Welcome to a new occasional series at Jalopnik, one that I promise will get new installments with the most rigorous erraticability I can muster. This series is called Ghost Cars, and the point is to feature cars that were once fairly commonplace but are now just about extinct. Gone. Almost erased from history. This is our place to remember these cars, fondly or otherwise, and keep them alive in our memories. We’re starting this off with a genuine charmer: the first-generation Honda Prelude.
When I was growing up, you’d see these Preludes on a near-daily basis, and yet today, where I live, I’m far more likely to see a Citroën 2CV in town (in a country that never actually imported 2CVs) than I am a first-gen Prelude, which is, objectively, bonkers.
Honda sold about 171,829 Preludes in the first generation, from 1978 to 1982. Those are decent numbers, yet I can’t remember the last time I laid eyes on one, which is why they make for an ideal Ghost Car.
The other reason I think they make an ideal start to this Ghost Car series is that that first Prelude is a car I genuinely enjoy thinking about, because it’s a car that has a unique and oddly quiet sort of charm about it, a particular mix of style, sensibility, and quality, all without any idiotic pretention, a package that is more difficult to replicate than you’d think.
Essentially, that first Prelude was the Accord’s cooler, slightly more athletic brother. Back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, being related in any way to the Honda Accord was a big deal, as it was one of the best-selling cars in America and a symbol of the ascendancy of Japanese cars.
It was mayb Honda’s more subtle response to the Toyota Celica, and it’s even said that Toyota had trademarked the name, but let Honda have it, just because sometimes even corporations can be cool about things, I suppose.
Accords were everywhere. My own family had a red 1980 Accord four-door sedan, complete with a funny little trunk rack with wooden slats that my mom used to rub linseed oil into.
The Prelude was to the Accord what the original Ford Mustang was to the Ford Falcon; same basic drivetrain and suspension and brakes and all that, but dressed up in a smaller coupé body. In the case of the Prelude, that body was on a wheelbase only about two and a half inches shorter than the Accord, but it was still under 2000 pounds, so the Accord’s 1.7-liter inline-four engine’s 72 horses were enough to make it seem peppy, at least late ‘70s-peppy.
Mechanically, it was rock solid, and with a manual it was even fun. At first the auto option was a ‘50s-GM-like two-speed, but the Hondamatic three-speed soon replaced that fossil.
It’s the styling of this first Prelude that really draws me in, I think. It’s working with the Honda design vocabulary of the era, which is an interesting one, because while the overall effect is quite clean, it’s actually full of careful, maybe even fussy little details.
The body is an assortment of creases and little folds, boxy yet with plenty of edge-softening champfers, grooves with chrome or rubber beading inside—it’s a lot of detail, giving the look an almost, um, haberdashery feel too it?
You know what I mean? It feels like tailored clothing, somehow, if that makes sense. I love it.
A few well-chosen details did break with the usual Honda design language, though, like the sporty honeycomb grille, the novel shape of the taillights with their chopped corner and (in the earliest ones) the contrasting round inset reflector, and, perhaps most odd, Honda didn’t go to their parts bin for the door handles, but rather selected one of those big-square-flap Class 10 handles, the sort you’d see on makes like AMC, Lotus and Austin.
The overall proportions were classic sports-coupé, with a longish hood and a shortish rear, a relatively low greenhouse, and relatively large wheelarches. It just looked good!
That one in the picture there has some JDM-only options, like the wing mirrors and the rear wiper, which just makes it even cooler, I think.
The good-details theme continued in the interior, where Honda once again declined to just slap in an Accord instrument cluster and instead gave the Prelude this really cool and space-efficient setup with a tach inset into the speedo, and all of the idiot lights arranged in a central monolith there.
Like everything else on these Preludes, it was novel and clever and tasteful.
That first Prelude was something interesting, something that, while not entirely gone today, certainly isn’t common. Honda knew what this concept was at the time, and even used it in commercials, like this one, narrated by noted fictional boxer Rocky Balboa’s trainer:
A sports car for grown-ups. That’s a pretty good way to put it. It was a sporty car for people who didn’t have to prove shit to anyone, because they knew what they liked, what they thought was cool, and if you disagreed, they’d lose not one wink of sleep.
A sports car for non-dipshits. It’s a compelling idea, and Honda realized it with real grace and style.
And today, these first-gen Preludes are rare as hell. I’ve seen more DKWs in the past decade than these Preludes, which somehow never managed to amass a real collector following. I bet a really nice survivor today would be a really delightful car to own, and I bet it wouldn’t even cost all that much.
If you could find one, of course. This is a ghost car, after all.