(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.
Really interesting post Perry, on a car that used to be so familiar here. My Dad was a mechanic at the local Honda dealer through the 70s/80s, and I remember when the owner’s wife swapped her gen1 Prelude for a gen2. It was like chalk and cheese! The gen 1 was interesting but quirky and a little odd looking. The gen2 was styled like tomorrow was here today! 9 year old me thought it was sooooo smooth, and oh, that incredibly low bonnet line!
It wasn’t until the late 90s that I got to experience a gen 2 Prelude. A friend bought an ’85 5-speed 2.0Si (JDM model); the view out was unmatched and the seats were fabulously supportive. He told me it was easily capable of rather more than 200km/h too. Like so many at the time, it didn’t last terribly long. These Preludes were the boy racer go-to cars in the 90s, which is when many of them met their fate.
I miss the Prelude, and I miss the “Honda” that made it. They had so many great cars in the 80s/90s; I don’t even recognise the company that calls itself “Honda” today. I can’t remember the last time I saw any Prelude, let along one of these gen2 models, so it’s so heart-warming to see this one you’ve found Perry. It’s so nice to see that I even forgive it the luggage rack on the bootlid!
Scott, you nailed it on missing ‘Honda’. They were so far ahead of the game back then, and let it slip. A bit like Sony.
And then they dropped the ball again by discontinuing the NSX. Head scratching.
Honestly, I can’t blame them for dropping the NSX. It’s regrettable, but by the time they killed it, it was getting long in the tooth, it had never sold as well as they’d hoped, and I have to assume it cost them a bundle to make. My impression is that they kept it alive for a lot longer than there was any business case for and finally decided that it had crossed the line from “keeper of the flame” to “stubborn anachronism.” They did stick it out for a lot longer than Toyota did with the Supra or Mazda did with the RX-7, at least.
I’m not so strong on the economics of the situation, but I remember the NSX redefined the streetability of the ‘supercar’. I think after this, manufacturers such as Ferrari reconsidered how acceptable some of the rawness of their vehicles might be. Maybe the NSX was overly refined, but it reset the bar.
There is obviously corporate wisdom in the decision to discontinue, but at some point during this period I would say Honda’s brand image was so strong it’s desirability was overlapping with some German manufacturers.
Well, it’s true that when it first came out, the NSX put the scare in a number of prestigious European manufacturers, who abruptly realized they needed to step up their game in terms of livability and technical sophistication. However, the NSX still ended up suffering (particularly in markets where it was badged as a Honda) in terms of sales because it didn’t have the snob value of a Porsche or a Ferrari and because it was a lot more expensive than a Nissan 300ZX, RX-7, or Supra, which in turbo form were just as fast if not faster. It was sort of in the same boat as the Corvette has always been in Europe, where no matter how sophisticated or fast it is, it’s not amongst the gentry.
Later in its life, the NSX also lost a lot of ground to new-and-improved rivals like the Porsche 996 — technical sophistication doesn’t mean as much when all you’ve got in your pricey supercar is 290 hp and your golf partner’s Carrera 3.6 has 320, you know?
Snob value has a lot to answer for. Am I right in remembering this thing was so refined, they had to dial back in some engine or exhaust note?
Three Japanese cars I lust…. the generation 2 or 3 Preludes, the 1997 NSX, and the 1990ish Supra. I also admire the 240/260/280Z, but “rust never sleeps”.
I have an 87 2.0 si five speed actually that’s why I read this ha
The rear suspension is a bit more complex than you describe: It does have rear control arms, not lateral links — there are two inner pivots on each side, not one, although they aren’t terribly far apart — and there is also a radius rod on each side. Another technical detail worth noting is that in Japan, the Mk2 Prelude was available from the start with ABS, which we didn’t get on this generation at all. (Honda claims it was the first Japanese car so equipped, which is debatable.)
I should also add (because this keeps coming up with the Japanese cars I’ve been working on covering) that most of the JIS ratings used at this time were gross, not net (and are PS, not bhp). Japanese automakers started switching over to net ratings around the end of this generation, although confusingly not all at once. The DIN ratings for European-market cars are net, of course, but aren’t directly comparable because European cars generally didn’t yet have catalytic converters or EGR, which the Japanese engines did. It is very confusing and I imagine fuels a lot of arguments.
You bring up a good point about the internecine competition. The peculiar thing is that in the Japanese market, the Prelude’s most likely internal competitor, the Integra, was sold side-by-side with it, as was the CR-X. I (All were sold through Honda’s Verno network.) I don’t know how likely it would really have been for someone to cross-shop a CR-X and a Prelude, since the price spread there was pretty substantial, but the Integra/Prelude competition is very odd. It didn’t happen immediately — the Quint Integra didn’t arrive until almost three years into the Mk2 Prelude’s run and the previous Quint wasn’t what I’d call sporty — but there’s a lot of overlap there.
Mainly, I think Honda figured the Prelude would sort of straddle the gap between Celica-type sporty coupes and personal luxury cars like the Toyota Soarer and Nissan Leopard, since Honda didn’t have anything like the latter until the Legend coupe came along. However, to do that effectively, they would probably have needed to install a six, which they seem to have been very reluctant to do.
