Hagerty Video: The Original Acura NSX Was Honda’s Most Successful Failure — Revelations with Jason Cammisa Ep. 32

Posted: 2023-07-27 15:00:06
Author: Hagerty
This is the story of the first-generation Acura NSX, known in the rest of the world as the Honda NSX.

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The all-aluminum NA1-chassis NSX was developed as Honda was on top of the world — it had just begun an incredible string of Formula One victories, its Accord was the best-selling car in America, and its new Acura luxury brand was a resounding success.

The NSX would be the company’s flagship, demonstrating that Honda could apply its F1 know-how to a Ferrari-challenging, mid-engined supercar.

It was received with near unanimous praise from the American automotive media, but ultimately the NSX struggled to find buyers for the majority of its 15-year production run.

In this episode of “Revelations,” automotive journalist Jason Cammisa takes us through the history of the original NSX and why, in retrospect, it was actually a success despite being unable to live up to its sales expectations — and how it differs from the second-generation, Ohio-engineered and -built NC1 hybrid.


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Hagerty Video Transcript

Foreign here is one controversial statement and then a seeming contradiction Honda doesn’t make mistakes and yet the NSX wasn’t a success this is going to be a fun one to unpack because while that NSX sits there looking all timelessly beautiful possessing zero engineering problems handling vices or personality flaws it

Wound up being largely ignored by the buyers for whom it was created so did Honda actually make a mistake or is there something the buyers missed Thank you Revelations is brought to you by Hagerty Drivers Club which includes roadside assistance a fabulous magazine and discounts on your favorite car stuff there’s a link up there click on it thank you for watching and now back to my regularly scheduled nonsense Honda is a company that doesn’t make mistakes when it sets about

Accomplishing something it Nails it post haste think about this for a second just three months after Honda debuts its first ever car it says hey we’re gonna go racing but not just any kind of racing Formula One just eight months later Honda made its F1 debut when everyone else was using

Piddly old V8s Honda built itself a 14 000 RPM 48 valve roller bearing crank V12 and widely considered to be the most powerful engine of the field the debut wasn’t just at any old track it was at the torturous Nurburgring so you’d expect Calamity but the Honda wound up being classified a very

Admirable 13th overall after it crashed out and it only took Honda another year to win a Formula One race which means in a period of just two years Honda went from making its first ever car to winning a Formula One race you’re probably still wearing the same

Underwear that you were two years ago me too this is a company that succeeded at everything and only 20 some years later Honda was on top of the world its luxury brand Acura launched in 1986 with the legendary Legend in 1989 the Accord became the best-selling car in America

Honda was killing it on the racing side too it had just returned to F1 in 1984 but a Honda engine car won the Formula One Championship in 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 and 1991. comprehensively defecating on the likes of Ferrari and as this was all Brewing

Honda wanted a way to show off its formula one technology on the street and or just wanted to all over Ferrari on the boulevard too didn’t just step on Ferrari’s toes no it kicked the Italians right in the groin when it called up Ferrari’s de facto

Styling house pin and Farina and said uh hey forget about those guys for a second how about you design us an aerodynamic carbon composite sports car thing of the future with our 2-liter V6 in the middle the nerve anyway the engine would have to be in the middle because a formula

One but also B Honda’s Engineers had experimented by mounting the engine in the middle under the floor of the subcompact first generation Honda City hatchback and they couldn’t stop giggling the concept was called the HP hyphen X for Honda pin and Farina experimental and it kicked off the development of the

NS hyphen X the new sports car X this time x stood for the mathematical X I.E the unknown there were no historical constraints because Honda had no history from which to pull so the engineers had free reign to do whatever they needed the only goals were a top speed of 270

Kilometers an hour quarter mile and less than 14 seconds and handling and braking equal to any Ferrari or Porsche oh and one other thing the car had to be practical and user friendly at the same time because Honda the ideals of Formula One would carry over meaning lightweight takes priority

