Acura NSX

Every self-respecting “car nerd” has experienced the sensation of a particular automobile reaching out and speaking to them. It’s not always an iconic, out-of-reach pinup gracing an automobile magazine cover, either.  More often it’s a live glimpse of a car driving past, sitting in a parking stall, or passing us on the highway.  Something  strikes us, a combination of color and lines, and whispers “I’m special; you see it, don’t you?” Those moments are often recounted and shared with others in this same club of people smitten by rolling automotive art.

On occasion, we fall for some four-wheeled beauty and nothing comes of it. The car may be impractical for one reason or another or out of our price range. We placate our desire by looking at pictures, reading about it in magazines, or ogling it at car shows.  Other times, we manage to acquire this “dream car,” which strikes this special chord in us, and get to relive the magic “love-at-first-sight” excitement every time we see or drive it.

Sometimes the cars first to capture our imagination go on to become famous, but often they do not.  The Edsel, Saturn, and Pacer may have had fervent admirers, but those adherents are not so vocal now.  At other times, those with car nerd tendencies spot and acquire cars initially overlooked by others that go on to automotive stardom. Who doesn’t wish they recognized the lasting beauty of a 1960s Aston Martin DB5, 1970s Lotus Esprit, or AC Cobra?

For many reasons, two of the three cars that spoke loudest to me and which I procured close to their inception — my 1969 Lotus Elan and 2002 Acura NSX —  have become recognized as very special cars, unique in history and increasing in appreciation for their singularity as time progresses.  This is the story of one of them, the Acura NSX.

How I fell in love with the NSX

I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on an Acura NSX. It was on a parking garage roof in White Plains, New York. I’d parked there earlier in the day. When returning to my Nissan 300ZX to drive home to Croton-on-Hudson, an NSX was parked at the far end of the lot, a good distance from other cars, most likely by an owner who preferred to have no other cars near his pristine NSX. It was so lean and sleek. I had no idea what it was. Drawn like a magnet, I set my briefcase down and walked all around it.  At first, I couldn’t discern the logo and suspected it of being Italian. But on closer inspection, I knew it had to be Japanese, everything looked so precise and chiseled. I was smitten and remember wishing I had a camera. I didn’t see another one for many years. Here is how I found and bought one, lost it, and then found another.

BMW M5 gateway drug: After being enticed from New York to the Twin Cities by Ann Winblad to join a start-up she’d funded; I began noticing stories in the auto press about an extraordinary car coming from BMW called the M5. It had picked up a nickname, “the Beast.. At 400 HP and 398 lbs. of torque, it was a rocket ship. With scary 0-60 times and a top speed of 180 mph (with the limiter removed), it was the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing, as its outer skin was a generic-looking 4-door sedan. Here was a “family car” faster from zero to 60 than a Corvette, quicker in a quarter-mile than an Aston Martin DB7. It beat the Ferrari F355 Spider in cornering (measured on a 300’ skid pad) and was faster through the slalom than a Lamborghini Diablo. Throw in a manual gearbox and brilliant handling and what’s not to love. I had to have one.

Rushing to Motorwerks BMW in Bloomington, MN I jumped into the ordering process. Within a half-hour, a new M5 was “configured,” with colors chosen (Titanium Silver), interior (red leather), and a host of options. With the selected extras the car priced out around $80K, a staggering amount of money then and even now. Adjusted for inflation, $80k is $135k in 2022 dollars. But it was 2000, there was tons of optimism. We were still a year away from the apex of the dot.com boom. I was the co-founder of a successful Internet company, what could possibly go wrong? After signing the papers and paying the deposit, they revealed the 14-month wait for the car. What!?! This was something I’d never experienced. I was livid. Threatening to cancel the deal helped not at all. I was told this would only move me further down the list for one of these most-coveted icons, a car for which BMW had pledged to limit production.

Okay, okay, I finally agreed. “But 14 months! What am I going to drive between now and then?” I pitifully wailed. The new-car manager introduced me to his used-expert Paul Kline, who put me together with Troy Chamberlain. Troy and I began to talk. Now here was an interesting young man. Chamberlain was thrilled to learn I owned a Lotus Elan, which he had once raced. It turned out he was a talented and experienced race car driver currently piloting a race prepared BMW. He campaigned the car, with sponsors, at tracks throughout the Midwest. We spent hours talking about different cars and how they handled and the best ones for the road.

