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1998 Honda Prelude: Last of the Breed

1988 Prelude - 1

We’ve made no secret here at TTS about our affection for old-school Hondas, and Preludes in particular. Back in the 90s, both of us daily drove 2nd generation Preludes – both 1985s, and both sticks – mine was grey and Jonathan’s was red. The Prelude, Honda’s personal coupe,  was one of the cars on which the “car that sells itself” ad campaign was based on. They really were that good. Not the fastest car around, and not the prettiest. But as all-rounders they were hard to beat: great transmission, great handling, AC, sunroof, room for 4 (three if comfort was on order) and utterly reliable. We both drove our respective Preludes well into the 200K+ miles. Incidentally, we lived in different places so the matching cars thing wasn’t too weird.

1988 Prelude - 2

One of the things that I always loved about Preludes, at least for the first three generations, was the wedgy 3-box design. They were sporty but remarkably practical. We once fit an entire interior and suspension from a parts car into one of our preludes with nothing encroaching on the front seat passengers. Besides that, with the rear sea folded down you could even carry a 6′ bookcase – so long as it wasn’t too wide.

Our Preludes were both 12 valve carbureted cars. They took about ten seconds to get from 0-60, and downhill in a strong wind you *might* hit 120mph. With the “Si” model came fuel injection and more power. After that the third generation model could be had with a bit more power, anti-lock brakes, and 4-wheel steering. I always wanted a 3G Prelude but the stars never aligned.  I’d still buy one, but you probably guessed that.

1988 Prelude - 9

With the 4th Generation – sold from 1992 through 1996 – I always felt like Honda missed the mark. It’s grown on me some in more recent years, but although they still handled well and introduced VTEC variable valve timing to the mix, they lost sight of the 3-box wedge/low cowl formula in favor of what looked for all intents and purposes like a used bar of soap. Not that they weren’t good cars, but they put me off Preludes – I thought for good.

1988 Prelude - 3

Quick story: it was early 1997, my dad was finally at a place in life where he could see the light at the end of the tuition tunnel and didn’t need to maintain a fleet of family haulers. I finally got that call I’d waited all my life for: “It’s time to go look at new Porsches.” I think I cried tears of joy.

Anyway, we got to the dealer, looked around a bit, and I will never forget Dad’s words as he sat in a 1997 993-series 911 Targa: “I don’t like this for shit.” I kid you not. “The seat pinches my butt. Let’s go.” I think I cried again. These tears were less joyous.

Fast forward a few weeks and he called me again. “I’m buying a new Prelude. They went back to sort of the old style, but with that VTEC thing. It’s fast, fun, and I fit in it perfectly.” Huh. I think I’d seen pictures in magazines, but hadn’t actually seen one in person. He got one of the first ones that came in – silver on black with the (self-destructing) manumatic transmission. And you know – it was fun, and it did remind me of the Preludes of yore. It wasn’t a 911, but in time I forgave him. Among his many great traits Dad was a pragmatist and appreciated a good value. The Prelude cost about 1/3 what the 911 did.

1988 Prelude - 4

These 5th generation Preludes have actually aged pretty well in my eyes. The challenge with them is that they’re cheap enough that a lot of them fell victim to the drifters and guys that equate a coolness factor to how much crap you can tack onto a car. That’s what makes this example on Craigslist in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho for $6,500 so special: it’s bone stock and well maintained.

1988 Prelude - 5

I always love seeing things like clean factory floormats in 20+ year-old cars, but more importantly the interior is not ripped to shreds and the outside doesn’t look like an escapee from a demolition derby like seems to happen to so many cars of this ilk. They’re not worth enough for folks to coddle them, so they tend to be ridden hard and put away wet. Keep in mind that while nearly 124K miles is by no means low, it does average out to about 5,400 per year, which really isn’t that much.

1988 Prelude - 7

Manual-transmission 5G ‘Ludes came with a 2.2 liter inline-4 with VTEC variable valve timing that delivered 195hp and 156 lb-ft of torque. They could hit 60 mph from a stop in less than six-and-a-half seconds. You’ve got to get the revs up there to feel the VTEC punch, but it’s there, and it doesn’t suck. There was also a “Prelude SH” model that offered Honda ATTS – Active Torque Transfer System – which acted somewhat like a more modern limited-slip differential which used an assortment of sensor readings to vary power distribution between the front wheels, but I have personally had equal fund driving both versions. The sequential-shift automatic, like my dad’s, isn’t at all bad to drive either, but they seem to suffer from expensive catastrophic failure. Besides – as slick as this stick is, there is little reason to drive the automatic unless you have mitigating factors like a physical ailment or a disapproving spouse….

1988 Prelude - 6

This car has a long list of recent maintenance, including some pretty high-dollar stuff like major engine seals and timing belt, which is probably part of the reason the price is “firm”.  They also indicate no accidents, and I note that the plastic headlights – so often yellowed – appear crystal clear. The interior and 1.5 body trunk look practically showroom new, and the engine looks like it still has some of its cad plating intact. By the pictures and in a vacuum I’d have pegged this as an 8 year-old car with about 60,000 miles. Heck – despite my abhorrence of window tint I don’t hate what appears to be a good quality and not too dark tint on this one.

1988 Prelude - 8

Pictures like this one of service records, manuals, and the original window sticker always warm my heart. They at least imply that the owner cares, which is more that you get from about 98% of classified ads. On a car like this where clean, stock examples are few and far -between, it is that much more poignant. As for this one, I am having a hard time figuring out a reason NOT to buy it, excepting space and free cash.

For me, the 5th generation Prelude reaffirmed my faith in the model and the brand. Unfortunately, it was a little late in coming, and lackluster sales led to Honda killing the Prelude after the 2001 model year. As Road & Track put it, “It’s a very specific sort of cool that just doesn’t exist in today’s car market.” I can’t agree enough but if you look hard enough you can buy a nice old one like this. Or this one. You should definitely buy this one – before I do.

One thought on “1998 Honda Prelude: Last of the Breed Leave a comment

  1. Totally agree about how well these have aged. They’re getting darn near impossible to find in stock condition these days. A 1988-91 Si 4WS is on my shopping list.

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