Learning to Drive Stick in an Acura NSX, 1000mi to Go (2 of 4)
Photography by Yoav Gilad
If you haven’t yet, read part one of the Acura NSX test-drive story.
Giving a wave, we turned out of the seller’s driveway deliberately. Early NSXs don’t have power steering. The seller had mentioned it, but honestly, I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. Well, hell, I need to work out anyway. I eased into the throttle slowly as we crested a hill and went down a bend.
A couple of stop signs and heavy, slow turns later and we were on a main road headed towards the highway. So far the car was unremarkable but I realized that the ergonomics were anything but. Between the low dash, great visibility, and controls that are a small reach away I couldn’t ask for anything more from the interior (well, besides a functional radio). But I still wasn’t sold on the car I had just bought and I certainly wasn’t sure what all the accolades were about.
Granted I had only put about two miles on the odometer at this point, but it definitely wasn’t love at first sight. I pointed the car southeast towards the Florida coast and the category one hurricane that was churning our way. I had checked the local weather before the flight but we only found out about the incoming hurricane after landing.
We eased onto the highway and drove the two-hundred-forty-or-so miles to the Florida border in about three hours. We had been warned about police near the border, but didn’t see too many. They probably weren’t very motivated by the hot afternoon sun and oppressive humidity.
Not having a radio in a car is a funny thing. This was my third cross-country drive (all in different cars) without a radio. I like hearing the local radio stations and I’ve discovered some great music this way. But when you’ve never driven a car before, and you have a very long drive ahead, it’s both a blessing and torture.
It allows you to get to know the sounds your car makes in a variety of conditions but each unfamiliar click, groan, or whine is imminent disaster. On a positive note, at this point I had enough miles to feel comfortable and discovered that while the car may lack a Ferrari V8, it had a wonderful growl above 4500rpm all the way to its 8000rpm redline. Man, I want to take the mufflers off! I’d be Ayrton Senna.
Every time we passed a sign for Georgia peaches my wife exclaimed, “Oooh! Peaches!” and I’d ask her if she wanted to me to pull off the highway. She never said yes, but as soon as we were in Florida and the signs disappeared, she said “it’s too bad we didn’t stop for peaches.” What?!
We arrived in St. Augustine, Florida (the oldest city in the US) late that afternoon to see Aunt Florence. She’s ninety-four. Soon she’ll be ninety-five. And she announces both facts with pride to most people she meets. She lives in a second-floor walk-up only a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean and she wanted the three of us to take the NSX to dinner, suggesting in her Brooklyn patois that, “Maaaahrsha can sit in my lap.” We called a gypsy cab and took our chances with a mid-2000s crimson colored, beige-Landau-roofed, and gold-rimmed Cadillac. The driver, who was barely literate, scrawled his phone number on a three-by-five postcard when he dropped us off, “in case y’all wan’ a ri’ back.”
When we finished dinner, we did not call “Willyam, with a ‘y’” for the ride home (or is it Wylliam?). Instead, one of Aunt Florence’s nieces (from the other side of the family tree) picked us up driving a newer, manual (!) BMW three-series. She couldn’t believe the NSX was more than twenty years old. This would become a common theme.
I was falling asleep on the couch while Marcia and Aunt Florence talked, having slept about two hours in the previous forty. Tomorrow was our big push across the US in order to allow more time in the southwest, and so I turned in.
The following morning, Aunt Florence, who is ninety-four years old (yes, I know I’ve mentioned it but thought it was worth repeating as she believes it is), was making breakfast. We chatted for a bit and after Marcia woke up, relieved of my responsibilities as a guest, I grabbed my gear and ran outside to get some early-ish morning shots. Somehow, I had only shot one photo the previous day. I think I was still in some sort of shock.
While the setting was less than ideal, I made it work as best as I could. It was also a bit later than I’d have liked and so I spent more time staring at the car, studying its lines and angles, than really shooting.
The NSX isn’t a beautiful car. It’s got a smooth, slick shape that looks very aerodynamic, but beautiful? I don’t really think so. Let’s call it functional. It also doesn’t have much presence. I mean it’s low and looks the business, but it doesn’t demand to be noticed like a Lamborghini Diablo does.
Also, the greenhouse on the NSX looks a bit tall. Certainly, the low hood and waistline are what make the visibility so good, but it tends to make the greenhouse stand out. I’m just glad that mine has tinted windows so that it’s less visually obtrusive.
Marcia came out of the apartment and leaned over the balcony, “come say bye!” My few shots snapped, I packed up the DSLR and headed back inside. There’d be time for more. We said our goodbyes and I offered to let Marcia drive. Now, if you recall the first article, she doesn’t drive stick. But what better car to learn on than a twenty-two-year-old Honda, right? She promptly freaked out.
We packed the trunk and got going. “You can’t just ask me if I want to drive now,” she protested at eighty mph. “Why not? If I tell you you’ll have to do it two hours before it’s time, you’ll just worry for two hours. Best just to jump in,” I explained as I downshifted to pass an overloaded pick-up truck. “Alright, consider this your notice: at the next fuel stop you take over.”
