Endangered Species: Honda Prelude Honda tried to take on Europe with this Origami-styled coupe. Now the few remaining need saving... Honda's angular Prelude put into sharp focus. Honda Relude Innovative 1980s coupé. That deserves saving. Honda’s third-generation Prelude was a technical masterpiece but sadly few were impressed enough to buy one. JJ drives it to see if we’ve missed out…Words John-Joe Vollans. Photography Dean Smith, Honda.
ENJOYING How have we all missed the BA Prelude's charms for this long? Most were turned into bean cans years ago, we try one of the last left.
85 UK LEFT
Prelude to extinctionBefore the Fast & Furious reboot and its torrent of ever more ridiculous sequels made everything four wheeled and Japanese desirable overnight, it’s unlikely that anyone apart from your grand ad would have given a fig about the first two generations of the Honda Prelude. Based on the oh-so-sensible Accord, early versions were about as exciting as an off-season trip to Cleethorpes.
However, there was to be a brighter future for the firm’s flagship coupe. The Prelude was promoted to Honda’s engineering and innovation test mule and soon after, things started to get a lot more interesting.
By the time the model bowed out in 2001 the Prelude, over all five of its generations, had been responsible for introducing Honda customers to fuel injection, active torque transfer and, most notably, four-wheel steering. The third-generation Prelude was the tipping point when the model really came into its own. Pre-NSX and even pre-VTEC, this was the generation that took up the coupe mantle that had been abandoned by the European manufacturers and took it to new heights. The sad fact is that there are only 85 third-generation (BA) Preludes remaining. Where did they all go and should we mourn their passing? It’s time to find out…
It’s hard to picture today, but in the mid-1980s the British public, and the wider motor industry, was still rather dismissive of Japanese cars, especially Japanese performance cars. We’d only come to terms with the fact the Japanese were building reliable, efficient and likeable hatches and saloons a few years prior. The thought of them muscling in on the traditional European sports coupe territory was still cause for the odd titter and guffaw. You know what they say about pride coming before a fall…
With hot hatches selling by the container-ship load, the big European makers didn’t see a future in the coupe sector and almost gave up trying. Volkswagen relied upon its previous generation Golf platform for the second generation Scirocco while Ford kept making the archaic leaf-sprung Capri and Opel soldiered on with the Ascona-based Manta. Almost every coupe still on sale by the late 1980s was a leftover from the previous decade given a nip and a tuck.
Just when it looked like the coupe market pond was drying out, Japan’s big three opened the sluice gate. Suddenly, consumers had the choice of a brand-new Nissan 200SX, Toyota Celica or Honda Prelude. European makers were caught on the back foot and would take until the early 1990s to mount an effective defence.
Honda’s third-generation Prelude arrived in 1987 and offered one of the decade’s most inventive two-door machines. It looked great, with a low and sleek bonnet line (the lowest of any front-wheel-drive coupe to date) and those essential 1980s appendages, pop-up lights.
The proportions were spot on, and there was even a cheeky kamm-tail rear to reinforce the car’s sporting appeal. Underneath the origami lines there’s a clever mechanical package. The suspension is a double wishbone affair.
The only engine you’ll find in this Prelude generation is the 12-valve B20A motor. It’s available in single camshaft, 114bhp twin carburettor tune or a fruity, fuel injected 160bhp twin-cam(pre-VTEC remember) version. Both engines are robust and tunable, with 200bhp easily achievable from a few choice cylinder head mods.
Even stock the performance is still handy, there’s less than 1100kg to move after all. The DOHC version of the B20A fitted to The Prelude 2.0Si was fuelled by Honda’s PGM-FI or programmable fuel injection system to you and me. A clever technology derived from motorbikes. The system was first seen on the 1982 Honda CX500TC turbocharged bike. This fully electronic fuel injection takes many readings per second from sensors monitoring engine speed and throttle position then references these against a stored fuel ‘map’ to assess the ideal amount of fuel to send to the cylinders. This basic fuel delivery figure was made more accurate before final delivery by additional sensors monitoring intake pressure, coolant temperature and atmospheric pressure. We haven’t even dealt with the constant mechanical four wheel steer system either (see box out left), but essentially Honda used this Prelude as an engineering showcase.
All these innovations were notable in period but sadly have been long forgotten. Today simply finding a Prelude with 4WS or twin camshafts is hard enough. So much so in fact, that Honda’s own BA Prelude (seen here), part of its heritage fleet, is a modest base model 2.0-litre EX.
That means it’s fitted with the single cam 114bhp engine and doesn’t have four-wheel steer. That’s a shame but its condition is such that it was far too good to ignore. We’re in Spain for a heritage event celebrating all of Honda’s excellent back catalogue of driver’s cars. It’s telling that out of all the fabulous Civics, Integras and S2000s, I muscle past the rest of the journos to get a first drive in the Prelude. This Prelude comes from a lost era. It’s been overshadowed by the TypeR generation. I love a hot Civic or Integra, but it’s really refreshing to get this glimpse of a fledgling Honda dipping its toe into performance motoring. The cabin gives a clue of things to come, with the wrap around dash and door cards enclosing you tightly within. There’s a fighter jet feel to it that’s reinforced further by the almost total visibility. The BA Prelude’s slim windscreen, door and rear screen pillars were specifically designed from high strength steel so that they could be as thin as possible without compromising stiffness and crash safety. The glass area is astonishing, giving the driver a near unparalleled 326 degrees of vision.
This panoramic vision comes in very handy as we pull away from the Le Meridien Hotel on the shores of the Balearic Sea. We’re in the Catalonia region of north eastern Spain in June so that glass area has another unwanted side effect, it’s acting like a greenhouse and there’s no aircon. Thankfully as I point the Prelude onto the hillside roads heading inland it gets cooler as we climb. The steering on this Prelude is a bit light but the lack of effort is welcome in this heat.
What’s not so welcome are the terrible brakes. The middle pedal has to be mashed to cause any significant change in speed. It’s probably not too surprising as the vented front and solid rear discs have to fit under 14-inch wheels. The ride, which was choppy at lower speeds around town, becomes smoother as the pace increases.
Up in the hills the Prelude proves very capable. Its 12-valve B20A4 engine might not have the punch to wow, but its accessible torque delivery and the five-speed transmission’s perfectly spaced ratios makes it very engaging. It wills me to extract every drop of performance. The chassis is competent but push too hard and you’ll push the front wide, probably more a result of the 165 cross section tyres. Lift off too vigorously and the tail will rotate slightly, tightening your line. As this Prelude has covered just 22,000 miles in its 30-year history and it looks and feels like a car a tenth of its age, we decide against pushing it any further.