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From End to End: Life of the Honda NSX

You don’t have to be over thirty years of age to appreciate the performance cars from the early nineties. In Italy the Ferrari fellows had evolved the Testarossa into the 512 TR with a 5-liter flat 12 engine making a whopping 428 hp. Their raging bull neighbors made something called the Diablo with a top speed of 210 mph. And in Germany the Porsche crew had developed their beautiful 964 911 Turbo S into a 380 hp monster. At the same time Jaguar was busy cooking up a world record breaking XJ220. All of these were great cars in their own right but they all had  common issues. Issues that Honda knew could be solved with their own bespoke platform.

The atmosphere amongst spectators regarding Honda’s first supercar was skeptical but hopeful. They weren’t exactly known for making fast road cars at the time. In the late eighties their most sporty lineup involved the Prelude and CR-X, both of which were front engined front wheel drive compacts. A far cry from the proposed mid-engined rear wheel drive project that had been underway since 1984. But the doubts were short lived when in 1986 Honda started their Acura division, the first Japanese luxury brand. The Acura name was their ticket to prove they could make great cars. In the case of the NSX, heritage on the track was evidence enough.

Although Honda’s racing team at the time didn’t have a dedicated F1 car per se, they did an excellent job providing their finest product: Engines. Between 1988 to 1992 Honda’s racing team gave McLaren their most powerful and advanced engines available to the F1 scene. One of their most famous examples was the RA168-E - A 1.5 liter turbo V6 capable of 650 hp. With a McLaren chassis, Honda power, and the greatest driver of all time behind the wheel the outcome was predictable; an astounding 27 first place wins over the course of just four years. The confidence inspired by these consecutive victories over the likes of Ferrari made a case that they could do the same in a street car.

Still, comparing Honda to Ferrari was a preposterous concept. The Japanese didn’t want to fight fire with Italian fire. After all, cars like the Diablo were uncomfortable with its harsh ride and poor visibility. It also suffered from a strange seating position, heavy clutch and very heavy steering. At the time this was acceptable because it was fast, but you wouldn’t want to drive it everyday. Those were the issues the NSX was made to avoid. Honda wanted the exotic experience with the comfort and usability of a mid-range car like the Corvette. In order to do so they had to make smart engineering decisions.

Uncharted Technologies

From beginning to end Honda had a plan for their no-compromise creation. But it wasn’t going to be easy. They needed the car to weigh at most 3,000 lbs which led to the decision to make the car out of aluminum instead of steel. This brought on difficulties in how the chassis would be manufactured. Because aluminum is more expensive, not as stiff, and harder to shape Honda needed to employ a whole new set of tools. For that, the engineers set to work using the Cray supercomputer for modeling and stress analysis calculations.

This allowed Honda to shape the frame and body for maximum rigidity. In the manufacturing process Honda had to employ stronger welding machines to overcome the heat resistant properties of aluminum alloys. Some parts of the car required hand shaping as stamping would cause the material to tear. On top of all that Honda needed a special type of paint as the one used for steel would not adhere properly. Was all of this work actually worth it?

The answer is a resounding yes. Not only did the NSX succeed in torsional rigidity and lightness but Honda was able to complete their objectives in aerodynamics and interior space at the same time. Extensive research in the wind tunnel revealed front ends with a narrow tip didn’t provide a significant amount of drag over ones without a taper. This meant a wider, slightly taller front bumper giving the passenger cabin more foot room. Other mid engined supercars had to shift the pedal box as a consequence of their wedged architecture.

Honda worked obsessively to reinforce their driver focused prototype. When designing the upper cabin the Japanese engineers took inspiration from the F16 fighter jet and Unlimited Hydroplane racing boat. Their vision of an open air canopy was realized in the NSX upper body with its taller glass and thin pillars. Early models even painted the roof and pillars black to give it a more distinct and sleek look. In the rear the long tail shape with integrated spoiler added high speed stability and more room in the boot.