I wasn’t aware that “link” and “arm” couldn’t be used interchangeably. I was referring to the rear wheels’ lateral location, not fore and aft, but the radius rods are visible in the illustration.
I didn’t mention the 2-channel ABS or, as you may have noticed, the brakes at all.
I was not aware that JIS ratings were still gross around this time; I assumed the 160-hp rating was a product of the Japanese market’s superior fuel, and resultant higher comp ratio and more aggressive tuning. But now I know, and this information will come in handy. Any ideas how to figure out which cars were rated gross or net in the years following the slow switchover?
On the suspension, I know some sources use “lateral link” and “control arm” interchangeably, differentiated by the general size and heft of the suspension member in question. The distinction here is that a lateral link has one pivot point on each end and thus requires something else to triangulate it; this is why some MacPherson strut rear suspensions either have two lateral links or a lower wishbone. Here, the Prelude’s rear control arms each have two pivot points at the wheel carrier and thus the arms triangulate themselves to some extent. (The radius rod probably helps, although I think the radius rod’s main purpose is to allow a little bit of fore-aft recession to reduce NVH, as there’s a big rubber bushing at the leading end of each rod.)
I mention the ABS because from a technical standpoint it was kind of this generation’s big claim to fame in Japan and something of which Honda made a big deal at the time. It’s a point that gets lost in U.S. accounts because we didn’t get ABS on the Prelude until the third generation and it didn’t show up on other Hondas until a while after that.
On the engine ratings, after 1976, Japan went pretty much the same way the U.S. did on emissions standards, which meant that most cars had catalytic converters or thermal reactors, exhaust gas recirculation, air injection, and all that sort of thing. Compression ratios were pretty much the same as they were here. (European engines usually got higher compression and fewer emissions controls, which is why it’s tricky to compare them.) So, their requirements on that front weren’t meaningfully less stringent than 49-state rules here.
Unfortunately, figuring out which ratings were gross and which were net in this era is very tricky. Before about 1985, it’s pretty safe to assume JIS figures are gross and after 1990 or so they’re likely to be net, but in between is not so simple because not only didn’t automakers all switch at the same time, they didn’t switch all grades of individual models at the same time! For instance, on the Quint Integra, the three- and five-door GSi with the 16-valve ZC engine claimed 135 PS gross (as did the CR-X Si with that engine), but the four-door GSi sedan was listed at 120 PS net; I think the engines were same and Honda was just phasing in the more conservative ratings.
I have a copy of a 1987 buyer’s guide from a Japanese car magazine that makes some effort to indicate gross and net ratings, at least enough to make a reasonable guess. (The Prelude 2000Si’s 160 hp is explicitly described as a gross rating, which is helpful.) Other than that, about all you can do is look carefully at Japanese brochures and catalogs — during the transition period, gross ratings are usually though not always marked. (“Gross” is written グロス in katakana — gu-ro-su.)
As a general guideline, because of Japan’s emissions standards, it’s usually reasonable to assume that the engines sold there in the late seventies and eighties are not substantially more powerful than the versions of those engines sold here. (Maybe a little bit, but we’re talking a few horsepower, not 20 or 30.) For engines not sold here, you’re back to guesswork, but that is a helpful point to remember. Also, don’t forget that even the net ratings are PS, not mechanical horsepower.
I looked up the figures on the 2.0Si, and it looks like Honda quoted the 160 PS gross rating until the end of this generation and then 145 PS net for the beginning of the third generation, with the same compression ratio and identical displacement. So, I’m guessing the 2.0Si was probably in the 140-145 PS range as well.
(For the DOHC version, that is, which was functionally the same as the engine in the 1988-1990 Prelude Si sold here.)
The rear suspension is also not a Chapman strut, which features a driveshaft as the lower lateral link.
Not always; sometimes this can be used to describe struts used to locate rear wheels.
I distinctly remember a C&D test of a ’96 Neon Twincam, in which they called the rear struts Chapmans in their spec sheet. That was where I learned the term.
In the future, though, I’ll be sure to make a distinction, as a strut which uses a driveshaft as a locating member is surely unique enough to deserve its own separate name.
Very interesting, and a rare find these days in the midwest. Also, kudos for your dedication in going out in search of cars in subzero weather!
No firsthand experience with these, Accords, Civics and Integras were what I spent time in and around. But these were definitely popular cars hereabouts. I always thought of these as sort of a modern-day cross between a 60s Mustang and a Cutlass – stylish, fun, and a capable performer.
Nice cars that looked great but not for the tall and large. Awkward entry and exit and for some, impossible
My 6th Grade English teacher had the spitting image of the red subject car. It made an interesting choice for her, as she was well over 60 at that time (early 90s), extremely English (down to a hyphenated first name), and seemed to be some weird combination of Victorian and hippie all at once. She refused to have her picture taken for the yearbook, though this would be attempted yearly, and she would cover her face when the photographers approached.
She didn’t seem all that sporty, and this interior seems totally at odds with her tastes (a vintage European compact would have seemed appropriate in retrospect), but I will always remember her walking out to the car carrying her tote bag after discussing Robinson Crusoe.
