Birth of a Legend: Acura turns 30

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Acura, purveyor of “Precision Crafted Performance,” turns thirty this year. While the days of GS-R and Type R Integras are no more, there’s no denying the impact Acura had on JNC history and car culture. For many of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s — especially in southern California — Acura occupies that special place in our hearts much the same way V8 Chevys do for many a baby boomer. In commemoration, let’s take a look at the beginning of it all.

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Launched in 1986, Acura was a bombshell. It was unthinkable at the time: A Japanese luxury car. Sure, there had been premium and full-fledged luxury Japanese cars in the past — examples being some versions of the Toyota Crown, Mazda Luce, and of course Toyota Century and Nissan President — they were sold only in Japan.

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Here in the states, Japanese carmakers were not usually viewed as the go-to brands to flaunt one’s status and wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact. Though its MSRP was a steal at $19,298, it was met with indignant cries of, “$20,000 for a Japanese car!?”

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By the 1980s, however, Honda and Toyota had firmly established holds on the US market not just in sales, but also in reputation. Despite the Big Three’s ostrich-head-in-sand delusion, quality and reliability were the realm of Japanese cars in the minds of most American consumers. The time was ripe to up the desirability index.

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Luxury and prestige were considered the domain of the establishment, the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar and Cadillac. To join the club, Honda realized the necessity of a dedicated luxury brand with an impeccable and revolutionary car built for the purpose. Enter Project XX, the car that was become the Acura Legend.

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It is always useful to remember the context when viewing classic cars. This is especially the case for Honda, because a big part of its genius was how singular and ahead of its time its cars were. While front-wheel-drive is the most common mechanical layout nowadays, Honda had already widely adopted it by the early 70s. Cars like the Civic and Accord had established and defined Honda as a carmaker. In fact, one can argue that FWD, often with a transversely mounted engine, is as much a technical centerpiece for Honda as, say, rotary was for Mazda.

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In this light, it makes perfect sense that the Legend was front-wheel-drive. This was the full-fledged luxury sedan imagined in the Honda ideal. The layout optimized packaging, while the transversely-mounted engine over the drive wheels enhanced traction.

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That engine happened to be Honda’s first production V6, the 2.5L 24-valve C25A. With single overhead cams, it engineered to be compact, enabling the ultra-low hoodline that had become a signature of Hondas. The aluminum alloy engine employed many features derived from Honda’s contemporary Formula 1 development, such as cross-bolting of the main bearing and PGM-FI, Honda’s computer-controlled electronic fuel injection. The sophisticated powerplant put out 151 horsepower to the front wheels — suspended by double wishbones — via equal-length driveshafts to control torque steer, with either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.

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Its design reflected its mechanical sophistication: elegant and tasteful, but engineered for function first. A low coefficient of drag (0.32) was achieved by the low hoodline and high rear deck in combination with many flush and trimless body components, as well as a smooth underbody. The innocuous and highly technical design was joined by the subtly blistered fenders, injecting a bit of menace hinting at the car’s touring prowess. The greenhouse was prominent, with generous amounts of glass that endowed the driver with an excellent view of the road and surroundings, another quality characteristic of many classic Honda designs.

Honda’s design traits and attention to detail extended to the interior, too. The build quality was substantial, and the touch surfaces felt top-notch. Of course, everything was logically and tastefully designed, a layout immediately familiar to any Honda enthusiast. Again, the view out the car was clear and panoramic, with the most commonly-used controls placed within the driver’s close reach — a distinctive example being the simplified duplicate controls for its Technics stereo on the instrument pod.

To enhance its touring capabilities, the Legend employed comfortable, well-bolstered seats covered in thick moquette. Thoughtful engineering touches abounded, such as a neatly integrated access panel for fuses above the coin tray, defogger vents atop the door cards with their own shut-off dials, and reading lights for the rear passenger that wouldn’t look out of place on a private jet. Overall, the Legend’s interior may not have had the opulence of an Italian purse, but it was certainly luxurious in a highly functional way with astonishing attention to detail.

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Debuted in 1986 for the 1987 model year, it was a runaway hit with critics and the buying public alike. The coupe joined the sedan in 1987, powered by a more spirited C27A engine. These cars reflected Honda’s view of what a high-end luxury car should be: to excel in capability without compromises in quality, efficiency, or usability. Its engineering depth was analogous to that of the later Lexus LS400, a car which it paved the way for. The Legend truly was a precision crafted automobile.

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Aptly named, the Legend put an indelible mark for Acura in automobile history. In the next installment, we will look at another car that, for many, would come to define Acura and Honda. To be continued…

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23 Responses to Birth of a Legend: Acura turns 30

  1. Zup said:

    No mention of the British/ Honda joint venture with the Sterling??

    I owned a 86 Legend—-a wonderful sedan with the smoothest 5 speed I’ve ever driven.
    Sold it to a good friend who still owns it.
    The Legend was a car that lived up to its name.

  2. Legacy-san said:

    There are several similarities between the Legend and the first generation Subaru Legacy…maybe Subaru thought if the world was ready for a luxury Honda, maybe they had a chance with a larger car, then really decided to push the envelope with the SVX.

    • Joseph said:

      Yes it’s somewhat known that Subaru copied many aspects of the Legend with the Legacy. The name alone should give you pause. However they are definitely very different cars. Even the 3rd gen and up maxima were a bit too similar to the Legend to be a coincidence. However, it is common in the automotive world to copy others’ designs and both of the other cars had their own successful market.

  3. cesariojpn said:

    If only Toyota had released the Crown here in the states…..

  4. Joseph said:

    You’re about 9 months late, but it doesn’t matter.

