By on November 5, 2013

(image courtesy Douglas Millar on Flickr)

Please welcome TTAC reader “psychoboy” as he tells a story of a rare encounter with the rarest of Honda Preludes — JB

A few months ago, I was convinced to get involved with what has turned out to be The Worst LeMons Car Of All Time, the mighty ‘Super K’ Plymouth Reliant wagon, as part of the “K-It-Forward” program. As bad of an idea as that was, it turns out that, compared to my attempt to buy a chop-top Prelude, it might have marked a bit of a high point in my automotive adventures this year.

Way back, way way back, in 1979, my family decided to trade in our nondescript late-Seventies Chevy Sedan on the newest, hottest, sports car to come from Japan: the brand new Prelude. Silver paint, Bordello red velour interior, giant moonroof, luggage rack on the trunk. This car had it all. It even beat Lexus to the market by a few decades with a concentric speedo and tach, and Chevrolet by ten years with an irreplaceable (in the sense that you couldn’t find a replacement) radio in the cluster shroud.

Under that long nose, short deck, pony-car-proportioned body, resides the McPherson-strutted backbone of the second generation Civic and an Accord-derived 1751cc CVCC inline 4 worth 72 ponies. You don’t really miss the Malaise Era, do you? Some of the magazines at the time gushed over the styling and the quality of the car, even while others denigrated its lackluster performance. In short, like other hairdressers’ cars pseudo pony cars of the era, its bite fell way short of its bark. To a family cross shopping this against the Vega, the Mustang II, or the Celica for the job of Sporty But Efficient Dad’s Car, Honda’s reputation probably sealed the deal far more often than the actual virtues of what C/D called the “Quaalude” ever did.

Ten years, one clutch, and almost 200,000 miles later, my father sold off his beloved Prelude. The call of a fully loaded ’89 Maxima GXE for himself in a deal with a ’88 300ZX 2+2 for my mother proved too great, so his Prelude and mom’s ’82 Accord hatchback were sent off to a family friend’s used car lot.


End of the Road

My mother had taught me to drive a manual in her Accord when I was 13 or so, but under her watchful eye, I never could relax enough to feel the car under my feet. A few weeks later, however, when they were off at a movie, I took the Prelude out for a spin around the block. I had the knowledge, and with only me to judge, I learned the feel. A few hours later, I learned a totally different sort of feel when a neighbor ratted me out. (I know that feel, bro — JB)

For the two and a half decades since, I’ve kept first-gen Preludes in the back of my mind as a potential fun second car. By the time I was able to easily afford a second car, most of those Preludes were gone. When I would find one, it would have rust issues, or carb issues, or rodent issues, or any other number of things wrong that just didn’t make it worth fooling with. Somewhere along the line, I learned of the existence of convertible first-gen Preludes. I think an eBay ad from Colorado around the turn of the millennium put them on my radar.

Have you ever heard of Solaire? It was a Santa Ana company that Honda commissioned to build verts out of their sporty little car in the American market. In 1981, Honda sold around 100 of the pop-tops across the country through their dealer network. These cars are as close to a “factory” convertible Prelude as it gets in the North American market. They are so rare, however, that most dealers don’t know they existed, and their non-Honda-sourced parts do not appear in any of the Honda catalogs.


(image courtesy Douglas Millar on Flickr)

Which brings me to a recent weekend. The same guy who goaded me into the K-Car is currently deployed about 9 or 10 timezones away, and he often finds himself with some spare time on his hands. When he’s not manicuring his awesome hair or writing love poems to his even more awesome wife, he’s torturing his stateside friends with Craigslist and eBay cars that fall right in our respective wheelhouses.

Some of us get a pile of early Z cars every Wednesday, while others are burdened with pre- and post- war American iron or Z31s in various states of disarray. He even drags out a few 911-derivatives and track toys to tempt himself with. Lately, he’s decided that my ’79 Prelude LeMons project needs a pretty bookend, so he throws every half-assed first gen ‘lude he finds at me. A very, very nice ’79 came along in Minnesota, but the seller turned out to be typical Craigslist flake, and he wound up selling the car to someone else for less than I was offering because he wasn’t sure how to sell a car to an out of state buyer. After that sadness, my man Mental tossed me an ’81 convertible that I’m sure he discovered on the Grassroots Motorsports forum. I looked at the Craigslist ad, determined that the car might be a real Solaire, and set about making the purchase.

