Acura this week marks 30 years since the shot heard ’round the automotive world — the 1989 global debut of the first-generation Acura NSX. The first mid-engined exotic without European pedigree, NSX was a low slung, super light, high-revving machine sporting the world’s first all-aluminum monocoque, titanium connecting rods, a VTEC™ valvetrain and levels of quality and daily driving comfort unheard of in sports cars of the time.
Introduced as the NS-X Concept, the precursor to the production NSX, Acura chose the Chicago Auto Show for the global debut, at a press conference held at the Drake Hotel on February 9, 1989. In celebrating this milestone event, Acura returns to the Chicago Auto Show, hosting a panel discussion to reflect on the car’s origins, its impact on the automotive landscape, and the role the next-generation NSX is playing in the renaissance of Acura today.
Joining the panel discussion are Jon Ikeda, Vice President and General Manager of Acura, whose 28-year career at Acura was catalyzed by the launch of NSX, and Csaba Csere, former editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine, who attended the 1989 reveal and was among the first journalists to drive both the original and second-generation NSX.
Released in conjunction with the Chicago Auto Show, Acura has published a new video featuring throwback footage of a first model year (1991) production NSX, and a current (2019) NSX, along with never before seen images from the original NS-X Concept reveal.
Since its debut, NSX has made an indelible impression on the exotic and supercar world. Its all-aluminum construction and 270-horsepower VTEC V6 were as exotic as anything available at the time, but its conventionally comfortable and ergonomic cockpit and gentle road manners ran sharply counter to contemporary European exotics.
“Before NSX, it was always assumed that supercar performance came at the price of a comfortable interior and everyday drivability,” said Jon Ikeda. “NSX shattered those notions, and raised the bar on every other exotic and supercar maker, with the effects still felt today. NSX was a huge inspiration and one of the major reasons I was drawn to join Acura nearly 30 years ago.”
Like its predecessor, today’s second-generation NSX incorporates groundbreaking technology. The Acura NSX is the only supercar made in America and the only one utilizing electric motors to enhance every element of dynamic performance, seamlessly combining three-motor Sport Hybrid Super Handling All-Wheel Drive™ with a bespoke twin-turbocharged, mid-mounted V6 engine to deliver an unparalleled range of driving experiences, from all-electric Quiet mode to the ultimate at-the-limit capability of Track mode.
Honda R&D in Japan took the first steps toward what would become the first-generation NSX in January 1984 with basic research on a new drive system distinct from the “FF” (front-engine/front-wheel drive) vehicle type that had underpinned Honda’s success with such iconic models as Civic, Accord and the Acura Integra.
A year earlier, Honda had made its return to Formula 1 racing and its engineers were excited about the prospects of creating a sports car that would showcase the company’s deeply rooted racing spirit and high-performance design and engineering capabilities. Also, the R&D team had been contacted several times by the group at American Honda that was planning the launch of the Acura brand, indicating their interest in a pinnacle sports car for the new lineup.
The focus of the research was on an underfloor, midship-engine rear-wheel drive (UMR) format that could combine higher packaging efficiency along with the sport characteristics associated with rear drive. It was Honda’s first experience designing a passenger car with the engine in the rear half of the vehicle. In February 1984, the development team created a UMR test vehicle using a first-generation Honda City.
Formal development of what would become the Acura NSX began in the fall of 1985. More info here.
The prototype NS-X Concept introduced at the Drake Hotel in Chicago in February 1989 was shorter overall than the final production vehicle with a shorter wheelbase and less front and rear overhang. The evolution of the design from prototype to production would be impacted by a late change to the engine specification – from the prototype’s SOHC V6, shared with the Acura Legend sedan, to the production NSX’s bespoke DOHC V6 with VTEC valvetrain.
Prior to the press conference, the president of Honda Motor Co., Ltd., Tadashi Kume, unexpectedly decided to fire up the prototype’s engine, a sound that could be heard in an adjacent room, where a competing automaker was holding its own press preview. While the noisy blast attracted media attention, Kume turned to the NSX engineering team and asked why the NS-X Concept didn’t use the new VTEC technology that had been recently developed at R&D. When told that it was only planned for a 4-cylinder engine application, Kume pushed the team for a VTEC V6 design.