One of LJK Setright’s (very English car writer) favorite cars was the Prelude, although I am not sure if it was just the later generation cars or this one also
I delivered pizza for Domino’s in one of these. Somewhere between 96 and 98 in Flint MI. It was one of the first foreign cars I had ever seen, as I lived in Flint, and Dad had always worked for GM. The 1984 Prelude was given to me by a relative, my 84 Skylark had just barfed out its engine and I was as poor as one could be. The conditions were that the car ran, but it needed brakes. I had my mom drive me to Detroit with the tools in her car, and I was able to get pads and rotors on it. Heading back north on I-75 I realized I was doing 95+ in this rusty, unknown, and un-tested car with 189000 miles. I didnt know cars could have that many miles and still run. So I put my seatbelt on and went faster. I loved the feel of the car already.
Rusty, did I mention how rusty this car was? There were holes in the front quarter panel. And by holes I mean actual chunks of sheet metal just gone, the size of a textbook. The floorboards in the backseat were missing. When it rained you got wet.
But by the Gods of Honda, when you pushed on the gas, that car went.
I was driving the car in a Michigan Winter. The heat pretty much sucked, and I remember one time, for some reason that I decided to wash it. It was probably 20 deg out, and the car froze solid. I mean FROZE. There was 2 inches of ice in the inside of the windshield. I had no idea what to do, as I was going to pick up this girl and go to Canada. So, I put on my seatbelt and drove faster.
And the pizza driving. I beat the hell out of that car. I drove it like it was a snowmobile, throttle wide open at all times. One night, when there was 6 inches of powder on the road, and it was still coming down, I had to do a delivery on a semi-rual road. The road starts straight, and then has a nice s curve in the middle, and then straightens back out. I start down the road and hit the s curve at about 45 – 50. I go into the curve, put it to a full slide, and look up and see…. coming at me… at 50 mph, sideways, a police car. We slid by each other at 50 mph, sideways, snow flying everywhere, and both of us had the biggest shit eating grins on our face.
The car barfed its alternator after I abused it for 4-5 months. My GM Car loving friends and I looked under the hood, declared it a loss, and towed it to the junkyard,
I used my Pizza money to buy an 88-z24 Caviler with a 5 Speed Manual.
I’d love to have one of these in good condition again.
PS – We should have a Curbside Classic about the X Body Skylark. The stories I can tell about that car…..
We did, a while back: https://www.curbsideclassic.com/curbside-classics-american/curbside-classicauto-biography-1980-1981-buick-skylark-x-marks-the-spot/
But if you’ve got a really good story about one you want to share, send it in to us.
I realized I was doing 95+ in this rusty, unknown, and un-tested car with 189000 miles.
I also miss the Honda that was. My 98 Civic (DX trim, no cruise, air or power windows) had a disconcerting way of gaining speed. I would be motoring down I-94 in perfect serenity, glance at the speedo and discover I was turning 85. I also had a 97 Civic DX coupe as a beater. I gave it a bit of stick to pass a semi on US-23, went past the semi in a flash, slid to the outside lane to take the exit, glanced at the speedo and it was registering 100 and change. Amazing what those cars could do on 106hp, and still be so smooth and stable on the road.
Now, I’m totally put off by their spaceship styling and insturment panel gimicks. If they produced a revival of the late 80s Integra hatch, I’d be all over it.
Instead, the trusty Civic has been replaced by a Jetta wagon. Insturments that look like insturments and a bit of glass so I have a chance of seeing what’s going on outside.
I currently drive a 2000 Civic with 5-spd. The characteristics which make such good use of the engine’s 106 horses are exactly what makes Hondas with automatics so unpleasant (unless you trash them). It seems the engines are built around the idea that if you want to pass, you’ll be smart enough to downshift and use the gas. So, they design their engines so that the power peak is near the top of the rev range, giving a nice SWELL of power as the engine speeds up. This is the opposite of most manufacturers who recognize that most drivers are too timid to do such things, and design engines which give you all they have low down, making mundane driving much less frenzied.
All I know is, if I’m in an emergency, I floor it and I don’t want the engine running out of breath above 4,000!!!
My Civic, with its late ’80s engine technology and 106 horses, tops out at about 110 mph and gets to sixty in about 9.5 seconds. Not bad for a compact sedan that gets about 37 mpg in mixed driving.
Yay, another Dominos alum. My stint was in Muncie, Indiana in early 1982 with a 71 Plymouth Scamp that was as reliable as an old dog.
I’ve always liked the look of these. Easily my favorite Prelude of all time. Oddly I’ve never owned one or even know anyone to own one. They used to be quite plentiful and cheap in the very late 1990s and early 2000s but rare sight now.
Red is a good colour for these and I seem to recall it was perhaps the most popular.
Did the four wheel steering option come along with the next generation?
Those were a hoot to drive.
Yeah, 4WS arrived with the third generation for the 1988 model year.