The Simple and not so Simple Powertrain

Sitting between the driver and the rear storage compartment is the heart of the NSX. A 3.0-liter naturally aspirated 90° V6 engine generating 270 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque. The decision to use a non-turbo V6 was not taken lightly. Honda found that a V8 would be too heavy and a turbo V6 wouldn’t provide the power band they were after. With a highly advanced NA V6 Honda was confident they could get a responsive engine that made enough power to satisfy another objective: 11 pounds of weight per horsepower. Even though the engine on paper seems like a bog standard appliance the NSX motor is truly state of the art.

To make up for its lack of power Honda pursued lightness and efficiency instead. They made the block out of aluminum in lieu of iron. Connecting rods were constructed using titanium for low reciprocating mass. And of course Honda’s famous VTEC variable valve timing system utilized two separate cam profiles for different intake and exhaust durations. As a result the NSX V6 is capable of revving all the way up to 8,000 rpm with a fuel cutoff 300 rpm later. Contributing technologies included a variable induction system, programmed fuel injection, baffled oil pan with high powered pump, and an aluminum radiator core.

A fast but easy driving experience was a tireless endeavor. That’s why the development team spent a great many months tuning their aluminum forged SLA suspension. Their focus was ensuring the wheels didn’t change toe during cornering or bumps without stiffening the coils. Honda’s solution was a compliance pivot that rotated under load to make up for the unequal length control arms. This made driving and steering on the street a low effort affair. Honda even put in a dual mass flywheel to make clutch engagement lighter.

In the Wake of the NSX Wave

Feedback from early test models was lukewarm. Honda seeked ways to improve their car with the advice of famous racing car drivers - chief among which was Ayrton Senna. The McLaren-Honda F1 champion didn’t like how the NSX initially handled and simply told Honda to stiffen the chassis. So they did… by fifty percent. When it finally went on sale in August of 1990 it took the world of supercars by storm.

Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motortrend, Autocar, and many other major publishing groups all loved the NSX for its comfort and handling. They adored the way it corners with a knife edged precision and lack of scary lift-off oversteer. Even ex-F1 driver and presenter Tiff Needell appreciated how it comes alive at the track. Reviewers admired the amazing visibility, seating position, and satisfying shifter throw.

But the wake of love didn’t last forever. Over the course of its 14 year run the NSX hadn’t really undergone any significant changes. By the end of the production cycle Honda had added a slightly more powerful 3.2-liter V6 making 290 hp, a targa top option, 6-speed manual, tuned suspension, and fixed headlights. All good improvements - all too little too late. Near the end Richard Hammond summed up the NSX-R in a poignant and brutally honest fashion.

This isn’t a car anymore. It’s just an engineer’s plaything

The problem the NSX had was every time Honda attempted to improve the car it got heavier, not as agile, and wistfully losing a part of its soul. It was also expensive. In 1990 the NSX was the most expensive Japanese car ever sold at $65,000. With sales dropping considerably Honda announced in 2005 they would make the NSX no more.

You Don’t Need to Bring a Trailer

If you want to buy a clean one today you still need to pay a premium. A clean model with low mileage, manual transmission, and a hard top can fetch more than $70,000. There’s a very good reason for that. If you’re familiar with how modern day mid-engine sports cars drive you might find the NSX doesn’t handle any better or worse than the 2016 equivalent. And that’s the thing - it exerts characteristics that are disturbingly close to today’s offerings. It just has a lot less power.

Sadly we’ll never see a car like this NSX ever again. Honda’s second generation hybrid is a respectably fast performer but it didn’t exceed expectations, rather, it just met them. This original NSX project pushed Honda to do everything the hard way. From the new chassis material to the engineering behind all the parts and manufacturing it’s no wonder Honda kept the NSX around as long as they did. The research and development costs were astronomical as the first several years were sold at a loss.

Ultimately we can thank the Honda NSX for influencing this one important person: Gordan Murray. The South African born mechanical engineer gained notoriety for his work designing F1 cars with McLaren-Honda during Ayrton Senna’s winning streak. However, after he drove the NSX he instantly fell in love with its handling and ride comfort. So much so, in fact, that he emulated parts of the car for his next big project: The McLaren F1.

To this day, the NSX is still a car that is near and dear to my heart.
— Gordon Murray

Black & White 2005 NSX photos courtesy of Silverstone Auctions

Gordon Murray quote translated from English to Japanese back to English (Source is a Japanese article)