By on March 30, 2010

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 very close ties to the Honda 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.

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28 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1981 Honda Prelude...”


  • avatar
    tced2

    One of the car mags (Motor Trend?) entitled their review something like
    “Prelude to What?”
    They were underwhelmed.

    My neighbor had the next version. A bit more “exciting”. It disappeared into a cloud of red dust (rust) – a typical Japanese car fate in those days for the Midwest.

  • avatar
    KitaIkki

    Classic sticker too: “Charlton Heston is My President”

  • avatar
    twotone

    Great article! The combination of Hondas and Quaaludes brings back fond memories. I vaguely remember driving my Honda Civic home from a lude party — ah, the errors of youth.

    The 1970′s were good to me and I enjoy the flashbacks (automotive and drug induced).

    Twotone

    PS: Interesting how the mid-1990′s Prelude rear end:

    http://i104.photobucket.com/albums/m180/two2tone/honda.jpg

    Influenced the styling of the 2002 Maserati Coupe:

    http://i104.photobucket.com/albums/m180/two2tone/A28625_b.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      Ingvar

      I think I’ve said this before, almost verbatim, but the designers of both those cars probably threw more than one glance at the rear end of the Jaguar XJS:

      http://www.wreckcarsonline.com/photos/1890_d.jpg

    • 0 avatar
      Styles79

      I think you’ll find that the tail lamp design of the Maserati Coupe was constrained by the sheet metal. The car that it was based on, the 3200GT had very different tail lamps.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maserati_3200_GT

  • avatar
    Audi-Inni

    I’m with Paul – a good car, not a great car. I bought my mom’s 1979 version and it rusted to pieces. Drove through a tropical storm on my way to Miami and it rained inside almost as much as oustide. And it wasn’t all that reliable, either. It was well put together when new and totally different from anything on the market at the time. But the ’83 ‘lude that my Mom got so she could sell me the ’79 was so far and away a better car in every respect that it made this version feel like the cheap econobox it really was. The Celica and Nissan 200SX were better, albeit bigger cars.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Later versions of this car were great… dead reliable, a little fun and some great styling. I recall Honda bragging about the Prelude having the lowest hood in America, save for some Ferrari of the day.

    As a kid in the 80′s, I dug the then current Prelude.

  • avatar
    MasterOfTheJawan

    I had a 3rd gen (88) Prelude SI 4WS with a 5 speed. To this day it’s the most fun exciting car I’ve ever drivien. Granted I paid 1 grand for it, and it was an electrical lemon and only lasted me 6 months but I have never ever regretted getting it.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Can’t wait until you CC the 1992 to 1994 ‘Lewd….I have a pretty funny story about my wife’s reaction the first time she saw one….

  • avatar

    One of my first clear automotive memories is of my aunt’s 1980 Prelude, sometime in 1981-1982. That little maroon coupe seemed so sporty — and even futuristic — compared to my parents’ then-new Mercury Lynx.

    I still remember pretending to “drive” that car (I was six) in the garage… and being wowed by the combined speedo/tach cluster (changed on the 1981 to a more conventional layout) and the sunroof. Oh, and also the remote release that would pop up the trunk like a speed brake, LOL. I even remember the smell of the interior plastics!

    Little did I know then how much of a dog this first generation actually was.

  • avatar
    stevejac

    I had an ’81 and it was a great car… until we had a baby. They only way to get the car seat into the back was to slide the front seat forward and fold it forward, then lower the carseat through the sunroof.

    Deadon reliable, and no rust out here in California. Not fun to drive, but nice and folks thought it was good looking in its day. I had royal blue with off white interior (another minus with a baby).

  • avatar
    geeber

    These have all succumbed to rust around here. They were good cars for the time…GM was still pushing various Chevrolet Monza-based clones when the Prelude debuted in 1979. That should give everyone an idea of the choices people had when this car debuted. It really did offer genuine relief to buyers in 1979. (At least Ford had ended production of the Pinto-based Mustang II for 1979 and mercifully replaced it with the Fox-based version.)

    This car doesn’t have the funky radio mounted on the side of the instrument pod, as the first versions did. Anyone remember that?