My final question to him was: “What is the best handling, most amazing street car – ‘not car’ — you’ve ever driven?” He replied, “Easy question and even easier answer: That would be an Acura NSX.” It turns out he’d owned one for a year while living in Germany, and both he and his wife had loved it. His biggest regret was not bringing it back to the States with him. I had a decent memory of how the NSX looked on the roof of the parking lot near my White Plains office but was less familiar with its performance. But it sure sounded good. As Troy described the attributes of the NSX, I was soon hooked. Because the NSX was rather rare, of course, they had none on the lot. But Paul Kline promised they would find me a used one at the dealer auctions. They proposed buying it for me, I’d pay them exactly what they bought it for and, then they’d take it back in trade for my BMW M5 when it arrived, with zero mark-up, provided I kept the car in good condition. No charge for miles added made it a superbly attractive proposition.

Red, 1995, Acura NSX:. Before my next visit to the dealer, I’d done my research and knew the precise NSX I wanted: a red car with black interior and removable Targa top (NSX-T). It had to be a manual transmission, low miles, and a 1995 model year or newer. Acura had added a Targa top in ’95 as well as upgraded the engine to 295 HP and 298 lbs. feet of torque. With that firmed up, I began the wait. The first prospective NSX popped up two weeks later. It wasn’t perfect, although close, and after some coaching from Paul and Troy, we decided not to bid on that car. Two weeks later, I was pulled out of a meeting to find myself talking to a breathless Paul Kline. He was at an auction and had just inspected what he called, “the perfect car.. It met everything on my wish list… and more. This model had a carbon fiber interior kit along with a CompTech factory exhaust upgrade. Paul expected it may likely be bid up over what we’d agreed I was willing to pay and asked me “Would I go higher?” Then he said, “Steve, I’ll tell you what: I’m so convinced you’ll love this car, if you don’t want it for what we buy it for, I’ll buy it.”. So, I told him to go ahead and I increased my maximum bid amount by $5,000.

A few days later I was at the BMW dealership, looking at a freshly detailed 1995, one-owner, red Acura NSX-T, VIN: JH4NA1186ST000274. It was gorgeous. I couldn’t believe it. And then I drove it. Sublime! It handled like my Lotus Elan, but was much, much quicker – and it had air conditioning, a working radio, cruise control, and many more creature comforts. Put the windows up, it was as quiet as, well, a Honda. Roll them down, electric windows of course, and the exhaust note of the engine was symphonic. I was in love.

Fourteen months flew by. I fell further and further in love with the NSX. Even Maggie learned to love it.  My daughter, Ginger, learned how to drive a stick shift in the NSX, after failing to learn on our Toyota 4Runner. Like many girls her age, she was oblivious to car brands having no idea what was in our garage. One day I dropped her off at her high school in the red NSX instead of our Toyota 4-Runner daily driver. When I got home from work that night, she began asking several uncharacteristic questions: “Dad, what kind of car is the red car? How many ‘horsepowers’ does it have? How fast will it go?” It turns out some of the boys at her high school had seen her being dropped off. All of a sudden, she, and the car, had piqued their interest.

My new M5

2001 BMW M5: Then BMW called to say my new M5 was in and ready to be picked up. At the dealership after work the next day, I spent an hour or so on paperwork, got briefed on the new car, which was very cool, and gave them the keys to the NSX. I drove home in my brand new BMW M5. It was less than a dozen miles. The first drive in the car was amazing and, even though it was in its break-in period, it was scary fast. Plus it had the new car smell. I came into the kitchen, tossed the keys on the counter, and said to Maggie, “I think I may have just made a mistake.”

Don’t get me wrong, the M5 was/is an awesomely wonderful car. It would hold four adults. It was blindingly fast. It was as solid as a tank. You could cruise at 80-90 mph and it felt no more than 40 mph. The sound system was incredible. But in the end, it scared Maggie to death. She disliked driving it and ultimately refused to take it out. “It’s frightening; it goes 40 mph in neutral,” she said. “I just look somewhere and before I know it, the car is there.”. And then there was the gas mileage. It averaged between 10 and 14 miles per gallon, no matter how you drove it. That ticked me off. And it burned a quart of oil every 2500 miles. Now, I could tolerate some oil use on my Elan or other older cars, but weren’t new cars supposed to be immune. We found ourselves driving it less and less.

