A Matter of SMantics

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. 

(c) dyler-com

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.

1989 unveiling of the NS-X prototype. (c) automobile

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.

(c) Top Speed

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.

(c) Honda

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.

(c) Top Speed

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

25 thoughts on “A Matter of SMantics”

  1. At that time Honda was still a fascinating company in Soichiro Honda’s spirit to always try new things like five cylinder 125cc or oval piston race bike engines. Nobuhiko Kawamoto had been famous for his RC66 250cc six cylinder race bike so you could expect something extraordinary from this man.
    The NSX’s engine was a fine piece of engineering with hand polished inlet ports and its power only restricted by Japan’s gentlemen’s agreement limiting engine power to 280 PS.

    I don’t think that it was only badge snobbery that prevented it from being a sales hit. At least to my eyes the thing was terminally ugly with its black canopy and wide arse with silly spoiler. Its interior cried “US export” which certainly didn’t help, either.
    The cooperation with Pininfarina resulted in the HP-X show car which looked indefinitely better and doesn’t seem to have had too much influence on the NSX

  2. Good morning Eóin. The SM/NSX comparison is not one that would have occurred to me, but you make a good argument. It’s a shame that both weren’t more widely appreciated when in production. As to the NSX’s design, I don’t mind the black canopy but the overall shape is a bit blunt, more Chevrolet Corvette than Ferrari. Is the rear spoiler “silly”? I would assume that it was entirely functional, given the apparent philosophy behind the NSX:

    The quality and anticipated reliability of the NSX must have given Ferrari quite a fright at the time, but the allure of the Italian marque still prevailed in the end.

    1. Ferrari only prevailed because they shook off their complacency and took the potential threat posed by the NSX seriously. The underwhelming 348 was transformed into the much improved 355 and Ferrari set itself on a path towards better usability and reliability.

      Ditto Porsche, who almost went bankrupt in the early 90s but bounced back with a radical product plan employing many manufacturing techniques imported from Japan. The 911, 928 and 924/944 (all unique models with their own platforms and engines, sharing very little in common) were replaced by a 911 and Boxster that shared engines and an entire front structure, and an SUV spun off a VW platform.

    2. I’ve always thought it lacks cohesiveness, it simply is not a coherent whole, with the front, middle, and back being three different entities that’s not speaking with each other. Also, it lacks something of the masculine aggressiveness of a Lamborghini, Ferrari, or Corvette. Even if they hadn’t gone the testosterone way they could at least have given it a little more assertiveness. It’s like one of those generic sports cars you could see in advertisements in the late 80’s with a lot of strakes and neon graphic selling everything from Castrol motor oil to Clarion hifi-systems.

    3. Every review I’ve ever read says that the NSX is pretty much one of the best cars ever produced.

      I’ve always struggled with it (and hype always puts me off) – it looks bland and large – or very long, at least. It’s one of those cars which I can never recall what it looks like. The comparison with Corvette styling had never occurred to me, but is a good one.

      In terms of looks, I think I actually prefer the new version, as it has more drama in its styling (sacrilege).

  3. I never minded the NSX’ appearance, certainly not next to the podgy, overstyled 348. The rear spoiler is neatly integrated (more so than in the case of the Porsche 959, which arguably started the trend), the graphics are tidy and the proportions neat. I’d assume the black greenhouse was chosen to hide its relatively upright architecture (in comparison to the Ferrari), which would’ve played a crucial role in providing the outstanding accomodations the Honda was justly lauded for.

    Speaking of Ferrari’s lattice & side strakes period, it’s interesting to look at some of the alternatives to Diego Ottina’s Testarossa proposal, or the subsequent baby brother design – in this case a 348 sketch by Ian Cameron:

    1. Christopher, thanks for posting this fascinating render. Forgive me, but I see a certain similarity to Giugiaro’s 1985 Maya concept. More interesting than the production shape nonetheless…

    2. Another incidence of genius thinking alike, I’d argue, as the Ferrari render was created in ’80, when the Maya was a but a figment of GG’s imagination.