I had a 4ws…it really had little noticeable impact over the 2ws. Unless you were a professional driver it was overkill. One thing you would notice was the steering wheel buck when turning out of a hard quick turn as the rear wheels went from turning opposite the front to parallel to the front wheels.
But yes it was a blast to drive. Fun and everything in perfect balanc… And rock solid assembly feel. My friend had a 91 240sx which felt crude in comparison.
In 1984, Boston area dealers were selling these above list. I drove a friend to Vermont to buy a new Prelude that looked exactly like the featured car. The two things I remember are that the salesman was the brother of LPGA hall of fame golfer Pat Bradley, and the cowl was almost comically low on the Prelude… On the drive back I could practically see my friend’s lap from my position in the car in front. He loved it, kept it for many years, but the twit wouldn’t let me drive it. It was nice to ride in, but the looks never worked for me… The Accord coupe made better use of these styling idioms.
Two points of clarification: paragraph 4 says the Mustang was $3000 more and $2600 less than the Prelude… Or am I reading this wrong? And “The third-generation Prelude bowed in 1988, aping the outgoing car’s shape…” Not following ya here. But nice writeup!
The Mustang with the 5.0 HO was $3k more. I should make that more clear, if it’s not.
The third gen car uses a refined version of the same styling. The Accord coupe you mention also does, and probably looks better because of its substantially longer wheelbase. The second gen car, esp in Si trim, looks like it’s carrying a bit too much length, while its greenhouse is a bit too upright.
I enjoy your use of the word “twit.” My experience with these cars is that the cowl almost seem what I at 5’7″ call “nipple height,” but that’s an exaggeration.
Apologies, Perry, my misread on the second point. BTW, I had forgotten entirely about the third gen, and almost had forgotten the fourth gen. Thanks!
This is the car I wanted as my first new car – blue, 5-speed, air-conditioning and an AM/FM radio with cassette deck – that would have been perfect.
My second car was an 88 si 4ws 5 speed. It was my favorite car Ive ever driven to this day. It was an electrical gremlin though and left me stranded several times but I still loved that car. Everything was engineered to such perfect precision…in perfect balance with all parts of the car. Motor, handling, steering, clutch and shifter, brakes,,,all worked in harmony together. Its a shame you can’t find these anywhere anymore since they’re all riced up and beat to shit. If you have one hold on to it STOCK. Its a future classic without a doubt.
So what did mine in? In 03 with 137k it was having lots of electrical issues and in wet weather one day I skidded into a curb and it destroyed the front right axle assembly. That repair cost combined with the electrical gremlins led me to junk it.
Final note it saddens me to see Honda and the rest of the Japanese car makers discontinue the fun sporty sport coupes that were so great back in the day.
I think the Subaru BRZ and the Scion FRS fill the bill–they are the fun 80’s and 90’s cars reincarnated
Nice find! Personally Im not much for Hondas or Japanese cars in general but who can say no to an honest, clean 2-door sporty coupe that offers a solid, reliable set of wheels with style and potential for some performance? This is my idea of the perfect ‘sensible daily driver’…and todays selection sorely needs more cars just like this.
I bought one of these brand new in 1987. I traded in my first car, a 1928 Accord hatchback for the Prelude. While it was a mass market coupe, it certainly didn’t feel like one. In every respect, this car ALWAYS felt much more expensive than it really was, a trait shared with other Hondas in the 80s and early 90s. Seven years after I bought the Prelude, I foolishly traded it for a ’94 Prelude Si. While it was much faster and better equipped than the 97, it just didn’t feel as special as the ’87. The Prelude Si was totaled (not my fault) in 2001, and I replaced it with a 2001 Accord EX-L V6 coupe. The engine in that car was one of the most sublime engines I’ve ever driven. Unfortunately, the car was as boring as oatmeal, but I kept it until July 2013. This time, I bought a 2013 Accord EX coupe with the 4 cylinder and the 6 speed manual. This car, I REALLY like. I don’t like it as much as the ’87 Prelude, but I like it a hell of a lot more than the 2001 Accord. The new Accord feels more lively than the last one, and it makes me feel as though Honda is starting to get their act together again.
Never liked Hondas that were styled like this. My cousin had a low mileage Prelude of this generation about 5 years ago, it was an auto. Decent car but not my cup of tea at all.
I spent a lot of time in a Prelude like the red one pictured above. One of my best friends in high school had one. I don’t remember the year of his Prelude; however, it was blue and a great car for a teenager. My buddy gave me many rides home from school in his Prelude. My buddy had no sense of direction, and even before I knew how to drive, I would give him directions whenever we went places. Brings back good memories.
A second-gen Prelude is on my rather short bucket list.
We still have the 86 Accord 4 door that my wife bought new a few years before we met. It’s just shy of the 200K mark, but drives just fine. The body and interior are nicked and ripped up a bit, but I’d feel OK taking it out of state tomorrow. I’ve always wished she’d picked the Prelude instead…
Good read about a great car—but again, a little loose with the facts.
I highly doubt a Mustang V8 cost $3k more than the Prelude in 1983, if the Prelude started at $9500.
In late 86, at Mustang V8 stickered for about $500-$1000 more than the $11,100 86 GTI 8V I wound up buying (base $9800 plus A/C, P/S, and AM-FM freight).
