Not a lot of us can claim to witness the birth of an automobile phenomenon.
It came in the 1980's, when the nation was divided between Yuppiedom and everyone else on the other side of the Reaganomics fence. On the better side of the fence came a litmus test for an established group of automobile manufacturers. The Japanese proved they could build quality at an affordable price. While the domestic automobile industry struggled with its own quality issues, the Japanese established their own manufacturing base on North American soil.
A brilliant marketing plan was unfolding at American Honda’s headquarters in Torrance, California. Since Honda figured out how to cater to Yuppies on their way up towards a BMW income, why not introduce automobiles that will keep them in the family? Honda dealers balked at wanting cars priced north of $17,000 in heir showrooms, which gave the American Honda folks another brilliant idea: Why not market these cars under it’s own nameplate?
Acura was born in time for the 1986 model year. Honda began creating a series of premium badges for its Accord-based Legend and Civic-based Integra heading stateside. The distinctive grey-and-red motif of the Acura dealership was unlike any showroom experience known to the Japanese car buyer. Service and a commitment to the highest level of customer satisfaction paid off in dividends to its owners and Honda. The research firm of J.D. Power and Associates awarded the Acura brand its highest customer satisfaction award four years running.
Acura since expanded their lineup to include an SUV and a compliment of sedans and coupes. They also introduced the NSX sports car, the most expensive and exotic Honda ever built. Acura NSX owners were an uncommon breed; as they took their roped-off prize home to the tune of $65,000 a copy in 1991.
As a testament to their place in North America, there are five Acura models built on this continent, the TL sedan, the RDX and MDX SUVs, the ZDX crossover and the CSX sedan sold exclusively for the Canadian market. Not only does Acura own the distinction of being the first Japanese brand of premium automobiles in the world, but also they were the first such automobiles built on foreign soil.
I was amongst those who wanted "in" on the new brand 25 years ago. I had this crazy idea of taking delivery of one of the first Integra LS five-door hatchbacks in the country. That never happened. I didn’t have the money to leverage the purchase. Yet, I had the chance to experience the first Integra, as it was pure. It tracked like crazy and gave me enough luxuries that were a bit beyond a top level Accord of the time.
My Acura story came true four years later. I was looking for a great car for around $15,000. The car I had in mind had to be balanced between sport, comfort, quality and practicality. It had to take me 37.5 miles one way to my undergrad studies and back. It also needed to ensure its place in the Bay Area as one that could tackle the hills of San Francisco – a job it had to do a lot.
On a Thursday evening in November of 1990, the keys to a 1991 Concord Blue Metallic Acura Integra RS coupe were handed over to me. My check was happily taken from my hands from the people at Marin Acura of Corte Madera, California, while the air conditioning unit was installed somewhere in the service department. It was delivered without an audio system – something I was going to shop for that evening. Back then, a base model Integra came without the luxuries we expect in today’s automobiles. No power windows or door locks. Not even cruise control was installed standard on the RS.
Perhaps it was all I needed at the time. I wanted a pure coupe without the embellishments. The Integra RS was that car.
Under the hood was the simplest to fix and repair engine ever devised. The 1.6-litre DOHC 16-valve engine was so easy to fix that all it took was the engine cover and the front cam cover to access the timing belt. It was a repair I could actually do. My roommate at the time was a line mechanic for a local Volkswagen dealer in San Rafael, California. He would do my maintenance on the Integra exclaiming its ease of service to work on compared to the Golfs, Jettas, and Passats of the time.
That engine was the first of the new breed of high-revving four-cylinder motors. With 130 HP on tap, I had enough oomph to gobble up US-101 north of Marin and down towards Los Angeles. Yet, it lacked pure torque. The Waldo Grade was a hill that rose above Sausalito on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. The grade itself can be a torture chamber for weak cooling systems and weaker engines. With only 118lb-ft of torque, the Integra had to work hard to keep up the pace on the grade – even if it meant making its struggle up the Grade known sonically.
Connected to the B16A motor was a four-speed automatic, something I made sure to get. As driven through the front wheels, the Integra truly gave me the ability to get through daylong rainstorms and a muddy patch of canyon road on one such commute. At first, I dealt with the standard Yokohama tires that were quite loud to my liking. A year later, I replaced them with a set of Dunlop touring tires. I actually began to hear myself think.
What I loved about the Integra was its sports coupe ride and handling package. It just felt like the kind of car I wanted all along. The Dunlops also helped in keeping the ride more comfortable and even. I was able to tackle good roads in it without hesitation.
The drawbacks? There was a quality issue that was sort of resolved because the front door alignment was not correct with the rest of the car. It took a plate to resolve the issue. There was also the lack of hill holding with the automatic. I’d expect manual gearbox cars having issues holding at a stop sign on one of San Francisco’s notorious hills – not an automatic. I made sure it did not roll into the car behind me, which happened too many times than I care to remember.
Granted, the Integra wasn’t as attractive to my Southern California friends. After all, they were enamored with BMWs and the like down there. Even in Marin, the Integra did not turn heads, either. My model was pretty business-like in how it went about its day. It attracted both straight and gay friends. It's presence in the Castro was as understated, but classy – as it was at some regional mall in Contra Costa County. Even on campus in Hayward, I was surprised how no one even wanted to go after it for theft.
There was a reason: My audio system. Back in the day, the pullout radio was about to be replaced with the detachable face head unit. To save money, I went with a pullout. The Sony unit has a digital receiver (the norm for the day) and a cassette player (though in-dash CD players were quickly taking over). This was fed through four exquisite Infinity speakers. I made sure to take out my audio system every time I went somewhere. Having that additional bag – think of having a man bag before it was fashionable.
The one thing that made the Integra what it was – it’s cargo hold. It was quite voluminous! For example, my roommate and his family would tag along for a grocery run at a larger discounter north of Novato. We would shop there with stuff in bulk and quickly fill the hatch with a week or more of groceries. It would also carry two conga drums and a pair of bongos very easily – including the Integra’s favorite passenger: The original Boomer.
My time with the Integra ended in the aftermath of my graduation from my undergrad studies. I racked up a lot of miles on it – 68,000, if I recall. That’s love for you, I suppose. It wasn't even three years I had that car – a regret I might add. I was hoping to keep it for 10.
I was wondering what ever happened to it. As I found out, there were many of the second generation Integras that fell into the hands of tuners and street runners across the country. They, too, probably found the easy to work on B16A to their liking as they slapped on body kits, engine enhancements, wider rims and tires and a louder audio system to each one of them.
Considering this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Acura brand, it was time to tell this story to the best my memory could serve me. Sadly, I have not driven an Acura since. They since stopped making the Integra, or it’s successor the RSX. While my Integra stickered at around $13,800 in November of 1990, the starting price of admission these days is at $29,610.
There was one thing that remains clear about the journey American Honda made with Acura. For a Japanese manufacturer to explore the upscale automobile market under a distinctive brand name, Acura delivered on their promise and grown to their established place in the market. I was glad to be a part of the history of the brand even for a small part of it.
All photos by Randy Stern