  4. A fan of the post-facelift Honda NSX (not 100% sold on the rear) and agree it deserved to be a massive sales success, in some respects the V6 through no fault of its own held it back. Yet while not believing the V6 needed more power then what was already bestowed during its production, the engine’s layout as was the case with one experimental Citroen SM certainly offered more tantalizing possibilities for Honda to punch further upwards and break through the glass ceiling (ultimately unrealized partly by Honda’s own conservatism and reputed distaste in going down such a path).

  5. Hello Eòin,
    These unusual and thought provoking angles of approach to a given subject are one of the reasons I appreciate DTW so much, thanks for this.

  6. For this class of car it needed something special for an engine. A V-6 was far too ordinary and down-market. At minimum NSX needed a really good V-8. Twelve cylinders would have been even better. Perhaps the oval piston system could have been used to make a really special engine. Whatever the case Honda needed a powertrain which made a statement. This V-6, as nice as it was, did not do this.

  7. Lovely article and a great reminder if a terrific car. This was the intelligent mid-engined sports car, thoughtfully specified by its designers and engineers. I remember sitting in one at the NEC and marvelling at how intimidating it was; a no-bollocks sports car. This, together with the CRX and that all-wishbone suspended Accord Aerodeck (three door with pop-up lamps) all left their mark on me as an admirer of Hondas in general. Pity I only ever owned an Integra (covered on this site in the dim and distant), and that the marque has lost its way recently, although the e and new Jazz show there are flickers of a renaissance.

  8. As someone who initially dismissed the NSX along similar lines; too derivative and transatlantic in flavour for my taste, I now find its appearance to be entirely correct and refreshing in its rectitude and almost demure sobriety. Honda was attempting to bridge from sportscar to GT, so it had by consequence to be a compromise. But as such, it was a very good one. Certainly, from a technical, ownership or even a stylistic perspective, I would rate the NSX more highly than any contemporary 911, or Ferrari – both of which remain massively over-rated by my reckoning.

    I find it interesting that the 348 remains, in investment Ferrari terms to be something of an outlier, something I’d ascribe both to its relative ubiquity and the fact that it simply wasn’t that great to look at or (I believe) to drive. The relatively rapid development of the F355 (itself more of a heavy facelift) was abundant evidence that the message was received and understood in Maranello… ‘see, ours goes up to 11 (or 8000) too’!

    I do wonder if maybe we are all getting a little bogged down on the visuals however, when the true beauty of the NSX lies beneath. This was an engineer’s car and in my experience, engineers’ cars are rarely ravishing beauties, from a stylistic point of view. It is here perhaps that my argument falls asunder; the SM being all shape and wonder, which to some extent distracted from the exquisite engineering within. The NSX by contrast hides its light under comparative sackcloth.

    As regards the engine, I think Honda made the right call. Even then, the world was awash with V8s, and a V10 or 12 would have added cost, complexity and weight. And it still would have been a Honda, with all the social stigma that entailed. In my view, Honda, like Lexus with the LS400, realised that the US market was the primary focus, and tailored their offerings accordingly, in the sure knowledge that Europeans with the wherewithal to buy a car like this would not even contemplate as lowly a brand as theirs. After all, how could one justify such a thing down the yacht club bar of a Saturday evening?

    1. Yes to engineer’s cars doesn’t have to be beautiful, but what the most successful got is character in abundance, like a Land Rover or 2Cv. What I want in a sports car is that something, call it je ne sais quoi? Something elseness than the ordinary? Think of it the other way around then? Is there a successful sports car where that thing is obviously lacking?

    2. Ingvar, you may suggest I’m dealing in semantics here (coughs self-consciously…), but I would contend that the NSX is not in fact a sportscar, regardless of what it looks like, or whether it was Honda’s intention or not to build one. However, speaking of successful sportscars where that elusive quality of character is said to be lacking, some (not I) might suggest that the Mazda MX5 would fall into that category.

