Curbside Classic: 1979 Honda Prelude – “…A Splendid Automobile”?

(first posted 1/15/2012)    Paradoxically, my only experience with Quaaludes was highly memorable. Yet I struggle to elicit any memories of my only drive in a Honda Quaalude. Or did I just dream that (the drive)? So just how did this Honda get that nickname anyway? Well, let’s just say that Quaaludes have more than one effect, and while the Prelude may well have induced sleep, its fairly unlikely that it was ever very successful as an aphrodisiac. I’ve certainly never heard it referred to as the Honda Viagra, despite its close ties to the Honda/Acura Vigor.

What an unfortunate nickname this car earned given Honda’s long pedigree in making truly exciting sports cars, both both before and after the gen1 Prelude. The little front-engine RWD S600 screamer was a giant killer, and later Preludes could most definitely get the blood flowing in the right members. But Honda’s first shot at a FWD sports coupe missed the mark, at least with the enthusiasts who were hoping for more. Sure, as a reliable, economical and nicely screwed-together alternative to a Buick Skyhawk or its ilk,  it was  the cat’s meow. As a sporty car, it was a snooze.

The Prelude was a highly pragmatic move on Honda’s part to expand into the then large and lucrative sporty coupe market. The Celica was making hay, and Nissan’s latest 200SX (Silvia) was catching too. Honda took the longer wheelbase platform of the yet-to-be released the gen2 Civic sedan and wagon, messed around a bit (way too little) with the suspension pieces and settings, threw in the Accord’s 1750 cc CVCC four and transmission, and wrapped it in a body that was looked exactly like what it was: a cross between the Accord and the Civic, where the clay model was set in front of a misting fan.

The result was, well…forgettable. Not really bad or truly ugly, and actually a perfectly typical Honda, in most ways, but it just didn’t exactly click. The Celica of the times was a huge hit. But then it was styled in Southern California. It was all too painfully obvious that the Prelude wasn’t. And 75 hp was even a bit modest for the times. DOHC, 16 valves and V-TEC were still a Quaalude-induced dream away. This was Honda’s mild-mannered era.

That’s not to say that the gen1 Prelude was an actual dud; it sold some 172k units in the US alone. And it got its share of love: “It is,” wrote Brock Yates “by any sane measurement, a splendid automobile. The machine, like all Hondas, embodies fabrication that is, in my opinion, surpassed only by the narrowest of margins by Mercedes-Benz. It is a relatively powerful little automobile by anybody’s standards.”

Truly exciting sporty cars were never meant to have a “sane measurement” applied anyway; they’re insane by their nature. So Brock’s words were a classic example of damming with faint praise, I assume or hope.

But it does give an idea of the high esteem Hondas were being held in at the time. Given that it coincides with Detroit’s low point, valley, flat desert of generally poor build quality, Honda was the calming sedative that plenty of folks were happily swilling after one too many poisonous Vegas or Skyhawks. Boring was a welcome relief from the excitement of blown engines and such for all too many. The Prelude may have disappointed the enthusiasts, but it was just what 172k Americans were looking for.

But Honda got the message, and the Prelude’s successor was quite another drug all together. Well, not exactly a hit of crystal meth, but it at least moved the pharmacological category out of the sedatives and into the stimulants, even if they were still fairly mild. But then serious excitement was only a Gold Top swap away.

For those that might ask why snoozers like this end up on CC, I did commit to covering every Honda car chronologically, instead of the usual randomness. And in its boring way, the Prelude was an important milestone for the evolution of that car and Honda overall. Now wake up, please!