“Fine,” she replied in mock anger. She watched me drive for a bit and asked some questions about the sequence of shifting. Knowing the theory doesn’t quite prepare you for the practice. As she grew anxious about driving, I became concerned about liability issues.
The nice thing about driving from the East Coast to the West, is that you get an hour back as you cross time zones. We finally stopped for gas somewhere in northern-central Florida. Maybe it was Tallahassee? She ran inside while I pumped the gas. Upon her return she accepted the keys hesitantly.
I had a ’77 Porsche 911S that I owned for exactly one hundred days, last year. She drove that in a parking lot for about five minutes, same with my S2000. Now she was going to drive about three-hundred miles in her first real attempt to drive a car with a manual transmission.
She turned the key, depressed the clutch, and started the engine. She asked about the process again and then began feeding the engine some gas as I saw her left leg ease back. The car crawled almost imperceptibly. Emboldened, she let the clutch go and we leaped forward and settled into a bucking motion, then went dead. “You stalled. Do it again.”
Marcia did it again, five or six more times. “That man is laughing at me,” she said, pointing at the obese man fueling the Corolla in the next lane. She was right, the man stood shaking his head and laughing heartily, his fat shimmying. “He probably doesn’t even drive stick. Who gives a shit what he thinks? Maybe he’s laughing at his own Corolla. Do it again.”
Once more, she pushed the clutch in, fired the engine, and slowly withdrew her foot. But this time, the NSX eased out of the gas lane. “What happens if I have to stop?!” she yelled in excitement. “WHEN you have to stop,” I answered, placing emphasis on the word ‘when’, “you put the clutch and brake in, simultaneously.” We crept forward until we reached the stop sign at the exit.
She stalled a couple more times, but once she got going she shifted to second well, and soon after we were on the freeway eating up insects and muggy Florida pavement. I recalled sometime after Marcia took the wheel that we had expected to drive through a hurricane. It must’ve changed its mind or taken pity on the new NSX because its path swung northeast and missed coastal Florida altogether. Anyway, we were rolling west now and it was clear.
Interstate 10 is an impressively boring stretch of road, particularly on the east coast. With the exception of parts of the Florida panhandle, there are exits every couple of miles where one can partake of the usual fast-food suspects and gas up. The scenery is uninspiring, the cars even worse (I had no idea just how many Chevrolet Cobalts existed until this drive), and the majority of drivers appear to be in a fast-food-induced coma, courtesy of the [aforementioned] usual fast-food suspects.
She drove us over Pensacola’s Escambia Bay and under Mobile Bay in Alabma, through Mississippi’s bayous and north of New Orleans, Louisiana. That Thursday was all about driving and we were trying to make it past Houston, one thousand miles if possible.
I took over at some point later and she was ecstatic that she could now drive a manual. Obviously, driving three-hundred miles in fifth gear doesn’t make you Tazio Nuvolari, but it was a great start. She was able to downshift when she had to and didn’t stall again once off the highway. I’m glad that she was able to do it and that I wasn’t an impatient jerk before she had a chance to really become comfortable with the technique.
While Marcia drove, she waited patiently to pass. In the words of singer-songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard, “patience is not a virtue I possess” and hence I’d downshift the NSX to third and punch the gas at the slightest opening. After I took over, I started driving like I was trying to qualify for the US Grand Prix. We had stopped for breakfast at a Waffle House (a guilty pleasure), which is probably more common in the Southern USA than Starbucks. I had a waffle, drowned in syrup, and a steak while Marcia had hash browns with nothing else (lame!). The bill came to about three dollars I think. They’re not known for quality, but flavor? Oh yeah.
The sun began to set under big, puffy clouds when we were about eight hundred miles from our starting point. We were in the West Louisiana swamps and the clouds grew tall and dark. We saw lightning strikes hit the ground only a few miles away judging from the thunder and decided it would be a good time to eat. There wasn’t too much around except for more chain restaurants, but we made the best of it. After dinner I insisted on taking a few photos in the rain, but without a proper set-up I was trying to predict lightning strikes (due to my low shutter speed) while getting drenched. There is a photo below, you can judge my success.
Night blanketed east Texas and it stopped raining some time after dinner. We could see Houston’s orange glow reflected against the clouds as we slashed through wet marshes and rice paddies. I was exhausted. I don’t remember too much of the drive after dinner, except for the taste of Mountain Dew. I was slugging the Day-Glo-green soda for the caffeine. We had passed the day’s first test—whether Marcia would be able to drive part of the way, having never had practical experience driving a manual.
And the following morning, I realized that we did not pass the second test. We made it past Houston, but not much. The odometer reported about 970 miles (about 1560 km) the previous day. I had been shooting for 1000. Small difference but a goal is a goal. Either way, it would allow us plenty of time in Austin and the southwest to really become familiar with the NSX…
Continue reading part three of the Acura NSX test-drive story…