Religion, especially its more cult-like forms, can inspire people to do stupid things. Mine recently compelled me to place a sizable wager on the reliability of a 29-year-old Honda, on forecasts of unseasonably decent weather, on online friendships, and on other, even more questionable things.
I bought a rare 1987 Honda CRX Si convertible (by Straman) sight unseen and drove it in December from Phoenix to Detroit. This is how I did it, why I did it, and what I learned from it.
Sure, I test drove a first-gen Honda CRX Si before buying one; people who don’t test drive a car before buying it are fools. But that test drive occurred in 1985, and that car had not been de-roofed by Straman.
So when I bought a one-way ticket from Detroit to Phoenix, to return top-down via the scenic route, no Plan B, I was also betting on the craftsmanship of a 1980s California coachworks, on the accuracy and current validity of 30-year-old memories, and against the many deleterious effects of seven Civic-generations of time.
How stupid did this wager turn out to be? Did my faith survive?
The story of my faith and the wager it compelled begins with my first car, a 1981 Citation X-11. Yes, despite what you might have read, the answer is sometimes “Chevrolet Citation.” The question, circa-1983, was “What car is made by Detroit (blame post-malaise patriotism), fun to drive (according to Car and Driver), and sufficiently practical to gain parental approval?”
The buff book wasn’t wrong. The X-11 was fun. Nevertheless, under C&D’s continuing influence, my eyes wandered.
In April 1985, Csaba Csere praised the CRX Si. To the Honda dealer I went. As I tossed the tiny hatch through curves at all the speed its 185/60R14s could handle, the heavens parted and I saw the light. (In the movie, the angelic form of Colin Chapman will make a cameo.)
Afterwards, the Citation X-11 felt like the relatively large, relatively heavy, absolutely blunt instrument it was. Yet my continuing loyalty to Detroit wouldn’t abide a Honda.
In 2004 I founded TrueDelta, which draws on car owner experiences to provide reliability statistics, among other things. We get emails. A couple years ago, a member sent photos of his 1987 CRX Si. It had been purchased new for his daughter. She had had the top cut off. Then the U.S. Air Force transferred her to Alaska, prompting them to exchange cars.
He’d been driving it since. My reply: “If it disappears from your driveway...I didn’t do it!” But Gerry wasn’t selling.
I’d forgotten that convertible CRXs even existed. Maybe I’d never known. Car and Driver hadn’t blessed any such hatchet job. (Given a CRX, they merely stuffed a second engine into it.) Instead, Road & Track, subscribed to by the X1/9-driving septuagenarian next door, tested the CRX and thought, “This would be even better without a roof.” Ever seeking to make a case for flyweight roadsters, then all but extinct, they had their buddies down the road at R. Straman Coachworks do the deed.
Straman, which usually meddled with Ferraris and the like, didn’t just Sawzall the roof and call it a day. They fabricated handsome rear quarters and reinforced the underbody. They then offered to do the same for anyone willing to provide a CRX and $4,995. More than half as much as the car itself, the deed might have been dirty (given how enthusiasts revere the CRX), but it wasn’t done dirt cheap.
Jump forward two years. I get another email from Gerry. Circumstances have changed. He doesn’t want to sell the car, but it no longer makes sense for him to keep it. Am I still interested?
Am I?, I wondered. Car people have a bad habit of saying “I’d buy that,” then misplacing their checkbooks when the opportunity actually arises. My initial inclination: be one of those people.
I wanted a first-generation CRX, but not while living in suburban Detroit with three teenage kids and a Mazda RX-8. It made zero sense to buy a second car I couldn’t drive four months a year (for fear of salt more than ice) and the rest of the family couldn’t drive ever (they’re sadly third pedal-averse.)
So I posted the pics on my Facebook page and asked, “Anyone interested?” Some people were. Others told me I’d be crazy NOT to buy it. Pressured by my peers, I became the guy who says, “Who wants to buy this?,” then, once enough people express interest, buys it himself.
One online friend told me, “You HAVE to do it. If you’re not going to, I’d certainly expect an email (and some help picking it up for myself).” Well... I was the one who needed such help. Greg, who operates Nissan-Infiniti enthusiast site NICOclub.com, assumed the car was near me, in Michigan. It was actually just a few miles from him, in Arizona.
Given his proximity and his expert knowledge of old Japanese metal, could he inspect the Honda for me? Sure! I’d also have a lift from PHX and a place to stay.
Greg gave Gerry’s CRX his blessing. I spoke with the shop that had been servicing it. They confirmed it had been very thoroughly maintained. I mailed a deposit and bought one-way airfare.
Doubts remained, and about more than this particular car. In the three decades since my worldview-altering test drive, cars have evolved in the opposite direction, adding ever more power, features, and weight. Despite (or due to) this trend, I’ve continued to evangelize the traditional sports car creed of minimal equipment, unfiltered steering, and agile handling. (This doesn’t yield many gushing new car reviews.)
