Anniversary Waltz 2017: ‘Oh the Eastern Sea’s So Blue’

The waltz continues its overdue retrospective sweep through 1987.

LJK Setright liked it so much he bought one. 1987 Honda Prelude. Image: Japanese SportCars

By the mid-80’s the Japanese car companies were beginning to really give the European car business the willies, with the UK’s Car magazine bewailing their advent in luridly melodramatic terms. With Honda’s existing midliner being Accorded viable 3-Series rivalry status, Minato-Tokyo prepared a fresh salvo into the hearts and minds of their European rivals with this third generation Prelude.

Utilising the core body structure of its 1982 forebear, the ’87 car’s smoother, softer style and lower nose (made possible by the engine being canted back 18°) lent it a visual grace its predecessor slightly lacked, but its distinctly three-volume silhouette meant its styling appealed more to US eyes than to those here in Europe.

It was a Honda, so technical delight was a given – in this case 16-valve single or twin camshaft versions of the same 2.0 litre B20 engines, and the fitment of double-wishbone suspension all round; either of which would have been enough for most people but the headline innovation was the first mass-produced directly mechanical four wheel steering system, one which steered the rear wheels in conjunction with the fronts in normal driving, but counter-steered at parking speeds.

1987 Honda Civic Hatchback. Image: Element Wheels

That same year, Honda also launched a new-generation Civic, based squarely on the principles of the highly regarded 1983 model. A slightly larger car than its (allegedly Pininfarina-designed) predecessor, it gained a slightly longer wheelbase, double wishbone front suspension, and a sophisticated rear trailing arm layout which despite Honda’s claims wasn’t entirely the double wishbones they suggested it was.

Civic rear suspension layout. Image: autozone

Its chassis sophistication wasn’t necessarily a recipe for a dynamic drive, or indeed a supple ride for that matter. Insufficient wheel travel being a typical contemporary Honda bugbear.

Sporting a sleeker, if slightly less distinctive appearance, it was nonetheless as expected; a more grown-up, more rounded product, but one which for all its cleverness (and it was certainly that), remained a car for those already converted to the Civic cause.

1987 Peugeot 405. Image: autoevolution

With the Belfort Lion going from strength to strength following the massive success of the 205 hatchback, ultra-conservative Peugeot had found itself (much to its own shock) the height of fashion. Further up the range however, Peugeot’s long-running mid-sized 305, while both competent and fine-mannered, looked increasingly like last season’s cast-off.

The 305’s replacement was Peugeot’s opportunity, not only to better their double chevron bedmate, or indeed domestic rivals Renault, but also to make serious inroads into the (then) lucrative European D-sector saloon market dominated by Ford and Opel.

Styling was of course by Pininfarina; the 405 offered conventional three volume saloon and estate bodyshells with unusually well judged proportions and exceptionally clean lines. Similar in theme (but quite different in detail) to the Alfa 164, it’s been suggested the 405 was rushed into production in order to steal the Italian manufacturer’s thunder. However, given the quality issues which bedevilled early cars, this appears to have rebounded badly upon them.

Using a variant of the BX’s platform, shared engines and transmissions, the 405 eschewed Citroën’s oleopneumatics for Sochaux’s usual blend of finely honed conventionality. So it drove beautifully – or would have done had the interior not been a symphony of squeaks, rattles and grating plastics. This was the era where Peugeot lost their hard-won reputation for quality, one they’re still struggling to regain.

It was also the last Peugeot model to be sold in the North America. Another case of a European model receiving broadly positive write ups in the press but failing to satisfy customers, either from a usability, durability or serviceability perspective. The model has been considerably longer-lasting elsewhere in the world however and remains in production which does suggest the fundamentals (whatever about the fundamentalists…) were right.

Big in Japan – big everywhere. 1987 Toyota Corolla saloon. Image: Best Selling Cars

Toyota went front-drive with the 1978 Tercel and in 1983 so did the unstoppable Corolla – a move which perhaps legitimised the format once and for all. After all if the world’s most popular car is driven by the front wheels, who is reasonably going to suggest otherwise?

Toyota quite naturally did a characteristically thorough job with the polarity-shift, eschewing the Tercel’s layout for the industry-norm transverse / end-on layout. 1987’s E90-series was largely a reskin of its belated revolutionary 1983 predecessor – (Toyota, like their Honda compatriots also being locked into four-year product cycles).

Available in three-volume saloon, three or five-door hatchback or five-door Liftback (Sprinter) bodystyles, the crisp, sharply tailored appearance of the earlier E80 was substituted by a softer if, (in saloon form at least), more amorphous appearance; the hatchback models perhaps offering more for the eye to linger upon.

The E90 offered a more pleasant driving experience too, the rather remote control weights of the previous model replaced by (slightly) more mechanical sensations, sharper steering and a more pliant ride – even if some journalists discovered that the tail could snap out under provocation. But the odd quibble aside, the Corolla marched inexorably on.

1987 Yugo Sana / Florida / Miami. Image: our classic cars

For years, Zastava had been something of a Fiat subsidiary, much like Poland’s FSO, utilising Turin’s cast-offs. Sold in Western Europe and the US under the Yugo brand, the 127-based 45 had proved a moderately successful import for those on a budget, but its proletarian roots showed. The 1987 Sana however, saw the Zastava parent move upmarket, producing its most ambitious and largest model to date.

Based on the much-employed Fiat Tipo platform and mechanical package, the Sana (also known as Florida and Miami in some markets) was designed under Giugiaro by Ital Design in a style which (arguably at least) suggests it as a candidate for our ‘Cars that could have been Citroens’ series insofar as it appears to have ‘anticipated’ Bertone’s 1990 ZX model by several years.

