High performance sports cars and Europe (Italian for the most part), two words that you'd normally see together almost exclusively. Almost, because 30 years ago, a mid-engined exotic with no European blood whatsoever rolled out of Japan: and it was named the NSX. Three decades have passed since the world first set its eyes on the bright red, low-slung, light-weight, high-revving machine from Honda. It was a sight to behold, and it was a car that would usher in the renaissance of what Honda and Acura are today.
But what exactly is it about the NSX that has made it as timeless and iconic as it is? Let’s go on a journey into the history of Honda’s fabled sports car, and why it has captivated audiences and enthusiasts to this very day, shall we?
The journey began in 1984. In a time when Nissan had the GT-R and Toyota the 2000GT, no one even thought that anything that came from the Land of the Rising Sun can play with Italian and German thoroughbreds like Ferrari, Lamborghini, or Porsche. Honda was having none of it. As with any (future) production car, it all begins with a concept, and in this case, it was the Honda Pininfarina eXperimental, or the HP-X. Yes, Honda employed the help of Pininfarina (the guys that designed the Alfa Romeo Spider, Ferrari F40 and Testarossa) and came up with what looked like a sleek sled on wheels, powered by a 2.0L V6 engine. Revolutionary, design? Yes. Unparalleled performance? No.
Fun, simple, practical, while packing a wallop – this is what Honda saw in its would-be F-16 fighter-inspired Euro-contender. Led by Chief Designer Masahito Nakano and Shigeru Uehara, Executive Chief Engineer, the HP-X birthed the “New Sportscar eXperimental”. (Some would argue or say that the “X” was for “unknown world” and not “eXperimental”, with X being the variable for “unknown”.) Honda’s commitment to the project was unquestionable as they now got help from one of, if not the best Formula One driver of all time to give his input on the car’s performance: Ayrton Senna. After testing in Suzuka, and even on the Nurburgring, Senna’s words were invaluable as chassis and suspension updates based on his feedback went into the final production model.
Ultimately, the car is built on an all-aluminum, monocoque body. This was a first in that no other car manufacturer ventured into an all-aluminum build before this. With a cockpit that was all about visibility, a shape and tail that gave the car great stability, and a 3.0L V6 engine that churned out 270HP, the NS-X was born.
The world was then ready for Honda’s NSX. On February 9, 1989, the 81st Chicago Auto Show served as the stage for the bright red, low-riding, high-performance car that was the NSX (yes, they did away with the hyphen). Quite odd, though, was the fact that they launched the NSX under the Acura brand which was their more upscale, American counterpart. It did not matter at all. In June of the same year, following the great and positive reception of the public for the NSX, Honda launched a series of test drives in Japan, in the USA, and eventually in Europe as well. With each drive, a following continued to grow, and Shigeru Uehara’s thoughts on this were that “A car is a machine that functions through a direct link with the driver and passenger. The quality of that car is determined by whether or not the car can kindle excitement in the person who drives it."
And excitement was something that quite obviously, kept coming at those who would own or even just drive the NSX. Despite having a dedicated factory and plant producing (only) 25 units a day, Honda could not have imagined how the succeeding evolution of their ("super") sports car would help them reach production and sales highs that were stellar for such a product at that time. They have succeeded in giving their European counterparts a run for their money, and this gave them more reasons to continue the NSX’s development.
On to the geek-speak, the first generation NSX, the NA1, was the staple model from 1989 to 1991. In the following years, Honda brought us the now-familiar red badge, and they gave us the NSX-R NA1 from 1992 to 1995. As is expected of the Type R family, this NSX was 120kg lighter, had a more rigid chassis, stiffer suspension, and a better-performing engine-transmission combination. Only 483 R-NA1s was all that the world saw. The NA1 chassis still served as the platform for more future updates, though. In 1995, the targa NSX-T was introduced. Two years later, Honda saw fit to give the car a new 3.2L heart to replace the old 3.0L mill. To make it known that a stronger motor is under the “hood”, Japan saw the NSX-S and NSX-S Zero. Not to be outdone, and another two years later, the USA got the Alex Zanardi edition as tribute to the CART Champ Car driver.
In 2002, the NSX got a much welcome facelift. Gone are the pop-up headlights as they were replaced with fixed xenon HID units, the new model got some updated body and suspension work as well. As expected (or un-expected), this version also got the red-badged-Honda treatment. The NA2 NSX-R got more weight reduction by way of carbon fiber parts. The 3.2L engine was retained but despite this being the case, many people surmised that Honda might have played around with it, giving it a little bit more power than before. It was with this car that Honda and the NSX have reached the pinnacle of their "super" car mission.
Already being a 15-year old design with minor updated bits and bobs, the NSX did not beat the Nurburgring record. It did, however, equal the lap time of 7 minutes and 56 seconds set by, you guessed it, a Ferrari. And not just any Ferrari, but a F360 Challenge Stradale. All this while facing a more-than-100HP handicap from its Italian competition, too.
Honda had set out to bring sports car, nee super car, glory to Japan. And they were able to do so by fielding the NSX against tough competition and on tougher proving grounds as well. The challenge (pun intended) is complete. The mission has come full circle. Or has it? Yes, the NSX later on saw great times with its GT, Le Mans, and Super GT versions, but like a fairy tale, its ending came, but not with a happy ending. Or so it seemed at the time.
2005 closed the curtains on the production of the model that launched Honda to sports car greatness. Citing low and slow sales, the plug had to be pulled. That was until 2016, though.
After about a quarter of a century since its debut, Honda brought back the legendary three letters in their lineup and introduced the 2nd generation NSX. It has since gained traction from the time it was introduced, and it has grown along with the various technologies that Honda now has in its belt for what could be the second coming of their great sports car. Does it have the chops to do the same thing its predecessor did, though, and in less time that it took to do so before? 30 years hence, we’re guessing that we’ll have to wait and see.