Curbside Classic: 1991 Honda NSX – Pulling A Ferruccio

Back in the early ‘60s, Ferruccio Lamborghini famously told Enzo Ferrari that his cars could be better, prompting Ferrari to tell his client to go back to his tractor factory. Lamborghini did just that, but also snapped up a few ex-Ferrari workers and engineers to create a rival sports car. The rest is history, though said history did repeat itself, albeit in Switzerland, with Peter Monteverdi in the late ‘60s. And, 20-plus year later, in Japan and under pretty different circumstances, with the Honda NSX.

OK, so this Ferruccio metaphor is a bit of a stretch. But even still, when Honda decided to create a real full-size sports car, not bound by the stringent rules of the Japanese taxman, they aimed high and they hit hard. And because they were not doing this out of spite, unlike Lamborghini and Monteverdi, they took their time to craft an incredibly reliable and well-thought out machine – a Japanese supercar, rather than something that strictly competed on Ferrari’s terms.

Work on the New Sportscar X (hence NSX) started in 1984, under the aegis of Shigeru Uehara, who soon determined that Honda’s usual FWD ways would not cut it. The benchmark that Honda were using was the Ferrari 328, so a mid-engined layout seemed most appropriate. Initially, Honda envisaged a Lotus-like approach: a highly-strung 2-litre 4-cyl. – quite a Honda thing to do – wrapped into a lightweight shell. But the American market would probably prefer something a bit bigger, and the Ferrari objective determined that a moderately-sized 4-cyl. would not suffice.

So the Legend’s 3-litre V6 was roped in. Hey, it was the biggest Honda could muster at the time – only Toyota and Nissan had access to V8s, and theirs were not sporty engines. Nor was the Honda V6, come to that, but with a new DOHC head and other improvements, Honda coaxed 280hp out of it (when mated to a manual transmission). Thanks to the car’s feather weight, this was enough to get it to reach 100kph from a standstill in 5.9 seconds and attain a top speed of 270kph (167mph), which was certainly supercar territory at the time.

The car had to be lengthened a bit to fit the V6, but the rear overhang was already quite substantial, so a little extra wheelbase was not an issue. The Kardashianesque rear end so characteristic of the NSX is the product of several considerations. One was that Honda engineers wanted the exhaust to be as far from the engine as possible, to keep overheating issues to a minimum. Furthermore, the long tail helped the car’s aerodynamics and high-speed stability. This also enabled Honda to add a decent-sized rear trunk, which is not something all supercars can claim to have.

Is the term “supercar” all that relevant for a V6-powered Honda, even if it is mid-engined? Well, it’s not only a matter of marques or number of cylinders, arguably. The fact that it was the first car to feature an all-aluminium unit body, that it was developed with direct input from the likes of Ayrton Senna, who test-drove a prototype on the Nürburgring, or that they built each car pretty much by hand… And although looks can be deceiving, that interior is definitely a few cuts above the Civic.

The NSX was deemed ready for showtime in 1990, having been unveiled at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show. Sales only began in September on the domestic market and through early 1991 across the world, including the all-important North American market, where the NSX wore an Acura badge.

It’s hard to overstate the hype that this car generated at the time, particularly in Japan. By its very nature, the NSX was a limited-production car, so second-hand prices went through the roof in 1991. Honda increased production to the maximum possible extent, peaking at 25 units per day, but they need not have worried: the bottom fell out of the Japanese economy that year, and cancellations started to overtake new orders. The crazy couple of years they enjoyed initially were followed by a very long come-down and, by the late ‘90s, Honda were selling about 300 units a year for the whole world.

Despite the car’s long production life, there were few notable changes. In 1997, new emissions regulations meant that the engine needed a few extra ccs to keep up, so the V6 now weighed in at 3.2 litres and a new 6-speed manual replaced the 5-speed seen up to then; the optional 4-speed auto remained as was. In 2002, Honda finally made a noticeable change to the car’s exterior: the retractable headlights, which were by then looking positively old-fashioned, peeled off. This enabled the front end to be lighter and more aerodynamic, but the writing was on the wall and the NSX went out of production in December 2005.

Over the years, the NSX has gained a reputation for being, on top of all its intrinsic qualities, a very reliable car. I guess that explains why I’ve seen a few about, usually in the process of being driven (quite hard). Aside from the red car featured in this post, which I found pretty recently, I had caught a tattier-looking black one about a year ago, but I never liked the resulting photos very much.

Still, while we’re here and to add a bit of variety, here are two of the better pics I took of that car, which looked like it was sleeping rough. Even in this state of relative neglect, this NSX was showing signs of still being driven frequently. Try doing that with a 30-year-old Ferrari…

Honda hand-built just under 19,000 NSXs from 1990 to 2005, but the majority were made in the first few years. This is particularly true for JDM cars: of the 7415 cars they sold in Japan over that decade and a half, about 6000 were made in 1990-91. Still, Honda pulled all the stops and made a genuine world-beating supercar, and it sold pretty darned well, all things considered. Ferruccio would have been proud.


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CC Outtake: 1996 Acura NSX – Just Your Casual Sunday Driver, by Brendan Saur