(first posted 11/13/2014) Until 1984, the phrase ‘luxury car’ was largely used to described two very different types of vehicles in North America. The first was the traditional American luxury car, coming mainly from Cadillac and Lincoln. Predominately rear-wheel drive and V8-powered, these cars featured upright styling, soft suspensions, and touches including vinyl roofs, wire wheels, and loose-pillow style seating.
The other type of vehicle it described was the imported European sports sedan, from makes including BMW and Mercedes-Benz. These cars were also predominately rear-wheel drive, but generally smaller, better handling, and more aerodynamically styled. There was less ostentation and a more purposeful environment. In spite of this, these cars still offered comparable luxury features to the American luxury car.
The former definition would experience a bit of a shakeup in 1985, with a new wave of downsized, front-wheel drive Cadillacs. Although they were smaller, their other distinctive features survived the liposuction. While the marketplace was dramatically changed by these more svelte American luxury cars, a far greater shockwave would hit the segment in 1986, resulting in a third distinctive type of luxury car – the Japanese luxury car.
Back in 1981, the Japanese government entered a voluntary agreement with the United States, which restricted the amount of Japanese cars exported to the United States. Created in order to ease pressure on the American automobile industry, it was only supposed to last three years, however the U.S. government extended it, ultimately through 1994. Japanese automakers would eventually open up their own plants on U.S. soil, but until then, the most logical action was building larger, more luxurious, and higher-margin cars, and exporting them to the United States.
It was at this same time in the early-1980s, that Honda was looking to add a more luxurious, more expensive car to its portfolio in the U.S. Their core customer base of young professionals was becoming more successful. With nothing above the Accord, these consumers looking to trade up were moving on to brands like Volvo, Saab, Audi, and even BMW and Mercedes. And so, the Legend was born.
Internally codenamed “HX”, the eventual Legend would be larger and more luxurious than the Accord. It would be the first Honda ever with a V6 engine, a fuel-injected 24-valve 2.5-liter, making 151 horsepower at 6500 rpm. Engineers set out to build a sedan that provided responsive handling and while maintaining a softer ride than many of its European competitors. Its double-wishbone independent suspension, rigid unit body, speed-sensitive steering feel, and four-wheel disc brakes would help accomplish this.
While some were quick to write off the car due to its lack of rear-wheel drive, Honda had proved that front-wheel drive could offer an entertaining driving experience. Arguably the best builder of front-wheel drive cars, it was only natural for Honda to exploit this strength, making its first luxury sedan front-wheel drive.
While the vision was clear, the large and expensive HX immediately posed a problem for Honda that is not unlike the issue faced today by Hyundai with the Genesis and Equus. In North America, Honda quickly built a reputation for building cars that were reliable, efficient, fun-to-drive, as well as small and cheap. With a planned retail price nearly double that of a base model Accord, Honda’s new flagship would be horribly out of place among small, modest, and inexpensive Civics and Accords.
It was thus decided that the HX would be sold under an entirely new premium brand, ultimately named Acura. When deciding what to call its new luxury brand, Honda turned to the San Francisco-base agency, NameLab, for guidance. They settled upon “Acura”, derived from the phonetic segment “acu”, meaning accuracy. Further setting itself apart from regular Hondas, Acura would have its own separate dealerships offering an enhanced level of customer service and attention. Sixty new dealerships were set up in 18 states, strategically located around major East and West Coast cities.
Naturally, the exterior design of the technologically advanced HX would be modern. Although it may not seem overly groundbreaking by today’s standards, in 1986, the Legend was one of the most sleek and aerodynamic luxury sedans on the market. Its wedge-shaped profile, with rakish windshields, aircraft-style doors, flush glass and door handles were all very similar in style to the third-generation Accord that would be released just a few months earlier.
When it came to the interior of the car, designers replicated the excellence of smaller Hondas’ functional layout and quality fit-and-finish. Its look eschewed ostentation in favor of the simple elegance that buyers had come to expect from Honda and other Japanese cars. Contoured, heavily bolstered front buckets offered a “just right” blend of cushiness and support.
Acura’s luxury sedan would raise the bar when it came to the level of standard equipment it offered. Included in this long list were features like luxury moquette upholstery, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows and locks, triple-layer door seals, illuminated entry, map and reading lights, push button HVAC controls, bronze-tinted glass, 15-inch alloy wheels, premium sound system, rear center armrest, and adjustable rear headrests, to name just a few. The only extra-cost options were a power sunroof and a “luxury option package” that consisted of leather upholstery, 4-way power driver’s seat, heated side mirrors, and illuminated vanity mirrors.
The HX car would ultimately be christened as the Legend, with the full name “Legend Touring Sedan” used in marketing materials. The Legend was introduced in Japan in late-1985 as the Honda Legend, and officially went on sale March 27, 1986 with the smaller Integra as part of the roll out of the Acura brand in the U.S. Promoted as “Precision Crafted Automobiles”, Acura emphasized virtues such as quality, value, technology, and driving experience, qualities that were not simultaneously advertised by its German and American competitors.
Acura was an instant success, selling over 52,000 units in its inaugural year. The distribution of sales was approximately 50/50 Legend/Integra, signifying success with both lines. Within its first year of operation, Acura’s dealer network had expanded to 150 dealerships in 36 states, with that number of dealerships nearly doubling by the end of the decade. By 1987, Acura had become the best-selling luxury import brand in the United States, and placed first in the J.D. Power’s Customer Satisfaction Index Survey, garnering the highest score ever. In 1988, the Legend became the best-selling luxury import nameplate in the U.S., a title it would hold for six consecutive years.
I first spotted this 1989 Legend LS several weeks ago, as I was leaving the dry cleaners. Needless to say, I was elated. I can’t remember the last time I saw a first generation Legend sedan, let alone one that externally, was in about as fine condition as my 21-year newer Acura. Unfortunately, the vegetation in front of it and the closeness of the other parked cars prevented me from taking any pictures of the front. This matter was rather irksome to me, as part of the satisfaction I get from writing a CC is showcasing an interesting car I found. Yet by the sheer grace of some divine power (and my need to take a trip to the packy after a long day), I spotted the same Legend, this time parked in a more photogenic position.
By 1989, the Legend had received a few updates, both cosmetically and mechanically. In 1987, the Legend coupe was introduced, wearing all unique sheet metal. I spotted this white Legend coupe when I was in San Francisco last summer.
The 1987 Legend sedan now offered three trim levels: a base model that was equipped the same as a base ’86 Legend, the Legend L which included the contents of the luxury option package, and the Legend LS that added a premium Bose sound system to the L’s equipment.
1988 saw the replacement of the 2.5L V6 with a 2.7L adding variable length intake manifold and an incremental increase in horsepower to 161. Anti-lock brakes and a 10-way power driver’s seat were added to L and LS models, while LS models also gained automatic climate control, driver’s airbag, and a digital info center.
The most significant changes to the first generation Legend occurred in 1989. The exterior was refreshed with a new grille, hood, trunk lid, bumpers, taillights, and the one-piece composite headlights that were standard on Japanese-spec Legends since 1985.
Inside, the dash, center console, and door panels also received a minor redesign. A driver’s side airbag was now standard on all models, and LS models received a standard 4-way passenger’s seat. Available real wood trim added a bit of warmth and traditional flair to the Legend’s interior environment.
Changes for the 1990 Legend sedan were limited to standard burled walnut trim in the LS, and body colored side mirrors on all Legends, as an all new Legend coupe and sedan were being readied for 1991. With the success of this generation, Acura would push the next Legend further upmarket, increasing size, performance, luxury, and style.