When it comes to shopping for convertibles, you can generally only pick two from the criteria of rare, cheap, and good. A nice MGB is cheap and good, but not rare. A Lexus LC 500 cabriolet is rare and exceedingly good, but definitely not cheap. A Daewoo Lanos with the roof unceremoniously sawn off while imbibing a case of Michelob Ultra is rare and cheap, but not objectively good. However, this Honda Prelude Solaire is the holy trinity, a rare and cheap convertible that’s actually good. It’s so rare that it makes a Lamborghini Diablo VT Roadster seem common, so good that it helped build Honda’s iron-clad reputation, and so cheap that it’s almost “screw it” money.
You’ve probably never heard of a Prelude Solaire, but that’s okay. Most people haven’t because it’s not an official Honda vehicle. [Editor’s Note: A unibody vehicle that has had its roof sawed off — especially one with a three-speed slushbox — can only be so good IMO. Consider me skeptical of this whole “holy trinity” claim. -DT]. Santa Ana-based conversion specialist Solaire took the nifty first-generation Prelude, chopped off the roof, and then sold the finished vehicles to a handful of discerning customers. Reported production figures vary, but all sources agree that fewer than 100 Prelude convertibles were built by Solaire, making this one seriously rare Honda.
Aside from the snap-on tonneau cover that looks a bit shabby, just like every other snap-on tonneau cover since the first one, this really looks like it could’ve been a factory job. So many panels appear to be retained from the standard Prelude from the doors to the trunklid. The curvatures of the quarter panels have been subtly altered to accommodate the new roof, but they seem identical to the stock panels from the character line down. Likewise, the cut behind the windscreen header looks clean and very professionally-finished. Once dropped, the roof sits where the parcel shelf used to be, which means there’s likely been some extensive surgery in that area. Solaire even beefed up the window channels and the underbody bracing to maintain a sense of solidity. It all adds up to a rather impressive conversion.
Solaire was immensely proud of its conversion, claiming in advertising materials that its Prelude was “SIMPLY THE FINEST CONVERTIBLE AVAILABLE FOR UNDER $40,000…WAY UNDER!!!” Hang on, $40,000 was an insane amount of money in 1981; what did this thing actually cost? Thankfully, a period Road & Track review reports a price tag between $14,000 and $15,000, which is still a lot of money once inflation is factored in – between $46,722.57 and $50,059.90 today. However, it’s not supercar money, which makes you wonder what on earth Solaire was thinking with those marketing materials. Here’s a clue: $40,000 was more or less the base price of a 1981 Mercedes-Benz 380 SL.
Most cars from the turn of the ’80s were so badly-built that these little Hondas felt like miracles. Everything fits, you’d be hard-pressed to find a run or similar imperfection in the paint, all doors shut with a solid thunk, and the various electronic gizmos simply worked. Sure, cars with the CVCC engine had a reputation for stumbling in part-throttle, but that’s the early smog-controlled era for you. Since BMW hadn’t yet sold a 3 Series cabriolet in America by 1981, the Prelude might just have been the finest sub-SL convertible at the time, if only because everything else wasn’t that brilliantly assembled.
Speaking of the CVCC engine, every U.S.-spec 1981 Preludes comes with a 1.8-liter EK CVCC four-cylinder engine with a fantastically unusual three-barrel Keihin carburetor. That three-barrel carb was necessary due to its auxiliary bore with its own bowl and float, feeding the pre-ignition chamber, and making the CVCC magic happen. In this particular Prelude, all 1.8-liters of fury are harnessed by a three-speed automatic gearbox with third as an overdrive. Imagine how long those first two ratios must be. Still, with 72 horsepower on tap, it should keep up with modern traffic without laboring too hard.
If you wish to make this Honda Prelude Solaire yours, it’s up for grabs on Facebook Marketplace in Stevensville, Mich. for a very reasonable $3,650. Sure, it could use fresh paint and its owner claims that it needs tires and a new top, but so long as you keep it a fair-weather cruiser, it could be a cheap and unusual entry into top-down motoring.
(Photo credits: Facebook Marketplace seller, Solaire)
Support our mission of championing car culture by becoming an Official Autopian Member.