1981 Prelude – Honda’s First-Generation Sporty Coupe

Much like a very fine and well-aged wine, the first-generation Honda Prelude of 1978-1983 has grown on me. That’s saying a lot, given my longstanding love affair with 1980s V-8 muscle cars. And I have to admit I am now thoroughly embarrassed with myself for deriding these very fine, albeit somewhat soberly styled cars back in the day as the “Quaalude,” a dark nod to the barbiturate-like depressants commonly abused by rock stars. I guess it must have been due to the fact that Preludes were marketed to value- and efficiency-conscious new-car buyers in the wake of two energy supply crises in the 1970s and the painful recession of the early 1980s in the wake of U.S. Fed Chairman Paul Volcker’s full-throttle high interest rate policy. Snooze, I thought. Wisdom and 20/20 hindsight gained over the intervening years has taught me I was wrong, very wrong, about these well-equipped and relatively economical driving machines.

A super clean former California car, according to the seller. All Images for this vehicle are courtesy of www.autotrader.ca

From introduction in 1978, Prelude was a staple model in Japanese automaker Honda’s product line that saw five distinct evolutions through the model’s retirement in 2001 with the advent of the 4th-generation Integra from Honda’s upper-tier Acura marque. Interestingly, the Prelude name was originally trademarked by competitor Toyota, but was amicably given to Honda for use. The music-themed Prelude nameplate was but one Honda used at the time, along with the Accord and lesser-known Quintet, Concerto, Jazz, and Ballade for the Japanese home market.

Loosely based on the mid-size Accord, the Prelude’s specifications were leading-edge, including the four-wheel independent struts, brakes, and engine sourced from the first-generation Accord, but mounted to an all-new, purpose-built chassis developed by Honda chief engineer Hiroshi Kizawa. Low, wide, and carrying a 2,320 mm wheelbase, 60 mm shorter than that of the original Accord, the new Prelude was quite handsomely styled with a long hood and short rear deck, with comfortable bucket seats up front and occasional rear-seat occupants. Generous standard features were part of the Prelude’s charms, with it and its Accord stablemate the first cars under two liters equipped with standard power steering. The Prelude was also the first Honda to offer a glass-top power moonroof as standard equipment, while Japanese buyers received a sliding metal sunroof. Other desirable standard features included with the Prelude included intermittent windshield wipers, tinted glass, and a convenient remote trunk release.

The Prelude’s standard engine for most markets at introduction was the “EL” SOHC eight-valve inline 4-cylinder unit, displacing 1,602 cc and equipped with a two-barrel carburetor and manual choke, succeeded by September 1978 with the larger and more-powerful “EK” SOHC 12-valve 1,751 cc CVCC inline-four introduced in Japan. American buyers had to wait until March 1979 for the Prelude to appear in the United States, with 72 hp on tap from the U.S.-spec 1.8-liter “EK” powerplant, which included an engine oil cooler and transistor-controlled ignition system. Transmission choices for the front-wheel drive Prelude were a standard five-speed manual or the two-speed “Hondamatic” semi-automatic, which was succeeded by October 1979 with a three-speed automatic that used top gear as the overdrive.

Once available in the United States, the Prelude received favorable reviews. among the car’s proponents was Car and Driver magazine’s Brock Yates, who extoled the Honda’s quality construction, good performance, sporty handling, and miserly fuel consumption. Further updates included introduction of Honda’s new CVCC-II engine, which featured catalytic converter and a host of other refinements yielding improved drivability. A mild facelift came for 1981, including a welcome return to a more traditional dashboard layout, plus a new grille and the addition of a stainless-steel trim strip along the bumpers and side moldings. In all, 313,000 Preludes were manufactured by Honda from 1978 to 1982, with 80 per cent of them sold outside of Japan.

A very solid offering throughout its first-generation run, the Prelude enjoyed strong buyer interest and high resale values in the secondary market during the 1980s. While I was unimpressed, I did see the wisdom of Prelude ownership, with several friends and acquaintances owning one at the time, while I stuck to V-8 pickup trucks and American performance cars. Today, sales of first-generation Preludes are few and far between, and all in the sub-$10K range, with original, high-quality examples occupying the higher ground. While perusing my daily Auto Trader email blast a few weeks ago, I spotted the sweet 1981 Honda Prelude pictured in this post. While details are few, this automatic-transmission car is reported by the seller to have been a California car – a desirable past, to be sure. This Prelude also appears to sport the same Bronze/Red color combination of the car featured in Honda’s North American TV advertisements. I’ll have to do some research on the actual names for our featured car’s livery; however, brochures and technical information is sorely lacking on the internet. According to the seller’s online listing, the car has travelled the equivalent of 118,000 kilometers or 73,322 miles. Representing an unusual find and looking very good throughout, it will likely offer a fun experience and draw plenty of admiration from those who see it.

It’s located in London, Ontario and if it’s still available, you’ll find it here for $9,995

The 1981 Honda Prelude TV ad stressed the vehicle’s sporty looks and high level of standard equipment and features, including the power moonroof, standard for lucky North American buyers. The 30-second spot also highlighted Honda simplicity and value for the money.