I didn’t consider the Prelude because I wanted to “buy American” and I considered the Pennsylvania-built VW “American”. But I’m quite certain the base Prelude was priced like a Scirocco–more than either a Mustang GT, Mustang V8, or Golf GTI.
The Mustang was the bargain–but I thought of the car insurance, and I felt the VW would hold up better under hard driving. I wasn’t disappointed–sold it with 145k miles, and when I looked it up at CarFax 9 years later, it was still titled to the same kid who bought it from me for $2900.
Still, the gen II (and gen III) Prelude was a great car, I would’ve been happy with it. Thanks for the memory!
I’m trying to find the source which quoted about $13k and am coming up with nothing. But wow, the Mustang was quite a deal. No wonder the nameplate survived, while the Honda’s did not, but also, it’s no surprise Ford considered replacing it with the Probe, since so many people were won over by sophistication over power.
I’d have a hard time choosing today, but I think I’d have chosen a Prelude. A Mustang would’ve felt crude and the VW would’ve felt stodgy (although it arguably had the better chassis). I would’ve traded both for a ’94 Integra GS-R, though.
My Encyclopedia of American Cars gives these as the base price for the Mustang GT: 1982: $8308; 1983: $9328; 1984: $9578; 1985: $9885; 1986: $10,691. The GT was a real deal. And in later years, one could also get an LX with the 5.0HO.
Perry; I’ll get you a copy; it’s a must have.
The other issue is that the Mustang GT package was more expensive than a Mustang LX with a V8, which I believe was also available then. (Going from memory here on when the non-GT V8 was available). [Edit] I guess the LX came a year or two later. Paul’s figures ring a bell. It was not hard to get another $2k in options on a Mustang GT (a/c, decent stereo, sunroof, etc). My GTI needed some options to get up to its $12K sticker too.
I actually cross shopped the GTI and the Mustang GT. They were close to the same money, IIRC. Loved the Mustang drivetrain (who wouldn’t love 210 horses with a 5 speed in 1985) but was a little concerned about how the body would hold up (having lived around a lot of rusty Fords). I tried to shop Honda, but no salesman in the showroom would come up and talk to me. After about 20 minutes of walking around the deserted showroom, I decided that Honda could go screw itself and I was out. In their defense, they were selling everything they could get their hands on then. Also, Hondas seemed so trendy then – everyone I knew seemed to want one, and they seemed a little “soft” for me at the time. Anyhow, the GTI had the image of an intelligent, well built european-style performance car that I kind of bought into at that time of my life. So that was it. In retrospect, though I enjoyed my GTI experience, I have always kind of wished I had gone with the Mustang instead.
I bought a New ’85 Prelude in June 1985. It cost $12,050 (list price). I drove 300 miles to get it and didn’t have to pay a premium. I did have to wait 8 weeks.
I think these have aged quite nicely, unlike first and last gen Preludes, especially the former, which immediately gained the name “Quaalude” among my friends.
I always liked these Preludes.I owned a first gen 1980 and it was a great car. I wanted one of these in blue with a 5 speed. The red featured car has rare dealer installed alloys, too. A local dealer had one in his showroom and charged $899 for those wheels. The silver car at the end of the story has extremely rare alloys. I think they were offered for one year only and discontinued.
I drive my 1986 2.0Si Prelude every day !!!
The car is extremely rare in Denmark, and even rare in the rest of Europe…
Spares are really hard to get at 🙁
I’m her fourth owner, and the last owner (a 19 year old kid) treatet her really bad.
Minor to medium rust issues, but a lot of them.
Denmark in the wintertime is practically covered in several inches of salt 🙁
I like the car and the engine, but still havent been able to figure out, why the dashboard is of-centre with the actual centre of the car? It looks stupid !!!
Talking about the engine, its caracter on the road is very similar to the 4-cyl. Alfa Romeo engines I’ve had.
But just trouble free 🙂
It’s a BA2 engine, a DOHC !!!
Worst problem is getting parts. US seems to be the best place, but talking someone in to shipping to Denmark is not always easy 🙁
For the last 6 month, due to some imbicile vandals, the car is missing a trim-part, at the right rear-quarter window. Impossible to find at ebay, craigslist, preludepower or anywhere else 🙁
It’s shown on the pic.:
PS: Personally I think the peak of the Preludes, is the 3′ gen’s.
I lust for a 3′ gen. and I feel the later generations are just plain boring !!!
Console is off center so that the radio could fit without crowding the driver’s footwells.
3rd gens are great. Most agree the 4th gen is a dud; 5th generation was more like 2nd and 3rd, though, but finally with a lot of power.
You’re right about Honda DOHC engines; very Italian in character.
And when I look inside a 3′ gen, I’m just wondering why didnt they do it like that from the beginning 🙂
You (or anyone else) should’nt happen to know about anywhere, that I maybe could find the missing trim part for the right rear-quarter window ?
