There once was a time when Japanese automakers were fearless in their pursuit of pushing the limits of raw, gas-guzzling engineering. Nowadays, engineers are pressed to get the most out of the fewest parts, and make sure to paint them with a nice coat of “green”.
Although there have been some great engineering highlights coming out of Japan recently, there are few that can hold a candle to what is perhaps the most innovative supercar-eater Japan has ever produced, the Honda NSX.
Born out of the F1 racing team’s development circle, the NSX (New Sportscar eXperimental) first came into existence via a collaboration with the Italian design group Pininfarina that was dubbed the HP-X (Honda Pininfarina – Experimental).
The goal of the project was simply to build a mid-engined vehicle that would help break the mold of the FF (front wheel drive, front engine) vehicles that were the staple of Japan at the time. This eagerness to get out of its comfort zone was spurred by Honda realizing a need to move up market in order to boost the image of its luxury Acura brand overseas.
In a rather bold statement, the automaker set its sights on Ferrari’s 348 to out perform the Italian stallion both on the track and to the grocery store. In the late 1980’s it was accepted that a Japanese brand could make a comfortable, reliable ride (as proven in the Toyota Celsior/Lexus LS) but to take a shot at the European supercars was not something that many people thought the Japanese could do.
Nevertheless, like many of Honda’s historic moves (see Honda Cub), the company scooped up a team out of Japan and dumped them on the Nurburgring for 8 months. It would be great to say that the NSX just flowed out of the engineer’s minds directly onto the track, but the story is much more interesting than that. As true as it is today, Japanese innovation is and always has been about the process.
With the bar of the NSX set so high, it was clear from the beginning that new technologies were going to be needed not just in the making of the car, but with engineering of new factory processes as well. Although the team was torn between utilizing a mixture of steel and aluminum, it was a ride on the Japanese bullet train that seemed to seal the deal. From the perspective of the engineers, if the Shinkansen could be built out of aluminum, what was stopping them from doing the same with the NSX.
Before dumping all of its resources into a brand new supercar platform, Honda’s engineering teams were let loose to play the role of mad scientists. The Frankensteins of choice that would be the stepping stones to greatness, were born out of the popular compact Honda City, and later the classic CR-X. Aluminum chassis of both of these vehicles were fabricated and put through the ringer for vigorous testing of safety and performance well into the mid 1980s.
Later on, advice given from the famous F1 racer, Ayrton Senna, after a test drive of an early prototype would prove to be crucial to the development of a more rigid frame. This would lead to fabrication advancements in aluminum welding that further improved the company’s production capabilities. Once Honda was confident that it had the base formula down, it began to shape what we would come to know as the first generation NSX.
At the 1989 Chicago Auto Show, the NSX concept made its debut to an anxious audience who were eager to see the fighter jet inspired, Ferrari killer that crossed over onto Western soil. Needless to say, when the veil was drawn on the sculpted aluminum body and the press heard the wail of the tuned V6, it was an instant hit.
Naturally, the legend of the world-class Honda did not stop there. The team continued its pursuit of a perfect blend between performance and drivability through a relentless battery of laps around tracks across the globe.
After getting a first hand account of the capabilities of the NSX, Italian automakers were forced to rethink their entire approach to the supercar industry. Up until this point, the crude and brute force engineering of Ferrari flagship models would not suffice for the market that was quickly turning to the NSX.
Almost overnight, the high-end sports car buyers warmed up to a supercar that would start every time without the moody mechanical underpinnings that plagued Ferrari and Lamborghini. Although one could argue that the exterior of the NSX may have been outdone by more exotic brands, when it came to actual driving and comfort as a daily driver, the Japanese brand reigned supreme.
Even though the original NSX ceased production in 2005, Honda has plans to reveal an all new NSX for 2015. The new NSX will be powered by a mid-engine turbo V6 but this time utilizing hybrid electric assisted motors to produce over 400BHP.
Development of the car will be done primarily in America, with engine development being done in Japan. With a recent announcement that Honda will return to Formula 1 to supply engines to Team McLaren, fans are eagerly anticipating a Type-R version of the new NSX with input from McLaren to come in the future.
The supercar market is decidedly more crowded than when Honda first entered it back in 1989. Ferrari (with help from Fiat) and Lamborghini (with help from VW) are producing top quality cars and even once consecrative marques such as Mercedes and BMW are producing supercar level saloon cars.
Can lighting strike twice for Honda? With three electric motors, a twin-turbo V6 engine and a target weight of 1400kg, the all new Honda NSX may once again be the most exciting supercar on the market.
Special Guest Contribution by Jimi Okelana