Last week I found myself behind the wheels of a trio of cars that relatively few people will ever get to touch, let alone drive. I had no idea what to expect when I buckled myself into Acura’s triplet of NSX, but what I got was an unforgettable experience that even changed how I see speed. I first drove the earliest known Acura NSX in America, and it was a car that didn’t just put a smile on my face, but was a relentless assault on my senses.
[Full Disclosure: Acura invited me out to Atlanta, Georgia to drive its entire line. Acura put me up in a nice hotel, fed me probably too much food, and let me giggle like a kid behind the wheels of expensive cars.]
Growing up, cars like the McLaren F1, Audi TT, and Dodge Viper lined my bedroom walls. In my racing games, my virtual car collection included everything from the Benz-Patent Motor Car to the humble Smart Roadster. Among the many cars that influenced my young self was the Acura NSX, a car known in the rest of the world as a Honda.
The NSX was birthed from Honda’s curiosity in finding a different drive layout for its vehicles. In 1984, Honda was known for its front-engine, front-wheel-drive cars. The layout worked great, but the marque’s engineers felt that they could take frame design further if the drivetrain layout were allowed to be different. They could perhaps design a more sporting vehicle.
This curiosity led to Honda’s engineers cutting up a City subcompact (yep, the car that had the option of the cute Motocompo scooter in back) and shoving its engine in the back, driving the rear wheels.
Those who drove the Frankenstein monster of a City loved how such a simple change made the car so fun to drive. The project ultimately got shelved, but those who got to experience the car never stopped dreaming.
While this was happening, Honda was a year into its return to Formula 1 racing. There was a lot of talk about possibly getting into building a sports car to complement the program. And American Honda was sending word over that it wanted a halo car for the launch of its Acura brand. Finally, in 1985 Honda’s engineers got the green light to build the car.
Honda wanted to build more than just any sports car. The company wanted its halo car to buck the sports car trend of being uncomfortable and unsafe for the sake of speed. Its sports car would have features like automatic air-conditioning, antilock brakes, power windows, and traction control. Honda’s engineers initially thought to make the NSX out of steel, but not only would it have weighed too much, but steel was found to be too conventional for a car that was to be different. Thus, Honda decided to develop an aluminum monocoque. And its design was inspired by an F-16 fighter jet.
Prototypes of the new car got trial by track at the Suzuka Circuit and on the Nürburgring. Famed racing driver Ayrton Senna got to take a spin in a prototype, too. Honda was aiming for Porsche or Ferrari levels of rigidity, but Senna wasn’t impressed, telling Honda that the car felt “a little fragile.” The engineers took his comment to heart and sought to make the car tighter.
Eventually, in 1989 the car rolled out for the world to see. The NS-X prototype stunned those who braved a Chicago winter to attend the 81st Chicago Auto Show. The NS-X name–applied to the prototypes–meant “New,” “Sportscar” and “unknown world.” The “X” was the mathematical symbol for variable. The lettering stuck, but the name changed to NSX, for “New Sports eXperimental.”
Just a year later Honda began production of a car that remains so sought-after that good examples sell well into the six figures.
On Thursday morning a 1991 Acura NSX sat parked across a handicap parking space, just waiting to make this woman’s dreams come true.
Driving The Past
Getting into the first-generation NSX actually felt really familiar. Its seat cupped me in place and the vehicle’s expansive greenhouse made me think of an aircraft’s cockpit. Honda certainly succeeded with giving you the feeling that you’re about to pilot a fighter jet. The only way that could be enhanced is with a transparent roof emulating the canopy of such a jet. As I sat in the “cockpit” of the NSX there was a distant hum behind my ears. Behind the cabin is the engine, mounted mid-rear. It’s a 3.0-liter V6 featuring VTEC and pumping out 270 horsepower and 210 lb-ft torque.
I said that this interior felt familiar, and that’s because it reminded me a lot of my Honda Beat kei sports car. Like the NSX, the greenhouse in a Beat allows you to see everything, the dashboard is similarly swoopy, and the engine is placed behind your back.
This particular NSX has some real history behind it. This NSX is VIN 00052, or the NSX that Acura believes to be the earliest in America. It’s believed that customer VINs didn’t start until 00060. So this car, a pre-sales demonstrator for American Honda, is something special.