I also found myself not fully on board with the whole “wolf in sheep’s clothing” concept echoing in the head of every car nut. Sure, you can pull up at a stoplight next to a new Corvette or just about any other hot car, and the M5 would just smoke them. Seriously, leave them in the dust. But who cares and how many times is this fun? Who were these people in the other car and did they even know you were racing with them. It turns out approaching a stoplight in the NSX to have other drivers lower their windows, and stick out their arms with raised thumbs, was more fun. Sure, the NSX would draw the occasional driver who’d want to race, but pulling away normally just felt so much classier.

When we moved to Arizona in 2003, the M5 made the trip in the back of a moving van. I was dismayed to find the M5 made even less sense in Arizona. Ginger was off at college and we no longer needed a backseat. Arizona had not improved the M5’s gas mileage or taste for oil. It was about this time an alluring NSX siren song began floating in from the desert. So on one nice January day soon after we’d landed here (remember, this is Arizona) it occurred to me Acura dealerships in the northern part of the country may have an unsold NSX or two. How many people up there were walking into Acura dealerships asking if snow chains could be fitted on an NSX. So I started calling, and sure enough, on my third or fourth try, I found in Libertyville, Illinois an Acura dealership with a brand new NSX. It was last year’s model (2002), so they were willing to deal. And it was yellow, the same as my Lotus Elan. My knees went weak.

Explaining my slightly used BMW M5 with just 9,000 miles on it, I suggested to the fine folks in Libertyville we should trade even-up, reasoning the M5 was something that could be driven (and sold) in winter. It took several days of haggling and ultimately they managed to squeeze $10K out of me, but we agreed to trade cars. They argued the NSX was brand new and the M5 a “used car,” and so I should pay them. I shipped them the M5 and they shipped me the NSX. I still have this 2002 NSX. It has over 40,000 very happy miles on it. It looks brand new to this day and runs perfectly. My wife still loves driving it, although occasionally she’s followed by young men driving Asian tuner cars. They have stopped her in grocery parking lots and asked if she has a boyfriend.

No genuine car person would dispute that the BMW M5 is an iconic car. It was at the end of an era with its manual transmission, the requirement for an actual key to start the car, and a real dipstick. While not as rare as an NSX, it remains a truly wonderful car to drive and a high-water mark in modern BMW automotive history. But it’s not an NSX, not even close.

Buying an NSX when you know what to look for. In 2023 I’ll have owned my yellow NSX for twenty years, an appropriate time to reflect on this amazing experience. The first thing to know and appreciate is how owning the prior NSX and losing it affected my actions. Realizing my catastrophic error of letting my first NSX get away, I had no plans to allow that to happen again. Knowing my next NSX would be kept forever, I wanted to be sure it was exactly the right NSX. With the decision to trade the BMW M5 for an NSX made, (see the story about that here) I quickly decided on the specific requirements for the new one. First, I wanted a new car, never driven, if possible and never titled. I wanted to be the first owner. I liked the 2002-and-newer cars, as Acura had addressed several characteristics in 2002 I felt hadn’t aged well in earlier models, including the front headlights and the look from the rear. As Acura put it in a press release for the 2002 Model:

For 2002, the NSX’s styling has been updated to modernize its look and its chassis was refined to ensure its competitiveness as a true world-class sports car. The NSX features all-aluminum construction and is powered by an advanced 290 horsepower DOHC, VTEC, V-6 engine coupled to a 6-speed close-ratio manual transmission. When equipped with the optional 4-speed automatic transmission with Sequential SportShift(TM), the NSX engine generates 252 horsepower.”

