Flying from Detroit to Phoenix to buy a 1987 Straman CRX Si, then driving the car back, had allowed me to revisit the red rock canyons of Arizona and the mountains of New Mexico for the first time in over a quarter-century. To the east lay more familiar territory populated with friends and family, both for me and the car. Might some fun be had?
At Cimmaron, the mountains end and the high plains begin. I’m soon cruising in the 70s and finding the car plenty stable. What a difference a few days have made.
In the middle of nowhere I briefly press the Straman CRX Si to 101. Experiment complete with no rod through the block, I glide back to a quasi-legal speed. Surprise, surprise, surprise, blue lights flash in the distance. A sheriff in an F-150, patrolling the middle of nowhere (the census found only 35 people in the nearest town), has pulled somebody over. I’m grateful that somebody is not me.
A post-dusk dash across the Texas Panhandle on U.S. 87 and TX-152 proves the most ill-advised and downright terrifying part of the trip. The road could not be straighter. But it’s dark, there could be large fauna, there are onrushing trucks just a few feet to my left, and the speed limit is 75 mph. Yes, while 65 mph remains the peak speed limit on limited-access Interstate highways in quite a few eastern states, Texas suggests 75 mph on undivided two-lanes.
I have mixed feelings about the speed limit: very good for getting quickly across the Pandhandle, but any contact and you can stick forks in both the CRX and me. Scary stuff. This is not the place to be driving a flyweight old car that would miserably fail any recent crash test. Rollover protection? Zero.
I should stop. I press on. At Elk City I happily take the Interstate I’ve been avoiding the rest of the way to Oklahoma City, checking into a La Quinta well worth Hotwire’s $53 at 10:45. (Why Hotwire? Its prices are just a little higher than Priceline’s, with much less work—no bidding—and more clues about what you’ll end up with.)
The next morning I wake just before dawn and briefly pay my respects at the memorial on the way out of OKC. I’d visit longer, but it’s drizzly.
I-40 is, no surprise, painfully boring. Soon after crossing into Arkansas, though, I exit and head north.
My wife is from Arkansas. I’ve always wanted to explore the two-lanes of the Ozarks but, owing to three offspring, we’re always in the family truckster when visiting the state. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. I risked life, limb, and car hustling across the Panhandle last night to maximize my time here.
The Ozarks justify that risk, reminding me more than a little of West Virginia (a fantastic driving state). Some curves are marked on both sides, they’re so concerned you’ll overcook them.
With more oxygen to work with than in the Rockies, the CRX’s 1.5-liter engine gleefully provides all the thrust I need to thoroughly explore the potential of its chassis. With such tight curves and a nimble one-ton roadster, there’s no need for triple-digit horsepower. I catch a column of cars trapped behind a truck. Joining them would waste a good road. I turn around and run this section of AR-23 twice more, only to catch them again. I’m relieved when they soon turn off.
The fuel gauge says I need gas. In Huntsville, the Garmin (which has also been serving as a head-up speedometer; the CRX’s instrument panel is crazy low) guides me up a narrow winding road (the car’s favorite type) to the top of a hill. There I find an empty fair grounds but no gas station. I continue down the other side of the hill and spy the Shell. After 1,500 miles it’s also time to add a quart of oil; not too bad for an engine with 155,000 miles on it.
Topped up with fuel and oil, I catch AR-74 east. Very empty, very fun. The CRX Si sings and dances through the curves, its engine and steering wheel seemingly alive. Then AR-21 almost all the way back to I-40. Nearly as empty, also a hoot. Then, because it looked extra-curvy on Google Maps (much of my route was selected by looking for curves on Google Maps), I take AR-123 even though it heads in the wrong direction (a favor I hadn’t granted Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway). As empty as 74 and twistier, it might be the best driving road of the trip.
Just as I’m thinking “it’s a shame no car enthusiasts live close enough to enjoy this road,” a pair of Subaru WRX STIs tear by from the opposite direction. Maybe 123's not so secret.
