Project NSX Goes To Honda Heaven

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You open your eyes, but wince them back shut again as blinding white light pours in. Slowly you blink the fuzziness away and you take in your surroundings as they come into focus. You’re surrounded by past legends clad in blue and yellow liveries that you’ve only ever met in dreams. A tall, grey-haired man in a tweed jacket smiles down at you. “Am I in ?” you ask the god-like figure.

“No, this is Type One, and we don’t open for another 20 minutes…”

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While arriving at Spoon’s Type One workshop in Tokyo’s west might be akin to religious experience for fanboys (not me, I swear), there’s no doubting that the man behind the brand is a legitimate demigod in the shrine of all things VTEC.

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On this particular day, Project NSX was visiting to have some Spoon goodies installed, but before we get to the details of that, let’s leave the Honda on the first floor and head upstairs to spend a little bit of time with Mr. Spoon himself, Tatsuri Ichishima.

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By now I’m sure Ichishima-san is no stranger to most Speedhunters readers; alongside Tsuchiya-san and Amemiya-san, he is one of the greying legends of Japan’s tuning heyday.

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As the owner, Ichishima-san exhibits an obsessive level of detail in his oversight of operations. This goes down to the architecturally-designed workshop that houses Type One. As opposed to the usual bland fascia and rolling shutter doors of most workshops, huge single-pane windows showcase the meticulous work underway inside. Asking Ichishima-san ‘why?’ was rewarded with a long and elegant explanation, as is his nature, but he revealed that the original inspiration came from the humble sushi restaurants that can be found throughout Japan.

At Type One a customer can enjoy spectating the beguiling engine and gearbox preparation work just as a guest watches the sushi chef carve a sliver of o-toro and place it deftly onto a perfectly formed parcel of rice. The messy work, namely the killing and gutting of the fish, all happens out of sight. This, Ichishima-san says, is the job of the Type One/Spoon headquarters and warehouse complex down the road.

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You quickly realise that at Spoon, nothing is by accident.

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What looks like a nice way to fill an empty workshop wall is actually a demonstration of how the Civic, S2000 and actually share very similar dimensions despite being completely different cars. Careful forethought informed by years of experience.

It’s why so many Japanese customers are content to leave their cars and a sizeable pile of cash and leave the rest up to Spoon’s specialists. Two pristine Grand Prix White customer cars were in for engine-out overhauls along with a smattering of Spoon-designed performance parts.

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Despite Spoon’s business being much more focused on Honda’s four-cylinder models, NSX had company from two other NSXs. The white car is one of the company’s left-hand drive ‘NSX-R GT’ recreations built for the US market in 2009.

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Joining it on the storage rack was Spoon’s former Super Taikyu S2000, a series I’ve always enjoyed thanks to the cars still retaining a close link to the road-going version they are based on – an unusual characteristic in 2018’s motorsport landscape.

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Ichishima-san was more interested in showing me his latest acquisition, however – an immaculate Honda S800.

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As is typical of Honda’s vehicle naming conventions, the S800 packs a canted-over 791cc inline four under the proportionately lengthy bonnet.  The technology packed into the little power unit is the stuff of ’60s motorsport dreams – roller bearing crankshaft, high compression, twin overhead camshafts and no rev limiter (it’s eager to do 9,000rpm – race versions went to 11,000rpm). While the engine was running he urged me to jump in and rev the engine, so I could feel it how smooth it is compared to a traditional bearing engine.

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Ichishima-san owns more than 10 of these lithe sports cars, but checking the Type One website recently revealed that this particular car has been sold on to a collector.

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I was pleasantly surprised by his preference for the older metal. As a businessman you might expect someone who toes the company line about the latest and greatest models, but Ichishima-san fully believes that the glory days of the automobile are behind us.

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Running his palm along the section of body where the door, front fender and A-pillar merge to demonstrate the point, he lamented how organic curves have all but disappeared from Honda’s – and Japan’s – recent automotive designs.

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It’s true, where you could almost feel the clay sculptor’s hand moving across the NSX’s shell; a new Civic is a mix of straight lines exported directly from the designer’s hard drive.

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Whereas a curve draws us in to touch the object of our desire, these digital creations are nothing more than toys in Ichishima-san’s opinion.

