(Not A) Capsule Review: Prelude Solaire Convertible

Psychoboy
by Psychoboy

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.

Psychoboy
Psychoboy

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  • Redshift Redshift on Nov 05, 2013

    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.

  • Zykotec Zykotec on Nov 06, 2013

    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

  • Dave M. The Outback alternates between decent design and goofy design every generation. 2005 was attractive, 2010 goofy. 2015 decent. 2020 good, but the ‘23 refresh hideous.Looking forward to the Outback hybrid in ‘26…..
  • Lorenzo Subaru had the ideal wagon - in 1995. The Legacy Outback was a straight two-box design with rear quarter and back windows you could see out of, and was available in brown with a 5-speed manual, as God and TTAC commenters intended. It's nice they're not raising prices, but when you've lost the plot, does it matter?
  • Bkojote Remember a month a go when Cleveland wanted to create a more walkable Cleveland and TTAC's 'BIG GOVERNMENT IS THE PROBLEM' dumbest and dullest all collectively crapped their diapers? Here's the thing- look on any American highway and it's littered with people who don't /want/ to be driving or shouldn't be. Look at every Becky on her phone during the morning commute in her Tucson, look at every Brad aggro driving his 84 month loan GMC. Hell look how many drivers nowadays can't even operate a headlight switch. You expect these people to understand a stoplight? In my neighborhood alone 4 people have been rear ended at lights from someone on their phone. Distracted driving over the past 10 years has spiked, and it's only going to get worse unless Becky has an alternative, because no judge is going to pull her license when 'she needs it to get to work!' but heaven forbid she not check fb/tiktok for 40 minutes a day.
  • Scott Shouldn't the The Italian Minister for Business be criticizing The Milano for being too ugly to be Italian?Better use of resources doing that....
  • Steve Biro Frankly, while I can do without Eyesight and automatic start-stop, there is generally less B-S with Subarus in terms of design, utility and off-road chops than with many other brands. I just hope that when they adopt Toyota’s hybrid system, they’ll also use Toyota’s eCVT.
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