The Honda NSX was one of the great surprises of the motoring industry. Japan had already produced some magnificent cars like the Nissan GT-R and the Toyota 2000GT, but nobody expected a supercar that could play with the likes of Ferrari, Lamborghini and Porsche to come out of the land of the rising sun.
Honda’s NSX started out as an experiment, but turned into something much more and even inspired other legendary cars like the McLaren F1. The combination of a timeless, elegant design by legendary design studio Pininfarina, Honda’s own advanced engine technology development team and the helping hand of Formula One legend Aryton Senna, meant the NSX was bound to be a success. It was a car that redefined what the world thought of the Japanese motor industry and forced the Europeans to up their game.
This is the complete history of the Honda NSX series 1 from the early concepts to its production end.
Development and Concepts
The Honda NSX can trace its roots back to 1984 when Honda decided to create a concept that could embody a future sports car. Honda enlisted the help of Pininfarina to create the HP-X (Honda Pininfarina eXperimental) concept. This original design featured a 2.0-litre V6 engine. Pininfarina was made famous for some of their designs, including the likes of the Alfa Romeo Spider, Ferrari Testarossa and even the mighty Ferrari F40.
Honda’s intention was to create a car that could meet or exceed the performance of the Ferrari 328 and later the Ferrari 348. Not only would the car have significant performance, it was also designed to be fun, simple and even practical, a far cry from the majority of the supercars at the time.
The concept evolved in the NS-X, which stood for “New”, “Sportscar” “eXperimental”, and Honda once again called on Pininfarina to assist with the design. Honda decided to use the 2.7-litre single overhead camshaft V6 engine from the Honda Legend for the NS-X; however, after testing it was decided that they would develop an entirely new unit, the 270hp 3.0-L V6 engine that is found in the NA1 NSX.
The NSX was designed by a team led by Chief Designer, Masahito Nakano, and Executive Chief Engineer, Shigeru Uehara. Its cockpit was inspired by the F-16 fighter jet and was located far forward on the body to increase visibility. The long tail design of the NSX enhanced high speed directional stability.
Honda’s own motorsport division was heavily involved in the NS-X project, along with Formula One driver Aryton Senna. Senna convinced Honda to stiffen the NS-X’s chassis after initial testing at the Suzuka circuit in Japan. Senna also tested the car at numerous other circuits including the famed Nurburgring and helped refine the suspension and handling of the NS-X.
Honda NSX NA1 (1st Generation)
In 1989, Honda unveiled the first generation of the NSX (renamed from NS-X) at the Chicago auto show, and at the Tokyo Motor Show a couple of months later. It went on sale in Japan in 1990 and from November 1990 in Hong Kong and North America under Honda’s luxury brand, Acura.
The Honda NSX was the first production car to feature an all-aluminium body, incorporating a revolutionary extruded aluminium alloy frame and suspension components. The benefit of this was that Honda saved nearly 200kg of weight when compared to an equivalent body made of steel, with the aluminium suspension arms saving 20kg alone. Other features included an independent, 4-channel anti-lock brake system, an electric power steering system, titanium connecting rods in the engine for high-rpm operation up to 8,300rpm, Honda’s VTEC system and the first electronic throttle control to be fitted to a Honda would be installed in 1995.
Honda made extensive use of its motorsports division and the developments they had made there for the NSX. The car’s chassis rigidity and handling capabilities were the results of Japanese Formula One driver Satoru Nakajima and Aryton Senna’s collaboration with the NSX team. The suspension development was far-ranging and took place at the Tochigi Proving Grounds, the Suzuka circuit, the Nurburgring in Germany, HPCC, and Honda’s newest test track in Takasu, Hokkaido.
Initially, the NSX was assembled at Honda’s purpose-built Takanezawa R&D Plant in Tochigi from 1989 until early 2004, when it was moved to the Suzuka Plant for the remainder of its production life. Approximately 200 of Honda’s best and brightest employees were tasked with building the NSX production cars and they needed a minimum of ten years of experience to work there.
Honda NSX-R NA1 (1992 to 1995)
Honda’s quest to make the ultimate supercar didn’t stop at the standard NSX. While the NSX had always intended to be up there with the best, Honda’s engineers had to make a number of compromises in order to strike a balance between performance and daily drivability. The NSX team decided to go one step further, the NSX-R. This was designed to be a no compromise, performance orientated version of the NSX and featured a lighter body and tuned engine.
The NSX was put on a diet with any unnecessary weight removed. Sound deadening, the audio system, spare tire, air conditioning system and traction control along with some of the electrical equipment was removed. The power leather seats were replaced with lightweight carbon-kevlar racing seats made by Recaro for Honda. Honda replaced the stock alloy wheels with lighter forged aluminium wheels produced by Enkei and even the leather shift knob was replaced with a titanium one. Overall, the NSX-R was 120kg lighter than the standard NSX, giving it a weight of 1,240kg.
