Sur­vival guide: Honda Pre­lude

The Honda Pre­lude started out in life as a rather staid coupé and de­vel­oped into a very ca­pa­ble sports car. We look at what can go wrong with them.

Classics Monthly - - Contents - Words Iain Wake­field

Life with the classy Ja­panese coupé.

Awell-known Ja­panese per­for­mance car mag­a­zine once de­scribed early Honda Pre­ludes as a ‘the coupé ver­sion of a pair of com­fort­able shoes’ and went on to say it how early gen­er­a­tions of this stylish two-door coupé ap­pealed to ma­ture drivers who were seek­ing a prac­ti­cal sports car. Honda was on safe ground when it un­veiled the first gen­er­a­tion Pre­lude in 1978, as this good look­ing two-door car’s fully in­de­pen­dent sus­pen­sion came from the Ac­cord’s parts bin and a new eight-valve, 1.6-litre en­gine pro­vided Honda’s new coupé with a de­cent amount of per­for­mance to match its good looks.

The Pre­lude was one of the first mass pro­duced sub 2-litre cars to be fit­ted with power steer­ing as stan­dard and the car’s ex­te­rior styling, with its long bon­net and short boot mir­rored the lines of the hugely suc­cess­ful Ford Mustang. A re­vamp in 1981 re­sulted in the Pre­lude re­ceiv­ing a new front grille, while the cabin’s cen­trally mounted in­stru­ment clus­ter was re­placed by a more con­ven­tional lay­out.

A heav­ily re­designed sec­ond gen­er­a­tion Pre­lude broke cover in Ja­pan the fol­low­ing year com­plete with a pair of pop-up head­lights and a new 1.8-litre, 12-valve en­gine ca­pa­ble of push­ing out 110bhp. A re­vamp for the 1986 model year re­sulted in the Pre­lude gain­ing a 16-valve DO HC 2.0-litre en­gine and to ac­com­mo­date the slightly bulkier power unit, the Pre­lude’s aero­dy­namic bon­net line was raised slightly. Honda Pre­ludes bound for the Euro­pean mar­ket re­ceived mod­i­fied tail light clus­ters as well as new body colour-matched front and rear bumpers.

It was all change again in 1987 when the third gen­er­a­tion Pre­lude was launched of­fer­ing the op­tion of a novel for the time me­chan­i­cal all-wheel-steer sys­tem. This in­ter­est­ing op­tion was a first on a mass-pro­duced car and the BA3 Pre­lude’s ex­te­rior styling con­tained heavy hints of what the 1989-in­tro­duced Honda NSX su­per­car would look like. Sev­eral vari­ants of Honda’s 12-valve DO HC B20A four-cylin­der en­gine pow­ered the third gen­er­a­tion Pre­lude and drove the car’s front wheels through ei­ther a five-speed man­ual gear­box or a four-speed auto.

The Pre­lude con­tin­ued to sell well in the UK and a re­vamped ver­sion of this pop­u­lar coupe went on sale in Ja­pan in late 1989. Re­vi­sions to the in­te­rior in­cluded new switchgear and door han­dles, while ex­te­rior changes were mainly limited to a new front bumper in­cor­po­rat­ing a re­designed side­light clus­ter. Honda now of­fered the Pre­lude with a 145bhp ver­sion of the 2.0-litre B20 en­gine equipped with spe­cial cylin­der lin­ers made from a spe­cial fi­bre re­in­forced me­tal (FRM). In some cases this ‘mod­i­fi­ca­tion’ can ac­cel­er­ate pis­ton ring wear, which will even­tu­ally lead to ex­ces­sive oil con­sump­tion.