Getting a little desperate 🙂
I really like my little Lude, but that one thing, I know it finally will drive in to handing it off…
Since it’s the only 2’gen 2.0i I know of in Denmark, it’s deserves better…
Ib: that trim part is probably available in New Zealand on trademe (our equivalent of eBay). Here are two auctions for Prelude parts – http://www.trademe.co.nz/Browse/Listing.aspx?id=695637609 or http://www.trademe.co.nz/Browse/Listing.aspx?id=695865434
Only New Zealand or Australian residents with New Zealand bank accounts are allowed to purchase from trademe, but if you have friends or family here they may be able to help.
I didn’t have a 2nd gen, but they inspired me to buy a 3rd gen…..1991 Si. Loved that car and never should of sold it. Someone summed it up well……Hondas of this era felt so much more expensive and special than they were. Especially compared with american cars of the era.
Stupidly I sold the Prelude to buy a 1994 BMW 318is. Good car but nowhere near as nice as the lude. The Prelude had more torque, better stereo, better seats etc. But I “had” to have a BMW at the time…….sigh.
In the spring of 1985, I was looking to buy my first new car. I really wanted a Prelude, but I figured that I’d be frugal and buy a Honda Civic S hatchback. The Civic was priced at about $10,000, 20% lower than the Prelude’s $12,000 (with 5-speed and AC). My Dad talked me into buying the more expensive car, saying that I would be happy with it longer. He was right. Earlier in my life, he had talked me into buying a much more expensive bicycle using the same logic. He was right then, I still have the bike.
These were the days of Ronald Regan’s “voluntary” import restrictions which cut the supply and drove up the prices of desirable Japanese cars. Dealers who had a Prelude in-stock were asking $2,500 over list, that’s right $14,500. I called a bunch of dealers in NJ, where I lived and in MA (where my Parents’ had a summer house). The cheapest ’85 Preludue I could find was from a dealer who was asking list price, but needed a 16 week wait for delivery. I found a dealer on Cape Cod, Hyannis Porsche-Audi Honda who offered the car for $500 over list with only an 8 week wait. I decided I could wait the 8 weeks to save $2,000 over the in-stock dealer, but waiting an additional 8 weeks to save $500 more wasn’t worth it. I sent the dealer a $100 (I think, it might have been $500) deposit to reserve a car for me.
Eight weeks later, right on time, the dealer called and the car was it. I drove up to the Cape with my Parents and took delivery of the car on a Friday morning.
I loved the car a lot and drove the wheels off it for 11 years and 208,000mi. The best thing I did for it was to replace the 13″ stock wheels, hubcaps and 185-70-13 tires for the 14″ wheels and hubcaps off a ’88 Prelude. I mounted 195-60-14 tires on them. As good a handling car the Prelude was from the factory, it handled like a go-kart with the new tires. I used that setup for the rest of the life of the car. The car was fast enough (according the the magazines, faster than a BMW 318i which cost $6,000 more). Though it certainly wasn’t as fast as any car with a V-6 or V-8 or turbo. In 5th gear, it would barely accelerate at all.
I had very few problems with the car over the years. When it was a couple of years old, it developed a heavy “clunk” when I came to a stop or started up from a traffic light. A couple of dealers couldn’t find the problem, but an ex dealer mechanic found that the engine subframe bolts had vibrated loose. He tightened them and the problem never came back. The car also ate AC compressors. Every 70,000mi the compressor would sieze. I replaced two of them, but finally drove without AC for the last few years I owned the car. I had almost no rust at all, but was very careful washing the car and keeping it waxed. The car was never babied, it was my only car and I lived in NJ, MN, upstate NY and MA during it’s life. All places where they were very free using salt on the roads. I had no electrical problems at all. The truth is that I never had to even add fluids for the life of the car. When it was time to change the oil, it had never used up a quart, the brake fluid, power steering fluid and coolant levels never seemed to drop.
The final blow started when my radiator stopped cooling the engine. I had an independent mechanic replace the radiator for me. It turns out that this introduced a leak into the cooling system. Because I had gotten out of the habit of checking the coolant levels I didn’t notice the dropping of the coolant level. One day, while I cleared snow from the driveway I let the car idle to melt the snow off the windows. It stalled and smelled a little “hot”, but I figured that was caused by idling it while parked and a general lack of airflow through the radiator.
The next day, I drove the car to work. Halfway there the engine started knocking like crazy and began loosing power. I couldn’t drive it in 5th and had to downshift to 4th to prevent the knocking. That only lasted for a couple of minutes. When the knocking returned, I took the first exit ramp. At the top of the ramp, the engine stalled and would not re-start. I had AAA tow the car to my local Honda dealer where I they discovered that I had basically melted the engine down. When I went to check on the car I discovered that I could pull the spark-plugs out of the head with my bare hands, without threading them out. I figured that the car had 208,000mi and how much more life could it have.
