I’d badly wanted a Honda CRX Si ever since test driving one back in 1985. I’ve also been wanting to tour the American Southwest again for nearly as long. By flying to Phoenix to buy a rare CRX sight unseen, I’d accomplished the first goal. My new car wasn’t just any CRX, but one of the few fuel-injected Si’s that had been transformed into a convertible by Straman.
By driving the 1987 Straman CRX Si back to Detroit via the scenic route, I could also accomplish the second.
But the 29-year-old Honda has 154,000 miles on the clock, it’s December, an impending severe cold front means I have to hit the road ASAP, no time to check the car over, and my initial drive failed to confirm that I’d even enjoy it.
Yeah, this could turn out to be a very bad idea. Only one way to find out.
The morning after buying the car, I’m on the road at 6 a.m., top down because that’s the point. (Plus it rattles too damn much when up.) The sun not yet risen, 43 degrees feels chilly. The blower for the heater vibrates the instrument panel on its highest setting. I make do with the next-highest.
Heading northwest along an arrow-straight highway at the posted 65 mph, the Straman CRX Si’s steering feels light and squirrelly. Will an inadvertent twitch take me off the road? The car’s headlights struggle to light the road ahead. I’m short on confidence. I’m not having fun.
I fill the Honda with Shell’s fancy new gas. Maybe V-Power Nitro+ is magic. Maybe it’s just better than gas that’s been in the tank for months. Afterwards the 1.5 revs more eagerly. Current fours should sound and feel this good zinging to the red line. I start feeling better about my done deal.
It’s not long before my familiarity with and confidence have increased by orders of magnitude.
As a red ball breaches the eastern horizon, I reach Wilhoit. US-89 begins to twist its way up Mingus Mountain. The CRX’s engine doesn’t have much power, but even with 154,000 miles it loves to rev, singing all the way up. I remain insecure about the rest of the car, half-expecting it to twist apart, so I initially take it easy.
But with each curve I push the CRX a little harder. It’s not long before my familiarity with and confidence have increased by orders of magnitude.
There’s some lean, but the steering firms up under load and works with the suspension to dutifully, immediately execute requests. No curves are taken sideways, but they are taken at well over the suggested speed, and I’m starting to have a blast. What a difference a little time in the seat on the right road can make.
Only three times I catch slow-moving cars, and each does something I won’t witness again: use a turnout to let me pass. Thanks to these folks, I get to cross Mingus Mountain as quickly as I feel I can. Thanks to the featherweight topless CRX, this is both quasi-legal and intense.
I’m pretty sure I passed through Jerome in 1989. Greg told me that if I had, I’d remember it, buildings sliding down mountains and such. I have no such memories. I zing my way up 89A to Jerome and... I don’t see anything I’ll remember in another 27 years. But then I don’t stop until I reach signs for the Gold King Mine Ghost Town. Clearly a tourist trap, I fall in anyway.
Old trucks line the gravel approach. I park near a modded Bug. A long gray beard ambles over. Don Robertson loves cars. He’s never seen a Straman-ized CRX.
The Bug is his. The town is his. The location used to be a gold mining town, and markets itself as such, but Don’s hoard of vintage cars and trucks (especially trucks) has become the main attraction. Don shows me some of his favorites. He has fitted a hay wagon chassis with a 1928 Studebaker school bus engine. I can’t believe it’s driveable. Don dirt tracks it. I thought the tech in my CRX was from a bygone age. I gain some perspective.
After Jerome it’s a short, easy drive to Sedona, which I can’t just pass through without stopping. I vividly recall hiking Oak Creek Canyon in the fall of 1989. But the leaves are well past changing and I don’t have time for a long hike. The trail up Cathedral Rock, under two miles but steep and quite challenging, yielding a great view, checks all my boxes.
Leaving Cathedral Rock, I exit the CRX to take a parting photo and hear a gut-wrenching crunch. I’ve just learned the hard way that the seat belt retractors are none too spry. I’ve shut the door on the buckle. A fiberglass side skirt has gained a crack.
To balance things out, I get to work on a broken HVAC vent. After what feels like a few dozen unsuccessful attempts I manage to fish the interlinked vanes out of the duct and snap them back into place. Now life can go on.
Slow-moving tourists clog 89A. I have some fun, but not nearly as much as earlier. The best stretch switchbacks out of the treed red-rock canyon. The air thinning, the CRX’s engine is good for—maybe—70 horsepower. It’s enough.
The car sings up the switchbacks to Oak Creek Vista, elevation 6,420 feet, in second and third. I take a short walk, along which Native American merchants have set up tables of turquoise-and-silver jewelry. I’m tempted to buy some for Gayla. Does my wife of 18 years like such jewelry? I can’t remember. I don’t buy. (She does, I should have.)
The vista overlooks the switchbacks. I want to drive them again. But, the sun sinking fast, I continue to Flagstaff.
For dinner I have the other sort of Indian. Highly rated, the Delhi Palace doesn’t disappoint. At the next table twentysomethings consider a three-day hike. They plan to go from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the north rim with full packs on the first day. Insane.
I’ve been wavering on whether to visit the Grand Canyon. It’s an hour north. It costs $30 to get in. Unlike my previous tour, I don’t have a virtually unlimited amount of time. I can’t stay for more than a few hours. But when will I have another opportunity? I should go. The locals provide pointers.
Back at the room I rework my route. To add the Grand Canyon and avoid I-40, I’ll take two-lane highways up into Colorado, destination Durango. Will the weather allow me to venture so high so far north? The cold front is a day behind me.
Once again I hit the road an hour before sunrise. The drive (still top down, of course) is dark, chilly, and boring, but no longer intimidating. Soon after dawn I reach the park and hand over $30.
The road to Hermit’s Rest is closed to private vehicles from March through November. Since this is December it’s not only open but wide open. Hardly anyone’s here. The road twists and turns so much along the south rim that low-ish speed limits and the CRX’s modest output at altitude don’t harsh my gasoline- and altitude-fueled buzz. The tiny roadster plays the momentum game well.
And, with no roof and only the thinnest of pillars to obstruct it, the view was incredible. December and the Straman CRX Si prove an ideal combination for a driving tour of the Grand Canyon.
I stop at a few overlooks. As suggested at the Delhi Palace, The Abyss impresses most. At Mojave Point a foursome of visitors from Beijing take photos with the CRX. They love the little yellow car. They take my picture in front of the CRX. They promise to email copies. (They don’t.)
Three hours after entering the park, I leave it for a facsimile of the South Dakota Badlands, then the Hopi and Navajo reservations. Few curves are challenging, but the scenery changes dramatically every quarter-hour. The CRX immerses me in these alternate universes, all of them unearthly and amazing.
Detouring to the most famous of these, Monument Valley, will add 40 minutes. No-brainer. These two compact-but-intense icons seem meant to be experienced together.
After a rough start, I’ve gotten to know the Straman CRX Si, and have thoroughly enjoyed our two-day honeymoon in the desert. But we’ve yet to face our greatest challenge.
In Part 3: Mountains.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, a provider of car comparisons, including reliability stats, pricing, and specs.