Acura NSX turns 30, and Honda tells the tales of how it all began

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In 1989, the baseball-loving Japanese dipped their bats in pine tar and came to the U.S. to take gigundous swings. That single year launched five legends: Lexus LS400, Infiniti Q45, Nissan 0ZX Twin Turbo, Mazda MX-5 Miata, and Acura NS-X concept. The Chicago Auto Show (!) hosted the global debuts of the Mazda and the Acura. While Mazda celebrates the bygones with the 30th Anniversary Miata, ’s reminiscing with a look at how the NSX — a car Motor Trend described in 1990 as, “[The] best sports car the world has ever produced. Any time. Any place. Any price …” — came to be.

The development yearbook opened in 1984, a year after Honda returned to Formula One as an engine supplier for the Spirit team, and for the second Williams chassis in the last race of the season. For the first time in the automaker’s history, Honda wanted to build a production car with the engine behind the cabin, one that would demonstrate ’s engineering prowess and “deeply rooted racing spirit.” The sports car would also serve as a halo for the not-yet-launched Acura brand. The engineering team built the first test vehicle in February 1984 on the bones of a first-generation Honda Jazz.

After four years of formal development, Honda parked the NS-X Concept in a conference room at Chicago’s Drake Hotel in February 1989. This is where the media would meet the red wonder before the public show-stand debut. The F-16 Fighting Falcon-inspired coupe was built on the world’s first all-aluminum monocoque, and its SOHC V6 ran with titanium connecting rods.

Before the press conference, then-Honda president Tadashi Kume got in the NS-X, started the engine, and revved to the 8,000-rpm redline — a noise felt by everyone in the adjacent conference room attending a Ford press conference. Honda’s PR man at the time yelled, “Mr. Kume, stop it! They’re gonna hear this!”

When Kume got out, he asked Honda engineers present why they didn’t put their new VTEC technology in the NS-X. (What’s Japanese for, “Why didn’t the VTEC kick in, yo?!”) They told him VTEC had been created for four-cylinder engines. Kume told them to work on a V6 application. More suggestions came from journos who drove the early prototypes at Honda’s Tochigi R&D Center, who said the NS-X “could use more power.” The development team had grabbed the SOHC V6 from the Acura Legend for the NS-X concept, and it put out 160 horsepower in the luxury sedan.

Equally vital input came from Ayrton Senna, who had gone to Honda’s Suzuka Circuit to test the new Honda-engined McLaren F1 car. The R&D team asked him to try the NS-X, which they had targeted to match Ferrari and Porsche for rigidity. Senna’s feedback: “I’m not sure I can really give you appropriate advice on a mass-production car, but I feel it’s a little fragile.”

The development team got to work. They built a more potent DOHC VTEC V6 with 270 horsepower. The wider cylinder head in the transverse-mounted V6 meant stretching the production car’s wheelbase, and adding longer front and rear overhangs. They also took the car to the Nürburgring for testing, where they realized Senna had been correct, so they reworked the structure to increase rigidity by 50 percent.

The name NS-X was meant to be a placeholder only for the introduction. The Japanese R&D team had coined it, standing for the words New and Sports, with the “X” representing a variable. The U.S. team changed that to New Sports eXperimental. After the overwhelming reaction in Chicago, combined with the fact that everyone loved the name and no one inside the company could agree on something better, , without the hyphen, got the nod. And you know what they say about the rest…

Acura will host a panel discussion about the car that changed every exotic car to follow. Panel guests include Csaba Csere, a former editor-in-chief of Car and Driver who was at the 1989 reveal and the early prototype drive in Japan, and whose magazine happened to crash two of the first-gen sports cars. We just hope Acura has the guts to enforce a dress code of brown loafers and white tube socks on all the panelists.

Check out the huge gallery above, and if you want more stories about the early days of NSX, check out this more in-depth history by Honda, a video with Csaba Csere relating details like how Honda got the NSX’s full manual steering to work and why Honda used iron brake calipers, and an Autoweek piece with a story about how a test engineer plowed an NSX into a deer in Northern California the night before the official press drive.

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