Power out­put for Honda’s at­trac­tive coupé was boosted in 1991 when a 2.2-litre en­gine was of­fered on the ag­gres­sively styled fourth gen­er­a­tion Pre­lude. This is the point where the story starts to get ex­cit­ing as en­thu­si­asts cur­rently rate the Pre­lude’s VTEC (VTi on some mod­els) equipped 2.2-litre en­gine as one of Honda’s finest four-cylin­der power units. VTEC is an acro­nym for Honda’s Vari­able Valve Timing and Lift Elec­tronic Con­trol sys­tem and was de­vel­oped to im­prove the stan­dard DO HC en­gine’s ef­fi­ciency by au­to­mat­i­cally ad­vanc­ing the valve timing as revs in­crease by se­lect­ing a dif­fer­ent cam pro­file. A 130bhp, 2.3-litre ver­sion of this en­gine was of­fered as an op­tion across the Pre­lude range from 1996, the year the fifth and fi­nal ver­sion of this in­ter­est­ing

Ja­panese-built coupé broke cover.

The Pre­lude re­mained in pro­duc­tion un­til 2001 when it was re­placed by the In­te­gra and the model of choice for those in the know has to be the barn­storm­ing fifth gen­er­a­tion 217bhp Type S. Although this model didn’t have the four­wheel steer, it used a clever ac­tive torque trans­fer sys­tem linked to the ABS to over­come un­der­steer.

The high per­for­mance en­gine in the Type S fea­tured im­proved breath­ing, new pis­tons, pol­ished in­take/ex­haust ports as stan­dard and this hot coupé was good for a 0- 60mph in just 6.6 sec­onds and could go on to a li­cence burn­ing top speed of more than 150mph. Sur­vivors that haven’t been ragged into the ground by suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions of boy rac­ers are rare and gen­uine ex­am­ples will ob­vi­ously sell for a pre­mium. A tidy Type S is well worth track­ing down and this emerg­ing clas­sic is now start­ing to turn heads when it’s out and about.


Early Pre­ludes are rare beasts to­day as far too many ba­si­cally sound ex­am­ples were weighed in at the scrap­yard dur­ing the Gov­ern­ment’s in­fa­mous Scrap­page scheme. Later fourth and fifth gen­er­a­tion Pre­ludes sur­vive in greater num­bers and these are very well built cars, although they will rust in all the usual places if the body­work has been ne­glected. On all mod­els, keep an eye out on the con­di­tion of the whee­larches, es­pe­cially the rear ones, as re­place­ment rear quar­ter pan­els for later mod­els are ex­pen­sive to buy and dif­fi­cult to fit.

Many owners will pur­chase an ac­ci­dent dam­aged donor car and re­coup some of the cost by sell­ing all the un­wanted parts af­ter sal­vaging any use­able pan­els. This is fine if you’ve got the space to store large parts, but the best way is to buy the best car your bud­get can af­ford and keep on top of any body re­pairs. If you ser­vice your Pre­lude at home, check out the front and rear ‘chas­sis’ mem­bers, es­pe­cially around all the sus­pen­sion mount­ings.

While you’re un­der the car, have a poke round the bot­tom of both sills, es­pe­cially at each end, and also ex­am­ine along the seams with the floors, cen­tral tun­nel, both bulk­heads and the boot floor for any grot or dam­aged un­der­seal. Front wings can rot out be­hind the wheels and while check­ing the oil and coolant levels, take a few min­utes to check the con­di­tion of the in­ner wings, es­pe­cially along all the seams and around the sus­pen­sion mounts a well as the lower part of the front panel.

If your Pre­lude is fit­ted with a slid­ing sun­roof, check the drain tubes are clear of de­bris and don’t for­get to lightly lubri­cate the run­ners, as oil­ing them will prevent the sun­roof rat­tling, which sounds as if there’s some­thing loose at the back of the car.

It’s very rare to see a Pre­lude fit­ted with pop-up head­lights try­ing to im­i­tat­ing one-eyed Lo­tus Elan, as the mech­a­nism that raises and low­ers the lights on these cars is gen­er­ally very re­li­able.