The following day the rain finally catches up. I raise the roof and the top seals... don’t. Tightening the latches helps. I still drive with a towel on my lap to catch drips off the sun visor. I’m not happy. (Neither is the ex-owner when he hears I let it rain on his ex-car.)
Back on I-40, an 18-wheeler drifts a couple feet into my lane. His cab just ahead of me, I’m probably where he can’t see me. The CRX’s lone safety feature is failing. I speed up to get clear... just in time to get clocked at 14 over. Did the deputy not see the truck entering my lane? Well, I should have hit the brakes, not the accelerator, to best avoid becoming roadkill. Perhaps. I hadn’t taken the time to carefully consider all options.
At my final waypoint, in Louisville, I crash with Bob, a good friend from high school. I’d been hoping to tour the Bourbon Trail. Instead Bob and I are touring Costco. A good time to call the sheriff’s office in Arkansas and discuss that ticket? After enough back and forth that I’ve given up hoping for something that never happens, the sheriff agrees not to turn the ticket into the court. I’m surprised, delighted, and grateful.
Bob has a decent selection of bourbons. We conduct a tasting at his house. I decide I need a decent selection at my house.
The next day the CRX’s left front tire is nearly flat. Discount Tire in the area? No charge for simple repairs? Yes and yes. Bonus: there’s indoor karting nearby. We kart while they determine the valve stem is leaking. We could have simply inflated the tire and driven the CRX instead of Bob’s Jetta Sportwagen (TDI manual, of course). But this was an opportunity to play with tools, including an old floor jack badly in need of Viagra.
Also, Bob enjoys having my 1980s yellow Honda on a jack stand in his driveway because he knows his wife doesn’t. He has to park his 944 at a friend’s house. She doesn’t even like it there. “You can drive Bob’s car, but only if you drive it all the way to Michigan.” I enjoy that the topless CRX doesn’t flex much even with one corner on a jack stand. Straman did a good job.
Plotting the final leg, I learn that Honda recently opened a Heritage Center in Marysville, Ohio, home of its first (and still primary) North American manufacturing and engineering facilities. Normal visiting hours end at noon. I can’t get there before one. Can Honda’s PR folks get me in? They can.
A longtime TrueDelta member who lives nearby, today driving a green-and-rust 318ti he picked up for a pittance, joins me. He brings along a friend who, though a Honda engineer, hasn’t been immersed in his employer’s heritage yet.
Great stuff, including cut-aways of some milestone engines and transmissions, two Honda of America Racing Team (HART) vehicles (an NSX and an Odyssey), and a minty 1987 CRX Si (I covet its upholstery).
The CRX was made in Japan, not America. Why is it here? Apparently because American sales executives (not someone back in Tokyo) conceived the CRX as a way to achieve a 50-mpg EPA city rating. Then they added a fuel-injected Si “pocket rocket” version, which in my experience has been getting about 30 mpg.
Honda also used the CRX to experiment with plastic body panels. From my car, I know the outcome of the experiment: the panels crack very easily. Then again, I’ve been told they can be melted back together almost as easily.
On the way out, I park in front of the building. A silver-haired executive-looking fellow walks by. “We didn’t make that!”
The roads from Louisville to Marysville included a few good curves. The roads from Marysville to Detroit include none. But, an atypical December, it’s near 50 and the roads aren’t salted. Once again I’m grateful. I return home after nine days and 2,700 miles. A testament to the make’s reliability, the Honda suffered no mishaps beyond a leaking valve stem.
Honda throws a holiday party for media in downtown Detroit the following night. The air just above freezing, I take the CRX anyway. Is there really any choice? We receive good food, good music, and a sneak peak at the new Ridgeline pickup.
When I leave, some fellow auto writers walk outside with me. They want to see the Straman CRX Si. If you’ve wondered what’s the cheapest, no-worries car that will excite people who get to drive everything, you might have your answer. “This is the sort of car everyone says they would buy. Wow, you actually bought it.”
Yes, yes I did, my faith in “simplify and add lightness” survived the experience (despite Texas), and I’m feeling no regrets about this ragtop.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a provider of car comparisons, including reliability stats, pricing, and specs.