This car was built in May 1990 for the 1991 model year then shipped over to America, where Acura used it as a marketing vehicle. What this job entailed is unknown, but the car managed to rack up about 50,000 miles doing it before it was loaned off to a university’s engineering program in the mid 1990s. The university kept the car for over a decade, at some point putting the car under a cover then just forgetting about it. Once it was discovered again it was given back to Acura, who did the same thing as the university and let it sit.
Thankfully, this NSX was given a third chance when Acura gave it a restoration in 2019. The vehicle was given bodywork and a repaint in its original color, its powertrain revived from years of sitting, and missing pieces replaced. But this wasn’t a total restoration and parts of the car were left as-is.
When I drove the car I noticed that the air conditioner blew sort of lukewarm, one of the power windows wasn’t working, the driver seat was worn, and the radio didn’t work. Instead, there was Bluetooth cleverly hidden behind the factory controls. And the clutch was definitely on the tail end of its life. Many journalists before me weren’t gentle with the car. But it wore its nearly 65,000 miles with pride.
I like to think of this car as a museum piece. It isn’t perfect and it has signs of having lived an actual life, but it’s presented in good enough shape to still make your mouth water.
Driving the NSX once again drew feelings of commanding my Beat. Each shift was accompanied with a satisfying tactile click. The throttle pedal was like a means of direct communication with the engine. And the steering wasn’t just direct–it didn’t even have power steering–but I felt what the tires and the suspension was doing through it. Driving the NSX is a sensory experience and everything but taste gets a workout. Driving the NSX feels like an extension of yourself, rather than operating a vehicle.
On the performance side, the old NSX is good for a zero to 60 mph sprint of about 5.2 seconds. That makes it less than a second faster than my Volkswagen Touareg V10 TDI (high 6 seconds) and right on the mark with my Saturn Sky Red Line (low 5 seconds). It was about as fast as I thought that fast cars were. And truth be told, 5.2 seconds is still decent today.
Handling was similarly great, as the NSX feels like it pivots around your spine. It following curves without drama, headed right in the direction that you’re commanding it. I never felt the need to push this NSX harder. Weirdly, I felt that it never really asked me to push it harder, either. Some cars seemingly taunt you into pushing them past the limit. The original NSX is fine going your speed, whatever it is. And even my sense of smell got a treat, too. The car’s old leather and plastic made for an aroma that reminded me of riding around in the cars of my childhood.
At times I punched my flats into the floorboard and that engine responded with a V6 symphony. The NSX played its notes at just the right volume and right on key, delivering a raspy soundtrack directly into my ears.
Couple it to the snappy acceleration, mechanical feel of the transmission, and the touch of the wheel and it’s an experience that might be the closest you could get to Valhalla without actually dying.
I sometimes like to say that an old analog vehicle is like taking control of a time machine. That’s not really the case here. This car is 31 years old but it actually didn’t feel all that old to me. Honda engineered a car that was ahead of its time and you feel it behind the wheel. It’s really just an infotainment screen, throttle-by-wire, and power steering away from being something that Acura could probably sell today.
Why This Old Car Is So Good
Later in the day I drove this car’s successor and the final edition of that successor. They’re objectively better cars that have the ability to change everything that you think you know about speed. Those cars are like the nifty powered ratchets that you can buy today. But this car is like the old ratchet in your toolbox. It’s a little worn and not as handy as your zippy Milwaukee, but gripping it and busting some nuts with it is still a fantastic time.
And best of all, when this car was new it smoked the Porsche and Ferrari sports car establishment for a price tens of thousands of dollars less.
Earlier, I noted that this car felt a lot like my Beat, and it does. That little drop-top kei sports car hands you a similar experience, but on a much smaller, slower, and cheaper scale. But that actually makes sense. Honda was only one of a number of manufacturers building performance cars in the kei category. The Beat even launched in the same year as the original NSX.
Still, after the event I found myself searching for an old NSX to buy. I briefly lied to myself, telling myself that I could find one for cheap. Such a car could not be found. I even searched Japanese auction statistics and even beater NSX sell for $25,000 out there. Thus, the NSX will remain a car that is inaccessible for many enthusiasts. And that’s sad, because a car like this deserves to be experienced by the masses.