    3. If the NSX is not seen as a sports car its competitors would not have been 348 or 911 but Nissan ZX300 and Toyota Supra. This would make sense as all three share the heavy transatlantic bias and the six cylinder engines – and all three didn’t sell particularly well in Europe.
      The NSX was an engineer’s car when you look at its engine or suspension but the aluminium body was a wasted effort because it didn’ttake advantage of the specific properties of that material. The NSX’ body was conventionally built and therefore needed much more material than a spaceframe design would have needed, losing most of the aluminium’s weight advantage. They built a dedicated factory for the NSX so they could have adopted new production methods but on the other hand production numbers were so small – just 18,000 were made- that they would have lost even more money than the heavy $100,000 on every car they sold.

    4. Eoin

      Gordon Murray disagrees with you. He went for a V-12 for both his driver-focused cars. BOTH of them. There are reasons for that.

      You’ve missed the point of a car like this entirely (as did Honda). NSX was too compromised by ordinariness to “break through the ceiling”. It needed a really remarkable engine (which this car did not have).

      You ask, “After all, how could one justify such a thing down the yacht club bar of a Saturday evening?”

      Had the car been unquestionably superior to the alternatives, then the question wouldn’t have even been raised. People would know. Honda needed superiority. The NSX was not. It was too modest. Too plain. Understand the engine is the heart of this type of car. A water-cooled V-6 was ordinary. It was perceived as adequate and nothing more. It lacked the critical attribute needed.

      Failing to use a V-12, V-10 or even a V-8, Honda could have done something no-one else could have achieved at the time and utilised its in-house oval piston technology. Doing that would have allowed them to side-step the perception issue entirely, even for the lowly V-6.

      Some interesting things about oval piston engines.
      Honda built oval piston bikes for sale to the public. A limited number of NR750 motorcycles were produced and sold. They are reliable and very refined. Even all these years later they provide a good ride and feel contemporary.
      VW experimented with a four cylinder diesel engine with oval pistons and developed through to ready for production status.
      Ford built a version of the Windsor V-8 with “square” pistons in the late 1960s.
      Mahle have a patent on a clever method of oval piston ring manufacture.
      At one point Honda was looking at a 3.5 litre oval piston V-12 for F-1. Rule changes killed it immediately it became known to parties outside of Honda.

    5. JT: I politely disagree. Honda could have done any number of things, but this is what they did. I rather admire it, and having discussed it at some length with an automotive engineer whose opinion I greatly respect, I have a fresh regard for it and the engineering team who created it. In my view, Honda could never have burst through any putative glass ceilings no matter what they tried. They simply didn’t have the brand cachet, and that really does matter if one wishes to impress down the yacht club. A V12 or similar would have simply been a bigger, albeit more heroic cash burn. Of course the cash was available at the time, (otherwise it would never have happened at all) but that would soon change.

      On balance, I think I can cope with being out of step with Mr. Murray’s purview.

    6. Second J T regarding the NSX, a V8 roughly putting out 340-390+ hp based on the 252-290 hp 90-degree V6 in NSX was certainly feasible (also a related V10 albeit less likely despite Honda later making a curious if unrelated 2.0-2.5-litre G inline-5 unit) though Honda had no desire to develop one.

      Sure a 2002 290 hp Honda NSX-R was once able to match a 425 hp Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale around the Nurburgring notwithstanding the 135 hp or so gap between the two cars, one can view that tidbit as either a testament of the Honda’s capabilities that ultimately proved to be of little to no consequence in terms of sales or a missed opportunity by Honda to demonstrate its superiority over the Ferrari due to the NSX being hamstrung with a decent yet mundane V6 rather than a V8 at minimum.

  9. Eóin, clearly they have never driven a Mark 1 (NA) MX5 (to semi-steal a great line from The Virgin Suicides).

    To paraphrase the late, great Russell Bulgin, before the MX5, cars described as having character widdled oil on the drive.

    As you may gather, I have no good ideas of my own, I steal everyone else’s.

