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.
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.
ENGINE & TRANSMISSION
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.
SUSPENSION & BRAKES
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.
INTERIOR & ELECTRICS
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.