The Specific Changes for 2002

  • Steering turns lock-to-lock up to 3.24 from 3.07
  • Wheel sizes changed to 17 x 7″ front and 17 x 9″ rear.
  • Tire sizes changed to 215/40ZR/17 front and 255/40ZR/17 rear
  • Rear track increased 1/2″ from 60.2″ to 60.7″
  • Yokohama A022 no longer OEM tire – Bridgestone Potenza RE050 H0 replaced RE010 as new OEM tire
  • Appearance updated – Fixed HID headlights, new front, new lip on trunk, new ground effects beneath doors, black mesh vents (changed from ribbed)
  • Coupe option discontinued in the U.S. (available elsewhere).
  • New Colors: Long Beach Blue Pearl, Imola Orange Pearl, no more Monaco Blue Pearl
  • Added Interior Colors – Matching exterior colors only: Yellow, Silver, Blue, Orange, and White. Red available with both red and black exterior.
  • New interior trim color: Aluminum Color (Center console, door inserts, and Gauge Cluster Bezel).
  • White stitching used on interior dash

What mattered most to me was the new front headlight design. To me, the popup headlights dated the car, and the new front was a dramatic improvement. The refresh of the rear fascia and taillights helped the appearance, too. The upgraded suspension and larger wheels and tires made it look sportier. I wanted a manual transmission car and, by that time, all cars shipped to the US had the removable top, which would have been a deal-breaker for me, too. My preferred color choices were red or yellow and when the local NSX club brought hundreds of NSX models to Arizona in 2005, my choice of yellow was confirmed in my head. To this day, I think the NSX is perfect in red or yellow. Deep blue is equally gorgeous, but they take more work to keep looking perfect.

Finding the Perfect Car: I found and purchased this car new from Acura of Libertyville Ltd at 1620 S. Milwaukee Avenue in Libertyville, Illinois. Their stock number on the car was P911. While I was the first owner of the car, I was a bit disappointed the owner of Acura Libertyville had used the car personally. By the time I took possession of it, it had accumulated 11,246 miles. Brian Cole, the individual who sold the car to me, referred to these as “brass hat” cars. He explained that the cars were well maintained, often spending time at the shop and on the showroom floor. It was used to give rides to customers although they’d never allowed a prospect to drive the car. The owner’s wife particularly liked the car and enjoyed driving it. So, not “brand new,” but I would be the first official owner of the car. All Acura warranty and new car welcome benefits would accrue to me, and they did. After purchasing the car, I got nice welcome letters from Acura, which I still have.

Before finalizing the deal, I asked for and received from Acura of Libertyville a written guarantee and warranty that the car had “never sustained any damage from being in an accident and that it had not been painted at any time.” A copy of this letter from the dealership to me is in my NSX file.

My new yellow NSX arriving in AZ from Illinois, February 2004

Upon arrival in Phoenix, Arizona (it was shipped here in an enclosed trailer) it first went to the local Acura dealer for a thorough 45-point inspection. This inspection checklist was downloaded from NSX Prime, a forum for NSX owners that has proven to be incredibly helpful over the years as well as just a wonderful group of people who love this car as much as I do. It passed the inspection with flying colors and then moved on to receive 3M’s car protection film.

Decoding the VIN: I registered the car in AZ and received a title. The VIN is JH4NA21692T000015. This 17-digit number can be decoded as:
J = Country (Japan)
H = Mfg. (Honda)
4 = Make (Acura)
NA2 = Engine (NAI = 3.0L/C30A or NA2 = 3.2L/C32B)
1 = Body/Trans. (2 door, manual)
6 = trim level (NSX-T w/power steering, driver airbag, active belt
9 = check digit (means nothing)
2 = model year (2002)
T = assembly plant (Tochigi Plant, Japan)
000015 = sequential 6 digit serial number (Car #15 built in 2002)

NSX cars are rare: NSX Prime shows 246 NSXs imported to the US in 2002, with 236 being manual transmissions and ten having automatic transmissions. Honda Motor Company is a bit different. It lists just 233 NSX sales in the US in 2002. This is in the Honda Digital FactBook. NSX has a well-documented listing of all US NSX Sales from 1990 through 2007 as follows:

Honda/Acura produced 27 Spa Yellow cars, 14 in 2002 and 13 in 2003, according to NSX Prime (link and site down 22 Aug 2022).

