Separated by two decades, and a good deal of ideology, we trace the seemingly improbable; the similarities between Honda’s 1990 NSX and Citroën’s 1970 SM.
For a short period of time during the close of the 1980s, it did appear as though the Japanese auto industry were poised to, as the UK’s Car Magazine rather hysterically headlined in 1988, “tear the heart out the European industry.” The reality behind this seemingly overnight transformation was quite naturally, anything but; Japanese carmakers after all, have never been in the business of impulse.
By mid-decade, the land of the rising sun had learned about as much as they felt they needed from the established players and were confident enough of their abilities, particularly from a technical standpoint. Furthermore, it had dawned upon the leading Japanese carmakers that European and US lawmakers were unlikely to drop the punitive barriers to unfettered trade; not when the domestic producers were incapable of competing on quality, durability or increasingly, sophistication.
The only route for Japanese carmakers was to pitch further upmarket into areas previously the sole preserve of the heritage brands. Here profit margins were as well upholstered as their putative customers, and would more than compensate for lower volumes. Furthermore, in the domestic market, the appetite for more individuality in design and execution was growing.
Were these rationales the primary reasons why Honda elected to take on the established grand marques in 1990, or was there, much like Citroën in 1970, when they introduced the SM to an equally incredulous world, a further point to prove? Because the similarities between the two cars, born two decades apart are stronger than one might first imagine.
Both designs emerged from manufacturers with enviable technical reputations, both being innovators where engineers carried a great deal of authority, and while they were better known for well regarded saloons and economy hatchbacks, both SM and NSX were no expense spared, clean sheet designs aimed at a vastly more exclusive market sector. And despite the 20-year age gap, both designs were (to some extent) benchmarked against Porsche’s seemingly eternal Nunelfer.
Unlike the SM’s Maserati-sourced engine, Honda supplied their own; a superb 3.0 litre twin overhead cam per bank 90° V6, employing Honda’s VTEC variable valve timing system and developing 270 bhp and redlined at 8000 rpm. Both cars were technical tours de force, the NSX employing aluminium extensively throughout the body structure, not to mention for the elegant forged double wishbone suspension arms (the rear design incorporating an element of longitudinal compliance in its design).
The all-wheel disc brakes employed Honda’s four channel anti lock system. Wheel diameter was a (now) distinctly modest 15″ front, 16″ rear diameter. The engine was mounted transversely ahead of the rear axle line, through a five speed manual or four speed automatic transmission, both of Honda’s design and manufacture.
The design brief was similar to that of the SM – to produce a fast, refined and highly capable performance car; one that could on one hand be taken by the scruff of the neck and driven both hard and fast, yet one which also could waft its occupants over long distances leaving them relaxed and unflustered at their destination. For while the NSX looked more akin to a supercar than a GT, it was as user-friendly and docile as an Accord.
No clambering over deep sills, or contorting one’s legs to fit within a tight-fitting skewed footwell. No grappling with punishing control weights or stubborn gearboxes which required warming through before use. No fumbling for controls scattered randomly across a facia which dated back generations. No issues viewing the car’s extremities, nor indeed, clinging on for dear life if one suddenly needed to lift under fast cornering. In short, the NSX was everything European auto-royalty had traditionally eschewed with something approximating contempt.
The body design was carried out by Honda’s own design team, but given their wide-ranging association with Pininfarina, there was likely to have been some Italian input. Either way, the result was neat, elegant, and somewhat Ferrari-esque, (with subtle nods to US tastes) which probably on balance wasn’t accidental. Honda after all, wanted customers to make the association.
Inside however, it was a different story. Ergonomically sound, beautifully laid out and finished, with a distinct aviation feeling, (Honda’s designers said they were referencing jet fighter cockpits) yet refreshingly lacking the electronic gizmos normally so beloved of the tech-loving Japanese, the cabin was a model of clarity, restraint and accessibility. To add further insult to injury, it was also assembled to Honda’s then enviable standards of integrity, material quality and supreme absence of both fuss and malady.
Honda also made good use of their highly successful Formula 1 programme during the NSX development, co-opting both Satoru Nakajima and a certain Ayrton Senna as impromptu development drivers; both men providing invaluable feedback on the car’s dynamic package, and helping hone its supremely capable and predictable road behaviour – a finely judged balance between agility, compliance and ride comfort.
So much so, the NSX was benchmarked by McLaren Automotive’s development team for their nascent 1992 F1 road car programme. In a technical paper prepared by chassis engineer Steve Randle (who was responsible for the F1’s dynamics, engine mounting and suspension design) and presented to the IMechE in London, he cited the NSX’s dynamics as being what Woking’s tight-knit team of engineers were most determined to match.
The 1990 advent of the NSX made cars like Porsche’s veteran 911 and Ferrari’s then all-new 348 both look and feel like the vehicles from previous eras they were, and their rejection from McLaren’s list of benchmark designs is perhaps even more telling, considering their purchase price, performance, heritage and putative fitness for purpose.
Needless to say, LJK Setright also lent the NSX his enthusiastic backing, describing it (probably accurately) as a luxury car that happened to be mid-engined. Unsurprisingly, LJKS favoured the automatic version. Ayrton Senna is said to have owned two (an auto and a manual); one in Brazil and another in Portugal, where he was based during the F1 season. Also allegedly putting his money alongside his plaudits was McLaren technical director, Gordon Murray.
The Honda was a gamechanger, and overnight, every performance carmaker extant simply had to up their game, to the benefit of customers everywhere. Because the main aspect which held back NSX was latent brand-snobbery. Less so in the US market, where the car was sold under the more upmarket Acura brand name, but nevertheless it still lacked the cachet of either the prancing horse of Modena or Stuttgart, for that matter.
A product which requires explanation will always prove a more difficult sell, and while the Honda was as docile and friendly as the SM was (initially) intimidating, both suffered a similar fate both in life and beyond it, for broadly similar reasons; either dismissed out of hand or simply that the market failed to understand it.
The NSX may not have proven a massive sales success, but it not only was a potent symbol of Honda’s engineering acumen, it became a monument in itself; a lasting symbol of progress and positive disruption which startled a hidebound sector out of its laziness and torpor and into making cars which didn’t require the skills of a Senna to master, nor a team of mechanics to maintain.
But what cars like the SM and NSX prove, is that it’s simply not enough to be better. A hammer is often a more effective tool than a samurai blade.