Over everything else and there would be no gimmicks styling or otherwise the concepts composite construction was replaced by the world’s first aluminum monocoque production car the same basic construction method as Honda’s first F1 car Honda used the world’s fastest supercomputer the cray 2 to make the nsx’s chassis as stiff as possible but

Then hand it over keys to world champion I hurt and Senna who disagreed with the computers and said um it’s a little fragile remember Honda doesn’t fail so it pulled out all the stops and set up shop two kilometers away from the Nurburgring the site of that first ever F1 race just 25

Years earlier it used the ring to torture test the NSX with Japan’s first ever Formula One racer at the wheel anytime he’d notice a structural weakness the team would manually weld on reinforcements until they fixed it and they’d send that information back to Japan to be fed into the cray

Supercomputer which would then find a lightweight solution to that structural enhancement it’s pretty cool the result of the Nurburgring project was a 50 increase in rigidity from the original design making it by the way 50 stronger than that of a Porsche 911 or Ferrari 328 more importantly thanks to the craze

Optimization the whole aluminum body shell weighed just 20 pounds more than the little tiny steel-bodied Miata that Mazda was developing at the same time to move the lightweight Wonder Honda tried a 5-liter V8 but it didn’t meet the strict packaging and weight requirements then they tried turbocharged v6s but

Turbos just never respond quickly or linearly enough for a sports car they could have made the power using a supercharger but superchargers weigh too much revs the NSX inherited the c-series V6 to 6 that just launched in the Acura Legend it was punched out to 3 liters

And made 250 horsepower by revving to a healthy 7300 RPM this was demonstrated by Honda CEO as he banged the Prototype off its rev limiter before its public debut at the Chicago Auto Show while Ford was in the room next door trying to hold a press conference and this accomplished two things well

Three because it’s certainly pissed for it off but number one it made sure that every journalist in town was in the room the next day when they pulled the wraps off the NSX number two it prompted the big Honda boss to ask the question where is the VTEC

This was a huge Omission VTEC had previously only been planned for Honda’s four cylinders but not for the V6 which used only a single overhead cam per Bank VTEC is often misunderstood but in simple terms it allows an engine to effectively have two different sets of camshafts one that’s tuned for the

Bottom of the Rev range and another for the top of the Rev range VTEC simply switches between the two camshafts and its benefits everywhere with absolutely no drawbacks it’s typical Honda reliable genius and the boss man wanted to know why Honda’s Flagship didn’t have it I think that’s a reasonable question

So the flagship got VTEC and vvis and the V6 got something that no other Honda V6 got until 2021 more than 30 years later double overhead camshafts that’s right your mom’s minivan has single overhead cams anyway the nsx’s V6 also got titanium connecting rods to stay together at an astronomical 8 000 RPM

Unfortunately the big twin cam heads no longer fit in the car so Honda had to redesign the entire body to fit it stretching the wheelbase by over an inch and it was definitely worth it worth it less so for the 20 horsepower as it was for the bragging rights of 8

000 RPM plus the acoustic impact of the cam changeover this was America’s first appearance of VTEC and when that thing switched to the high lift cam lobes the intake sang a song that had only ever been sung in Italian Honda’s over Square V6 was a 90 degree

Layout which left lots of space for that cool intake system but 90 degree v6s usually require balance shafts and the NSX didn’t get them this gave the nsx’s motor a characteristic shimmy at low revs though split crank pins gave it an even firing order for maximum power

270 horsepower went a lot further than you’d think because the all-aluminum NSX was a true lightweight just a third of a tank of gas away from being under 3 000 pounds so light that the 5-speed models didn’t have or really need power steering see Easy so the NSX handily out accelerated its competition it hit 60 miles an hour in 5.2 and blew through the quarter at 13 8 beating the brand new Ferrari 348 by half a second or more in both measures when the road turned it outgripped lotuses and 911s and an outbreaked everything