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It’s a theme you do end up recognising more often in Japan than any other country – an appreciation of the ownership and driving experience as something much more nuanced than constantly lowered drag coefficient and 0-100km/h times. The car companies themselves are certainly no longer the engineering-led houses of innovation they once were – the realities of shareholder demands mean that decision making is done by the suits in finance and sales. And the journalists that tell us how the new car is sharper, faster, better than before? Well, would we buy the magazines if all they contained were wistfully written prose about the good ol’ days?

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The privilege of getting to spend the better part of an afternoon with Ichishima-san wasn’t lost on me, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask him for some tips or advice on tuning the NSX to get the most out of it, performance-wise.

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After a brief pause to think, he simply said: “you can change the exhaust headers for more power on an early car, otherwise it’s good.” So, not quite the answer I was looking for, but I guess if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…

Having said that, Project NSX would be receiving one upgrade that Spoon claims any car can benefit from – Rigid Collars.

What Is A Rigid Collar?

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Dino had fitted Rigid Collars to his R34 GT-R back in 2011, and what originally convinced me to make the call to Type One was hearing his enthusiastic feedback: “They transformed my steering feel and off-centre response – I’m a big fan.”

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A set of Rigid Collars for the NA1 NSX comes in at a touch over US$300 (¥34,560), but the team at Spoon offered to install the parts at no cost for my evaluation and review.

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Open the boxes and you’re greeted by neat rows of the aluminium Rigid Collars. A simple product, no doubt, but a closer inspection reveals that each Collar is slightly different in design to match it to the car’s varied mounting points, a result of extensive R&D across approximately 900 models at the time of writing.

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The system for the NSX comprises 32 collars in total, eight at the front and a whopping 24 at the rear. This is significantly more than the average car (20 in an A45 AMG, 22 in a 997 GT3), mainly due to the NSX’s two-piece aluminium subframe and relatively complex double wishbone suspension, a favourite piece of tech from Honda’s F1 glory days that was also deployed in the S2000 and Prelude.

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You’ll also find a set of instructions in your language of choice, although I wouldn’t be needing this English version seeing as I had Spoon’s crack team of installers on hand.

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The final part is a tube of copper grease used to lubricate each collar before it is inserted into place.

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The origin of the problem that rigid collar solves is a compromise of customer benefit for commercial priority. Any volume manufacturer must make numerous sacrifices to meet unbelievably strict time constraints on the production line (down to tenths of a second): time wasted is money wasted. Mating the bulky subframes to the chassis is facilitated by heavy machinery that is simply not capable of the kind of alignment that a chassis engineer would design, so the bolt holes are enlarged to a greater tolerance out of necessity. The heavier the car, the worse this problem is, so a ‘premium’ make such as Lexus or Porsche will actually have looser tolerances than a Miata or kei car. Ichishima-san said the only manufacturer he knows that currently addresses this issue during production is Aston Martin, hence it is one of the few brands for which Rigid Collars have not been developed for.

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Hand-assembled cars like the NSX aren’t immune to the trumping of engineer-led design by commercial reality. A prime example is the aluminium rear subframe, which was cast as two seperate pieces due to the price and complexity of casting the component as one (lighter, stronger) piece.

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The Rigid Collar team keeps this cutaway at hand to demonstrate exactly what the system does, and provides a good example for me to explain here. What you can see is a cross section of a subframe mounting point; the upper silver section is a chassis beam, and the lower black section is the subframe. Your subframe, of course, provides the link between the all-important suspension and steering components (control arms, struts, stabilizers, etc) and the chassis. By installing a Collar above and below the subframe and reinserting the bolt, the conical shape of the Rigid Collar forces the bolt to align exactly in the middle of the hole, and thus the chassis and subframe will be exactly aligned. The taper is also slightly oversized, meaning that you also get the benefit of a slight crush effect locking the subframe into place.

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Examples abound of these simple principles being used to eliminate slack elsewhere in the car. For instance, wheel nuts have a conical head to ensure they can self-centre correctly and thus prevent misalignment.

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For the second example, Ichishima-san took me into the ‘operation room’, where Spoon rebuilds engines to their famously high standards before they receive an iconic yellow cam cover. Engine tolerances are tighter than anywhere else in a car for obvious reasons (high RPM and misaligned components are not good bedfellows), and the techniques employed to ensure proper alignment are similar to the rigid collar.

