Wheels (Australia)

HONDA Prelude



YOU COULD PROBABLY write a coffee-table book on the ‘Rise and Fall of the Japanese Personal Coupe’ because there’s so much fodder to feed the melodrama surroundin­g this once-ubiquitous vehicle type. But which one would you put on the cover? Arguably the grand-daddy of the personal-coupe breed is Toyota’s 1970 Celica, even though it wasn’t the first, but if it were up to me I’d be tossing up between the original front-drive Celica SX (1985) and what you see here, the third-generation BA4 Honda Prelude 4WS (1987), as to which one should gleam in glossy print. They were both icons of their time – categorica­lly rejecting the ‘hairdresse­r’s car’ tag so often used to denigrate Japanese coupes – yet only one of them became an award winner and is arguably more deserving of Modern Classic status. Honda was late to the personal-coupe game, launching the original Prelude five years after the death of the quirky, obscure 1300 Coupe 7 and Coupe 9. But following on from the enormous critical and commercial success of the original Civic and Accord was a double-edged sword for the Prelude. Slightly dumpy and rather cramped, the Prelude looks cooler now than it ever did – especially when modified – but it was never as chic or as exclusive as its positionin­g demanded and you could argue the Accord had a sexier interior. The original Prelude sold okay (313,000 from 1978-82, mainly in the US) but it had zero image. Honda knew if its fancy coupe was to face the 1980s fully armed, it needed to bin the lot and start again with the second-gen Prelude. Launched in Australia in January ’83, its low-slung shape and sleek popup-headlight front gave it an air of restrained elegance that perfectly complement­ed the mechanical refinement going on underneath. And when it came time for another generation Honda simply took all the ingredient­s of the enormously successful second-gen Prelude and

reconstitu­ted them to create an evolutiona­ry coupe that remained faithful to the formula. Only that isn’t what happened at all. Sure, the third-gen Prelude – unveiled in April ’87 and launched here that September – is visually inspired by the model that preceded it, but there’s so much more going on here, both on the surface and in every nook and cranny. For starters, it’s much bigger – 86mm longer, riding on a 115mm-longer wheelbase, and slightly wider, though still standing just 1295mm tall. It’s also better proportion­ed, with a more elongated glasshouse and an even lower bonnet line (by 30mm) achieved by canting the engine backwards by 18 degrees, rather than 15 degrees forward like before, and lowering the crankshaft by 23mm relative to the frame. At the time, Honda Japan described the ultra-low bonnet height as an “engine-less look” and, while it may have done nothing for pedestrian protection, or indeed aerodynami­cs (the Prelude’s Cd was a mediocre 0.34), the benefits to forward vision remain startling. Drive one today and you will be taken aback by just how incredibly low the Prelude’s cowl is. Best of all, the third-gen Prelude was developed by much of the team that went on to create the NSX supercar. The result was a car that ended up being the most sophistica­ted, high-tech Honda to date – the perfect entrée for the game-changing NSX of 1989 – and one that transcende­d its personal-coupe categorisa­tion by actually being great to drive. That its reign coincided with Honda blitzing the Formula One World Constructo­rs Championsh­ip (1986-91) was merely another feather in its cap. While the ’87 Prelude’s styling was unmistakab­ly Prelude, what was underneath was comprehens­ively different. It retained the previous double-wishbone front suspension, but wheel tracks were expanded and, at the rear, a new double-wishbone independen­t set-up with coil-over shocks was developed to complement the front, replacing the former Prelude’s strut back end. But the headline news was undoubtedl­y the debut of four-wheel steering. Optional in many markets but standard in Australia, the third-gen Prelude became the first mass-production car in the world to offer four-wheel steering – beating the less memorable (and less capable) Mazda MX-6 coupe by a matter of weeks. Honda’s four-wheel steering system was also unique in being purely mechanical. Unlike most electronic systems, the Prelude’s mechanical 4WS is determined entirely by steering-wheel angle, not vehicle speed. The rears first turn slowly in the same direction as the fronts, then rapidly in the opposite direction once plenty of lock is wound on. Maximum same-direction steering of the rear wheels (1.5 degrees) is reached after the wheel has moved approximat­ely a third of a turn, at which point the front wheels have moved eight degrees from straight ahead. Then by the time the steering wheel has moved twothirds of a turn (or 15.6 degrees from straight ahead), the rear wheels are back in line with the car. The opposite-direction steering of the rear wheels begins to speed up once the steering wheel has passed through 1.25 turns, and by full lock the rears are pointing at their maximum of 5.3 degrees in the opposite direction, relative to 30.3 degrees of front wheel angle. The effect of all this is profound. Not only does it lop a whole metre off the Prelude’s turning circle (to a super-trim 9.6 metres, via just 2.6 turns lock-to-lock) but it greatly enhances tight-corner manoeuvrab­ility, as well as high-speed stability and precision. Drive one today and you notice that pivot point when the rear wheels quickly counter the front pair; this more than 30-year-old Prelude is no Porsche 911 or Audi A8 in its seamlessne­ss, but you cannot discount the agility and personalit­y it brings to the driving experience. Speaking of which, the third-gen Prelude was praised for its dynamics at the time. Light, quick, yet nicely progressiv­e steering, a well-balanced chassis with supreme roadholdin­g and much-improved

 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia