H is for…?

Where I come from, there’s a joke about neds and phone boxes. It goes something like this: how do you get a ned into a phone box? Paint three stripes on the side of it. By the same logic, can you guess how to get a Leslie into a phone box? You’re right – paint a big ‘H’ with a red background on the front. And while you’re at it, you might as well make sure the dial rotates at 11,000 rpm.

I like things carrying Type-R or Mugen branding a lot. I am a big fan of specced-up vehicles from a certain Japanese manufacturer. In fact, you could even say I’m fond of Hondas. So you can imagine the excitement when I logged onto YouTube two days ago to watch a video of the first ever test of Honda’s HSV racer from Suzuka. It was scintillating. Even through the low quality video from a camcorder on full zoom and the bad sound courtesy of my wrecked headphones, I could see that Honda have produced something that just looks and sounds right.

The beauty of the HSV, however, is that you don’t need to be a Japanese car buff to appreciate it. I am willing to concede that to the untrained (or just completely sane) eye, a Honda Civic Type-R or a Nissan GT-R doesn’t look all that special. One could be forgiven for thinking a Spoon Civic was some kind of Max Power ned special, whereas the average person on the street would probably guess the GTR came from somewhere in Germany and was designed to be bought in bulk to be distributed as a company car. The HSV, by contrast, looks like a racing car, pure and simple. The big wheels, black paint job, pointy headlights, long bonnet and proliferation of vents mean that anyone – and I mean anyone – looking at this is going to know it’s a car designed to go places fast.

Perhaps one of the reasons the HSV looks so much like a thoroughbred racer is because it is only that. There will be no road-going variant, nothing that Mere Mortals such as ourselves will be allowed to drive. In a strange twist, though, the HSV design did start its life as the concept for the replacement for the Honda NSX, the legendary Porsche-beating super car developed in the late 1980s with the assistance of one Ayrton Senna. Sadly, bad things started happening to everybody’s money during the development stage, Honda realised they needed to ‘restructure’ and the project was mothballed. That looked like being the end of that until late in 2009, the concept was resurrected and transformed into the new face of Honda’s Super GT campaign. The HSV was back, after a fashion.

I should at this juncture explain what Super GT is. It is a Japanese sports car racing series that the big three manufacturers – Honda, Nissan and Toyota – all take part in. Based largely in Japan with the occasional away round in Malaysia or China, Super GT is Japan’s premier motorsport championship. Rear-wheel drive, 500bhp monsters duke it out on track for bragging rights, and some of the world’s top drivers past and present take part – ex-F1 pilots Ralph Firman and, erm, Yuji Ide competed last season, and Le Mans star Peter Dumbreck and home favourite Satoru Nakajima are also involved. The cars are carbon-fibre specials bearing only aesthetic resemblance to their road-going counterparts – Nissan campaign the GT-R, Toyota race the Lexus SC430 and Honda, until the end of last year, continued to develop the NSX. With the NSX retired from the track as well as the road now, it will be the HSV’s job to keep the Honda flag flying high against the company’s fiercest rivals.

From the video I saw, it looks like the HSV is going to be pretty rapid. The scream of the V10 is so high pitched that I was convinced the mechanics had just hidden a ghetto blaster playing late 1990s F1 sounds at full volume under the bonnet, and the uncompromising styling of the thing gives it the look of the Devil Car from the first Ridge Racer game on the PlayStation. Keep in mind that Super GT organisers aren’t afraid to tamper with teams’ cars to keep the racing close, and it’s easy to see how this thing could fly in 2010.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t gutted when Honda announced they’d pulled the plug on the NSX replacement, but now that the project has been brought back to life as a racer I’m kind of glad the NSX name has passed into the annals of history. The NSX really was a supercar for the late twentieth Century, a machine drawing on huge resources and a vast bank of technology to create a driving machine par excellence with a price tag to match. It was a car intended for a different time, a time when people would have far fewer qualms about spending nearly six figures on a fast car and then horsing it around the countryside weekend on weekend. The HSV, by contrast, could be the supercar for the early twenty-first Century, a vehicle that knows how to draw on all the little things that make our heart beat that tiny bit faster when we see one roaring past and goes right back to the fundamentals of what a sports car ought to be.

In an age of carbon footprints and speed cameras and Health and Safety and Copenhagen and global warming, there really is very little place on the public highway for something like the Honda HSV, no matter how much we would like to think otherwise. And it’s for that reason that the racetrack really is the best home for Honda’s stillborn supercar. Honda isn’t one of the few car manufacturers in the world in the black and one of the leaders in green technology for nothing, which is why it’s important to pay attention to this decision to make the HSV a racer, not a road car. Responding to the challenges of climate change doesn’t mean we have to stop loving cars, but it maybe does mean we have to accept the only place for frivolous fossil-fuel burning is at the racing circuit. As long as things as fundamentally beautiful as the Honda HSV keep coming out, I’m happy to make that sacrifice.

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