The cars we loved.
The story of Honda’s Prelude starts with a rather homely looking little coupe that was introduced in 1978. By today’s standards, it was small and underpowered, but was light weight and frugal. The small size was due to it being based on the second generation Civic. It borrowed other parts from the Civic including its independent strut suspension and brakes. Next to similar sporty Japanese cars like the Toyota Celica, the Prelude looked tamed, but its low and wide profile suggested performance without screaming it as others would resort to the occasional use of loud disco style graphics to get attention (Mustang, Celica, Sunbird etc.).
Honda’s arsenal of two door cars was beginning to grow as the 70’s was coming to a close. Initially, the line up spawned some confusion as to what was the sporty car from Honda. The longer Accord was also available as a coupe. In hatchback form it appeared as sleek as the Prelude with its formal trunk. The engine from the heavier Accord would be used in the lighter Prelude, effectively making it a Pony car by loose definition. The 12-valve SOHC 1.8 liter four could not be confused for a Ford or Chevy V8, but with 75 hp, it made for a better power to weight ratio than the traditional rear wheel drive pony cars of the day. A typical 1980 model equipped with the manual transmission was actually faster than the 2.3L Mustang of the same year. Smaller but more powerful engines were available in Canada and Australia only.
Transmission choices were initially a standard 5-speed manual or an odd 2-speed semi-automatic “Hondamatic” first used in the Civic. A more conventional 3-speed automatic replaced it in 1979. Both transmissions were smooth shifting and established a hallmark for future Hondas. Performance was better than average also with a 1979 Prelude Si reaching 60 mph in 10.8 seconds. According to a Motor Trend Magazine comparo in 1979, that put it near the top of the heap in the sporty coupe category. The magazines all seemed to love the Prelude because it offered a level of refinement and luxury that was uncommon in its class and price range, even though it was often more expensive than most competitors. That would also remain a Prelude trait that would be backed up with higher than average resale value.
The interiors were mostly simple affairs with straight forward, easy to read controls. The handsome arrangement of switches, vents and gauges would also become a Honda hallmark that would be envied by others. The end effect was almost German like, but the big difference was that you knew everything would work without any hassles. Some cars were fitted with leather interiors, power steering and intermittent wipers. Many features were standard including Honda’s first use of power moon roof as standard equipment. For a brief time a convertible conversion was done by a California company called Solaire. Less than 100 were built and they were all sold at Honda dealerships with the full Honda warranty. The Solaire cars were built-in 81/82 and are the rarest and most desirable of all Preludes.
It was clear that Honda had established a niche with a small sporty coupe that offered efficiency, fun and a dash of luxury. As sales gradually rose, so did power and sophistication. The Prelude would eventually join the Accord on Car and Driver’s annual 10 Best List through the years. After over 30 years and five generations, Prelude production ended in 2001 due to changes in the coupe market that favored the two door Accord (whose popularity was considerably greater than the Prelude). The Accord trailed the Prelude in coupe form as a sporty car until like an apprentice overtaking its master, replaced it as Honda’s sporty mid-sized coupe. Each new generation of the Accord coupe became more aggressive to the point of rendering the Prelude redundant.
Today, the first generation cars are almost forgotten. To early to be butchered by the Fast and Furious crowd and too late to be infused with muscle car inspiration, the first gen Prelude sits in a sweet spot for any one who might be lucky to come across a working road worthy example. Future collectivity is probably limited to open-minded Hondaphiles, but for everyone else it represents an interesting piece of Honda history that blends performance and efficiency like only Honda could.