THE Honda NSX Retromobile Tour 2019
Thirty years ago, the original Honda NSX changed the way the world viewed Honda. At the time, nobody could have imagined that the company was hell bent on taking on Ferrari and Porsche in the race to build the world’s greatest sports car. But it was.
At the 1989 Chicago motor show, Honda showed the public just how serious it was about squaring up to two of the greatest names on the road, revealing the NS-X concept.
According to Honda, the objective was "that the NSX had to be as easy to live with as any other Honda." Yet equally the car had to meet performance parameters of "no more than 11 lbs (5kg) for each horsepower to achieve no less than 160mph and the standing quarter mile in under 14 seconds."
It met these targets, and plenty more besides. Heck, an octogenarian could climb aboard and drive it in comfort and confidence, not something that could have been said about other two-seat status symbols of the day.
So, what better way to mark its 30th birthday than stretching its legs on a long-distance road trip? One that happens to take in part of Honda’s heritage in Grand Prix racing, involves navigating the cut and thrust of Paris -– visiting Retromobile, one of Europe’s best shows for classic cars – and sees the original joined by its oh-so modern successor, the new-generation, hybrid-powered NSX?
Early starts are never preferable but when a 700-mile loop through France, in three generations of NSX lie ahead, it’s a sacrifice most would be willing to make.
Leaving the hotel weary-eyed, the convoy of Honda UK’s 1989 NA1 (the oldest surviving NSX in the UK) the 2005 NA2 NSX that has been comprehensively restored, and the Jekyll and Hyde beast that is the 2018 NSX made for an impressive sight as we headed toward our first stop – the Eurotunnel.
Ahead lay two abandoned motor racing circuits where Honda had experienced first-hand the emotional rollercoaster that is Formula 1, and possibly the world’s greatest classic and vintage car show; Retromobile.
But first, the small issue of a four hour drive down the A26 Autoroute in three supercars.
Cars which, by their own definition, should be fast yet uncomfortable, uneconomical and unsuitable.
But the NSX isn’t a traditional supercar; reviews at its launch 30 years ago painted a picture of a car that questioned the status quo by providing build quality never seen before on a car of this nature, on top of a beautifully delicate and adjustable chassis, powered by a bespoke engine developed from lessons learnt in the highest tiers of motorsport.
What was true then remains so now. Compliant, smooth and refined; all three NSXs made the 230-mile journey without the need to refuel and arrived at our first destination with all occupants relaxed, in comfort and excited about what lay ahead.
First stop: Reims
The abandoned historic circuit of Reims-Gueux, nestled in the Champagne region of France, is a bit of a legendary place amongst petrolheads; a rarity that sees well-preserved pit-lane buildings and main straight grandstands flanking an average B-road.
However, if you were unaware of its existence, it would be very easy to continue down the N31 and miss the spectacle completely.
Providing, perhaps, the ultimate backdrop for a photo and video shoot, the NSXs took turns lining up in front of the pit buildings – much to the joy of passing locals, who happily tooted horns and shouted compliments about the cars as they bumbled by, going about their daily lives.
Copyright: Image capture: Apr 2018 © 2019 Google
Honda’s heritage at Reims is significant; whilst Formula 1 may be seen as the pinnacle of motorsports to some in this day and age, back in the 60’s drivers who had progressed to the dizzy heights of the premier category often still competed in lower classes.
The 1966 Brabham BT18 was the dominant force that year. Utilising a DOHC Honda unit as a stressed component, the BT18 took 11 consecutive Formula 2 victories (including the 1966 Grands Prix France) at the hands of Jack Brabham and Denny Hulme.
Whilst it would have been possible to spend all day sat in awe of the surroundings, a further two-hour drive lay ahead to the overnight stop in Paris. The generational-convoy set off in search of a comfortable bed for the night.
With none of the group having ever visited this show before, every member was struggling to contain their giddiness at the prospect of having advanced access to what is one of the hidden gems of the motor show calendar.
Hall after hall of classic, historic and vintage metal catered for every taste, style and budget. Immaculate Honda S800s sat alongside concourse Ferrari Daytonas. NSXs alongside Citroen DSs. MK1 Civics alongside BMW 507s.
But with such a tight schedule to adhere to, ensuring we made our return train, just a morning was set aside for perusing around the show. A morning is not enough.