I replaced the ’85 with a ’91 Prelude SI that had 70,000mi on it. It was also a great car. Excellent handling and with the 140hp all aluminum engine, much faster. The achilles heel of the ’91 was oil consumption. I quickly noticed that the ’91 used a quart of oil every 1,250mi (I was commuting about 35,000mi/year so it felt that I was putting oil in it all the time compared to my ’85 Prelude). I owned the car until the spring of 2000, by that time, I was adding a quart of oil every time I filled the take (about every 250mi). I had a Honda-specialty independent mechanic, that I found though the Car Talk web-site take a look, but he wanted $5,000 to replace the engine. I had a Honda-specialty independent mechanic, that I found though the Car Talk web-site take a look, but he wanted $5,000 to replace the engine. I talked to a local Honda-specialty mechanic that I found on the Car Talk web-site, but they wanted $5,000 for an engine rebuild. That was a lot of money into a car that I had purchased for $7,000 and my wife’s business was steering us towards needing a station wagon. So, I traded the ’91 Prelude on a ’99 Subaru 2.5 GT station wagon. I car that I liked a lot, but never loved like I did my Preludes.
Now, not a week goes by that I don’t think about owning another Prelude. My brother owned a new ’89 SI and when it got totaled (not his fault) a new ’92. I didn’t like the ’92-’96 series, but I continue to fantasize about owning one of the ’97-’01 Prelude SH’s. The funny thing is that now a 2001 Prelude SH is as old as the 1985 was when I figured it was too old to repair. Oh well, maybe there will never be another Prelude in my future.
Regarding the A/C, I recall A/C was a dealer-installed option on nearly all Honda’s in the 1970s and through a large portion of the 1980s.
Hi Perry, I just found your article as I was searching the internet for info on my Prelude. I have a 1984 that I bought when I was a Lieutenant Army Aviator at Ft. Hood. The car has been to Alabama, Florida and back and forth across the U.S. since my home of record was San Jose CA. I still have it and in 2003 was mobilized and moved to DC where I have been since. The car is garaged and only comes out to play. I have about 198K on it and it has all original paint, and upholstery. I had to get the turn signal arm replace last year and the shop was only able to find a used one that was not as nice as mine. It is getting real hard to find parts but I don’t want to give it up.
Best. Car. Ever. My 1983 had no indication of engine wear at 225,000 miles, which consisted of many trips from Alabama to Chicago, and years of being a delivery driver in the last 80’s early 90’s. The little thing that Could, I used to call it. Go anywhere. Do anything. Got 32mpg even doing stupid stuff (like 105mph on I-65 north of Indianapolis for as long as it took). My trick was to manually advance the timing and use premium gas. It was actually quick then! Loved it, if I saw a mint 83 for sale on the side of the road I’d buy it on the way home and explain it to my wife later. Hehe. I graduated from that to an 89 SI, then a brand new last-of-the-breed 2001 Type SH. Which I only kept for 18k miles before moving to a new Subaru because I thought they had just lost the magic those old things had.
Great article and photos. I bought my 83 Prelude after being on a waiting list in Tampa. Loved this car. It had a unique look for the era and I liked the styling. I remember reading how it rivaled more expensive vehicles in handling. I sure loved to drive it and it handled beautifully – and FUN ! The retracting headlights were cool and I thought the interior was so modern. Thanks !
My first car ever was my parents’ old hand-me-down 1986 Dodge Caravan. It got me where I wanted to go but no self-respecting young fella wants to try to pick up girls driving anything with wood trim. The first car I ever bought, in 1996, was a blue 1985 Prelude base model with a sunroof and I absolutely LOVED it. If I could find a pristine example of one today, I’d buy it again. It wasn’t the most powerful off the line, but it was quick to accelerate in traffic, and the handling was really tight and nimble. Got great mileage too. I bought it with about 85K miles on it and drove it for 5 years and another 80-90K (did a lot of roadtripping then, being a carefree young single guy with no attachments) until, sadly, I learned a valuable lesson about the need to replace timing belts in old four cylinder engines. Pretty much destroyed the engine and I was forced to replace it in early 2001. as the repairs would have cost as much as the car was worth at that point. At that point, too, the paint was in bad shape and the rust monster was emerging. I was sad to do it, though, and I’ve never forgotten what a pleasure it was to drive.
I bought a base 1985 prelude for 1,500 bucks with 287K miles in 1993 or 1994. It was great! But like others stated, an electrical gremlin was there. Sometimes while driving, everything would shut off lol. It would then pop start itself and all was good lol. The tape player worked if you hit the side of the console hard. One time I brought this girl out and parked her on a hill. Well, she wouldn’t start. So I had to pop start her in reverse parked between two vehicles lol. She crapped the bed at just over 300K. If I had a real job back then, I’m sure I could of fixed her. She was in great condition, but I still remember all the dull yellow buttons/lights. I was also jealous how the later models looked, except when. They changed the body style to that hatch thing. Too small.
I remember driving a 1983 Prelude. I loved the low cowl and overall visibility. It also cornered like it was on rails…. very flat. The rear seat was only useful for duffle bags…. nothing human.
I’m surprised no one mentioned Ford’s response to the Prelude/Celica…. the Probe. The second generation Probe (1993-1997) wonderfully delivered the handling, ergonomic, visibility traits that I found appealing in the generation 2 and 3 ‘Ludes… without have to deal with the arrogant Honda sales force.