Upgrades: After the protective coating and window tint, the first thing I purchased for the car was the NSX OEM CD Changer. Acura had added this as an option in 2004, but since nothing else on the cars had changed, it was easy to add the 2004 OEM changer, essentially a re-badged Alpine unit to the car. It slipped right in and has worked well from the day it was installed until now. At first, I used conventional music CDs, but then found it would also play CDs filled with MP3s, which expanded my music collection in the car from hundreds to thousands of songs. Later, I had Science of Speed, the Acura NSX experts in Chandler, add a keyless entry system.

The Critics Speak: The NSX has been written about by hundreds of journalists and covered by automobile and other enthusiast magazines since its inception. NSX Prime has summarized a subset of them here. Several articles, have impressed me the most.

  1. Gordon Murray wrote an article about the NSX for an automobile magazine in Japan. Murray, according to Jay Leno, is the greatest car designer that ever lived, most notably credited with creating the McLaren F1.  In this article, he talks about how the NSX influenced his vision for what the F1 should be.
  2. Chris Perkins at Road & Track recaps the above article here, although I still like the more detailed original.
  3. Vivan Shah, writing in AutoWeek in 2015, looked back on the NSX, it’s legacy, and his decision to buy a 2001 model. His article is titled “My Eternal Sportsmind: From Dream to Obsession to A Perfect NSX.”
  4. In 2015, Brendan Mcaleer did a nice article on an early 1991 NSX and nicely added some context to the car. His article is titled “Legendary Acura NSX was equal parts weapon and art.

NSXPO 2005: I joined NSX Prime soon after I bought my car, and maybe before. Early in 2005 I began helping the local NSX club plan for and hold the annual NSX Owner’s Gathering (NSXPO 2005) in Phoenix, Arizona. It was held October 7 – 11, 2005. This was a terrific event that united me with NSX experts across the USA. Many of the names on the forum became real people and I treasure my stash of photos of my car, and many others, all in Phoenix for this event.

A Theft: The only difficult time I ever had with my NSX occurred in March of 2009 when our home was broken into and the thieves decided to take my NSX for a joyride. At the time, I was unaware it was only driven out of the garage and abandoned in a cul-de-sac in our same neighborhood, two miles away. Thinking the car was lost forever, I was devastated.

Stolen: 3-10-2009 (Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning)
Found: 3-14-2009 at 8:30 PM (Saturday)

This was one of the worst weeks (4 days) of my life. I believed my beloved NSX was gone forever. My insurance company was panicked. I had paid for “full replacement” should anything ever happen to the car. The claims people were anxious about their ability to locate and acquire a car at least as good as mine. I hounded the police, calling in every favor I could from the friends I’d made in my years writing about the various Police and Highway Patrol motorcycle training programs. I called and/or visited every auto parts place I could find in Phoenix. I even tried to find a way to get a satellite view of the Phoenix area, to determine if I might be able to spot it from the air. I couldn’t sleep; I was just depressed, panicked and anxious. Then they found it. Total joy!

The next few weeks I learned it hadn’t been damaged, although a relieved insurance company gladly approved to have NSX mechanic extraordinaire, Mark Basch (Basch ACCURATE Service) go through the car with a fine-toothed comb, fixing everything we could find to fix. This even included installing a brand new clutch as “certainly, these idiots didn’t know how to drive a car like this and surely messed up the clutch.” The insurance company, relieved at not having to replace the car, never blinked.

I described my feelings on NSX Prime, with the following post, receiving many conciliatory replies. These are archived there to this day. Below are a few of them. (insert these 3-4 as pictures)

Another issue occurred at this time. When the car was with Mark Basch’s Accurate Service, in his parking lot, a pickup truck with oversized tires misjudged its turning radius and left huge black tire marks above the rear tire area, behind the driver’s door. Once the black rubber was removed, we saw the paint had been damaged and the body had a slight crease. I was livid. But Mark knew of a top body shop in Phoenix that specialized in working with aluminum and had it fixed for me. Miraculously, my insurance company paid for this as well. In examining the repaired area, it is impossible for me (or anyone else) to tell where it was fixed. The paint match was perfect. Both sides of the car look identical.

