On Feb. 10, 1989, executives from Honda and a newly founded division known as Acura piled into a conference room in Chicago's historic Drake Hotel to rehearse the unveiling of an unbelievable new car -- a Technicolor vision for the future, something never before built by Honda or any Japanese automaker.
As the public relations department went over its lines, Tadashi Kume, then-president of Honda and an instrumental figure in Honda's Formula One efforts, presided. The people from Honda America were acutely aware that the Big Boss from Japan, Kume, rarely made a stateside appearance unless it was for something serious. Next door, Ford was in the middle of a full-on press conference. Honda kept its rehearsal respectfully quiet.
While the executives busied themselves with the presentation, Kume sauntered over to the red-and-black prototype on the stage. He climbed in.
Either the keys were already in the car, for one reason or another, or he put them in.
He cranked the ignition.
The engine sparked to life, then it roared as Kume proceeded to rev to redline -- right in the middle of the Ford conference. Everyone was shocked. "Mr. Kume, stop it!" yelled Kurt Antonius, Honda's spokesman emeritus, gesticulating wildly. "They're gonna hear this!"
The bombshell dropped the next day, the eve of the Chicago Auto Show. Journalists packed the same cramped, low-ceilinged room wall-to-wall, their bulky cameras primed for the moment. Kume described one engineering achievement after another: forged pistons…titanium connecting rods… all-aluminum monocoque…and an 8,000 RPM redline, which he had tested the day before…
When Kume was finished, Antonius pulled the cover off the New Sports eXperimental, the NS-X (the hyphen was later dropped). There was nothing to say from the podium, so he said, "ta-da!" The entire presentation had taken a scant 10 minutes.
One can only imagine what this sleek-wedged spaceship must have looked like to journalists during the tail end of the 1980s, a time when the future was always tantalizingly close. Perhaps it was like witnessing the debut of the Citroën DS 34 years earlier, watching a car that had "fallen from the sky." Maybe like the Lamborghini Miura chassis on display in Turin just 10 years after that -- naked, purposeful, utterly enthralling.
In Chicago, Antonius saw journalists crawling on their elbows and their stomachs, trying to slide closer to the car as Kume spoke, diving under the car to gaze upon the all-aluminum suspension. The press kit they received, complete with black-and-white photos, had six pages devoted to the engineering alone.
The NSX was "the car of the moment, like no Ferrari or Porsche," said Sports Car International. "The quintessence of engineering sophistication," said Popular Science in June 1997. It was the best midengined car Automobile Magazine had ever driven; the magazine later voted it their Automobile of the Year. "It could rock the sports car establishment like never before," we wrote. Everyone wanted to drive it, even in winter: "Excuses were created, lame arguments put forth, masthead hierarchy invented, ancestry insulted. Things got ugly."
"It's the best sports car the world has ever produced," said Don Fuller in the September 1990 issue of Motor Trend. "Any time. Any place. Any price…we've spent over 100 years developing the automobile. After driving the NSX, it's been worth the wait."
Acura was just 3 years old when it launched the NSX in America. When Acura debuted on March 27, 1986, there were just two vehicles: the Legend and the Integra. But there was always another car, right around the corner. "I don't believe we told them anything about another sports car," said Tom Elliott, who served as American Honda's executive vice president from 1983 to 2005. "We told them there was going to be another model. We told them the direction for Acura -- sporty and personal, a lot of things that would lead them to believe there would be a sports car."
Elliott, who started at Honda barely a year after he graduated from college in 1969, was all set to attend the Chicago unveiling. Instead, he fell sick with pneumonia. But before the show, he and Antonius and two other colleagues found themselves sweating in a conference room, poring over a list of proposed names for the prototype sports car from a list that Japan had sent. They had to come up with a temporary name to use at the Chicago show -- otherwise, it'd just be known as the "Acura Sports Car."
Nobody wanted to call it that.
Sadly, neither Antonius nor Elliott remembers the alternate names. How great would it be to drive an Acura Utopian Turtletop? "To me it wasn't as big a deal," said Elliott. "We had to have something, and internally, I can't remember the code name they were using. But it was always regarded as 'New Sports.'"