In those individual performance metrics it’s shown but put them all together in terms of its total performance envelope and the NSX was untouchable it won just about every award it could here in America automobile the year Car of the Year design of the Year there was a two-year waiting list people were

Paying above sticker for it every single road test talked about it rendering Ferraris irrelevant flawed relics of the past that had no future in the modern world the NSX was a phenomenon phenomenon and then it was just a non a non-starter a non-event a no-show on people’s

Shopping lists just a few years later the very car that every American Car magazine said would put Ferrari out of business was being outsold ten to one by a Ferrari the NSX remained in production for 15 years but 60 percent of all nsx’s produced were in the first two years the

Plant was designed to spit out 25 cars a day but by the end of year three was operating at less than 10 percent of that capacity though the NSX is widely credited for forcing Ferrari to up its game the nsx’s sales evaporated long before Ferrari even had a chance to

Respond which of course they did ironically it might have been the nsx’s inherent goodness that was its biggest flaw because to some it had committed the Cardinal Supercar sin the NSX was boring this was by Design Honda’s head of r d quote studied what really made a sports

Car special and we reached the conclusion that balance is the most important thing huh look I was out of a Supercar as an emotional thing not a cognitive one so if we’re going to examine the relative success of Ferrari versus Acura we’re going to now have to start a discussion

Of the relative merits of sex appeal versus intelligence Australia’s Wheels magazine said quote you drive this one with brain and fingertips with a Ferrari Lamborghini it’s bravado and biceps Car and Driver said the NSX is quote a brain surgeon’s approach to go fast operations this is the age-old debate between brains and

Beauty and I have neither so I’m not qualified to comment on that but one person is and that’s the famed Automotive journalist Joan Rivers don’t you think men really like intelligence more when it comes right down has ever put his hand up a woman’s breast looking for a library card [Applause]

The NSX was a library card a rational intelligent car problem was buyers already had one of those in sedan form with things like power steering and a back seat turns out when they were looking for a Supercar all that mattered was a thrill even though Karen driver was one of the

Nsx’s biggest fans it felt the need to defend its love for the car four years after its introduction had to admit that the NSX was quote neither coveted nor respected in Fair proportion to the Joy it delivers and then went on to Define joy as only an engineer could The great outward visibility there was 312 degrees of it in fact thanks to this F-16 inspired canopy the NSX has ice cold air conditioning a tilt and Telescope steering wheel an easy shifter hey we got 25.5 miles per gallon on a highway trip I’m not making this up good

Elbow Room who cares the JD Power initial quality survey results show fewer faults per 100 cars than a Mercedes-Benz huh Honda had engineered a Ferrari for a cord buyers who were importantly not Ferrari buyers yes the NSX was so good that it made Ferrari go back and put ice

Cold functioning air conditioning in its cars but ironically the NSX was far too good of a car to put Ferrari out in business so does that mean Honda made a mistake well look the purpose of a car is to sell and so it depends on where

You draw the line on this side you have the first generation NSX which was maybe a failure to optimize for sales on the other you have the second generation NSX which was beyond question a mistake they screwed up it too won all kinds of awards from magazines but it was nailed

To showroom floors meanwhile it’s unquestionably talented Engineers boasted about how well its tires performed in cold Icy Ohio winter puddles they were proud that it started up quietly so as to not attract attention in the church parking lot I’m not making this up it was another rational left brain Supercar a

Contradiction in terms that most buyers just weren’t looking for but acura’s big sin the second time around was removing every bit of the simple lightweight driver-focused Formula One philosophy of that NSX this might have been a rational take on a Supercar But as time went on most supercars have become super

Computers Honda’s focus on lightweight Simplicity and powertrain Brilliance are the enduring qualities that make this a special car today and its inherent greatness and reliability certainly no longer hurt it in fact they make it a very easy car to own answer that question from before no mistakes here foreign all right