February 1989 in Suzuka circuit with F1 legend Ayrton Senna behind the wheel of a prototype Honda NSX. "I’m not sure I can really give you appropriate advice on a mass-production car, but I feel it’s a little fragile," commented Senna to Honda engineers.
A hero-car project for Honda to bridge the gap between its regular passenger cars and the F1 car that Senna was driving, the Honda NSX was aimed at Porsche and Ferrari. Honda intends to not just build a faster car but also to deliver better comfort and ease of use, attributes which are not common to supercars of that era.
Soon, it became apparent that an F1 circuit like Suzuka is not enough to fine tune the NSX. The team moved to Germany, setting up an office just outside the famous Nurburgring Nordschleife circuit. It was here that the NSX was honed, at the deepest end of what racers refer to as the Green Hell.
A 20.8 km long tarmac loop that snakes deep into the Eifel forest, over 200 corners and 300 metres change in elevation, the Nurburgring Nordschleife would reveal shortcomings that Honda didn’t even know existed with the NSX.
The rest is history as we know it today. Launched on September 1990, the NSX would later serve as a reference for Gordon Murray in developing his McLaren F1, which went on to hold the world record for the fastest production car between 1998 and 2005.
“The NSX is a landmark car. It awoke not only a lazy Ferrari, but Porsche as well and sparked advances in usability, ergonomics, and handling,” said Murray of the NSX.
The NSX culminated in the NSX-R, a street legal racing version of the NSX, and like the standard car, was also honed on the Nurburgring. This is where the Type R's lineage began and why Nurburgring, rather than Suzuka, is the Type R's ancestral home.
The ‘R’ represents Racing Spirit. Some say the Type R’s lineage should be tied to Honda’s NSR racing bikes. Officially, Honda’s archivists won’t make that link but the typeface used for earlier Type R logos were very similar to the ones used on the NSR bikes.
While it is true that the Type R philosophy originated with the NSX-R, the first Honda to spot a Type R logo was actually the DC2 Integra Type R, launched in 1995.
However awareness of the Type R logo only reached the masses in 1997, when Honda applied the Type R treatment to the humble EK9 Honda Civic, partly due to the fact that the Civic was cheaper and available in more markets than the Integra.
The intense sibling rivalry between the Civic Type R and Integra Type R also energised an entire generation of adolescents. In Japan, Honda also organized a one-make race for the Civic Type R, which further boosted the Civic Type R’s popularity.
The Civic Type R would eventually become the most important and iconic Type R model. It would be another ten years before Europe got its act together again with the Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI and Renault Megane RS.
Like most mythical super heroes from legends, Honda didn’t set out to make a hero out of the Type R, no more than Thomas Wayne groomed Bruce Wayne to be Batman. The original plan was for the NSX Type R to be in production for just three years but obviously that didn’t happen.
Sixteen years after Honda took the NSX to the Nurburgring and later penned the Type R legend, the FK2 generation Civic Type R pushed out the Renault Megane RS 275 Trophy for the ‘Ring’ record for front-wheel drive cars , with a time of 7:50.63. Two years later in 2007, the all-new FK8 generation model pushed the limits further to set a new record of 7:43.80, ousting the Volkswagen GTI Clubsport.
By then, the Civic Type R’s lineage have split into two – a UK-made Europe-only FN2 hatchback and a Japan-made Japan-only FD2 sedan (often referred to as the FD2R). For purists, only a Champion White FD2R is a worthy successor to the legendary EK9 model.
On August 2007, Malaysia became the only country outside of Japan to officially sell the FD2R. Not even consumers in other bigger Honda markets like USA or even right-hand drive UK were given the privilege to buy one of the most coveted forbidden fruits from Japan.
How did this small Honda distributor operating from a refurbished warehouse in Petaling Jaya (at that time), whose annual sales equals only to the monthly sales of a giant dealer in USA and China was able to achieve something that no Honda office in any right-hand drive market in the world could?
Prior to this, fans of the Civic Type R can only buy one from a grey importer.
In the eyes of Japan’s Honda Motor Co., the FD2R was developed only for the Japanese market and was not meant for driving conditions in other countries. Every Honda distributor worldwide accepted the status quo except for Honda Malaysia.
As expected, Honda Malaysia’s proposal to their counterparts at Honda’s overseas sales office in Aoyama, Tokyo ruffled quite a few senior Honda associates. The most obvious question that the Malaysian team had to answer was Honda Malaysia’s lack of experience in selling high performance cars. Complicating matters is Malaysia’s punitive taxes on imported cars. How many Malaysians are going to pay that BMW money for a Honda?
Mr. Akkbar Danial, currently the Group Vice-President of Honda Malaysia, had often told his product planning team responsible for the FD2R, “Without Trying – You Will Never Know.” The team conducted very extensive market research into this entirely new market for Honda Malaysia. While there is no doubt that the Type R brand has a huge following globally, Honda Malaysia has to be certain of the expectations of Malaysian customers before it could commit itself to importing the FD2R.
The FD2R was sold in Malaysia from August 2007 until April 2010. The last FD2R rolled off Honda's Suzuka plant in August 2010. A total of 420 units found home among Malaysian fans, contributing to the 12,000 plus units sold in Japan and Malaysia.
The latest FK8 generation Civic Type R now makes 310 PS, pushing it well into the Volkswagen Golf R and Mercedes-AMG A45 territory, and with a 6-speed manual transmission, bereft of complex all-wheel drive and electronic driving aids, it’s a clear choice for purists.
Today, the legacy of the FD2R and the hard work done by Honda Malaysia nearly 10 years ago is starting to deliver its results.
The FD2R might not have been a major volume contributor, but the feat that Honda Malaysia had successfully pulled off did raise the profile of Malaysia in the eyes of Honda Motor Co., in Japan. Honda associates in Japan are now convinced that Malaysia is ready for better products and they ought to pay more attention to us.
In recent years, many Honda engineers have made it a point to make frequent visits to Malaysia as our market is known for its unique combination of extremely demanding customers and challenging driving conditions, characterised by high ambient temperatures and sustained high driving speeds on some of the longest highway networks in the region.
The results are obvious in the newer generation of Honda products like the Civic and CR-V – class-leading Honda Sensing driving aids (only country in the SEA region to have it), quieter ride, German-like driving dynamics and effortless turbocharged engines for highway cruising, CVTs tuned to cope with high temperature, dual-clutch transmission adapted to intense hot and humid weather stop-go driving (improvements made here were subsequently rolled out to Japanese market models) and Malaysia is also the only market outside of Japan to introduce the Jazz Hybrid and City Hybrid.
Success begets success. Today, Malaysia is Honda’s second biggest market worldwide by market share, behind Indonesia (Jan – Sept. 2017). Even if one is to look at sales volume, Malaysia still ranks among the top-10, an incredible feat considering our the size of our population relative to other countries on the list.
This, combined with Malaysia’s early success with the FD2R, contributed to the launch of the FK8 Civic Type R here, an event which was important enough for Hideki Kakinuma, the Assistant Large Project Leader of the all-new Civic Type R, to attend.
While Toyota pays little interest to the 86 in Malaysia and Nissan is reducing the prestigious Nismo brand to a maker of accessories, Honda Malaysia has proven that when done correctly, low-volume halo cars can contribute to the overall success of mass-market brands in the longer term. The advice "Without trying you will never know," rings true today more than ever before. Sometimes it takes 10 years of hard work before the benefits are apparent. For those who were part of the initial Type R project at Honda Malaysia ten years ago, R doesn’t just mean Racing Spirit, but also Resilience.