I sent the seller a text message on Monday morning, asking if he had more recent pictures of the car. In the ad, the car is very dusty and has clearly been stored for quite a while. The ad also mentioned that the car has been cleaned since the pictures, and that the paint is shiny. He told me that he’d send me pics after work, so I waited. Three days later, I still didn’t have the pics, so I checked to see if the ad is still there, assuming that someone has beat me to it. The ad remained, but I got distracted by other matters and didn’t follow up.

Friday morning, a local Honda dealer called me looking for a “convertible Honda” and it put this car back in the front of my mind. The dealer was actually looking for an older S-car, so I gave him a couple general places to look, and decided to call the Prelude seller. The seller was out of state, at a sudden funeral, but his father would be able to handle the sale. I got in touch with the father and arranged to meet him at the car on Sunday.


“HAS BEEN PARKED 2 YEARS OR SO DOES RUN WELL DID AT TIME OF PARKING IT”

Early Sunday morning, I loaded up BEV (my Big Effin’ Van, a long and tall ’05 Dodge Sprinter) and headed six hours south with shop friend and LeMons co-conspirator/TapeR owner Chris LowFlyin’ Mills. I hadn’t pulled a trailer through Dallas in over a decade since I stopped going to the Texas Heatwave truck show, and I was amazed at how little progress they’ve made on I-35E in the interim. I was also continually amazed at how willing other drivers are to ride along directly beside a car trailer at highway speeds in a narrowed two lane construction zone that is lined with Jersey Barriers.

I got to the Prelude’s resting place and called the seller’s father. A few minutes later he arrived and we traipsed back to the car. The car in the ad, covered in dust and dragged from a shed, is a better car than the one I am currently looking at. This car has sat, for probably two years, with the top down and an aluminum camper shell covering what’s left of the interior. We pulled back the suspiciously new-looking cloth car cover that’s draped over everything, and lifted off the S-10 sized topper. A swarm of mosquitoes and the stench of decaying duct tape assaulted us. I started picking over the bits and pieces, trying to verify if the car is truly a Solaire. The bodywork around the header and boot looked better than the average beer-fueled teenaged summer bad idea project, the rear seat bucket is a well built piece, and the end caps for the door scrapers match the brochure. On the other hand, the header pins have torn out of the fiberglass bow and have been replaced by a pair of 12mm bolts with their heads cut off, and the original hasps have morphed into something you might find at your local Tractor Supply Company. There were a handful of dodgy repairs made throughout the top frame, and the top itself was thoroughly ruined.


“TOP IS STILL WORKING AND CAN BE REPAIRED AT TORN AREAS”

Having determined the car is likely a real Solaire, I started looking over the rest of it. Just as the ad promised a working top that could be patched, it also promised shiny paint. Neither of those promises were kept. Solaire’s conversion was built to withstand the Honda warranty, and that necessitated a nearly complete repaint of the car to patch in the body work done at the decapitation sites. Solaire also claims to reinforce the remaining tub, though it is somewhat unclear as to what that reinforcement actually consists of. Most of the car was still painted, but the paint was checked, flaking, and crazed. The “clean interior” was as much of a false promise as the top and the paint, with several split seams and aged adhesive from duct tape jobs of years past. Hoping for the standard used car treasure trove of peeling sound deadening, rust, and mouse turds ultra rare baubles in the trunk, I tried the interior trunk release, to no avail. I pulled the key from the ignition and found that it wasn’t working in the trunk either. I guessed the latch was seized, and that means the whole top (or the top hole) has to be removed to gain access. Just for grins, I tried the key in the other locks in the car, and it didn’t work there, either.


“SUPER CLEAN INTERIOR”
(photo courtesy Chris ‘LowFlyin’ Mills)

I was beginning to think this was going to go O-for when I managed to get the broken hood release to function. I opened the front-hinged hood and poked about. When I spoke to the seller, he mentioned that he’d had the carb reworked, and sure enough, it was reasonably clean in the holes. I reconnected the half dozen vacuum and electrical bits that were loose and hooked a jumpbox to the battery cables. Mills turned the key, and while the lights did their standard dance, the starter was unwilling to sing its song. A few minutes of jiggles resulted in a wire being strung between the jump box and the starter trigger. To our amazement, the car fired right off. We shut it down, just as quickly, to keep from loading any more aged gasoline into it than necessary.