One of the final parts of assembling an engine long block is to insert knock (or dowel) pins. Even a precisely honed bolt will have a slight tolerance, so when the head is mated on to the block these extremely precise pins are knocked into place and remove the ‘slack’ that even torque-to-yield head bolts alone cannot. We’re talking tenths of a millimetre at this level, but it’s an absolutely crucial part of building reliable and powerful engines.

Poppin’ Collars

As you now know, the NSX has a ton of these mounting bolts and thus requires a bit more work than your usual car. The job is easy enough to DIY with the right socket sizes, but having access to a lift would make the process a lot easier. All said and done, it took the experts about two-and-a-half hours from start to finish.

Once the correct bolts have been located, it’s just a matter of removing the bolt, greasing the collars with copper, lowering the subframe to slide in them in, then re-torquing the bolts. In some kits collars will be occasionally supplied split to ease installation, although I didn’t see any in the NSX kit.

It’s quite funny to think that although we consider new cars to be as tight as a drum when there is in fact a significant improvement to be found in such a fundamental alignment issue. Of course, this only gets worse with age as the bolts may loosen or shift over time.

Ichishima-san laughed telling me that some of his customers would become quite unhappy with their car’s manufacturer after driving the car with Rigid Collars – especially those driving expensive sports or luxury models – because it wasn’t done from factory.

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Spoon has been careful to patent the technology around the world to protect the significant amount of time and money invested in developing unique kits for so many models. Several OEM manufacturers have shown an interest in the technology, buying kits to install and evaluate against their factory fresh cars.

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The list of claimed benefits is pretty long, and I have to admit that as a card-carrying sceptic I was harbouring a healthy doubt that 32 pieces of aluminium could add much to Honda’s beloved ‘everyday supercar’. The team said that the most noticeable difference will be a reduction in noise and vibration in the cabin. Beyond that, when driven at speed the car should be sharper and easier to trace a specific line through a corner with.

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I asked Ichishima-san if it would make a car faster around a given circuit, but he considered this to be the wrong question as a race car should be completely aligned and meticulously maintained anyway, perhaps negating the need for Rigid Collars. But for us weekend warriors, having a ‘truer’ chassis should translate to a more communicable, enjoyable track car.

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I then pried Ichishima-san on how sales had been going – after all, the Rigid Collar does seem to promise a long list of benefits for relatively little investment, which is rather rare in the world of aftermarket performance accessories. He said Asia in general has been successful with large numbers of repeat customers, but he sees the American buyer as being the toughest to convince of the benefit. I jokingly suggested perhaps to anodise them in flashy colours and show them at SEMA…

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Jokes aside, I was especially stoked to hear from the team that Project NSX’s chassis seems to be in great condition already, so I was very curious to see what the difference in driving feel would be.

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The final task was for the mechanics to take the car for a quick test drive to ensure that the steering was dead straight after being partially disassembled – again a process Ichishima-san watched over carefully.

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We said our goodbyes and I jumped in the driver’s seat, eager to wrap my fingers around the Spoon wheel I’d had installed at the same time (couldn’t resist a bit of bling!) and see what the Rigid Collars could do.

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I’d barely moved the car forward towards the traffic light 10 metres ahead and it was clear that something was different. By the time I’d pulled away from the lights and got up to a cruising speed I was convinced of the value of the Collars – a whole frequency of vibration (one that made my rear-view mirror rattle and sent a small buzz through the steering wheel) had been eliminated from the ride. The car was quieter, too. In a word, it felt tight.

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I’ve managed to put some more kilometres on Project NSX since the install and am still impressed with the Rigid Collars; the car feels like a tailored suit now as opposed to one that just fit well off the rack – steering feel has been significantly improved and the rear end, which I’d previously considered skittish, now has a solidity and fluidity to its movement. Although it’s perhaps not as exciting as a big turbo or sexy anodised coilovers, Rigid Collars seem to fix such a fundamental problem with a simple solution (how very Japanese), and I’d happily spend my own money on a set for a future project car.

Blake Jones
Instagram: blaketjones
[email protected]

Rigid Collar (English)

Rigid Collar (Japan)

Cutting Room Floor

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