After reading laudatory road tests in “Car & Driver” and “Road & Track”; I bought an ’86 Prelude DX 5 speed, no test drive possible as none were in stock, trading in my ’84 Civic SI.
I was vaguely disappointed in the Prelude.
It handled well, rather strange & numb power steering, a fine highway cruiser but kinda-sorta sluggish/slow in city traffic. It rather resembled a Japanese ’83 Ford Thunderbird. It felt like it was geared more for interstate cruising that city driving.
I traded it in on a leftover ’87 CRX SI and was much happier.
What we see during the 1980s is the development of alternatives to the traditional pony car: Mustang, Camaro, Supra/Celica and later, Challenger. These cars were rear-drive with aspirations of speed, often based upon smaller compact sedans.
The popularity of FWD and engine efficiencies led auto manufacturers to incorporate new technologies into pony-sized cars. This, in turn, opened opportunities with Japanese manufacturers to expand from dependable little rides to sporty rides. Toyota split the Celica from the Supra by giving it FWD and adding elements of comfort and luxuries to its interiors. Honda followed this path with the Prelude. Ford had the Probe. Chrysler had a FWD Daytona. These cars attempted to blend the practicalities popular with the market, with sporty aspirations. However, these cars, also had to be different from the sedan they were based upon.
This trend began to end when the sporty technologies were incorporated into the sedan these FWD sporty cars were based. When this happened, the impracticality of a coupe became apparent. This also happened to luxury coupes. When sedans are as sporty and luxurious as sporty and luxurious models, why buy the coupe?
As for the traditional pony car, their market also dried up. Ford, Toyota and GM, along with Chrysler, sell far fewer pony cars than they used to sell. The Boomer generation is the last one still willing to pay high dollars for two door coupes in enough number to justify making Mustangs, Camaro and Challenger.
Celica, Probe, Prelude, Thunderbird, Riviera, Toronado, and Daytona didn’t lose to the muscle car in the end – they lost to the Camry, Accord and Fusion.
My next door neighbors had one like the top photograph; red with five-spoke polished wheels. It replaced a Rabbit early enough to be German. At about the same time they replaced their three year old Citation with a Pontiac 6000STE. Somehow they were happier with the Citation than they would be with the vaunted 6000STE. The Prelude they kept for a few years and then replaced it with another new Prelude, this time a 3rd generation Prelude Si in yellow and without 4-wheel-steering. The herringbone tweed seats of the 1984 Prelude made an impression.
In college I knew a girl with a blue 2nd generation Prelude. It was the first one I can remember driving, and it shifted my opinion of Japanese cars quite a bit in the right direction. The driving position was pretty much cribbed from the Porsche 924, and the steering was fantastic for a FWD car. So was the shifter. Then there was guillotine sunroof speed. I was used to the power sliding sunroofs in a couple of mid-’80s Audis. They moved at the speed of smell. You had to plan ahead to have them closed when you parked. The Prelude sunroof was the fastest I’ve ever seen. Even Honda slowed them down, probably at the insistence of lawyers.
A competitive coupe market meant that the Prelude had to keep getting more powerful, which meant bigger brakes, bigger tires and stiffer suspension. Eventually the Prelude evolved to the point that it was more car than many people really wanted. It’s easy to benchmark a Civic Si coupe against a Prelude and point out the various metrics in which it now surpasses the last Prelude, and Honda’s sport seats are among the best. Still, the Si doesn’t begin to approach the second and third generation Preludes in terms of being aspirational to a broad swath of buying demographics while also regularly turning up everywhere from sorority houses to being driven by very successful adults. I guess the modern equivalent is something like a Lexus RX350 or maybe a Mazda CX-5.
About the time I turned 11 or so, my mother invented a reason to be offended by the rabbi at the reform synagogue we’d been attending, as happily as one can, for the seven years we’d lived in the area. For some strange reason, we switched to a conservative synagogue. The rabbi drove one of these Preludes, probably an ’86-’87 model, in bright yellow. By and by everybody learned the rabbi was boffing…I don’t remember, maybe the receptionist or maybe the director of the religion school; one of the ladies who worked at the temple. My mother was
pleased to have a ready-made reason to be offendedhorrified and moved to another synagogue, but I don’t remember what kind because by then I’d declared an end to my participation, having looked round at the congregation standing up and sitting down on cue, mouthing rote-memorised syllables, having dumb little competitions amongst themselves during the “silent” reading to see who could pretend to have got to the end of a paragraph first (by fervently muttering “Amen!”), and otherwise like that.
But I do remember Rabbi Newman’s bright yellow Prelude.
I liked these Preludes but then I bought one from someone down on their luck for cheap, very cheap but it did actually run and the key fitted the ignition the expired rego label claimed 89 and it was manual, most things I tried worked I did think it would go round corners better than it did, I had heard and read the Honda propaganda but thast expired rego was the major issue it had happened a little longer ago than I’d been told so a revin was required so no thanks, the vendor quite happily refunded the money and as I told him the wrecking yards would pay more than I did, I guess thats where it went, a revin can turn into a major repair headache on any car one you cant read the info plate on because its in a strange language yeah nar.