost exactly a month later on March 9.
The importance of the car as an export model is shown by the fact that it was not displayed in Japan until the Tokyo show, which opened in late October.
NSX production began at a new factory in Tochigi Prefecture north of Tokyo on 14 June 1990. It was so new, in fact, that it was not officially opened until August 30. Body panels, engines and gearboxes were brought in from other Honda plants, but the Tochigi workers were responsible for final assembly, which was mostly done by hand rather than by robot.
Production capacity was 25 cars per day. The US was expected to be the main market, with Japan a close second and Europe a distant third.
On the market
The NSX went on sale in the US as an Acura in August 1990 and in Japan as a Honda the following month. UK imports began early in 1991.
Worldwide media reaction was positive right from the start. The NSX was regarded as a very impressive car, especially since its manufacturer had never tried anything like this before, though two other Japanese sports models, the Mazda RX7 and Nissan 300ZX, were regarded as closer rivals than they might be thought of today.
The Type R
One outstanding feature of the NSX was how easy it was to drive no matter how quickly or slowly it was going. This did not suit everyone, so in November 1992 Honda introduced the Type R, also known as NSX-R. Maximum power, never a priority for the NSX, remained at around 270bhp, but the weight dropped by 120kg and the suspension was made considerably stiffer, particularly at the front.
The Type R was therefore less comfortable on public roads but quicker round a race circuit. Some people liked this, but perhaps not enough: production lasted only until October 1995.
Honda resisted offering a convertible version of the NSX to begin with but later felt compelled to develop one in an effort to increase sales, particularly in the US. The NSX-T, introduced in March 1995, had a removable roof panel, also known as a Targa top. Despite attempts to avoid this as far as possible, weight went up by 40kg, 25kg of it being accounted for by metal reinforcements in 50 locations.
Performance and handling suffered, but the same could be said of the Porsche 911 Cabriolet, which we compared with the Honda in a contemporary twin test.
The arrival of the NSX-T coincided with revisions to the whole range. These included a drive-by-wire electronic throttle, a new limited slip differential and upgraded traction control on manual-transmission cars, better brake cooling and a change in the exhaust tailpipe shape to match that of the soon to be discontinued Type R.
Another development was the introduction of F-Matic (known as Sport Shift in the US) to the automatic gearbox. This gave drivers the opportunity of either letting the car make its own decisions about gear choice or having manual input via a selector mounted next to the steering wheel.
In 1997 the NSX engine was enlarged from 2977cc to 3179cc and mated to a new six-speed manual gearbox. The power output was quoted as being 276bhp, the agreed but not legally binding maximum among Japanese manufacturers at the time.
Cars with automatic transmission retained the 3.0-litre engine, which had had a maximum output of 252bhp in these versions since launch.
Type S and S-Zero
Also new in 1997 was the Type S, a low-specification, lightweight derivative slightly more refined than the Type R which had been discontinued two years before. Even more standard equipment was removed from the S-Zero, which weighed 95kg less than a normal coupé and had even firmer suspension than the Type S.
Alex Zanardi Edition
There were no major changes to the NSX for the remainder of the 20th century, but in 1999 a special edition was created for the US market in honour of Alex Zanardi, who had won the CART series for the previous two years in Honda-engined Reynards run by Chip Ganassi Racing.
Zanardi became a double amputee after a violent crash at the Lausitzring in Germany in September 2001. He returned to motorsport using cars fitted with hand controls, and has also taken up handcycling, winning gold medals at the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics.
A new look
A facelifted NS-X went on sale in Japan in December 2001, the US a month later and Europe in spring. Mechanically, very little was different. The most obvious change was a pair of fixed front light clusters, replacing the pop-up headlights which had been used for more than a decade.
Less immediately obvious were the new front bumper, airdam, side skirts and other aerodynamic changes, reported to be so effective that they raised the top speed of the manual coupé to 175mph.
The second Type R
After a gap of seven years, a new Type R was introduced in May 2002. In addition to the increased power and superior aerodynamics recently given to all manual-transmission NSXs, this one had a carbonfibre bonnet and rear spoiler, a rear diffuser, the usual firmer suspension and a more responsive throttle, among many other improvements.
“In terms of rivals,” we reported after driving the car, “only Porsche’s hard-core 911 GT3 matches the Honda on price, ability, focus and sheer aural pleasure.”
In the summer of 2004 NSX production moved from Tochigi to Suzuka. It didn’t stay there for long. On 12 July 2005 Honda announced that the car would be discontinued after over 18,000 examples had been sold in 15 years. The reason given was “the extensive retooling necessary to meet stringent 2006 emissions and equipment regulations for the US, European and Asian markets”.
The company said on the same day that it was “currently working on a successor, a new sports car for a new era, which is to incorporate Honda’s most advanced technology”, but such a vehicle would not go on sale for over a decade.
After years of speculation, the second-generation NSX at last went on sale in 2016. The current car is still a V6 mid-engined two-door coupé, but the engine is larger at 3.5 litres and paired with an electric motor to drive the rear wheels. Two further electric motors drive the front, with a total power output of 573bhp - or around double what the original car produced.
“The NSX gets our nod over every rival but one,” we said, “and that is the formidable McLaren 570S.”
30 years on
“How good will this brilliant car be when it’s 30 years old?” an American journalist wrote of the original NSX. One answer is that a so-called supercar with under 300bhp can no longer be taken seriously when it’s possible to buy an estate or SUV with more than twice that. Large numbers are too often valued more highly than excellent handling.
But test reports of the 2005 NSX on Honda’s UK press fleet show just how much enthusiastic drivers still admire its ability. The first-generation car was one of the greats of its day, even if that day is long gone.
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