Farewell to the original Acura NSX, the landmark exotic from Japan-and Brazil

I SLEPT LATE on May 1, 1994. Before the Golden Age of TiVo, I normally dragged myself out of bed at 4:30 a.m. every Sunday that ESPN broadcast a live Formula 1 race from Europe.

But on that particular morning, having overstayed my welcome at a few Sunset Strip clubs the night before, I sawed away almost until noon. I was surprised to find two voice mails waiting. The first said simply:” It’s Dad. Just wanted to see if you’re okay.” The other was from my best friend. “Wondering if you’d heard yet?” He asked, raising my pulse. I called my friend first. “It’s Senna,” he said. “San Marino Grand Prix. He’s dead.” I called my father. I was not okay.


Ayrton Senna was and remains my all-time favorite racing driver. Was he Machiavellian? Yes. But in an F1 car he was also Mozart, a human being operating at a level so far above the rest of us it was breathtaking (one example: Monaco 1988,when in qualifying Senna drove faster and faster, beyond even his conscious understanding, ultimately parking his McLaren in fear after setting a pole time 1.4 seconds quicker than Alain Prost in an identical car). Senna insisted on living life to the fullest and pushed himself with a fierce and inspiring intensity (when I attended the race driver physiology program at Florida’s Human Performance International, the doctors spoke with awe at how Senna had grilled them for any training tip that might improve his skills).

The word is hackneyed these days, but Ayrton Senna da Silva was the real thing: a genius. The brilliant Brazilian came back to me recently when, in the MT garage, I spotted an Acura NSX The only road car developed with input from Ayrton Senna himself. The car was even yellow, the color of Senna’s famous helmet. I ran for the keys. It’s easy to forget the impact the original 1991 NSX had on the sports-car world. Back then, the Ferrari 348 was quick but vexing and indifferently put together. The new NSX was a revolution: light, fast, responsive yet forgiving, and as tight and user-friendly as a Civic. Senna helped get it there.

Honda engineers were well into the NSX’s development when, in February 1989, at Japan’s Suzuka circuit. They crossed paths with the Maestro, there to test his Fl McLaren-Honda. Senna obliged with a few laps in the prototype, then offered a humble but revealing critique.

“I’m not sure I can really give you appropriate advice on a mass production car,” he said, “but I feel it’s a little fragile.” The NSX was already as rigid as contemporary Ferraris and Porsches, but Senna’s extraordil1ary sensitivity had detected a critical weakness. After eight more grueling months of work, the Honda team had increased the NSX’s rigidity by 50 percent.

Senna later helped dial-in the suspension settings that gave the NSX its groundbreaking handling finesse. My first drives in a 1991 NSX come flooding back as I toss the new car through the curves on Mullholland Drive. It’s all still there: that incomparable IMAX view over the nose, steering that feels hard-wired to your fingertips, the snarl of the highly tuned V-6. Today, Ferraris are far quicker-and considerably more civilized than before, their game raised by this Japanese supercar. But the NSX still has a sophisticated purity unlike anything else. It still radiates genius. Honda has stopped building the NSX. A new car is coming for 2008. It’ll be faster, with V-10 power—and improved, no doubt. But it won’t be Ayrton’S car. The Mozart will be on the stereo.

Arthur st. Antoine ©