    1. Hi Ben, I have to agree with you and the late Mr Bulgin. I owned a Mk1 MX-5 for a couple of years. It was a 1995 car, 11 years old with 92k miles, a genuine UK car (not a Eunos grey import) so had better rust-proofing than the JDM models. Apart from a worn driver’s seat bolster it looked and felt like new and was a brilliant drive and totally reliable. It was still on the road until last year with 112k miles, according to its MOT history. The only problem was a slight lack of leg room. (I’m just 5’11” tall, but long-limbed.)

  10. Marvellous. Someone else who feels proprietorial about their old cars and checks their MOTs and tax.

  11. When this car came out I think all the reviews were positive, or at least the ones I remember. The team who developed the NSX used the BMW E26 as a reference car.

    When compared against the most likely competition at the time I notice a few things: Despite all the use of aluminium it weighs about the same and has the same performance and fuel economy as a 964. The NSX is way, way, easier to drive than the Porsche, but the 964 is shorter, narrower and taller and in a way more practical as well. When I look at the NSX as an everyday supercar I think these shortcomings were quite serious.

    The 348 is a very different car. I don’t like the side air intakes and fake front grill, but overall the proportions of the car work for me. The NSX on the other hand looks too long. On the upside it has a relatively large luggage compartment, but the proportions are just a bit off, at least in my book.

    Also the NSX was plagued by a few details: the headlight washers and radio antenna compromise the otherwise smooth shape. And I never understood the keyhole in the doors either. With a little extra engineering they could have integrated this in the black triangle where the door handle is.

    In the end I wonder if this car did what Honda hoped it would do: It was a wakeup call for Porsche and Ferrari, no doubt. Just look at the way the 911 and mid-engined V8 Ferrari developed from there. The Citroën SM failed in that department.

    But did it any good for the Honda brand? I think that question is a lot harder to answer. In the nineties Honda was working very hard on it’s engineering and the Honda adds always featured V-tec engines, double wishbone suspension and references to Formula 1. The message was clear: Honda was a brand with excellent engineering and they were aiming straight for the Audi, BMW and Mercedes customer. They seemed to be nearly there, but in the end they changed their focus to small cars and crossovers, sales figures dropped significantly in the Netherlands. Honda has largely left the European market. In the Netherlands there’s no importer, hardly any dealers left and if you want an NSX you have to buy it in Germany. The first generation Civic sold by the boatload over here, now Honda has a marketshare of 0,5%, less than Porsche. But interest in the old NSX is on the rise.

    1. A good summary of Honda’s current position in Europe, Freerk. I suspect the decline has a lot to do with the company’s move from handsome if conservative looking cars to its overstyled and polarising current output. BMW might want to take note…

    2. Freerk: You ask whether it did any good for the Honda brand. I think it probably did at the time, as it reinforced the carmaker’s technology-led, and race-bred image, which was very much how Honda were promoting themselves. However, what often gets forgotten when discussing Japanese halo cars of this period is that they came about during a period of massive expansiveness and (over?)confidence amid the entire Japanese industry, based to a large extent on the asset bubble which had propelled the Japanese economy to unprecedented heights during the late 1980s. It was this and the abundance of cheap money which allowed most Japanese carmakers to embark on these (and other) flights of fancy, hitherto unthinkable.

      Once the bubble burst, as they inevitably do, Honda and most of their contemporaries were left in a somewhat straitened position and a massive retrenchment took place. In the case of Honda, a fundamental shift took place, where they re-orientated almost entirely towards the US market and built cars very much to that market’s taste. Europe became year on year, a less important market, resulting in the position we have now, where Honda’s presence is very much of a bit-player.

      The NSX was unquestionably a flawed product. First attempts usually are, but it was a work of passion, and to my eyes, that shows – both in the good and the less good aspects of the end product. I understand (and for a long time concurred with) the criticisms levelled at the car. Now I look at it and I simply appreciate that they made it. For me, it represents peak Honda – a Honda we are unlikely to witness again.

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