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The Right Stuff: Clarion Builds a Hot Rod Acura NSX

The original Acura NSX was a game-changing automobile. When it first arrived in 1990, the $60,000 NSX gave drivers almost identical 0 to 60 and quarter-mile times as the $117,000 Ferrari 348. As a free extra, you got that performance packaged together with Honda/Acura reliability. In addition to going fast in a straight line, legendary F1 racer Ayrton Senna consulted with Acura on suspension and handling during development to produce the best-handling supercar in the world. The Acura NSX (or Honda NSX in the rest of the world) was an affordable exotic, and it was hailed as the beginning of a new era.

Today, the first-generation NSX looks kind of quaint with its 15-inch wheels and 270 horsepower naturally aspirated 3.0-liter V6 engine. You get more horsepower from a 2016 Kia Cadenza family sedan than the original NSX ever delivered. Even the later 3.2-liter engine only got up to 290 horsepower, and that was measured at the sales brochure. There was no high-tech twin-clutch transmission or any kind of all-wheel-drive either. The NSX was a straight-up mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive sports car. You had your choice of a 4-speed automatic or a 5-speed manual transmission.

This year, with the arrival of the 2017 Acura NSX, interest in the original models is running high. Prices for an original NSX range from about $40,000 to over $100,000 depending on mileage and condition.

“We came across a very well used first-year NSX in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin on Craigslist. The car had a clean title, but was rough around the edges and had nearly a quarter-million miles on the clock,” says Allen Gharapetian, Vice President at Clarion Corporation of America and the man in charge of the Clarion Builds program

Clarion Builds is a project of Clarion, the car stereo manufacturer. It’s designed to showcase great cars, and of course, the build-out includes a top-line Clarion infotainment system.

“The idea is to take on and promote the restoration of cars that people can connect with, cars that have timeless designs, legendary performance and a great story behind them,” Gharapetian says.

The right reasons

One different thing about the Clarion Builds program is that Gharapetian and his crew are able to get some of the best auto prep shops and parts suppliers in the business to sign on and donate time and product to the cause. That’s because at the end of the game, this car will be sold at auction and every penny of the proceeds will go to charity.

The last project from Clarion Builds, a vintage BMW 2002, pulled $125,000 at auction. Gharapetian and his staff are hopeful this NSX will do at least that well when the time comes.

The right candidate

Like most exotics, the average NSX has led a pretty sheltered life. No one bought an NSX and parked it under a tree for ten years. You can expect that a classic NSX has always been garaged and maintained with careful devotion.  The big difference between an NSX and any other exotic is that an NSX might actually have a quarter-million miles on the clock, because it will indeed go that far.

The last project from Clarion Builds, a vintage BMW 2002, pulled $125,000 at auction.

“Honda brought to market a car that could not only hold its own against world-class supercars, but could be driven daily and, as with any Honda, could easily go hundreds of thousands of miles with just basic maintenance,” Gharapetian says.

The candidate for this build is a 1991 NSX, originally equipped with the 3.0-liter engine. A quick dyno pull showed that after 25 years and 230,000 miles, just 207 horsepower was actually reaching the rear wheels. Clearly, there was room for improvement here.

The rest of the car was similarly tired, but undamaged, making a perfect canvas for a performance build. Clarion Builds won’t say how much they paid for the donor car, but you can be sure that any decent NSX is a substantial investment.

The right engine and drivetrain

The obvious starting point for this project is the larger 3.2-liter DOHC VTEC engine from the 1997 and later NSX models. That 290-horsepower V6 produces 224 pound-feet of torque and comes mated to a 6-speed manual transmission, but that wasn’t enough. The team determined that they needed to add a supercharger to the VTEC plant to get the performance they really wanted.

Hot Rod Acura NSX
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends
Jeff Zurschmeide/Digital Trends

Supercharging an engine that wasn’t designed for boost is always a risky proposition. You can’t put too many pounds of pressure into the engine if you want it to last. Fortunately, Comptech had the right supercharger kit for the NSX. Delivering about 60 more horsepower on about six pounds of boost was the right answer, and this kit is street-legal in California. Comptech also provided the engine management software, while AEM delivered a cold air intake capable of supplying the system. The exhaust was also custom-designed by AEM.

After the build, the new package is generating a conservative 350 horsepower. That’s not a whole lot by today’s standards, but in the 3,010-pound early NSX chassis, it’s enough for ample acceleration.

The right handling upgrades

It’s all well and good to have a fast sports car, but Clarion Builds insists on balance. The car was treated to a full StopTech big brake kit, KW Variant 3 double-adjustable coilover shocks, and Volk ZE40 wheels; 18 inches in the front and 19 inches in the rear. For tires, the team chose Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 for good all-around street and track performance.

The result is a car that stops as well as it goes, and with the KWs dialed to their softest setting, provides a supple and responsive sports car driving experience on the street or on Willow Springs Raceway’s groomed test track.

The right driver

To show what they’ve done, Clarion Builds hired two-time Formula Drift champion Chris Forsberg to wring the car’s neck on the Horse Thief Mile at Willow Springs. This track runs up the side of a hill and wraps back on itself like a coiled rattlesnake. It’s full of blind crests, tight off-camber curves, and short chutes for quick speed.

It’s definitely a driver’s car.

“I’ve been working with Clarion since 2008 in my Formula Drift program, and they’ve helped support my championship efforts,” Forsberg tells Digital Trends. “With the start of Clarion Builds, it made sense to be the official professional driver for the cars. This is not just a pretty car for the side of the road – it can handle track duties.”

Forsberg drives the car on course with confidence and the kind of fierce attack he learned on the drift circuit.

“The NSX is a mid-engine car, so it’s got a lot of weight over the rear wheels and a little bit over the front,” Forsberg explains. “It’s got a natural understeer effect as you’re approaching a corner, and sometimes if you brake a little too hard, the back end can start to come out. So it’s definitely a driver’s car. You have to play into the weight transfer to keep the right amount of grip on the front versus the rear wheels.”

The right finish

Having come all this way with the car, the team finished it off with a nice deep blue paint job, and new leather seat upholstery with the Clarion Builds logo stitched into the headrest. Naturally, the car is also equipped with a full Clarion touchscreen high-resolution head unit and full infotainment system.

The next step is for Forsberg to show off the car and generate some buzz, and then the NSX will head to the auction block to raise more money to fight cancer. That’s a good end, and someone will pay top dollar for this excellent and still collectible classic NSX. That’s a good investment, whatever the price may be.

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Jeff Zurschmeide
Jeff Zurschmeide is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. Jeff covers new cars, motor sports, and technical topics for a…
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