Driven Regularly: Right from the beginning, this car was driven regularly, at least for a “collector-type” car. I’ve been fortunate to always have 2-4 non-essential cars around. I believe that cars need to be driven as part of keeping them healthy, along with annual inspections and fluid changes by trained mechanics familiar with the vehicle. Driving the NSX is fun and easy. It’s hard to not always be in it. But a quick meander around my website and you will learn I also owned a 1969 Lotus Elan for almost 50 years, and it needed to be driven, too. Then there is the 2014 McLaren MP4-12C and, like the NSX, I purchased it new, and it requires attention. These 3 yellow cars are rotated, each driven for a week or so at a time, and I try to do this once a month. Occasionally, in nice weather, a Polaris Slingshot and BMW 1200GS become the next joy rides if the Tesla Plaid and Mercedes GLC300 daily drivers don’t fit the bill. The NSX has made a couple of longer trips, one from here to Las Vegas, across southern Utah to Colorado, and finally back to Phoenix. It was a sublime and wonderful trip. We also drove the NSX once to San Diego and back.

Bone Stock: This car has been kept stock with just two exceptions – adding the OEM CD changer (from the 2004 model) and a remote key fob. Early on, I saw many NSXs with modifications. Body kits were installed for handling at the track, but I felt they looked awful. Turbocharging and other engine enhancements are common, given the chassis can easily handle more horsepower. However, as with my Lotus Elan, I learned over the years that not only do modifications tend to decrease a car’s value, they often do not hold up. It seems to me owner made modifications rarely stand the test of time, and while they can look good initially, they gradually morph over time into “I wish I hadn’t done that.”

Service experience: This NSX has been regularly maintained since I bought it. Except for the repairs after it was stolen, it’s mostly been fluid changes. My first serious service expense was when it turned ten years old. Acura recommends a significant 10 years/90,000-mile service. At ten years old, my NSX had only 30,000 miles. At first, I wondered if I could delay having it done. But based on advice from the members at NSX Prime, some who’d done the service early and others who had not, I bit the bullet and had Science of Speed do the full and complete 90,000 service at a cost of nearly $3500 which included, among other things, the following:

  • Replaced Timing Belt, Water Pump, covers, and verify cam timing
  • Replaced valve covers, inspected valve/rocker clearance, replaced gaskets
  • Flushed coolant system, bleed and heat-cycled
  • Replaced coolant hoses
  • Replaced alternator & A/C belts
  • Installed crankshaft pulley shield (Cedar Ridge Fab Crankshaft Damper Pulley Shield – lightweight version)
  • Installed new Hawk HPS Brake Pads front and rear, turned rotors
  • Bled brake fluid and ABS System
  • Cleaned and painted brake calipers (this was optional, but I liked the red color over the gold)
  • Inspected all fluid levels, tie rods, steering gearbox, engine, driveline, and suspension bolts and joints
  • Replaced coolant expansion tank (they can leak), replaced coolant hoses around the expansion tank, refilled and bled the coolant system
  • Inspected exhaust, coolant, and fuel system
  • Replaced spark plugs (NGK Laser Platinum)
  • New oil and filter
  • Replaced battery with new OEM battery.

I’ve done my best to retain all original service invoices on the car and feel I have them all. Here is a summary of the documents I have.

The Future: Passing 70 years old a year or so ago, I’ve acknowledged the need to slim down my car collection. The first to go was the Lotus. While I’d owned it for nearly 50 years, my complete rebuilding of the car in 2013-14 was a way to say goodbye to it. I just didn’t realize it at the time. It sold in late 2021 to a collector who appreciates the car and has shipped it back to its ancestral home, in England. I have visiting rights. Next to go will be the NSX or the McLaren. Given the appreciation in the value of the NSX and its rarity, it will likely go next. The McLaren, like most exotic supercars, has a value curve dropping like a rock in the first ten years and then gradually leveling off. With it approaching the ten-year mark, I suspect it will remain at a fairly static spot until it reaches 20+ years when the market will decide if it is collectible or not. If it is, it will gradually appreciate, although I have my doubts about that. But, we shall see. It’s still a exceptionally fun car to drive and, like the NSX, it never breaks. The McLaren is so overbuilt, I don’t expect to ever spend much to maintain it, as all it needs is annual fluid changes and tires.

The NSX, as it approaches 25 years old, will reach an apex point in its value, I believe. I expect I will be able to find someone who will appreciate and value it as I have and carry it on for another 25 years.

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