The starter was a reman unit, the transmission had salvage yard marks, but the pedals and shifter all seemed to be doing their jobs. This leaves me with a very rough, but running and possibly driving one-of-a-hundred car. Much worse than its ad suggests, but not a total lost cause.

If you’ve ever tried to buy a bigger ticket item off Craigslist, you’ll recognize the next few steps, assuming you were actually able to get the seller to meet you in the first place. The ad lists a negotiable price and a condition, the item falls far short of the condition listed, and the seller is hesitant to actually negotiate. I got the joy of adding a half-interested broker to the mix.

I mentioned that the ad said the price was negotiable, and the broker (the seller’s father) implied that I’d have to deal with the seller, since he’s unaware. I tried to call the seller, and ended up leaving a message. His dad suggested that he might be able to get a faster response, so I made an offer of half of asking, since the car is in such bad shape compared to the listing. Dad was also unable to get a response, but admitted that he was allowed to sell for three quarters of asking.

I chalked that up as the last falsehood I was willing to hear, and I told him that I’d be in town for a while getting fuel and if he heard from the seller before I got too far out of town, I would probably turn around. Six hours later, I was home.

I’ve wanted a first gen prelude for a weekend driver for most of my adult life. I had a very rare version of one within my grasp. My 1967 Honda LN360 has taught me that Rare Does Not Equal Valuable, so I decided it wasn’t worth it. I will admit that I remain torn. The listing is still there, however, and the asking price has even been lowered about 10%. Maybe, just maybe, if the car is still around in a couple weeks, I’ll head south again.

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19 Comments on “(Not A) Capsule Review: Prelude Solaire Convertible...”


  • avatar
    bunkie

    Just wanted to point out that the GM X-body cars (1980 models) came with 4×10″ rear deck speakers (the first of their kind) and a vertical radio not unlike that of the original Stingray. Neither of which were replaceable on the aftermarket. In fact, the aftermarket industry association filed a restraint-of-trade complaint against GM with the FTC over this.

    • 0 avatar
      psychoboy

      I’d forgotten about the X-body. I was thinking about the 86.5 and newer C-K trucks.

      At least Honda learned their lesson in less than two years. The radio-lette proved so unpopular, it’s hard to find a car that actually had one installed and the 81 prelude returned to a more conventional layout as seen in the pics of the ‘vert. That silver plate in the middle of the dash is where the radio ought to be in the later half of the generation.

    • 0 avatar
      ChiefPontiaxe

      My 1978 Olds Cutlass had 4×10 speakers on the rear deck- it was very tough to find replacements. Crutchfield made an adapter so you could fit a 6×9 in there.

      • 0 avatar
        MRF 95 T-Bird

        My 70 Mustang like many Fords had 6 x 8 cutouts in the rear deck. When I installed a stereo I had to do some trimming and fit some 6 x 9′s in from above.

  • avatar

    “Lowflyin’?” “psychoboy?” “Mental?” What kind of jolly band of pirates do you associate with?

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    Friend of a friend had one of these, bought in Atlanta used in the mid-late 80s with about 80K miles. He offered it to me a couple years later. I had a brand-new Acura Integra at the time, which had none of the performance shortcomings of a first-gen Praalude, so I passed. Hadn’t even thought of it again until now. These were really pretty forgettable cars.

    What do you suppose one in decent condition is worth?

    • 0 avatar
      psychoboy

      The very nice ’79 I didn’t buy last month sold for $1500 in August, and for $2500 in October, and could probably bring $3000 or better at a classic Japanese show. It was supremely nice.

      Most of the 79-80s are in that range, the 81-82s are about a grand lower.

      • 0 avatar
        SteveMar

        Picked up an ’82 Prelude last year in Minnesota in close to mint condition. Was a California car that had never seen a flake of snow — paint is still shiny and, with the exception of slight dry rot on the back bucket seats, the interior is immaculate. Have always liked these cars and remembered them from my early teen years. It’s not a high performance car, but, even with an automatic, I do just fine on freeways and merging. It’s my summer driver and I get at least 3-4 comments a week from folks who remember these cars and haven’t seen one since the early Clinton administration.