Due to the NSX’s mid-engine layout and rear-end link travel, it was prone to sudden oversteer in certain situations. While this was rare during street driving, it was much more common on race tracks where speeds were greater. Honda fixed this problem and improved the NSX-R’s cornering stability at the limit by adding one aluminium bracket under the front battery tray and one aluminium bracket in front of the front radiator to add more chassis rigidity. They then replaced the entire suspension setup with stiffer suspension bushings, a stiffer front sway bar, stiffer dampers and stiffer coil springs.
Honda improved the acceleration of the NSX-R at the expense of top speed by moving the car’s shift points closer together. They also installed a higher (percentage) locking limited-slip differential and the 3.0 liter DOHC VTEC V-6 engine had a blueprinted and balanced crankshaft assembly. This is the same high precision process done for Honda’s racing engines.
All up Honda produced 483 NSX-R NA1 variants exclusively for the Japanese domestic market with production ending in September 1995. Optional extras included air conditioning, a Bose stereo system, a Carbon fiber trim center console with Carbon fiber door trim and from 1994 Championship White painted larger wheels (16″ front wheels and 17″ rear wheels).
Starting from 1995, the NSX-T was offered with a removable Targo style roof and was offered in Japan as a special order option as well as in North America. Interestingly, the NSX-T replaced the standard NSX entirely in North America and was the only version available post 1994, apart from a number of special editions. These included the Zanardi Special Edition NSX in 1999 and a handful of special order post-1997/pre-2002 3.2-litre coupes. Europeans were still offered both body styles.
As the removable roof resulted in deceased chassis rigidity, Honda had to add about 45kg of structural reinforcements to compensate, including significantly thicker frame sidesill rocker panels, bulkheads, roof pillars and the addition of new front/rear bulkhead and floor-pan cross members.
In 1997, Honda introduced a big leap in performance for the NSX. Engine displacement increased from 3.0 L to 3.2 L, using a thinner fibre-reinforced metal cylinder liner. Changes were made to the exhaust manifold, with Honda now making the header pipes from stainless steel rather than cast-iron for improved performance and weight reduction. The increased flow from this new configuration was a key contributor to the 20 additional horsepower drawn from the new engine. Power was now at 290hp and 305Nm up from 270hp and 285Nm. Another big change was the inclusion of a 6-speed manual transmission. The power increase meant that the NSX could go from 0-100km/h in 4.5 to 4.8 seconds depending on the model.
NSX-S and NSX-S Zero
Along with the performance increase in 1997 Honda also released the Japan exclusive NSX Type S and NSX Type S-Zero, weighing in at 1,320kg and 1,270kg respectively. The two cars both came with a Titanium Shift Knob, MOMO steering wheel, Recaro full bucket carbon-kevlar alcantara/leather seats, BBS lightweight aluminium wheels, a mesh engine cover (like the Type R) and a coloured roof. They also had stiffer suspension than the standard NSX.
Compared to the Type S, the Z-Zero is more circuit-oriented and uses the NA1 Type R’s stiffer suspension, but retains the Type S’s larger rear sway bar. The S-Zero was also lacking cruise control, stereo, power door locks, airbags, air conditioning, traction control, power steering, fog lights or a navigation system. To reduce weight, Honda came up with a new lead-acid battery and halved the thickness of the partition glass between engine bay and cabin. Most of the sound deadening was also removed for the S-Zero and the manual shifter boot material was changed from leather to mesh. All this made for a 50kg lighter car than the Type S.
1999 NSX “Alex Zanardi” edition
The Alex Zanardi edition was introduced in 1999 to commemorate Alex Zanardi’s two back-to-back CART Champ Car championship wins for Honda / Acura in 1997 and 1998, and was produced exclusively for the United States. Only 50 were built and were available only in New Formula Red to reflect the color of the Champ Car Zanardi drove for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Overall, the Zanardi was similar to the Type S, with differences including a left-hand drive setup, black leather and suede seats with red stitching, airbag-equipped Acura steering wheel, and a brushed-aluminium plaque with an engraved Acura logo.
2002 Facelift (NA2)
By the early 2000’s, the NSX was starting to show its age. The design and styling of the car hadn’t changed in 10 years so Honda decided it was time to give their flagship car a bit of love. In December 2001 Honda replaced the original pop-up headlights with fixed xenon HID headlamp units and the body design received minor modifications. The rear tyre width was increased slightly to complement a revised suspension setup. Front spring rates were increased from 3.2 kg/m to 3.5 kg/m, rear spring rates were increased from 3.8 kg/m to 4.0 kg/m and the diameter of the rear stabilizer bar increased from 17.5 mm to 19.1 mm with a 2.3 mm wall thickness.
Honda NSX-R NA2
A second generation of the NSX-R was launched in 2002 that was based on the facelifted, NA2 NSX. This was again available exclusively for the Japanese market and Honda’s primary focus was to make a lightweight, no compromise racer for the road. The chassis was based on the hard-top NSX and carbon-fibre was used extensively throughout the body to reduce weight, including the spoiler, hood and deck lid. Honda repeated the same weight saving techniques that were used in the original NSX-R, which included removal of the air conditioning, audio system and sound deadening. The power-steering was also removed and Recaro carbon-kevlar racing seats were installed. Lighter wheels were also fitted which resulted in a total weight reduction of almost 100 kg to 1,270 kg.
