Kurt Antonious was Honda's first U.S. public relations guy, joining the company back in 1983. He has some stories from his 28 years with the company, and he tells them well. In a mostly empty parking lot outside the Torrance, California building where American Honda houses its historic car collection, he shared one about the February, 1989 debut of a prototype called the NS-X.
"We hadn't thought this through, about what we were going to say," he remembered. Antonious ad libbed. "'Ladies and gentlemen—the NS-X,' and two gals pull the black curtain off the car. We had no music, it was just this big dead space, so I go 'ta-daaaaaa!' And that was the unveiling of the car."
The concept car on stage would evolve into of the most important sports cars of all time: the Acura NSX. The story begins long before that. Honda first signaled its intent to build a mid-engine sports car with the Pininfarina-designed HP-X concept, which made its debut at the 1984 Turin Motor Show, featuring a distinctive canopy roof and a mid-mounted V-6.
At the time, Honda was on a roll. The company had only been making cars for a little more than 20 years, but sales were strong. The world wanted fuel-efficient, well-built cars, and Honda was happy to supply them.
In Japan, business was booming, the result of the "Economic Miracle" that began after World War II and ran until the early 1990s. By the mid-Eighties, Japan had become the world's second largest economy, with stock and property values increasing at what was, in hindsight, an alarming rate. Japanese automakers invested huge sums into R&D and engineering, turning out cutting-edge vehicles. This was when Toyota decided to take on Mercedes-Benz with the painstakingly perfected Lexus LS400, when Mazda revived the traditional British-style roadster with the Miata, when Nissan birthed Godzilla in the form of the R32-generation Skyline GT-R. If you read Road & Track around this time, you'd find a magazine filled with game-changing, world-beating Japanese cars.
Honda, confident and ambitious as it had ever been, wanted to move upmarket. The company launched Acura, a new luxury brand for North America, in 1986. In Europe, Honda engines powered Williams Formula 1 to two constructor's championships. The company wanted to capitalize on its motorsports success, and a thoroughbred sports car would be the perfect halo for the Acura brand.
A few months after the NSX was revealed (and the hyphen was dropped from the model name), Road & Track’s John Dinkel drove an early production prototype for our September 1989 cover story. Dinkel reported that Honda had spent roughly $140 million to build the car. Steel was deemed too heavy, so the NSX was made entirely of aluminum, a production-car first. Per a request from Honda's president, Tadashi Kume, the automaker re-engineered its V-6 to accommodate the revolutionary new variable valve timing system, VTEC. A Cray supercomputer was used to design the all-aluminum suspension. Traction control and ABS were fitted standard, and if you opted for an automatic transmission, you got the world's first electric power assisted steering system. And on top of all that, the NSX was as well-built as the practical economy cars that earned the company its reputation for reliability.
The Acura NSX made a huge splash when it debuted, but 1989 was ever so long ago. I wanted to revisit the car as it entered its third decade—to live with it, to see how it has aged, and to examine whether it still lives up to the promise of being an everyday supercar.
Thankfully, Honda North America had just the thing stored away in its museum in Torrance: a 1991 NSX, owned by Honda since new. It was used as a magazine test car in the Nineties, stored for a few years, then given a new clutch, new tires and a full fluid change in 2018. That's all it needed, and aside from a few chips in the paint, you’d never believe this car has nearly 84,000 miles on the clock.
It's a pleasure to use the NSX like a regular car. The trunk aft of the engine is big enough for my overstuffed suitcase, and the cockpit is wonderfully airy. "Cockpit" is the right word here, as Honda designers took inspiration from the canopy of the F-16 fighter jet. The view forward is so good, I thought the seat was too high when I got in the thing. On the freeway, it almost seems like you can watch the dotted lines as they pass under the front tires, and the wraparound rear glass gives good sight lines over the shoulders.
Some folks accuse the NSX of being too ordinary. I disagree. From the moment you hop in the driver’s seat and look out over the sloping hood, this car feels special. The only thing that makes the NSX a teensy bit hard to live with is the lack of power steering in this manual-transmission example. Otherwise, it's as easy as anything.
The V-6 is a gem, a technical masterpiece of aluminum, titanium and forged steel. With 270 horses from a 3.0-liter engine, the NSX made more power per liter than just about any other production car at the time, and VTEC meant it could rev to 8000 rpm while still cranking out decent power at 2000. Prod the accelerator and you can actually hear the throttle body swivel open, just before the cabin fills with rich induction noise.
This engine reminds you that numbers never tell the full story. In a world filled with 300-hp turbo-fours, this 270-hp V-6 feels more instructive than ever. It's filled with character, and it's paired with one of the finest manual gearboxes ever built, a five-speed that makes you realize how much we've lost in the switch to sports cars that only offer automatics.