The resulting moniker was a combination of Japanese hyperbole and American attitude: New, Sports, eXperimental.
"We got so much publicity from the launch," said Antonius, "and they had problems getting the actual name of the car, and they said, ****, let's just keep NSX! Everybody loves the name! The advertising agency liked it; everyone internally said, 'You know, it's got a nice ring to it.' And so, we kept the name NSX!"
To launch the NSX, Acura went to the Highlands Inn, overlooking Big Sur. The hotel was crawling with Honda. Every executive, every engineer worth his title flew into Monterey to make sure the car would be perfect, and -- more importantly -- to gather valuable opinions from the opinion-makers. Two nights before the press was due to arrive, in the wee hours of the morning, an engineer by the name of Tama took a car out for final suspension checks. On Carmel Valley Road, he hit a deer. The creature crushed the right front quarter panel and limped off, its nerves undoubtedly rattled. Equally distraught, Tama returned the car with a flurry of apologies.
All of Honda was in a panic. There were only a handful of NSXs on hand, flown over from Japan. Would they be enough to accommodate the maelstrom of journalists? Antonius placed a call to Torrance and fortune smiled: a car was being taken apart for dealer training. Same color, too. Some poor sap drove all night to Big Sur with the spare fender, installed it in time, and the press was none the wiser.
For the rest of the trip, Honda employees jokingly referred to Tama as "Tama-deer."
A few days later at Laguna Seca, the press took a break from driving the NSX. Antonius asked if he could take the car for a quick lap. "You know turn 11?" he asked. The big, sharp left-hander right before the main straightaway. "I wasn't used to rear-wheel drive. And in front of the president of Honda, and in front of the president of Honda R&D, I spun out the NSX and I missed the wall by a foot."
Antonius spun a full 360 degrees, his career flashing before his eyes. "I saw [it] going down in flames," he said. "And I had to go around again because I missed the pit entrance, and drove around the next lap about 30 mph. Came into the pits with my head down, and I got out of the car -- and they all surrounded me clapping and laughing. I was so embarrassed."
A month later, Honda went to Portland International Raceway for the short lead program. Parker Johnstone, well before his IndyCar days with Comptech, drove dealers and journalists around the track. (He even taught Elliott's wife how to drive stick.) Ed Taylor, vice president of Acura, rode with him for a few laps.
Months before the car was to go on sale, Taylor, who remembered the Chicago press conference differently ("All those damn reporters wanted to talk about was the profitability of the dealers!" he said. "And I'm dodging them like a champion. I was busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.") wrangled his way into one of the eight NSXs and went on tour, driving with his wife to his native Seattle, and then the 1,200 miles back to California.
No spies, no press, no Twitter, no virality. Only the clever or the diehard knew what they were spotting. "They'd slow down, roll their windows out in traffic," he recalls. "'What are you doing with the car? It's not out yet!' They were like, 'There's something wrong with you!'"
In Whidbey Island, Wash., a gaggle of cyclists surrounded Taylor until he told them what it was. In Bakersfield, a man in a Porsche followed them right to the motel and wouldn't let up until he pored over this rival car.
"One of the nicer experiences that I had in the car business," he said. "A rare privilege, really."
As long as the NSX was in production and Honda provided gainful employment, Taylor would take early production NSXs out for the weekend and proceed to scare his neighbors in Laguna Niguel. "One of the NSXs was purple, and I hated that color," he remembered. "Some of the stunts I pulled…"
He chuckled, remembering who he was talking to: a journalist. "Minor stuff, by most standards."
Climb into an NSX and sit in the Seat of Senna, narrow, and tidy -- its bottom cushion is like sitting on three individual pillows, and the surprisingly upright seat never goes low enough. Unusual in 1989, its sloping dashboard deserves consideration as a design classic. In the '80s, the world was obsessed with fighter-jet controls right next to your fingertips, and the NSX followed suit. Devoid of ornamentation, its thin, three-spoke steering wheel could have come from an Integra. It doesn't tilt, only telescopes. What's good for the diminutive Brazilian, evidently, is damn good enough for everybody else. The dashboard is low, somewhere around the height of your elbows, and there's practically no bodywork in front of the wraparound windshield. Everything comes at you right now. You, dear driver, are the true King of the Road, Master of All in Your Gaze…
This NSX, lent by Honda, has around 40,000 hard-fought miles. It feels stable and solid, a testament to its chassis, but at the same time it creaks and ticks like television static, from the targa roof down to the front suspension -- the barely-any-sound insulation means road bumps reverberate like cannon fire. Ba-BOOM. Ba-BOOM.