Not only did the body undergo changes for the NSX-R, Honda’s engineers also turned their attention to the 3.2-litre DOHC V6 engine. Again, each engine was hand assembled by a skilled technician using techniques normally reserved for racing programs, like the original NSX-R. All the components of the rotating assembly of the engine were precision machined to a very small tolerance and the entire rotating assembly itself was balanced to a level of accuracy ten times that of a typical NSX engine. This resulted in a more free-revving engine with better throttle response. Despite this changes Honda still maintained that the NSX-R engine produced the same power as the standard NA2 NSX (290hp); however, many motoring journalists believed that the NSX-R produced more.
Although the NSX-R was based on a 15-year-old design, the changes made meant that it could still challenge the latest sports cars available at the time. For example, Japanese race and test driver Motoharu Kurosawa drove a 2002 NSX-R around the Nurburgring road course in 7:56, a time equal to a Ferrari F360 Challenge Stradale. The NSX-R managed to do this despite being out-powered by the Ferrari by over 100hp.
Honda NSX-R GT
Following the release of the NSX-R, Honda decided to make an even more extreme version of the NSX for Japanese Super GT production-based race car homologation requirements. The NSX-R GT was limited to five units and the differences between it and the NSX-R are not fully known. One clear differences was the addition of a non-functional snorkel attached to the roof of the car. In the JGTC NSX race cars however, this snorkel is fully functional, feeding outside air to an individual throttle body intake plenum. Other changes included lowered suspension, a wider body, a more aggressive aerodynamic package and further weight saving over the standard NSX-R. Honda never described the changes it made to the NSX-R GT’s 3.2-litre DOHC V6.
Honda’s NSX made three appearances at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 1994, 1995 and 1996. Three NSXs were entered in 1994 with car numbers 46, 47 and 48 being prepared and run by team Kremer Racing Honda, with Team Kunimitsu assisting and driving the number 47 car. All the cars were placed in the GT2 class and completed the event, placing 14th, 16th and 18th.
For the 1995 race, three NSXs were entered again. This time, Honda’s factory team brought two turbocharged NSXs which were entered in the GT1 class numbered 46 and 47. A naturally aspirated NSX was entered into the GT2 class and was run by Team Kunimitsu with the number 84. Car 46 finished but was not classified for failing to complete 70% of the distance of the race winner. Car 47 did not finish due to a clutch and gearbox failure. Car number 84, driven by Keiichi Tsuchiya, Akira Iida, and Kunimitsu Takahashi, finished first in the GT2 class and 8th overall after completing 275 laps. Interestingly, this NSX was featured in the original Gran Turismo game.
Team Kunimitsu returned with the NSX for the 1996 24 Hours of Le Mans with the same drivers. It completed 305 laps to finish in the 16th position overall, and third in the GT2 class.
NSX Super GT
Honda made significant modifications to the NSX for Super GT. The engine was modified by Mugen (Japanese engine tuner and parts manufacturer) and the chassis was developed by Dome (Japanese-based racing car constructor).
Further developments to the NSX’s body shape were made after each race and season, due to the demands of increasing aerodynamic downforce within the regulations. The most notable change is the position of the V6 engine, which is mounted longitudinally instead of transversely as per the roadcar. he gearbox is located in the centre tunnel under the cockpit and is connected to the rear differential by a driveshaft. The could be run either naturally aspirated or with a turbocharger depending on the class and rules.
A modified version of the C32B V6 engine was used to power the GT/GT500 NSX prior to the beginning of the 2003 season. The naturally aspirated engine displaced 3.5-litres and produced nearly 500hp. The turbocharged C30A replaced the C32B at the start of 2003 and produced roughly the same horsepower. Honda continued to use the NSX as a works car up until it was replaced by the HSV-010.
2008 NSX Mugen RR concept
Honda unveiled the NSX Mugen RR concept at the 2008 Tokyo Auto Salon. This included 255/35R18 and 335/30R18 tires, widened front, multi-grooved rear diffuser and an adjustable rear wing. The car was powered by a modified 3.2L V6, and has had its mounting changed from transverse to longitudinal. Mugen changed the mounting position as it allowed for greater power transfer to the rear wheels and better exhaust flow.
As all great things must come to an end, the series 1 NSX’s production ceased in 2005 due to poor sales. Although production ended, the NSX lived on through the likes of the Mugen RR concept and the Super GT NSX. Honda unveiled the second generation NSX at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show.
This is the complete history of the Honda NSX and should be everything you need to know about one of the greatest cars ever built.
If you love the NSX check out our complete history article on another JDM legend. The complete history of the Nissan R34 GT-R will give you everything you need to know about one of the most iconic cars to ever come out of Japan.