It also recalls a less complicated era. Now, automakers have to make the conscious decision to chase engagement over ultimate numbers. I don't think the team behind the original NSX had to make that choice. The best technology of the day produced a car that was, and is, deeply engaging.
The NSX's styling is timeless and understated. It stands out in a world where cars have grown bigger and more complicated. It's not exactly a head-turner, though. Enthusiasts who know what it is admire the NSX with reverence, but people on the street don’t look up. Maybe that's not a bad thing. Peacocking is only fun to a point.
Everywhere I took it in LA, the NSX worked beautifully. Traffic on the 110 and a busy In-N-Out were no cause for worry, and the car looked absolutely perfect downtown, headlights popped. But while it’s comfortable—and comfortable with itself—in the real world, the NSX is truly at home in LA's fantasy land, the Angeles National Forest.
The NSX’s chassis is a work of art. "It left all the other sports cars in its wake for the awful ride-and-handling compromise that we designers all faced," Gordon Murray, designer of the McLaren F1, tells me. When the NSX came out, Murray was so impressed by it, he used it as the chassis benchmark for the epochal F1. "It was pretty compliant, but it had very good camber stiffness," he says. "The transient handling was very good. At that stage it was the car to have for that." Murray sampled pretty much every other sports car and supercar available in that era. The NSX rose above.
Out in the Angeles Forest, it's easy to see why Murray fell in love with this car. It has no handling vices, just gorgeous, confidence-inspiring balance, a stiff chassis, and excellent damping. Acura put a set of ultra-sticky Bridgestone RE-71R tires on this NSX—the original-equipment tires were custom Yokohamas, long out of production—which sent grip levels through the roof. The non-assisted steering was heavy, weighting up beautifully as load on the front tires increased. You occasionally have to muscle this car, especially on a fast road like Upper Big Tujunga. It's worth it for the feel you get through the wheel.
Throughout two solid hours of canyon driving, I never worried about the NSX. You can run it as hard as you like without a care in the world, then drive it back to the city like it's any other car. It made me realize what people love about Japanese sports cars of this era—they're engaging, but not finicky. They offer the perfect balance of classic and modern.
I was sitting parked at the end of Big Tujunga Canyon when a man on a bicycle pulled up and asked me about the car. He told me he bought an NSX new back in 1991. "I had Ferraris. All they did was break," he said. He drives Porsches now, but the man had nothing but praise for the Acura he once owned. We talked briefly, then went our separate ways to enjoy a warm Saturday in the Angeles Forest.
The NSX was a triumph, but it came at a bad time. Japan's Nikkei stock market index peaked at the very end of 1989. After that, the so-called "Lost Decade" began. Stocks and real estate values tanked; Japan’s economy crashed. As a result, Japanese carmakers couldn’t keep investing in world-beating performance cars. Mazda RX-7, Mitsubishi 3000GT, Toyota Supra, Nissan 300ZX, and indeed, the NSX—none of them had next-generation successors after Japan’s economy tanked. There just wasn't any money left for sports cars.
Honda did give the NSX light updates throughout its life. The NSX-R arrived in 1992 as a lighter, more unfiltered version of the car; a targa-top version, the NSX-T, debuted in 1995; displacement increased to 3.2 liters for 1997, and fixed headlights appeared in 2002. There were a handful of other special-edition models, but from its arrival in 1991 to its cancellation in 2005, the car was never fundamentally changed.
"How many NSXes are we selling, and what is it going to cost us to do a proper, full model change?" Antonious remembered people asking in that era. "Well, gee, it's going to cost us $75 million, $100 million, and how many units are we selling? We're selling 1400 units? Oh boy."
It was a matter of resources. It was hard to justify a car like the NSX in a post-bubble world. Honda and Acura chose to focus on volume models, a sensible move, but that left the NSX to grow stale as Porsche modernized the 911 and Ferrari revitalized its mid-engine sports cars.
"To me, personally, we tortured that car to death," Antonious says. "And after many, many years, it was just kind of on life support. And it was very sad to see."
But the NSX didn't live in vain. It raised the bar for sports cars, giving us a world where "exotic" no longer had to mean "doesn't work properly." With the NSX, Honda invented the concept of a daily-drivable supercar.
In the last few years, Honda has begun to revisit its performance roots, including the revival of the NSX. The new car is pretty different from the original—turbocharged, hybrid, all-wheel drive—but it's every bit as forward thinking and daily drivable as its namesake. Acura seems to want to recapture the magic.
Three decades later, Antonious's ta-da still reverberates. Long may it ring.
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