The 1987 CRX Si certainly had minimal equipment: no ABS, no airbags, and (aside from the brakes) no power anything. But it’s a 1987 car (with 154,000 miles) in a 2016 world.
Would the unassisted steering feel communicative and sharp, or sloppy and old? Would the rudimentary front strut, rear beam suspension feel agile and precise, or crude and hopelessly dated? I’d evaluated a fresh-off-the-boat 1985 CRX Si against other 1985 cars. Steering and suspension technology have advanced since then. How many times have the car magazines reported that the new new thing is far better than the previously praised previous new thing? Between then and now, the Civic has gone under the knife seven times.
Plus this particular CRX Si had gone under the knife once. How good was Straman’s craftsmanship, really? Mid-80s standards for torsional rigidity in convertibles are laughably pitiful. Put one wheel on a curb, and the body of at least one OEM offering twisted so much you couldn’t latch the top. Straman had a low bar to clear to warrant the contemporary praise.
Plus the elephant in the room. There’s an obvious answer to “minimalist lightweight roadster for $5k,” and it’s not “1987 Straman CRX Si.” Wouldn’t a decade-plus newer, engineered-topless, double-cammed, double-wishboned Mazda Miata be a much smarter way to put my faith into works? No need to fly then drive across the continent on short notice—in December—either. Miatas can be bought anytime, anywhere.
Ah, but there’s a flip side to being the obvious answer. I’m the only believer in “simplify and add lightness” who hasn’t already owned a Miata. While driving a Miata is far from boring, the idea of owning one is.
The car in question isn’t nearly so common. Straman claimed to have converted 301 CRXs, but the serial numbers stamped into the roof frames stop at 127. Only seven of these are known to have been the fuel-injected Si. (Few people were willing to buy a power sunroof and rear wiper for the cutting room floor.)
The yellow paint renders a rare car one-of-a-kind. Honda didn’t offer yellow until the 2G CRX. Gerry feared that silver didn’t render the tiny car sufficiently visible in traffic. The grade-B (at best) repaint no doubt detracts from the Honda’s value, but it’s the car’s only safety feature.
The Straman CRX has some spec sheet advantages. Compared to an NB Miata, the Straman is about ten inches shorter (144.6), two inches narrower (63.9), and 300 pounds lighter (2,000, maybe less). Yet it has more space for both people and cargo. Finally, the CRX Si, not the Miata, is the car that converted me to Chapmanism.
That elephant felled, I fly to Phoenix.
Moment of truth. Do I actually like the car? A glance finds yellow some places it shouldn’t be, and silver peeking through in others. But I’ve been told (many times) that I get hung up on details, so I let this slide.
Can I take it for a test drive? Of course! But it hasn’t been started since September.
Didn’t Greg drive it? Nah, he just looked it over. It cranked right away. Out on the road, does the CRX feel amazing? No. Does it feel awful?
The engine revs smoothly. The steering has just a touch of slop on center, but doesn’t feel especially lively. On the other hand, the wheel only feels heavy at very low speeds. Otherwise, quite light. Gerry wasn’t sure which tires were on the car. They are BF Goodrich g-Force Super Sports, hardly hardcore by current standards but far stickier than whatever was originally fitted. Sideways won’t be happening nearly as readily.
The car rattles. Because old car. The seat in its full upright position isn’t upright enough. Because 1980s seat. The instrument panel is around the level of my navel. Because 1980s Honda. In sharp contrast to virtually any current car, I’d like it higher.
Though still unsure this is the right decision, I return to Gerry’s, buy the CRX, as I said I would do, and disappear it from his driveway, as I said I wouldn’t.
I leave Greg’s pickup behind. To retrieve it, can we drive one of your Datsuns? Sure! Only those in the shop won’t crank. I realize why Greg didn’t bother to actually drive the CRX. Compared to what he’s used to, it’s clearly a dependable car. We end up taking an RB25DET-powered 1972 Z. Bipolar engine, rear-drive, no stability control, not my car, owner who has been extremely helpful in the passenger seat—I take it easy.
Back at Greg’s, I plan the first leg of the route back. Gerry kept the CRX nearly rust-free for three decades. (He thought it was completely rust-free, but this isn’t quite the case.) I’m not going to expose the car to road salt.
The easy solution: ship it. Boring. The next easiest: take I-10. Also boring. I’d last visited the Southwest during a 160-day lap of the continent in 1989. I’d been longing to visit the area again.
Thanks to unseasonably warm weather, here is my opportunity. Daytime temperatures in northern Arizona and New Mexico are forecast to be in the 40s and 50s (depending on elevation). But not for long.
With only ten hours of daylight to work with, an aspect of December not subject to variation, I’d have to keep ahead of a severe cold front all the way across the mountains.
A nearly three-decade-old car. No special prep. Actually, no prep at all. Just get in and drive across the country, top-down, in December. I was going to give the Straman CRX Si the kind of long-term test the magazines would never have subjected it to.
In Part 2: Canyons and monuments.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a provider of car comparisons, including reliability stats, pricing, and specs.