The Sana’s career came to an abrupt halt owing to the effects of the devastating civil war in the former Yugoslavia and the trade embargo that came into force by consequence. In effect, this put paid to whatever prospects Zastava had and it could be said that neither the model nor the company recovered. Sana production ceased in 2008 with less than 30,000 made.

The waltz continues soon with a look at the cars of 1977 we couldn’t talk about.

Cars of 1987 we did talk about

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

21 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz 2017: ‘Oh the Eastern Sea’s So Blue’”

  1. Honda used to make visually appealing cars. Look how low those bonnet lines are and how thin the pillars are; impossible nowadays. BTW the link right at the end of the article links back to the same article.

  2. Also, I’d completely forgotten about the Prelude’s four wheel steering. There was a brief moment back then when it seemed like four wheel steering might become a thing, just as four wheel drive was briefly a thing in those days. There was a Mazda concept car I liked I saw at a motor show (1984?) that had it, I wish I could remember the name of it.

    1. The only difference is, 4WD still is the big thing, at least in some parts of the world. It is estimated that in Switzerland, 2018 might become the first year where the share of 4WD cars will be over 50%.

    2. John: Thanks for the alert, I’ve fixed that link now.

      Regarding the Mazda concept, was it the 1983 MX-02 – a design the Chevy Volt owed a considerable debt to, or the following year’s MX-03, which was a large luxury coupe?

    1. Vic: Many front-drive cars have a degree of compliance engineered in to allow for what is termed ‘passive steer’ characteristics. This was especially so on certain PSA products of the mid-late 90’s. I recall the ZX / 306 and Xantia, to name but three were said to have allowed the rear wheels to steer very slightly in the same direction as the fronts under certain degrees of load.

      SV: The 405 is a fine piece of design I’ll grant you, but in my view it is a lesser variant of the same theme that informed the Alfa 164. However, that isn’t simply my view, given that the jury for the 1988 Turin Design Awards gave the trophy to the Alfa, with the 405 second. Not only that, but none other than dear Leonard himself (he was on the jury panel) echoed that belief. The 164 (in my view) simply has more visual richness to it.

    2. Eoin, but the 164 had the advantage of being larger, and so I think the comparison with the 605 is fairer. I’m not going to argue that the 164 isn’t the nicest of them all, though 🙂

    3. Lancia gave the Lybra a very fine suspension indeed, miles more complex than the class standard. That´s my reading of the technical description of the car. And then they fitted a glove box lid of woefully inadequate hard PE plastic. Intelligent customers will over-look that. Most would not have been impressed. I could overlook it and also wish I did not have to though. If I had such a car I´d like to think that it was good all round rather than very good with bald patches.

    4. Indeed, the sophisticated Lybra suspension is one of the car’s main attractions, along with the separate heating/vent controls for the passenger — both appreciated by Mrs Vic. Glovebox tint is disappointing — but then earlier Lancias had them sliding out on rails; beautiful.

      The Pininfarina break is delightfully delicately done at the back — finer than the berlina’s crude lights.

      I often think many cars look more comfortable “in their skin” in estate form. Maybe you could consider this topic at some point? A 5-series saloon holds no great attraction for me, but the estate looks so right, no?

    5. Vic: My estimation of the Lybra goes up. If only customers had been appraised of that. However, an ad campaign is only enough to tell customers a productc is on the market. Brand values need to be established and maintained so that when the customer hears X has a new car they associate the product with a conception and expectation.
      About the estates, that might be a personal preference and not a general rule. Certainly there are cars where the designers did a better job than the basis car. The Lybra might be one and the Citroen C5 Mk1 another. Other estates are unhappy compromises e.g. the BX with its saloon doors and perhaps the XM estate too. Hmm.

  3. The model shown is my favourite generation of Honda Civic – it managed to be smooth, coherent, elegant and have a light look about it. The CRX of that era was stunning. Everything after either went down hill (I found the next gen car quite abhorrent), or just changed axis as Honda moved the model name up a whole class-size with the car which was the basis of the R8 Rover 200.

    The 405 probably deserves an article and discussion all on its own, although I might be saying that simply because its shape is epoque defining for the late 80’s in my mind, in a similar way to the Alfa 156 (so recently featured on this site) does for the period a decade later.

    Thanks for the memories.

  4. Eóin: Thanks for the reference, it was the Mazda MX-02. I was impressed by it at the time, looking at it again over thirty years later it looks rather slab-sided. It did preview features such as a head-up display, keyless entry and Vector door mirror housings!

    1. MX-02: Another cat that could have been a Citroen, no? Inside it managed to combine both ‘lunules’ (GSA/ Visa/ BX/ CX) and a button infested steering hub (C4/ C5). On the outside it’s the love-child of a BX and Renault 11, don’t you think?

  5. Eóin, thanks for reminding me of the Alphaville song (which I was listening to by 1997, when I delved into 80s synthpop). In my book, both the Prelude and the Civic hatchback aged well, and I could argue that the period 1987-1997 was the pinnacle of Honda – they were doing nicely styled cars, their engineering still had some nice oddities, they made reliable Rovers (!!!) and ruled Formula One for years.

    1. You’re welcome Eduardo. Problem is, I can’t get the flippin’ thing out of my head now…

  6. My Austin 1800 series 2 has RWS too…….when the rear swing axle rubber bearing chopped out……..wheeeee!

    1. Thanks for stopping by ryemanrye. That sounds a good deal more exciting than anything dear Alec might have secretly imagined. After all, he did espouse the notion of keeping the driver alert…

  7. I liked the look of that Prelude, so had a test drive after LJKS praised it. ‘Twas as dull as dishwater compared to my 80 quattro, and Setright went on to be a Honda fanboi, always excusing any foible.

    The 2015 and later Acura TLX in 4 cylinder form has standard P-AWS, Honda’s latest version of 4WS.

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