‘Like A Ferrari, But Better.’
The story of the Honda/Acura NSX ‘Everyday Supercar.’ #howitwasmade
We all know about ‘Ford vs. Ferrari,’ but what about Honda? In the ’80s, Honda had risen from a producer of ‘kei cars’ and tiny urban-transport vehicles into a worldwide powerhouse. At the time, they were building and shipping around three million motorcycles per year.
Their automotive engines powered Formula One race winners. And reliability? Let’s just say the 80s and 90s Japanese automotive build quality might be the best seen on this planet so far. But as one might imagine, they wanted more than this. They wanted to build a car that was as good or better than a Ferrari.
The first problem with making a ‘Honda Ferrari’ is that a Ferrari isn’t front-wheel drive. And almost all Hondas made before the NSX are front wheel drive vehicles. But Honda was no stranger to jumping into unknown territory. This is the key to understanding the soul of the NSX; Honda as a company was great at entering new market segments, analyzing them, then changing as they learned more about the situation.
Especially in Europe, most large companies don’t do this; they spend most of their energy planning things. Five-year, ten-year, even twenty-five-year plans aren’t uncommon. But market forces and unknown variables change situations all the time. Winners know how to adapt.
This was how Honda took over the motorcycle segment in the 80s; they intended to dominate with larger 300cc and up machines, especially in America. Unfortunately their bike reliability suffered in the ‘heavyweight class,’ as their machines weren’t used to driving the long distances of American highways.
So they pivoted; instead focusing on selling the small Super Cub scooter. They sold millions, all while learning how to build bigger bikes. As you might imagine, eventually they learned. The key in all situations was finding out more about the unknown, the ‘X factor’ in the equation.
This explains the original name of the NSX; it simply meant ‘New,’ ‘Sportscar,’ and ‘X,’ for ‘unknown quantity’ or ‘we don’t really know yet.’ (Admitting you don’t really know what you’re doing isn’t always the most effective marketing strategy; they later came up with a ‘backronym’ for advertising purposes.)
Back to the formula for the car; Honda analyzed supercars and figured out a basic recipe: it needed to be rear or all-wheel-drive. Mid- or rear-engined. 50/50 weight distribution or close to it. A stiff chassis. Big tires. Lots of power, and lots of braking capability to stop that power. The list goes on.
But Honda’s top brass then added other stuff usually not attempted with a supercar! They wanted the NSX to be comfortable to drive all day, even all week as a daily driver. Most supercars are basically race cars adapted for the road, and racecars are not designed with comfort in mind. Another demand was for the car to have the ultimate in ‘driver visibility,’ basically a full field of vision so that the car could navigate and even excel in urban environments.
This was of course another thing that racing designers don’t really anticipate; F1 machines aren’t created to allow for easy parallel parking. Finally, it was demanded that the NSX be as reliable or more so than the average roadgoing Honda.
Honda was (and in a lot of ways still is) the absolute gold standard in vehicle reliability, so this was an extremely tall order and guiding principle. In a lot of ways, these expectations were impossible.
There were also other things happening behind the scenes; firstly, the Honda CEO at the time was planning to retire. His name was Tadashi Kume, and he was among many other things an engine designer who helped create the fuel-efficient and bombproof CVCC. Mr. Kume took the reins at Honda in 1983, and work began on the NSX around 1984.
Mr. Kume passed his job title on to Nobuhiko Kawamoto in 1990, a year after the NSX was shown at the Chicago Auto Show and literally only a few weeks after the NSX went on sale in Japan. None of this of course was public at the time, but it helps to explain the timetable for creation and release of the NSX.
Finally, Honda was to be the first Japanese auto company to create a luxury car division. This was to launch in the United States and its name was to be Acura. The NSX would be the ‘halo car’ for Acura and represent all of what Acura planned to be. So in fact, there was a plan; it was just a flexible plan.
Most of the other stuff is pretty-well known; the body for the car was designed by renowned Italian firm Pininfarina. Unlike their designs for Ferrari, Honda specified that the car needed to have 360 degree views and a spacious trunk. The performance benchmarks came from the Ferrari 328, aka the ‘Magnum P.I.’ Ferrari.
The car was to be the first production car with an all-aluminum body, and one of the first cars with an all-aluminum frame. This of course saved tons of weight. Powering it was ‘only’ a V6, but it was a V6 created specifically for the task by the Honda motorsport division and eventually featured then-new VTEC technology.
Said motorsport division stuffed the engine with a lot of overbuilt and titanium-laden components, so it redlined at a quite high 8000rpm.
The car was tested and re-tested, and a prototype was famously put through its paces by Honda F1 drivers Satoru Nakajima and Ayrton Senna. Famously, Senna told NSX engineers the car ‘felt a little fragile’ during a ride at the Nuerburgring; the engineers responded by increasing the rigidity of the car by 50 percent in only a few months.
A lot of the credit should go to the chief designer Masahito Nakano and the chief engineer Shigeru Uehara; both took a very perfectionist approach to the vehicle. After a bit of re-tuning, the car launched to near-universal acclaim. Future updates to the car increased engine size and speed; Honda in these cases wanted to both keep up with Ferrari and also answer critiques from drivers interested in straight-line speed.
Even the durability standards ended up working out; there are NSX cars driving in the present day with 200,000 and 300,000 miles on them.
Try that with a Ferrari.
Thanks for reading, + if anyone knows any interesting info on the NSX; let us know!
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