However, ahead lay our second abandoned French motorsport circuit; a further two hours away along another motorway.
Second Stop: Rouen Les Essarts
Whilst Reims provoked a sense of occasion and wonderment, Rouen took a more reflective, sombre tone. Very little, to nothing, remains of the once formidable circuit. In 2019 it is merely a collection of interconnecting roads through a sleepy suburb in middle-France. Nothing reminds visitors of the
sheer bravery and passion of the fierce motorsport battles that once occurred there.
In moderately powerful road cars, equipped with the latest safety equipment, the journey down Rouen’s plunging roads that were closely flanked by trees and steep embankments was terrifying enough. But the thought of thundering through the same roads in a 1960’s Formula 1 car (an era where engineering had advanced enough to produce very fast cars, but not enough to ensure their driver’s safety) is utterly bewildering.
"The moment the road opened up, they could send a shiver of excitement down the driver’s spine like few other cars"
Sadly, Honda’s link with Rouen is a turbulent one. 1968 saw the debut of the all-new, magnesium framed RA302; a car that proved to be more temperamental than the RA301 it replaced – so much so that Honda’s lead driver, John Surtees, chose to run his trusty RA301 for the race rather than the new car.
His team-mate Jo Schlesser, however, wasn’t so fortunate. Persevering with the unpredictable car, Schlesser sadly lost control of his machine at the precariously high-speed Six Frères section of the circuit leading to his tragic demise and overshadowing Surtees’ second-place finish.
A relatively sedate trip around the circuit’s layout and the obligatory picture opportunity later, we paid our respects to Schlesser and left for Calais, after two very long yet thoroughly entertaining days on the road.
The NSX’s reputation as ‘the everyday, useable supercar’ is deserved. Both the older models and the latest hybrid NSX completed the 700-mile road trip without breaking a sweat.
Each was as comfortable on the motorway as it was in rush-hour Parisian traffic. But the moment the road opened up, they could send a shiver of excitement down the driver’s spine like few other cars.
The classic status that the original NSX has achieved is justified; it ticks as many boxes as a supercar can
The classic status that the original NSX has achieved is justified; it ticks as many boxes as a supercar can. And our road trip allowed the 2018 NSX to demonstrate its bloodline to its predecessors.
It has been comprehensively reinvented for the 21st century, with technical innovation and environmental considerations at the forefront of engineers’ minds. Yet the similarities in its user-friendly nature ring true with the original premise of a supercar anyone car drive.
The History of the Honda NSX
It is often said that reinvention is the key to success. Pop stars are good at it. Think of The Beatles.
They shot to fame with the jangly pop sounds of “Please Please Me” and could have stuck to their guns and played the same chords. But they didn’t - they reinvented their sound and image, progressing to “Revolver” and “Sgt Pepper”.
Honda’s landmark reinvention moment came 30 years ago, with the launch of the NS-X Concept. Actually, behind closed factory doors, it started much earlier. In 1984, Honda began exploring the idea of creating a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive sports car that would capitalise on the company’s recent return to Formula 1 motor racing, as a partner to Williams and later, McLaren.
To reach the point where the Japanese company was ready to reveal the NS-X Concept to the public, tireless research and development went into rethinking the sports car as something that could, conceivably, be used every day of the week.
Early prototypes featured a V6 engine without Honda’s clever VTEC system; a way of adapting the behaviour of the engine according to the driving conditions. In the eyes of Tadashi Kume, president of Honda, this would not do. He challenged the engineering team as to why the NS-X Concept didn’t use the new VTEC technology. When told that it was only planned for a 4-cylinder engine application, Kume instructed the team to reinvent VTEC for the new sports car’s 6-cylinder vee-formation engine.
Further feedback from Ayrton Senna, then driver with McLaren, Honda’s partner in Formula 1, suggested that the car’s ground-breaking aluminium structure needed to be stiffer. Wisely, Honda’s R&D team heeded Senna’s advice, introducing improvements that would bring about a 50 percent increase in rigidity to the car’s structure.
By the time the car was put into production, in 1990, Honda had built a bespoke factory in Takanezawa, Tochigi, a couple of hours north of Tokyo. Had the company succeeded in its aim of reinventing itself as a car maker that could make a sports car which could be as thrilling as a contemporary Ferrari or Porsche, yet as useable as any other Honda?