In February, 1989, appearing on the automotive world’s most expansive stage, Honda Motor Company lifted the veil on a bright red super car and changed the world as we knew it. Super cars of the day were finicky, expensive, difficult to maintain and temperamental. Suddenly, the Japanese invasion of the American automobile market was turned on it’s head, and simultaneously, the great exotic super car manufacturing companies were put on notice. That February day in Chicago was the start of a super car revolution that promised a future wherein an average owner could maintain an Acura NSX super car in their driveway with nothing more than a service manual and some basic tools.
Honda in the late 1980s was best known for reliable, economic and affordable people movers in the United States, despite an ambitious and successful motor sport racing heritage. American mainstay companies General Motors, Ford and Chrysler had been waging battle with the inexpensive Japanese imports since the first fuel crisis in the mid 1970s, but all solutions had come up woefully short. Americans were increasingly more likely to buy a Japanese-built Honda Accord than a made-in-America Ford Escort.
For most American car enthusiasts in the early 1990s, the closest we would get to an exotic Italian super car was a poster torn from last months Car and Driver Magazine. For the rare individual willing and able to fork out more than $120,000 for a Ferrari 348, which debuted in 1989, they got a car that was a wet dream on the track, but more misery than pleasure around town. And forget about getting groceries, there simply was no place to put them in a Ferrari. Poor visibility, awkward seating positions and rock hard suspension prevented these cars from being practical, which was well and good- they were never intended to be practical, and buyers knew what they were getting. Some even celebrated the “quirkiness” most of us found irritating.
Buying a high performance car from an American company was not possible. The Americans great claim to performance fame, the Chevrolet Corvette, had become choked to death by emission controls and a lack of out-of-the-box modernization. Powered by an anemic 250 horsepower, cast iron 350 cubic inch V8 engine that was designed 35 years earlier, the Corvette had become overweight, underpowered and boring.
Then, the NSX came along. For about half the cost of an Italian exotic and twice the price of a Corvette, a buyer could have a true hand-built 170 mph super car that had air conditioning, stability control, and a clutch pedal the average person could find and use without having to be a contortionist sporting body builder calves. The F-16 fighter jet-styling was unmistakable. The forward-positioned cockpit provided superior vision and the long tail provided stability at ridiculous speeds. Switches, gauges and controls were logically placed and ergonomic. The NSX didn’t overheat in traffic and didn’t need to see a factory trained mechanical specialist every time it was driven. The NSX was everything an Italian super car wasn’t, and was worlds better than anything on the domestic market at the time.
The Acura NSX was the first production car to feature an all-aluminum monocoque body and extensively used aluminum throughout the suspension, resulting in an estimated 40 percent weight reduction over a steel body. Forged pistons and titanium connecting rods were utilized for the first time in a production vehicle and allowed a stable redline of 8,000 rpm. The F1-inspired and professional racer-tuned suspension was firm and tight in the twisties, without causing spinal cord damage like many track-appropriate production super cars.
The mid-engine, rear drive layout allowed a nearly 50/50 weight balance, and gave even the novice driver confidence to push the NSX hard with only minimal fear of imminent demise. Under the boot, Honda installed an extensively developed 3.0 liter naturally aspirated V6 that featured dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, and introduced Americans to the revolutionary variable valve timing and lift electronic control, or VTEC, that allows for automatic changes to valve train geometry for greater performance and efficiency.
Sales were strong for a hand-built super car, with Honda producing more than 1,000 NSX vehicles each year for the first three years. Production dropped in 1993 and never got over 1,000 vehicles per year again. In 1997, Honda introduced a newly-revised VTEC V6 engine, now 3.2 liters that increased horsepower by seven percent. A slew of other changes in 1997 improved the rigidity of the aluminum body, improved manual transmission shifting and reduced weight. For model year 2002, a series of revisions to the body cleaned up the lines and did away with the problematic flip up headlights in favor of high-intensity discharge headlights. While considered to be “series 1” cars -the series 2 NSX was released in 2017- substantial changes to the car have led enthusiasts to differentiate between the designs, with early series 1 cars bringing a higher value.
The truly amazing thing about the Acura NSX is the reliability factor. Always a hallmark of Honda, reliable and fuel efficient super cars are oxymoronic. Yet, the NSX, despite using complex suspension, steering and braking components, is not a difficult vehicle to maintain. The VTEC V6 engine used in the NSX has been known to exceed 400,000 miles without major service when properly cared for, and most of the engine and transmission components are commonly available. Acura even advertised in 2002 that the NSX would not require a scheduled maintenance service until reaching 100,000 miles.
If you ever want to have someone look at you funny, go to an auto parts store and ask for an oil filter for a Ferrari. Or brake rotors for a Lamborghini. Or pretty much any other standard-maintenance component for an Italian super car. But, go in and ask for those items for an NSX, and they are probably in stock. And cheap. Like Ford Mustang cheap. For all it’s wild and aggressive style, the NSX is a Honda product through and through. The average person can accomplish almost every service needed on an NSX at about the same cost as servicing an Acura Integra. Despite the exotic nature of the aluminum components, special tools are rarely required. Armed with an Acura NSX repair manual, taking care of this revolutionary super car is not any more of a challenge than handling the family minivan.
The blistering performance and fighter jet style opened the automotive worlds eyes to a new age, but it is the ease of ownership, simplicity of maintenance and daily-driver comfort that established the NSX as an icon of automotive excellence.