        Will it ever be a top priced collectible? I doubt it. But it’s actually more fun than you’d expect to scoot around in — handles sharp, low weight, rides fine — couldn’t ask for more in a first foray into collector land.

  • avatar
    kmoney

    Lovin that tachometer. The whole interior of this car looks very well put together given its price point and the period it came out in…

  • avatar
    cheapthrills

    I know the feeling of walking away from a deal like that. You did the right thing. You’d be missing that insane pre-81 interior, which is arguably the car’s coolest feature. Once a car has been inundated with half-assed repairs (like chopping the heads off of the pin bolts), the work required to bring it back to snuff increases exponentially: instead of repairing things that were neglected, you are repairing things that were ruined.

    So when you look back and think, “What if I had bought that Solaire?” Don’t think of cruising around in a mint condition ‘Lude convertible. Instead, imagine the agony of trying to source unobtainable parts, chasing ghost problems, and dumping far too much money into a car that is only viewed as a frumpy curiosity by most. You have saved yourself from a true Project Car Hell.*

    *Trademark 2007 Murilee Martin

  • avatar
    andy2346

    I know more about my car today than the day I bought it in 1979

  • avatar
    Dan R

    Walk away, don’t look back.
    it will break your heart and your wallet.
    Plus the exterior is as ugly as sin, definitely not an improvement over the regular car.

  • avatar
    snakebit

    First of all, take the ‘cheapthrills’ comment, blow up the size and mount it wherever your phone is, so that any time you get the whim to call Craigslist about this car, you’ll be stopped in your tracks.

    If instead you’re planning to ignore our advice, and want to keep after the seller of this ‘Lude, do yourself a favor and give the Samaritans a heads up, ’cause you’re going to be major unhappy with this sled.

    During the end of 1982, I started working for an Oregon Honda dealer, and we had a new 1982 Prelude convertible in the showroom, it turned out, for about 16 months with no takers. This in an era when we and pretty much every other dealer were out of new cars for 28 out of 30 days each month, everything was pre-sold and had waiting lists.

    I think part of the problem selling this car was evidence that the conversion wasn’t up to the Honda standards of the rest of the car, and another factor was that we weren’t taking anymore allocation of 1982 Preludes because many of our customers knew the upcoming 1983 Prelude was going to be a Celica-killer, and were gladly waiting for it to arrive. To be completely fair to Toyota, they had no trouble in our area selling Celicas, it was a great time for sports coupes.

    This drop top Prelude is a bridge jump waiting to happen.

    This is solely my opinion, but farming out convertible conversions never ends well for carmakers. I’m thinking of the various Toyotas(Solara, Paseo, Sundowner(sorry,Jack Griffith) and 1982-93 Mustang. The first time I drove the new ’94 Mustang convertible when it came out, I thought,
    ‘wow, Ford really designed this from the getgo to drop the top, it’s so sweet compared to last year’.

    • 0 avatar
      psychoboy

      If that car was an ’82 model (not a holdover ’81), it wasn’t a Solaire, and yes, most of the other conversions I seen were sketchy, to say the least.

      The Solaire car was expected to live by Honda’s warranty, and even in the early 80s, Honda didn’t mess around when it came to NVH and paint concerns. Solaire’s conversion involved a fair amount of metal work around the edges, something I’ve not seen in many other converted cars.

      But, as many others have noted, it’s a hen’s tooth car, especially when the impossible-to-source parts are the majority of the car’s real issues. I could probably spend the next two lifetimes chasing bits and pieces and never really get it up to snuff.

  • avatar
    Redshift

    Very cool car. I had no idea those even existed. Hard to walk away from something so unique, but, if the price and condition were wrong, so be it.

    There was a 1980 Prelude that was converted to mid-engine that raced local to me for the better part of 20 years. Was very cool.
    Got sold for a steal of a price 7 or 8 years ago. Kind of regret not buying it when I had a chance. Person who bought it flipped it for a multiple of what he paid out of province not much later and I don’t think it’s been seen since.

  • avatar
    Zykotec

    Another ‘Zyko’ who likes the 1st gen Preludes here.
    And there is a pretty decent 1982 (with a roof) for sale cheaply ,less than 10 miles from here. With rust-issues (offcourse), but otherwise complete and well-kept(110.000miles in 30 years). I had almost decided not to go look at it, but now I want it even more XD


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