(first posted 2/12/2014) Until a few weeks ago, when temperatures were in the negative single digits, it had been well over a year since I’d encountered a second-generation Honda Prelude. Our West Coast and Southern readers may not understand my going out of the way to take pictures of this red example, but then, the moderate winters they enjoy mean never having to be outside in such cold weather in the first place, let alone chasing down a thirty year old mass-market coupe to snap a few photos.
For those who don’t know, the lack of a third brake light and grey bumpers on this car indicate a pre-1986 base model, with a 1.8 dual carb engine. Fuel-injected Si models received different taillights, body color bumpers, and a rear spoiler. I’m going to take a shot and guess this is a 1985, as sales climbed throughout the model run and fewer years on the road would make it more likely to have survived this long. Of course, that will change if the current owner keeps driving on salt like this!
The consensus among automotive bloggers is that the 1982 Mustang equipped with the 5.0 HO signaled the beginning of the end of “malaise.” While not the most prominent example, the all-new 1983 Prelude was also a sign that there was light at the end of the tunnel, making it a very different expression of the nascent reassessment of buyers’ priorities.
Taking a risk with its low-tech, big hammer approach, Ford was better able to predict the market’s future direction, but at about
$3000 $2000 less, the Prelude was a more creative proposition that met the challenges of the day more effectively. Despite Honda’s pragmatic approach, most everyone who owned one of these new has fond memories today. As its maker’s flagship, it cost about $9,600 upon its introduction. For reference, the Scirocco, Isuzu Impulse, Celica GT-S and base level RX-7 all cost $10,000. A Celica GT, Nissan 200SX, Renault Fuego or entry level 626 coupe would set buyers back about $8000, as would a Camaro in base trim. A Mustang L and Celica ST were some of the cheapest competitors at about $7000.
As it was introduced in 1983, the car came with a 1.8 liter SOHC 12-valve engine. Shared with the 1984-85 Accord, but with dual side-draft carbs, the Prelude made 100 SAE net horsepower at 5500 rpm, fourteen more than its single 3-bbl carb equipped stablemate, along with 107 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. At the end of 1985, the 2.0 Si was introduced, with a bored out and multi-point fuel-injected version of the same engine, minus the CVCC hardware (also deleted from the standard 1.8 at this time). The fuel-injected engine, with its lower compression ratio, made 110-hp (SAE net) at 5500 rpm and 114 lb-ft of torque at 4500. These numbers reflect strong upper midrange power delivery, something made more enjoyable by the company’s characteristic free-revving engines and precise gearboxes. By Honda’s standards, however, these were mildly tuned units and those seeking a true high-end rush would have to wait for 1986’s Integra.
Neither the base car nor the 2.0 Si were considered slow for the era, and both made it to sixty in the low-to-mid nine-second range, topping out between 110 and 115 mph. Unless you wanted to splurge on an eight-cylinder pony car, the Prelude’s performance was as good as it got. While by the end of the second generation’s run competitors were fielding much more powerful powertrains, it didn’t seem to affect the sales, which continued climbing until they hit their peak 1988. In total, over 300,000 cars were purchased over the second generation’s five year run, making the Prelude a significant part of Honda’s American business strategy.
This success was anything but accidental. Despite merely above average power, dealers sold this many cars during the years when buyers would wait for months for a Honda in a color they didn’t choose, sans discount. This despite turbo fever everywhere and very diverse competition among sporty coupes. There was no secret to the Prelude’s popularity; it combined the era’s most prominent trends at a reasonable price point without sacrificing a whit of sophistication.
An excellent first impression was made by the car’s styling, with a dramatically low nose to compliment an overall height of about 51 inches. While a relatively high rear deck, retractable headlights and a wraparound rear window implied superior aerodynamics, an overall Cd of .36 was nothing to write home about. Luckily the car appeared sleeker than such a number would suggest, and with such small frontal area, net drag was still quite low. The overall look emphasized width, which at about 67 inches, was not massive, but still generous relative to the car’s height.
Up to that point, Honda had avoided openly competing based on style and performance, and successfully made a name for itself based on efficiency and refinement. With their latest car, they now had a coupe which, in marrying more superficial appeal with the company’s traditional strengths, made it one of the few options for those who couldn’t–or didn’t want to–spend a fortune on a chic set of wheels. As such, the aptly-named Prelude reflected the changing values of the marketplace while setting the stage for Honda’s successes of the following fifteen years.
The biggest news was the adoption of a double-wishbone front suspension, the basis of the car’s low-slung styling as well as its class leading handling. Unlike other similar suspensions, the Prelude did not use a lower A-arm, and instead used the combination of a lateral link and radius rod to locate the wheels. The upper control arm, mounted on the top of front tire, was significantly shorter than the lower link, ensuring unchanged camber throughout the wheel’s travel. What’s more, the front wheels’ toe-in remained constant as they moved up and down, helping to maintain path control over pavement irregularities. Rear wheels used Chapman struts, and in the diagram above, we see that they are located by a single transverse link, as opposed to the superior twin lower links commonly used today. In this way, the front of the Prelude literally represented Honda’s future, while its rear reflected its past.