It’s not an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to de­scribe all the en­gine vari­ants fit­ted to the Pre­lude as be­ing bul­let­proof. Although these units will last for a very long time pro­vid­ing they’ve been main­tained by the book, there are a few things to watch out for that will in­di­cate the gen­eral health of the unit. Blue smoke chuff­ing out of the oil filler on start up could in­di­cate worn valve seals, while smoke ex­it­ing the ex­haust pipe when on the move may be caused by worn pis­ton rings or bores.

The dreaded may­on­naise­type gloop coat­ing the in­side of the rocker box usu­ally in­di­cates coolant has mixed with the oil due to a dam­aged head gas­ket. How­ever, this mess can also be due to the en­gine run­ning too cold, so if you do find any of it in your en­gine it’s ad­vis­able to book the car in for a com­pres­sion test to find out what’s caus­ing it. Dis­trib­u­tor bear­ings on some mod­els can go south and faulty sen­sors on later cars may be re­spon­si­ble for poor idling, ex­ces­sive fuel con­sump­tion and a per­ma­nently il­lu­mi­nated en­gine man­age­ment light on the dash­board.

Pre­ludes fit­ted with a VTEC equipped en­gine can throw up their own unique prob­lems but don’t be con­cerned by a puff of black smoke ex­it­ing the ex­haust when the sys­tem cuts in, as this is quite nor­mal. It’s not easy to test the sys­tem as the Pre­lude’s vari­able valve mech­a­nism only boosts per­for­mance when the en­gine has warmed up and hits 5000rpm – the sys­tem will au­to­mat­i­cally fail to en­gage if the oil pres­sure falls.

If you’re run­ning a later Pre­lude and the man­ual gear­box starts to crunch when chang­ing quickly from fourth to fifth, sus­pect a worn se­lec­tor fork. This is a well-known prob­lem and if ig­nored may re­sult in not be­ing able to se­lect top gear. Auto boxes can be trou­ble­some as the miles mount up and clutch mas­ter cylin­ders can have a short life – 30,000 miles in some cases. Wheel bear­ings on fourth gen­er­a­tion Pre­ludes are ex­pen­sive to re­place, as the whole hub has to be changed. An of­fi­cial Honda-branded re­place­ment will set you back around £300, but the good news is that there are cheaper pat­tern parts avail­able.


The Pre­lude’s un­der­pin­nings are rea­son­ably trou­ble-free but bushes, sus­pen­sion joints and dampers will all suf­fer from the nor­mal wear and tear. Early cars were fit­ted with a sim­i­lar type of in­de­pen­dent all-round struts and servo as­sisted brak­ing sys­tem as fit­ted to the Ac­cord. Power steer­ing

was of­fered as stan­dard and later Pre­ludes were fit­ted with dou­ble wish­bone front and rear sus­pen­sion, again based on the Ac­cord’s set up.

Some grey im­ported Pre­ludes may still have their sus­pen­sion set up for the Ja­panese mar­ket, so if this is the case it’s highly rec­om­mended to change any sus­pen­sion and brak­ing com­po­nents – es­pe­cially in the me­chan­i­cal rear-wheel steer mech­a­nism – on both sides when work­ing on these mod­els.

Elec­tron­i­cally con­trolled rear wheel steer was avail­able on fourth-gen­er­a­tion Pre­ludes and the first check if the 4WS light comes up on the dash­board is to check the fuse con­trol­ling the sys­tem. This light should go out a few sec­onds af­ter the en­gine fires up and the sys­tem can be eas­ily tested by open­ing the door with the en­gine run­ning and look­ing back to see if the rear wheels move slightly when the steer­ing wheel is turned from side to side.

Vari­ants fit­ted with all round disc brakes can suf­fer from seized rear calipers and the discs can rust badly too. If you’ve just bought your Pre­lude, it’s a good idea to check the con­di­tion of the brake pads as soon as pos­si­ble as a pre­vi­ous owner may have reg­u­larly made the most of the car’s im­pres­sive per­for­mance. Early Honda Pre­ludes were fit­ted with front discs and had drums at the rear and which­ever model you’re run­ning, al­ways in­spect the con­di­tion of the brakes and hy­draulic sys­tem for any leaks at every ser­vice.