    The Legend was and still is a great car. I think you made an excellent point about the context. This car was revolutionary. In a time when the German cars were stodgy and had interiors from the previous decade, when American companies had their heads so firmly up their asses, the didn’t even come to terms with the true impact of Japanese vehicles until a decade later, a time when true quality could only be attributed to maybe Mercedes, as the other German brands were still figuring things out.

    This car, the coupe that followed, the 2nd generation Legend, and of course the spectacular NSX that followed disrupted more than the Americans. They disrupted the Germans, the Italians, and even other Japanese marques! Nissan and Toyota scrambled to get their luxury brands to the USA to capitalize on the huge market of consumers that wanted a well made car and were willing to pay for it.

    When Lexus got their LS here, they surprised the market even further by copying almost to the letter what Mercedes was offering, yet doing it better. The Legend though, was never a copycat. Honda chose a niche and stuck with it through the 2nd generation Legend. Unfortunately after 1995, Acura fell flat on their face. They started trying the copycat game also and made their RL’s more like the Lexus and Mercedes in appearance and outright boredom. No manual transmission offered anymore, only ugly coupes available, etc. My point being the years between ’85 and ’95 were an amazing time for Honda/Acura. One that many of us recall with fondness. We knew there was something special about these cars. The 1st generation Legend was adorned with personality, incredible functionality (large trunk, great greenhouse), energy and driving dynamics. Those drivers who actually liked to be involved in the driving experience chose the Legend with a manual transmission, while others who just wanted a smooth, quiet car, chose the lexus or infiniti.

    The 1st generation Legend was nearly telepathic, you could always feel the car’s placement on the road and it’s dimensions, it was never vague or wallowy. The steering was a bit light, yet still was incredibly communicative of road conditions. With the manual transmission the ante was upped even further, and when hitting RPM’s to 4,000 and beyond, the aural experience was surreal. This engine was the base for the later NSX and was more closely related to the NSX engine than the 2nd generation Legend was. Although the 2nd generation Legend lost a lot of that fiery spirit, it did gain refinements, including more sound deadening, more interior space, and a more solid feel. Both excellent cars, and you’d have to own one to have a chance of truly appreciating what they had to offer, and even then there is no guarantee you’d understand comprehensively what was really on the table in the context of the ’80s and ’90s.

    Automotive success is a very cyclical environment, where manufacturers’ motivation seems to ebb and flow based on their competition. Even though Acura had some inspiration again with some later cars, like the RSX, and even the TL to some extent in 2004, they never again grasped that passionate and exciting period again. Honestly they probably won’t ever again either. With boring SUV’s (and a color palette reminiscent of Gattica) dominating the landscape and sales numbers, there is no incentive to push the automotive boundary again. Acura has been dead for over 20 years, but nobody is willing to tell them because we all have such fond memories of the past. We miss your inspiration Soichiro Honda.

  5. LB1 said:

    It’s a damn shame they killed off the ‘Legend’ name. Kind of killed off the car, too.

  6. Yoda said:

    Front wheel drive didn’t carry the stigma in a luxury car it does now – these competed directly with the Olds 98/Buick Electra, Chrysler LeBaron and Mercury Sable all of which were FWD as was the VW Quantum, while the BMW and Mercedes offerings at this price were a lot smaller and RWD made them feel smaller still.

  7. Mark said:

    I had a 1988 Legend sedan that was in the family since new. The car had 262,000 miles and plans were being made to have the engine rebuilt and apply a new paint job. That was until an idiot teenage girl decided to t-bone it in a parking lot. That was 2 years ago. It was one of those times when it did not pay to park far away. I’ve been looking for another, but they seem to be far and few between.

    What truly amazed me about that car was it still ran almost as good as when it was new.

  8. Leonard Kruwel said:

    At first, Acura’s offerings were distinct, and distinctly above, Honda’s, despite their all being Honda-badged in the Home market. Except for the NSX, today’s Acura is Buick to Honda’s Chevrolet. Not distinct platforms/drivetrains, more like re-packaged Hondas loaded up for an upscale market, with all the essential Honda DNA/goodness just below the surface, albeit at an unjustifiable price difference. (I stipulate that much of Infiniti and Lexus are likely the same issue, but not a fan of those makes) Loved the original Legend and Integra. Biggest error was the re-badged Isuzu Trooper sold as Acura SLX. The ONLY Honda/Acura product on Consumer reports “Avoid” ist.

  9. CelicArt said:

    Amazing story. So sad to see what carmakers are becoming. It seems that in many cases the first of everything is the best and as new generations come by they slowly (or sometimes too quickly) start to loose one thing here, another one there of what made them unique. There it is the first Golf GTI, BMW M5 and M3, Alfa Romeo Giulia, Ifiniti Q50, Toyota Corolla (biggest loss RWD and the whole variety of body styles), Acura Integra and Legend…just to name a few.
    Yesterday I took an Infiniti Q50 for a test drive, very nice looking car (something so rare these days), very capable and fast, but there’s no thrills really, no soul or engagement. I long for the day I find a Q45 G50 in good condition and have cash at the same time since it is the only one I can find in my Japnostalgic forsaken country.
    Thank you for these articles, and the “perspective”. By the way, was the second part of Lexus LS400 ever out? Read the first one but never found the second one…

  10. Chris Green said:

    Ben, your excellent photos give me a new appreciation for these Legends, even though I already loved them. Awesome!

  11. Miatadon said:

    My Integra GS-R is 25 years old now, but I continue to love the damn thing. I never had a car that didn’t tire on me as it aged. No faded love for me for this car. I love the way it looks, the way it drives, and the quality of the components used to make it.

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