Up Deer Creek Road as the sun sets, the NSX's 3.2-liter V6 fills the valley with a gentle growl. Up until one lays into the throttle, it remains as stealthy as an Accord. But give the top-mounted gas pedal a firm squeeze, preferably from a white-socked loafer, and the car barks to life: a chainsaw staccato, emerging from behind and startlingly close. In 1995, the NSX became the first car to use drive-by-wire -- in a world before eco-programmed gas pedals, it's disappointing to realize that not a single manufacturer today can nail down the immediacy and responsiveness of this 20-year-old throttle.
The gearbox's narrow throws shift with little eagerness, but still trigger a delightfully mechanical sound: guh-CLUNK, guh-CLUNK. Brakes and clutch offer feel down to the millimeter. The steering is slow by today's standards, powered but just barely so. The car never feels rushed, frenetic: it is content to drive at your own pace, as edgy as you wish to push it, as comfortable as you demand. It is faster than its numbers suggest, more passionate than its heritage denotes -- it is a sum greater than its technological achievements.
Twenty-five years later, and 10 years after the last example rolled off the Suzuka line, we must consider the NSX in a modern context. That's always the problem with pioneers, isn't it? When something so revolutionary falls from the sky, legions of imitators whittle away its groundbreaking essence, the wheels of progress chip away at its shocking impact, until revisiting it pales in comparison. In 1989, Honda threw the NSX into a fray occupied by the Lotus Esprit, the Corvette ZR1, the Porsche 911 and the benchmark Ferrari 348. Today, NSX aspirants can buy the Lotus Evora, the Audi R8, the Corvette Z06, the eternal 911 and the Ferrari 458 Italia, all of which are being benchmarked for the next NSX -- all of which feature elements of practicality and livability undreamt of before 1989. "Performance with no compromises," said Honda R&D head Hiroyuki Shimojima. Was the NSX good because it was reliable? Was it good because Ferraris were catching on fire?
Twenty-five years later, Ferraris are still catching on fire. Yet there have been five midengined V8 Ferraris since 1989, and the NSX is facing a revival, one that hinges on technological 180, based on a purely modern affection: its three electric motors (one supplementing the V6 engine) and all-wheel drive will likely beat corners into submission instead of finessing them. Its dual-clutch automatic substitutes driver control with computer-programmed technology. Its motors and all-wheel drive seem seem diametrically, philosophically at odds to the original NSX -- the idea of simplicity as a virtue having passed with Senna. Acura's focus is not just cutting-edge technology but also marketable technology -- it's just as impressive to sell a fashionable hybrid with three electric motors as it is to sell all-aluminum construction. What's good for the NSX, after all, is good for the RLX.
"If you look at technology in modern sports cars, particularly exotic cars, what Honda is working on is pretty much in line with other manufacturers," said Elliott. "The original NSX, the responsiveness of a naturally aspirated engine, the light weight, that was the direction Honda was going for. Nowadays, you have hybrids, you have AWD, you have turbochargers -- the exotic car market has changed a lot. If you want to be competitive, you have to change with it."
Enthusiasts so enamored with the original must keep this in mind. There is no doubt that the current engineers of the NSX, like project leader Ted Klaus, are aware of their own legacy -- little doubt that they won't do everything in their power to live up to the original. When the new NSX debuts in 2015 as a 2016 model, built in Marysville, Ohio, instead of Takanezawa, it won't be so much a rejection of the original's principles as it is a reinterpretation of a technological zenith.
There's nothing more New, Sports, or eXperimental than that.
Oh how I love the NSX, I had the first and second generation Legend. If only I had room in the garage for the NSX..... If anyone viewing this thread has a NSX please post your pics, I would like to see what you have.