Sometimes change can come from the most unlikely of places.
Over 25 years ago, Honda – a brand best known for producing some of the world’s best motorbikes and plenty of extremely reliable, if dull, family road cars – redefined the world’s expectations of what a supercar should be.
It set the blueprint for what journalists now commonly refer to as ‘the useable supercar’ – extremely fast, thrilling to drive, but also practical and easy to use every day. There aren’t many modern supercars that don’t in some way follow this winning formula today.
With the launch of the NSX in 1991, sports-car kings Porsche and Ferrari had to sit up and take notice of a car that comprehensively outperformed their offerings at the time – the 348 and 964.
As CAR Magazine stated in 1990: “How can a car with so many compelling virtues be anything other than the best? It can’t be. And it is. It’s better than the Ferrari , and by some margin. And better than the 911 , by an even bigger one. Honda has done a Formula One on the supercar field.”
Honda first hinted at a supercar back in 1984, when they teamed up with Pininfarina to create the futuristic, mid-engined HP-X concept car, which was displayed at the 1984 Turin Motor Show.
With NSX development beginning a year later, the brief from the management to Executive Chief Engineer Shigeru Uehara and Chief Designer Masahito Nakano was simple: create a machine that was better than anything Ferrari or Porsche had to offer.
It wasn’t until the 1989 Chicago Auto Show that the Honda NSX (NSX stood for New Sports eXperience) – or Acura NSX as it was known in America – broke cover.
With its svelte, flowing and aerodynamic lines, the mid-engined coupe was a stunning creation. It was also beautifully engineered, boasting a number of world firsts: it was the first production car with an ultra-lightweight, all-aluminium body, chassis and suspension.
That V6 engine was also technically brilliant, benefitting from Honda’s F1 technology. As well as being one of the first powerplants with variable valve timing, it also debuted individual coils, platinum spark plugs and titanium conrods, which allowed the NSX to rev all the way to 8,300 rpm. It may have only produced 274bhp, but that was more than enough when you consider that it had to propel a car weighing just 1,350kg.
Power, however, wasn’t the priority. Today, the Honda NSX is revered as being one of the most finely-balanced driver’s cars of all time.
In between the car’s reveal at Chicago and its official launch, Honda’s engineers undertook an intense testing programme at the Suzuka circuit to ensure that their new creation handled perfectly.
Around the same time, Ayrton Senna was undertaking pre-season testing at the challenging Japanese track. During that period Honda was, of course, McLaren’s Formula One engine supplier. In a season where McLaren-Honda dominated, winning all but one of the 16 races, Senna had narrowly beaten his fierce rival, Alain Prost to clinch the first of his three world championships.
Honda seized the opportunity for Senna – one of the most talented drivers in the world at the time and arguably the best ever – to get behind the wheel and assess the NSX’s handling characteristics. To say that the mercurial Brazilian single-handedly developed the NSX, however, would be untrue, and disrespectful to the Honda’s engineers
He did, however, after an afternoon pounding around Suzuka, provide them with some invaluable feedback, which helped to hone the NSX into the perfectly balanced machine we know and love.
On his return to the pitlane, Senna was quoted as saying: “I’m not sure I can really give you appropriate advice on a mass-production car, but I feel it’s a little fragile.” When you consider that the NSX was based on an extremely rigid all-alloy monocoque chassis, you can imagine that Honda’s engineers were quite taken aback by this statement – but they were also extremely impressed by Senna’s sensitivity.
So the engineers set to work, and by the time Senna was invited to drive the NSX again at the Nurburgring, this time to fine-tune its suspension settings, it’s said that the torsional weakness that he’d identified in Suzuka had completely disappeared, thanks to a 50 percent increase in chassis rigidity. There’s no doubting that Senna’s important role in the development of the NSX contributed to a legend that lives on to this day.
Along with all its sporting credentials, the design of the NSX was clearly very carefully considered. It came with a number of creature comforts, such as air-conditioning, that many sports car manufacturers would have left out to save weight. Not to mention the fact that it had a boot big enough for the luggage of two passengers, comfortable and supportive seats, a sound driving position and excellent all-round visibility.
Right up until production of the NSX ended in 2005, a number of different variants were released, including the stripped-out NSX R, limited to just 483 units for the Japanese market.
In 2002, the car was redesigned, gaining an engine with an extra 20bhp, but losing its familiar pop-up headlights.
High pricing meant that around 18,000 were built during the car’s 15-year production run and, despite all the praise heaped on Honda’s image-building halo vehicle, these cars have only just started to become really sought after.
Last year, you could have snapped up an NSX for as little as £30,000, which is a veritable bargain when you consider the skyrocketing prices of other supercars of that ilk, such as the Jaguar XJ220 or the turbocharged Ferrari F40.
But prices of the original NSX are already quickly on the rise, with some of the rarer examples being listed at the £50,000 mark and above. With the launch of the next-generation Honda NSX this year, which features a 550bhp twin-turbo electric hybrid powertrain, this rapid increase looks set to continue, as it’s finally being considered a classic
And, although European sports-car manufacturers caught up with Honda throughout the 90s, there’s undoubtedly something special about owning a vehicle that, thanks to Honda’s incredible attention to detail, arguably gave rise to a whole new generation of supercar.
Words: Matthew Upton // Photos: Nick Williams // Thanks to Fast Factory for the location