Another reason for the car’s success was its interior. With a standard power glass moonroof and low beltline, it was uniquely airy, offering unusually good visibility for a sporty coupe. An absence of gimmicks also endeared the Prelude to serious drivers in an era when manufacturers designed their interiors to mimic the explosive popularity of video games (one could argue this is once again becoming the case, although this time Honda is on the wrong side of the prevailing trend).
The only other options for those interested in a no-nonsense driving environment were in European showrooms, and that usually meant spending more money. Heavily bolstered seats were the biggest concession to style, but they were comfortable and theoretically offered a functional benefit. Other unique touches included side window demisters and air vents integrated into the door panels, which were well received, and faux stitching, which was not.
The combination of user friendliness and chassis composure charmed critics. A 1984 Car And Driver test against the likes of the Toyota Supra, Audi Quattro, Lotus Esprit, Ferrari 308, and Porsche 911, 924 and 928 saw the Prelude finish second, no mean feat for cheapest car in the test and the only one with front wheel drive. The precise steering, excellent driving position and tracking were roundly praised, as was the combination of responsiveness and unflappability. The biggest complaints focused on its (relative) lack of power against such heavyweights, as well as a lack of grip from modest thirteen-inch wheels. The editors nevertheless claimed, “The superb Honda Prelude is the second-best-handling foreign car any amount of money can buy.”
When compared with such cars as the base-level American pony cars or the Toyota Celica, its real competition, no qualifications were necessary. At its $10,000 price point, there was no real competition for the Honda, which outclassed similarly priced cars, except maybe the RX-7. As the years went on, however, comparisons with American ponycars were further underscored, especially once consumers were convinced gas prices would remain low.
The landscape was very different by the time the second generation Prelude ended its model run, and the formerly above average engines became a bigger handicap as the competition evolved. The RX-7, for instance, morphed into a refined clone of the Porsche 944, theoretically available for less than the Prelude Si, while the 1986 Celica (the first FWD model, made very much in the Prelude’s image) offered a twin-cam version of Toyota’s S-block in the US market. Honda offered a twin-cam sixteen, valve two-liter (along with proper fourteen inch wheels) in Europe and Japan, making 137bhp and 160-hp (JIS), respectively, but the most Honda could offer users in its biggest market was the aforementioned two-liter single-cam engine in the Si.
Car and Driver’s Don Sherman described the bump in power thusly:
“Quite frankly, we had our hearts set on more. To make up for the breach between anticipated and delivered power levels, Honda tossed in a few goodies (a leather-wrapped steering wheel, better upholstery, alloy wheels) and made air conditioning, power windows, and a high-zoot sound system standard equipment. That in turn drove the price up enough that we started to wonder if this wasn’t a repeat of the Coca-Cola fiasco. Yes, the 2.0Si is quicker and plusher. But if it’s a high-value handling champ you’re after, stick with the classic: the Prelude with carburetors.”
That perfectly described the Prelude’s primary shortcoming. If Honda hadn’t gifted the car with such a capable chassis and correspondingly high level of refinement, the lack of power could have been forgivable, but as it was, the car was looking more and more meek in the face of rivals. What’s worse, Honda’s own product line-up was vastly changed by the time the car bowed out in 1987, with four new in-house competitors in the form of the CRX and Civic Si, the Accord coupe (the most direct adversary), the Integra and even the Legend coupe. Not only had the Prelude surrendered its position as the company’s flagship, cheaper and faster two and three-door stablemates were nipping at its heels.
The third-generation Prelude bowed in 1988, aping the outgoing car’s shape and building upon its strong points, but failing to make much progress in terms of performance. As the decade closed, stellar competition in the form of the Mustang 5.0 and Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX ate the Prelude’s lunch, and while none of these cars were as genteel as Honda’s two-door coupe, their straight line thrust more than made up for any sense of loss their owners might have briefly felt. Honda made up for lost time after 1993, when they finally brought the Prelude’s top shelf engine to the US, but by that time, buyers had largely stopped paying attention. Oddly enough, the same problems began to face most of the Acura division’s cars around the same time. While the 1986 Legend may have caught many competitors sleeping, it found itself outgunned by the mid ’90s, despite its refinement and quality.
As I suggested when writing about the third-generation Accord, Acura’s existence prevented Honda from properly fortifying its more expensive mainstream offerings against evolving competition, while the company’s small overall size left their luxury cars unable to compete against heavyweights from Europe, as well as Lexus. And while the Accord found refuge as a large, V6-powered midsize car, the Prelude lacked a similar avenue of escape. In many ways, the praises sung and complaints made of the Prelude from its second generation onward mirrored those of the vastly more expensive, ambitious NSX. It’s to its maker’s credit that the Prelude hung around as long as it did, outlasting a number of the competitors it inspired, but Honda’s multi-pronged attack on the car from in-house rivals, particularly the Accord coupe, is truly perplexing.
All this explanation is simply to highlight why enthusiasts may overlook these cars today. That’s a shame, as any amount of time spent with one of them quickly reveals their charm, making them particularly easy to love. While fans of domestic coupes may have denied the car its due respect, possibly out of a sense of paranoia, admirers of both the brand and of the era’s sporty coupes owe it a great deal of gratitude, as it inspired a lot of the competition’s next steps. With its unique combination of low-slung style, sharp handling, user-friendliness and hospitality, it’s no surprise that the 1983 Prelude informed the design of Honda’s entire line-up for the decade following its introduction.