When last I checked in, it was the late 80’s, and I was working on my Mechanical Engineering degree at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Case, like all good engineering schools, has a strong co-op program. For those not familiar with Cooperative Education, it is a partnership with industry allow students to spend a semester away from school working in a real world company gaining actual skills, while getting paid real money to boot (no unpaid internships here). Often times it can turn into a full-time position after graduation, but even if it doesn’t, you are getting valuable job experience and a resume booster that will give you a leg up on competitors in the post-graduation job market.
It seemed like a pretty good deal to me, so I jumped at the opportunity. After interviewing with numerous companies, I ended up taking a job at a small Cleveland fastener manufacturing company named Telefast Industries for the fall semester of 1989.
This was far removed from the sterile confines of the classroom, as the picture above that I took of the plant floor clearly illustrate. I was initially hired to work in the QC department, but the owner of the company had just purchased an accounting system running on SCO Xenix, an obscure System V Unix derivative than no doubt dozens of commenters will chime in having familiarity with. The owner had no idea how to support or customize this system, having no IT department like most small businesses at the time. I started dividing my time between the QC department and the Xenix system, gradually spending less time in the lab and more time in the front office on the computer.
In a word, I was hooked. Unix opened my eyes to a whole new world beyond the Apple Macintoshes and Windows PCs that I had previously worked with. Once again, I devoured it all like Homer Simpson in a donut factory. C-Shell! Regular Expression! Perl! Oh My! But again, I digress.
As my semester of co-op drew to a close, I continued to work part-time at Telefast while finishing my engineering degree at Case, with pretty much a standing offer to work there full-time after I graduated. Knowing that my post-graduation job prospects were secure put me in a very comfortable position. I didn’t need to stress out about going to recruiting fairs, interviewing, or heck, even buying a suit. I could sit back and relax while watching everyone else scramble to find a job.
More importantly, knowing that my financial future was secure allowed me to make by far the largest financial decision of my young life to date, and reward myself for my 5 years of hard work: (drumroll) My first new car.
As a long-time worshipper at the temple Soichiro Honda, there was never any doubt as to which manufacturer I would be patronizing. The only question was which flavor: Honda or Acura? And really, now that I look back, even that wasn’t up for much debate. I had been infatuated with the Acura Integra since the first-generation model came out in 1986. I even lobbied (unsuccessfully) to get my dad to purchase one for my Mom during one of his many car purchases at the time.
I stopped by the local Acura dealership early 1991 (months before my actual graduation date), and with little more than a diploma as collateral drove off the lot in a brand new 1991 Acura Integra GS in Arrest-me Red. I, of course, got the top of the line model, inaugurating a tradition of leaving the option sheet clean that continues to this day. I sold the LeBaron to a fraternity brother and used the proceeds to make the first couple of payments until I started full-time at Telefast in the summer.
In my then-narrow mind, the Integra was the perfect car. Not too big, it had everything you needed and nothing you didn’t. Five-speed? Check. DOHC 16V engine? Check. Power moonroof, ABS, and alloy wheels? Check, check, and check. About those alloy wheels: they were directional, meaning that the left and right sides were not interchangeable. GM, by way of contrast, fitted the same wheels on both sides of the car, therefore having the wheels spin backwards on one side. This was but one of the many little “Easter Egg” design details that Honda hid in their cars for many years. They never advertised it or made noise about it, but those that were in the know, knew.
Under the hood was the aforementioned 1.8L DOHC engine putting out 130 hp and a modest 121 lb-ft of torque. While these would be considered penalty box stats today, they were not bad by the standards of the day, and the car was extremely light (less than 2700 lbs). Furthermore, the engine was a pleasure to run out to its 6500RPM redline, and was connected to a smooth-shifting 5-speed manual transmission.
The interior also won me over. High-quality switchgear, logically laid out and angled ever so slightly towards the driver. And of course two big proper gauges (speedo and tach) right in front of the driver. The only major party foul was the motorized seat belts, which were as annoying as the picture below would indicate. By the early 90’s, airbags were already the preferred way of meeting passive restraint requirements, especially on higher-end cars.
Other niggles were few and minor: The frameless door glass was a magnet for fingerprints when passengers closed the door the “wrong” way (pushing on the glass instead of the door handle). The driving lights, being located right next to the headlights, were useless: People would constantly flash their brights at me thinking that my high-beams were on. And like many Japanese imports of the time, the A/C wasn’t always up to the task of dealing with a hot and humid Ohio summer.
The best view, however, was one that couldn’t be properly photographed: The view from the Driver’s seat. In stark contrast to today’s cars (with all their video screens and airbags), the dashboard and cowl on the Integra were very low. The windshield was expansive – it felt like looking out a picture window. On the passenger side, in particular, it felt like the hood was terminating at your kneecaps. The hood was also very low, in a way that today’s pedestrian collision requirements would never allow. You couldn’t see the hood from inside, and it felt like the road was going directly under your feet with nothing in front of you. It may not have been fast, but it felt fast and engaging to drive. Period Honda Civics (on which the Integra was based) also had the same driving experience, as anyone who has driven a 80’s or early 90’s Civic can attest to.
Maybe you can still get this kind of driving experience today in an exotic car or a Miata, but that kind of misses the point: This kind of immediate, in your face driving experience was available to everyone in mundane everyday cars. No wonder an entire tuner culture sprung up around these cars. And no wonder so many kids today aren’t interested in driving, given how isolated the experience has become.