Curbside Classic: 1981 Honda Prelude

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic 1981 honda prelude

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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  • Geo Geo on Mar 31, 2010

    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!

  • Moparman426W Moparman426W on Apr 02, 2010

    "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.

  • Lou_BC Once again, Mustang is the last pony car standing. Camaro RIP, Challenger RIP.
  • FreedMike Next up should DEFINITELY be the Cadillac Eldorado. On the subject of Caddies, I saw a Lyriq in person for the first time a couple of days ago, and I'm changing my tune on its' styling. In person, it works quite well, and the interior is very nicely executed.
  • Probert Sorry to disappoint: any list. of articles with a 1 second google search. It's a tough world out there - but you can do it!!!!!!
  • ToolGuy "We're marking the anniversary of the time Robert Farago started the GM death watch and called for the company to die."• No, we aren't. Robert Farago wrote that in April 2005. It was reposted in 2009 on the eve of the actual bankruptcy filing.The byline dates are sometimes strange/off with the site revisions (and the 'this is a repost' note got lost), but the date string in the link is correct (...2005/04...). Posting about GM bankruptcy in 2005 was a slightly more difficult call than doing it in 2009.-- The Truth About Calendars
  • Kat Laneaux Agree with Michael500, we wasted all that money just to bail out GM and they are developing these cars in China and other countries. What the heck. I understand the cheap labor but that is just another foothold the government has on their citizens and they already treat them like crap. That is pretty disgusting to go forward to put other peoples health and mental stability on a crazy crazed, control freak, leader, who is in bed with Russia. Thought about getting a buick but that just shot that one out of the park. All of this for the greed. They get what they lay in bed with. Disgusting.