The Pre­lude’s in­te­rior con­tains a lot of hard plas­tic sur­faces and even when the cars were new, many owners de­scribed the con­trols on these cars as be­ing out­dated when com­pared to the com­pe­ti­tion. Rear legroom in any Pre­lude is vir­tu­ally nonex­is­tent and only a very limited num­ber of trim op­tions were avail­able across the range. Stan­dard fea­tures on many mod­els will in­clude power steer­ing, cruise con­trol, cen­tral lock­ing and elec­tric win­dows and a four-speaker sound sys­tem.

Grey-im­ported Pre­ludes usu­ally come fully loaded with an im­pres­sive in­ven­tory of crea­ture com­forts and many will have air con­di­tion­ing, ABS brak­ing and trac­tion con­trol as stan­dard. Which­ever mar­ket the car was built for, sourc­ing in­te­rior trim for a Pre­lude can be dif­fi­cult as many sec­ond-hand items, es­pe­cially seats and door cards, will prob­a­bly be as tatty as the ones be­ing re­placed.

The large bol­ster on the Pre­lude’s driver’s seat can wear through and leather clad steer­ing wheels can get tatty. Later cars will be fit­ted with airbags, so if you’re plan­ning to work on the in­te­rior, make sure you un­der­stand how to safely dis­able an air bag be­fore swap­ping the steer­ing wheel or fid­dling around un­der the dash­board.

Electrics on these cars are rea­son­ably ro­bust, but a duff bat­tery on a later Pre­lude fit­ted with an ECU may cause the dash­board warn­ing lights to twin­kle like a Christ­mas tree. Not ev­ery­one likes the weird LED in­stru­ments on the fourth gen­er­a­tion Pre­lude, as these can be con­fus­ing to read.


Like most Hon­das, the Pre­lude is pretty well screwed to­gether, although some ex­am­ples may have had a hard life if they’ve been driven too en­thu­si­as­ti­cally by a pre­vi­ous owner. Front tyres can wear out at a rapid rate of knots it the car’s been driven to its ca­pa­bil­i­ties and clutches and brake pads can be a reg­u­lar ser­vice items if the car’s used as a daily city driver.

Later Pre­ludes were built from gal­vanised steel. So pro­vid­ing the body­work has been main­tained cor­rectly, se­ri­ous cor­ro­sion shouldn’t be a ma­jor worry. Ear­lier mod­els will rust in all the usual places and body­work re­pairs, es­pe­cially to the rear wings and un­der­body, can be very ex­pen­sive.

The Pre­lude has just enough per­for­mance for it to be con­sid­ered sporty and VTEC pow­ered ver­sions will trans­form from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde as soon as the pedal hits the me­tal. Now’s the time to buy one of these emerg­ing clas­sics and £3500 will be enough to se­cure a very nice four-wheel steer third gen­er­a­tion Pre­lude, or even a low mileage fifth gen­er­a­tion ex­am­ple. Early cars are rare, but there are lots of late Pre­ludes to choose from, in­cluded a string of strangely-badged grey im­ports. The best of the pack – ac­cord­ing to the ex­perts we’ve spo­ken to – is a fully loaded fourth gen­er­a­tion Pre­lude as they’re still very af­ford­able, are cheap to run and are al­ready sit­ting in the start­ing blocks to clas­sic sta­tus.

Fifth- gen­er­a­tion gained markedly cleaner lines af­ter the anony­mous style of the pre­vi­ous model proved un­pop­u­lar.

Third-gen­er­a­tion Pre­lude shows the ’80s Honda styling themes also found on con­tem­po­rary Rovers.

First- gen­er­a­tion car had its Euro­pean launch in 1979.

Fourth-gen­er­a­tion Pre­lude re­mains a com­mon sight in the UK. VTEC engines are re­mark­able and of­fer strong per­for­mance.

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