The engineering team received similar input from a group of top enthusiast automotive journalists attending a “super long lead” driving event at Honda’s Tochigi R&D Center, prior to the prototype’s Chicago Auto Show debut. These included top testers from Car and Driver, Motor Trend and Road & Track. The reactions were generally very positive; however, there was also a feeling that the NSX could use more power.
Ultimately, the DOHC VTEC cylinder head was wider than the head on the prototype’s SOHC engine, with significant implications to the production NSX body. The wider engine resulted in a slightly longer wheelbase, along with increased front and rear overhang for the production NSX. All of these changes occurred rapidly, resulting in the longer production model.
New technology like the all-aluminum unibody and chassis and transverse V6 engine were critical to NSX’s capabilities, and challenged conventional wisdom of an exotic car. But key to the dynamic performance story was the human element, and one specific human in particular.
In the early stages of development, the R&D team spent an entire month at Honda’s Suzuka Circuit, where they conducted numerous evaluations with the test car. In February 1989, around the same time as the NS-X Concept model’s debut in Chicago, legendary F1 driver Ayrton Senna was in Japan to test the new Honda F1 car. The engineering team asked Senna if he would evaluate the NSX prototype. Even though the production NSX targeted levels of rigidity equaling Porsche and Ferrari, Senna felt it could be better.
“I’m not sure I can really give you appropriate advice on a mass-production car,” Senna told the team, “but I feel it’s a little fragile.”
Based on Senna’s input, the team raised its targets for rigidity in April, 1989. They chose the famed Nürburgring for testing, believing that the course would reveal problems they couldn’t detect in their testing at Suzuka. They knew that an extremely difficult course like the Nürburgring would expose even a slight delay in the vehicle’s response to driver inputs. Sure enough, the “Green Hell” exposed that the flexing body was taking away the desired feel of an immediate and direct connection between the car and driver.
By the end of the Nürburgring tests, and over eight months of continuous effort to improve the body design, engineers had increased the car’s rigidity by 50 percent.
The NS-X development name was one of several created by the R&D team in Japan to represent the prototype supercar. In the view of the development team, the naming concept for NS-X was “New,” “Sportscar” and “unknown world” – with “X” being the mathematical symbol for a variable, or an unknown value. A team at American Honda, selected NS-X from the list of possible names, but chose to express the definition as “New Sports eXperimental.”
That said, NS-X was not originally intended as the go-to-market model name. It was considered as the name for the prototype to be revealed in Chicago and then to be used in subsequent promotional appearances. But the incredible attention the NS-X received around the world created virtually unstoppable momentum for the name. So, a decision was made to remove the hyphen from NS-X leading to NSX as the official model name for Acura’s first supercar.
With its multi-material space frame body, groundbreaking three-motor Sport Hybrid Super-Handling All-Wheel Drive™ system , today’s NSX pays homage to the groundbreaking nature of the original while exploring altogether new concepts in electrified supercar performance. Also, like the original, the next-gen NSX powertrain design evolved radically from its conceptual origins.
The Acura NSX Concept that debuted at the 2012 Detroit Auto Show showcased a naturally-aspirated 60-degree V6 mounted transverse behind the seats in a layout similar to the original NSX; however, in the middle of development, the global R&D team decided to take a more challenging path – the creation of an all-new twin-turbocharged longitudinally mounted 75-degree V6. And, similar to the move to a DOHC V6 in the original, the adoption of a new powertrain concept had wide-ranging effects on the body proportions, aerodynamics package and overall design.
“Changing the powertrain design and layout was NOT an easy task,” said Ted Klaus, NSX Global Development Leader. “Frankly, it was like undergoing a heart transplant while running a marathon. But 10 seconds behind the wheel, and you understand why this power unit is key to delivering a New Sports Experience.”
Despite the major powertrain change, the development team maintained the original schedule – revealing the production version of the second-generation NSX just three years later at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show.