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    As has been noted, they weren’t too horrible, but they weren’t really sporty.

    ‘Sporty’ was the 2nd gen and up Civic 1500S. Aftermarket wheels and the magic Phoenix Stahflex 3011s, those were fun.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    I always perceived the first gen Prelude as an old peoples car. That kind of car a retired couple may have bought, with all the kids out of the house since a long time back, and with their only needs to pack some groceries and the occasional golf bags.

  • avatar
    wmba

    Wow, I was underwhelmed by these, and glad to see Paul agree. Never did drive one, though.

    I did drive the next model, because I liked the proportions, and had a blast driving a CRX Si mark 2. Can’t remember the horsepower output of the Prelude Mark 2, but I will say this: it was the most anodyne driving experience I’ve ever had. Period. No power, no noise, no nuttin’.

    Put me off Hondas for ever. Zero excitement.

  • avatar

    Sort of a ying to a Fiat X1/9′s yang. A bit dull but reliable or fun but a bit reliable.

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    On the Prelude pedigree, what’s the relation with the Honda Quintet vis a vis the Civic/Accord? The Quintet was slotted in between the Civic and Accord size-wise. The Prelude debuted in 1979, both the gen 2 Civic and the Quintet was presented in 1980.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honda_Quintet

  • avatar
    seanx37

    I owned 1981 Prelude. Black. Good car. And an 86. A great car. And a 90. Not quite as great, but awfully damn good.

    If they made them still, I would buy one tomorrow

  • avatar
    Opus

    My first brand-new car was a ’79. This was one of those cars that had everyone waving when you saw another one. It was a reasonable choice for a newly graduated single guy whose previous car (240Z) was malfunctioning more often than not, and had generated an alarming number of speeding tickets.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    The perfect chick car of the era, as I recall. Reliable and cute, and girls thought they looked sexy in it.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    The Prelude was an obvious evolution for Honda and Honda did an excellent job with it. What the Prelude was in 1981 was the Oldsmobile Cutlass for a class of new coupes that included the Mercury LN7, Ford EXP, but especially the Nissan 200SX, and Toyota Celica.

    Visually important was the fact that the Prelude was a NOT a hatchback, or had a fastback appearance. While you could buy a Celica notchback, it’s hatch was considered it’s Camaro/Mustang true calling and it’s image maker. Remember that the Toyota Supra spun off the hatchback design into it’s own line, which reveals Toyota’s marketing direction in this market segment. The Prelude was only available as a notchback and this set it neatly into the “I need to replace the Buick Century/Monte Carlo/Cutlass Supreme, with something new but with similar class-appeal.”

    So Honda didn’t meet head-on with Celica or 200SX, it swerved to the right to bag Yuppies, especially college educated women.

    That is why this Prelude is so um-disinteresting as a sports car. Honda didn’t want to try to reach this market head-on. With the next generation Prelude, we see Honda reaching for this performance angle, now that they had firmly established a presence with their little Cutlass Supreme replacement Prelude. Also please notice that even the second generation Prelude was still a notchback sedan, so even with beefier performance, Honda was still covering this luxury sedan base they originally targeted back in 1981.

  • avatar
    thebanana

    So what was the gold coloured car in the photo?

  • avatar
    geo

    I had an ’82 and drove it for a few months in the early nineties. It was the most solid, efficient, easy-to-live-with car I’ve ever owned. To this day I regret selling it, and I actually feel a tinge of sadness at looking at the above pictures.

    Sorry, old girl . . . if you’re out there!

  • avatar
    Moparman426W

    “Boring was a welcome relief from the excitement of blown engines.”
    During the late 80′s I worked at a grocery store. One of the managers had a 40 mile one way commute, his work car was an 80 prelude, just like this one, color and everything. He also owned an 85 toronado that he only drove to work a couple of times a month.
    One day the engine blew in the honda as he was coming to work. It had 130k on it, which is not very high for a well maintained car with all highway miles on it.
    He bought another engine and had me install it for him. The following winter the windshield wiper pivot broke during a heavy snowstorm, it was made of plastic.
    I forgot about the thin vinyl coverings on the door panels of jap cars of the era, that wrinkled as soon as the sun hit them.


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