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Saturday Drive: The story behind 'The Avengers' Acura NSX

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If you were one of the 18 billion people who went to see "The Avengers"recently, you probably noticed the film concludes with Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark getting into a dark red Acura convertible and driving off with Bruce Banner. (Calm down, that's no spoiler).

But unlike the other Acuras making cameos throughout the film (the automaker having stolen the product placement mantle from Audi, whose R8 supercar was Stark's ride in the two Iron Man films), this model doesn't currently exist.

Yet.

Photos: 'The Avengers' Acura NSX

It's a concept of the forthcoming Acura NSX, due out as a coupe around 2015, about the time the just-announced sequel to "The Avengers" will hit theaters. You may also recognize the coupe from the funny, yet controversial Super Bowl commercial featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno.

Details on the powertrain of the NSX haven't been released, though Acura has said it will have a mid-mounted V-6 VTEC engine with direct-injection and a dual-clutch transmission routing power to the rear wheels while a pair of electric motors power the front wheels.

Sadly, the car you see here has none of that. But unlike other concept mockups that are as functional as a foam chainsaw, this one is a working, drivable model. And the car it's based on may surprise you.

"It's bitchin'," says Dave Marek as he looks at the concept.

We're in a vacant parking lot in Torrance on the sprawling campus of the North American headquarters for Honda, Acura's parent company. Steps away is one of the company's key R&D centers, a fortress holding the future products for both brands that not even Iron Man could break into.

A bit of an institution at Honda, Marek has been designing Hondas and Acuras for well over two decades. His work includes the original Honda Accord station wagon, the Honda Ridgeline and Acura MDX. He's now the director of design at the company and was integral in bringing the NSX concept to life for its silver screen debut.

Marek says the project began in June 2011, when he was handed the final pages of "The Avengers" script and told that a car was needed for Stark's parting shot. Initially the plan was to mock up just the rear of the car, since that's all that was needed for filming. But at the request of none other than the film's director and screenwriter Joss Whedon, it was decided to use a full car.

This meant that Marek and his team had three months to create a working, film-ready car in time for the scene to be filmed in New York City's Central Park during Labor Day weekend in 2011.

Deciding exactly what this film car would look like proved to be a bit of a challenge.

As you may know, Acura didn't officially unveil the NSX concept or even confirm the company planned to bring the car to market until the Detroit Auto Show in January 2012. Yet Acura knew that photos of the film car would hit the Internet immediately after filming its scene in September 2011, four months before the Detroit show. This was because New York City doesn't allow film crews to block public access while filming in Central Park.

(And hit the Internet they did, sparking breathless speculation as to whether the concept seen filming indicated a revival of the NSX nameplate.)

In anticipation of this, Marek and his team took the already-finalized design for the official NSX Concept and tweaked it a bit to throw off people who were on the scent for NSX clues.

The biggest difference is the film car is a convertible while the official NSX Concept is a coupe. The front end of the film car was also deliberately left vague (there are no headlights, functional or otherwise) and the sculpting of the hood and front bumpers is relatively straightforward when compared to the concept shown in Detroit.

Once the design for the film car was finalized, Marek's team had Oxnard-based Trans FX build it. While the name might not sound familiar, TFX are the minds behind such film vehicles as the Fantasticar in the 2007 "Fantastic Four," an alien spacecraft in "Men in Black II," and life-size replicas of the cars from Disney's "Cars 2."

But rather than build "The Avengers" car from the ground up, Marek's team and the crew at TFX drew on the history of the Acura NSX as inspiration.

Quite literally.

Underneath the sleek body panels of the NSX film car sits an original, fully-functional 1992 Acura NSX with more than 250,000 miles on it. The general, mid-engined proportions of the film NSX were strikingly similar to the original NSX, made from 1990-2005. Thus, only minor mechanical modifications were necessary to create a drivable concept for the movie.

TFX simply stripped the original NSX of all its body panels, save for the doors, and built the concept NSX around it. The front panels are made from fiberglass while the rear panels are milled epoxy resin. Cladding was added to the doors so they matched the look of the rest of the car.

The windshield was cut off and a shorter, smaller unit from an unspecified car was mounted a few inches forward of the original position. The car's rear track has been widened to fit the new panels, and wider wheels and tires were also used for a clean look. The "Stark 33" license plate comes from the fact that 33 is Downey's favorite number. "Maybe he's a Larry Bird fan," Marek surmised.

Photos: 'The Avengers' Acura NSX

The original six-cylinder engine and five-speed manual transmission from the 1992 NSX remain, though the car will probably never need the high gears since any speeds above 20 mph would shake loose the new panels. Also unchanged is the cockpit, save for an updated set of seats.

As such, one can drive this film car and quickly forget its exterior doesn't match its 20-year-old interior. There's nothing to tell you otherwise save for the stares you get.

A few laps around the parking lot revealed this NSX to be an easy drive; the engine, brakes and transmission are all plenty capable. The only change to the driving dynamics is the new body cladding lowers the ride height and widens the turning radius significantly.

But you're still tempted to just floor it and hope no one can catch up to you, before you remember the numerous security guards making frequent laps around the campus.

Thus, this NSX is reserved for the closing scenes of blockbuster superhero movies and light duty at movie premiers with none other than a certain genius billionaire playboy philanthropist at the wheel.

They have all the fun.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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