It's sunrise at Honda's test track outside of dusty California City in the Mojave Desert when the plain white, unmarked semi pulls in. We know what's coming. We're here to drive Tony Stark's personal Acura NSX Roadster, the only one like it in the world.
"That truck came from Stark Industries," someone cracks as the crew opens the trailer. "It could be powered by that thingie in Iron Man's chest."
Then the car rolls out onto the ramp and no one says a word. The Acura NSX may just be a movie prop for the new superhero action blockbuster The Avengers, which opens May 4, but it's gorgeous. Stop and stare, devastatingly, truly gorgeous.
Watching it move off the truck in slow motion is like watching Ursula Andress come out of the ocean in Dr. No. Or Phoebe Cates walk out of the swimming pool in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or Megan Fox get off her motorcycle in Transformers. It could only be better if it were backlit and there had been an Aerosmith ballad playing in the background.
Stark Raving NSX
It's not the 2015 Acura NSX, which has been making news on the international auto show circuit since January, but it looks enough like it to fool most people. Nope, this is the Acura NSX that never will be, but is. It's a leak over from the parallel universe that's run by Marvel Comics. And we're as shocked as you to learn that its role in The Avengers is just a cameo in the final few seconds of the film.
We've driven enough movie cars to know that, more often than often, they're beat to Hell and barely ambulatory. Not this time. Unlike many movie cars, The Avengers Acura NSX Roadster wasn't built to perform stunts. Therefore it wasn't beat on. The script never asked this car to do a single burnout, Rockford or jump.
Avoiding such antics means this car remains in show-ready condition. But because it wasn't engineered for such extreme driving, it also means it's a bit fragile. In fact, the NSX Roadster rides so low it'll scrape its nose running over loose change and needs to be unloaded from the plain white truck with kid gloves...and another pair of kid gloves over those kid gloves.
The doors open easily and feel solid — like a real NSX. Once they're open, however, what awaits the driver is a throwback interior barely changed from 1990. That's because, under its skin, The Tony Stark Acura NSX Roadster is really a 1991 Acura NSX.
Since the interior wasn't getting screen time, there was no reason to screw around with it. With the exception of the Procar seats, some Iron Man red paint on the center console and a hunk of electrical tape where the top center vents should be, the interior is untouched right down to the tape deck.
"We knew it would have to be reliable for filming and we couldn't come up with anything that would be more reliable than an original NSX," explains Dave Marek, division director for Auto Design at Honda. Don't complain about them chopping up an NSX. How cheesy would it have been if they had used a Fiero?
So the base for Stark's movie car is a 1991 Acura NSX similar to Inside Line's current long-termer. However, where IL's machine has around 53,000 miles on its clock, the car upon which Stark's was built shows a stunning 252,000 on its odometer. "We didn't want a car that was too nice to rip apart," said Marek.
Marek's designers were already deep into developing the NSX Concept that was shown at this year's North American International Auto Show in Detroit when The Avengers Acura NSX assignment was handed to them. It was natural that that concept would define the styling themes used for Stark's ride. "It's not an exact copy," says Marek, "but it's definitely inspired by the Concept car."
That inspiration is obvious, but in some ways the movie car is even more beautiful than the Concept. Stark's car has a more gently rounded nose and a more pronounced dip behind the front wheels to the doors. The tail is more rounded, too, with a voluptuous taper the Concept lacks. And, of course, Stark's car is missing a roof.
Although it was designed by Marek's team at Honda HQ in Torrance, California, the car was built by the Trans FX prototype shop in Oxnard, California. That's where the resin and fiberglass body was formed, equipped with custom-fabricated LED taillights and covered in the same shade of red as Iron Man's suit. "I know it doesn't look like the same red," explains Marek, "but I think with the movie lights and such it looks brighter."
The Avengers Acura NSX sure looks like a real car. There aren't any headlights or outside door handles, but it's not merely a cobbled-together joke either. Even up close it seems ready to rocket.
Off the Trailer
The familiar driving environment is such that for a moment you can be fooled into believing it's just another NSX. It gets even more familiar when the ignition key is turned and the familiar sound of the 270-horsepower, 3.0-liter V6 is added to the mix — a little louder in this open car than it is in an NSX coupe. Even after all those miles, the Stark NSX's five-speed manual transmission feels solid as it shifts into 1st gear.
Second gear, however, would have to wait.
In deference to the Stark NSX's compromised structure, that it was engineered to run only up to 30 mph and its near-future life as a promotional item for the film, Acura asks that we keep our driving speed to under 20 mph. Since it's Acura's car, its PR guy is standing right there and there's a severe vibration in the structure, we oblige. So what we can say is that, up to about 20 mph, the Stark NSX feels and drives like the NSX that it is.
With no top or side windows, The Avengers Acura NSX has better visibility than an unmodified NSX. The front windshield is larger and more steeply raked than standard, but the driver can still locate the front corners easily.
Onto the Road
The Stark car's 245/35R18 front Hankook tires are a big chunk wider than the 205/50R15s that were standard on the 1991 NSX. Add the 2-inch-lower ride height and you've got severely restricted steering angles. The steering circle of this car is nearly in geosynchronous orbit — so huge that when you turn it around you have to worry about hitting communications satellites. That said, though the steering is heavier than stock, at our low speeds it seemed talkative enough.
Out back, the 255/35R20 rear Hankooks also represent a big step up in size from the standard 225/50R16s, but clearance doesn't seem to be a problem. Then again, there aren't many potholes in the test track to really test clearances and we aren't running through corners quickly enough to load the suspension.
Purely for aesthetic reasons, the Stark NSX runs new, oversize brakes with detailed rotors and calipers. In non-panic stops from upward of 17 mph, they feel pretty good.
Even an NSX with a quarter-million on its clock and some of its structure hacked away is still a great car. Given time and a budget to chase after the Stark NSX's bugs and glitches, this thing could be an epic, street-driven roadster. But it's more likely destined for a spot inside the Honda Museum.
Built To Star
For a vehicle constructed only to survive a few fleeting moments of screen time, the Stark Acura NSX is beautifully crafted. "We found the base car in Arizona," recalls Rick Bordanaro the vice president of business development at Trans FX. "We just needed one that was straight and complete for the project. I'm pretty sure we paid something like $18,000 or $20,000 for it. Then we flew a guy out to Arizona and he drove it back to California." No one at Acura will share how much was spent transforming the car into Stark's ride.
The base car was so straight that Trans FX was able to remove the bodywork, index the car on one of their five axis milling machines, cover the car in big blocks of foam and then carve out the new body shape right there on the car. "The whole aft end is milled foam, while the nose is mostly fiberglass. It's less fragile in real life than we assumed it would be."
As such, this car is yet another testament to how great a car the original NSX was and is. When the next NSX gets here in three or so years, The Avengers Acura NSX will be one more element in a heritage it needs to which it must live up.
After a day with the movie car, we're convinced that Stark's NSX is one of the most impressive movie cars ever built. It's right up there with the Batmobile and the Eleanor Mustang from Gone in Sixty Seconds. Not the original, the one with Nic Cage.
Honestly, it was tough to see it loaded back onto that plain white truck. If we're lucky it's destined for greater things in Iron Man 3 and The Avengers 2 and whatever other movies that might come along that threaten the Marvel Universe.