COAL: 1982 Honda Prelude – Honda Gets Its Groove On

In my first COAL last week, I introduced my current classic ride – a true blue American from the malaise era.  But it wasn’t my first foray into owning a classic – indeed, it was this Japanese jewel that caught my eye for a reasonable price several years ago – a 1982 Honda Prelude.  They couldn’t be more different.

Flashback to the late 1970’s.  I got my love of cars from my dad, who knew a lot about them and had had a succession of beaters over the years that he drove to work.  One of our neighbors down the street was a car salesman who sold Hondas.  At the time, Hondas were still curiosities in our working class neighborhood in Queens, NY – most folks drove cars like Monte Carlos and Gran Torinos, not little front wheel drive cars.  Somehow, our neighbor fit his family of four into a two door Accord hatchback and my dad would just shake his head as they drove by, “I always knew they were weird.”

But, as we all know, Honda was on to something and the Accords and Civics began to proliferate.  In 1979, the company introduced the Prelude – Honda’s attempt to create a personal luxury car.  Yes, it was small, but it also looked kind of cool – huge electric sunroof, funky speedometer, and a profile that hinted of Cutlass Supreme, at about 2/3 the size.  All with better Honda build quality.  Preteen Steve was smitten.

There’s something distinctively Gen X about liking a car that made less than 80 hp and weighed about a ton, compared to the muscle cars – Camaros, Mustangs, Challengers, etc. – that ruled the road a decade earlier.  But the aspirations of Gen Xers have always been framed by making do with what’s available at the time.  (See the Police, “When the World is Running Down” from 1980.)  And the Prelude was part of the first generation of cars that was trying to show Japanese manufacturers could compete across the model spectrum beyond economy cars – think Celica, Supra, 810/Maxima, 200SX, RX7, Cressida.  So, while the Prelude (at least this first generation) was never a performance beast, it had its virtues.  Fuel efficient, quick handling and a level of refinement that exceeded typical American small cars.

Flash forward to 2012.  After years of thinking about buying a classic car, I read an article in the New York Times about how older Japanese cars were beginning to get noticed as collectors.  I remembered browsing Craigslist a few months earlier and a guy in one of the suburbs north of Minneapolis had listed a 1982 Prelude for sale.  Since I had saved the post, I contacted him.  The car was still available – folks had looked at it, but no one bought.  He wanted a reasonable price – about $2300.  The car was pristine, despite the fact that it had about 140K miles on it.  Not a speck of rust with original paint.  Everything worked, including the A/C, and the only non-original thing was a 90’s era AM/FM cassette player.  He told me he had bought it from a neighbor a couple of years earlier as a commuter car.  He said it had come from California and he used to see his neighbor drive it around, thinking it looked “cute” (his term, not mine).  Anyway, he didn’t need the car anymore and was looking to make space in his garage.  SO I bought the car, just as the snow melted in late March.

Preludes of this generation have all but disappeared from the roads of the upper Midwest.  Rust usually killed them and, because they were never considered collectible, folks usually didn’t preserve them with that in mind.  It was surprisingly fun to drive – despite having the automatic, the car could fly and keep up with traffic.  It ran like a top and the ride, while not plush, was still relatively comfortable.  The back seat, however, was a complete joke – two catchers mitts, a center console and no leg room – and I’m only 5 foot 9.  But it had the most massively proportioned sunroof I had ever seen – open it up and it almost felt like a convertible.

I kept the Prelude for 5 years.  Over that time, it cost me relatively little – a carb refresh, new tires and some oil changes were it.  Since it was a California car, the infamous vacuum hose diagram could keep a mechanic up at night.  I did take it to a number of Cars and Coffee events and it always got noticed, usually by other Gen Xers who remembered it or younger Honda fanboys who were amazed at the fact that it was so clean and original.

As much as I loved it, by spring 2017, we had moved to a different house and I had lost some garage space.  I also decided that I wanted something that was a bit more modern and could be driven year round.  (See a future COAL on my 228i.)  I took some pictures, then put the Prelude on Craigslist and eBay.  A guy from Illinois contacted me and said he wanted the car because he was putting together a private collection for a Route 66 car museum.  He had no intention of driving it – just showing it off.  He showed up two days later with cash, and a flatbed truck then drove her away.  I have no idea if he actually set up his museum, but I hope he did.  While the first generation Preludes like mine were never beloved the way later generations would be, I think it was a car that reflected the growing changes in the auto industry.  Japanese car companies certainly came into their own, eventually dominating the car markets of the later 80’s and 90’s.  And they built their reputations on the backs of solid, generally well designed cars like the Prelude.