Convertible Solaire

From G1 Prelude

If you know of someone connected to the Solaire company or any convertible conversion dealing with these cars, please email me at Nmitchell_47@yahoo.com. We need your help in piecing together the puzzle of the convertibles.


Start of Solaire

Solaire was founded in Arizona as a fabrication company by Walter Crutchfield. He started work on his 1978 Civic CVCC, attempting to build an aftermarket kit using fiberglass parts to extend the wheel wells, various add-on accessories and a turbo conversion. He exhausted the local talent in Arizona and moved the car to Torrance, CA to work side Gene Hehman, a talented car restoration specialist. Dealer responses to Walters idea were lukewarm and the business didn't materialize into anything.

During his time in Torrance, Walter saw the Mustang conversion done by Intermeccania in Santa Ana and the idea of getting into convertible conversions interested him. The Honda Prelude, being a new sports car on the street, gave Walter the idea to pursue a convertible conversion for himself. He contacted his close friend, Jim Bruemmer and gave 49% of the company to him. Jim encouraged Walter to meet with Al Rowland, owner of Newport Coachworks, to see if he could help make the idea a reality. During that time, Al was demonstrating his custom Kanzler coupes in 1979 under his Newport Coachworks business (founded in 1978). Al Rowland liked the idea and agreed to help to make Solaire into a mass convertible house. The Solaire Corporation was officially established on June 16th, 1980 and was stationed at 2909 Croddy Way, Santa Ana CA as a subsidiary to Newport Coachworks. Both businesses operated out of the same building.

Cars In Progress

5 Volvo 262C Solaire Convertibles for Volvo CEO Pehr G. Gyllenhammar (Solaire), 4 Kanzler Coupes funded by Enerset Kanzler Jr. (Newport Coachworks), 4 Test Porsche Cabrios for Porchse CEO Peter Schutz (Newport Coachworks). Rolls Royce Cornich (Newport Coachworks), Subaru GL (Solaire), Andial Porsche Dream Project but plans fell through due to VOA halting car sales (Solaire)

Solaire Team

Under Al's leadership and Jim's connections, a team was put together to build the first prototype convertible, alongside work on the Volvo 262C and various other cars. Ted Brown was brought in for fabrication and canvas work, while Mark Sprakler worked on the cars body. Ted needed help and reached outside to Bruce Meyers (of the Meyers Manx Dune Buggy Fame) to being the consultant for the cars top and operation. Ted and his team sewed the first top and built the mechanism on the first Prelude. Ted Sulley / Brett Banker / Earle Cook were general workers. Phil Hunter was the production manager for both shop operations.

Pictured below is from the Road & Track article (May 1981) that features Bruce working at Newport Coachworks on the tooling for their Volvo 262C and Prelude.

The combination of a entrepreneur and a businessman worked well between Alan and Jim. Interviews suggest that Jim ran the marketing/production side of Solaire, while Al kept the business afloat.

To lead mass market sales, they offered a fully backed 5-year warranty and exclusivity with Honda dealerships to help create the basis for Solaire's sales.

Construction

The first prototype was noted as a "tank of a car", weighing more than the car originally did with it's solid top. The team went through many iterations, testing the rigidity of the Honda's unibody. The first test used 1/4" rectangular steel tubing in the B-pillars and door channel behind the lower rocker panels. Rectangular steel posts were added to the A-pillar window frame. The tubing subframe is visible on the silver '80 promo car driven by Jim Bruemmer (seen in Autoweek and Small Car Trends magazine, and on the top of this wiki page). After several trials, the steel tubing was removed and 1/4" steel plates were welded onto key areas. Later production models incorporated less bracing or smaller tubing, a sign that earlier models were well over engineered.

The cloth top was made from a high quality German type Hartz sail-cloth, with a full rear window plus two quarter windows. It was modeled after a popular design during the time.

A custom one-piece fiberglass header was shaped above the front windshield with two metal latches to hold the top in place.

The top folds down manually flush into the rear well, where a custom rear seat or a parcel shelf was placed (either was optional at the time). A matching beauty cover was provided to snap over the top when lowered.

All parts were fabricated in the Solaire shop, including the Fiberglass and cloth work.

The final construction for '81 models added only 15lbs to the original cars weight, equaling a total 2125lbs.

Reveal at Disney Resort

It is thought that Solaire's first completed Prelude convertible was a Gold 1980 model. This was Solaires promotional car, alongside a silver 1980 model. It has been confirmed the car was shown at the Disneyland Hotel during a Honda dealer show in September of 1980, adjacent to the Honda tent at the Marina Pool. Fun fact, there was apparently a competitor's convertible (believed to be Intermeccania's version) parked in the Disney parking lot, leading visitors to believe it was Solaire's promo car. Due to the confusion, Jim Bruemmer released a mail flyer to all interested parties that their car was inside Disney and not outside. (See attachment below)

After the cars reveal at Disney, Walter Crutchfield sold his remaining 51% interest in the company to Al Rowland at the age of 19. He also got a 1957 Porsche speedster out of the deal.

Promotional Ads / Magazines

A lot of interested buyers made remarks how the car looked similar to a Mercedes 450SL. This was later used as promotional material to help customer traffic to Honda dealerships. It is noted that Bruce Meyers intentionally designed the rear shelf (or seat) to mimic the 450SL design. The Solaire turned out to be quite a fun, sporty package for buyers and it garnered a general buzz during late 1980 and early 1981. Featured in several magazines, including Motor Trend, AutoWeek, Small Car Trends, Car Collector, Automotive News and even on Charlies Angels TV Series.

Dealership Solaire Program

To order a convertible Prelude, only a direct Honda dealer could place it. They were not sold to individual dealerships or to the public. First models that could be ordered were available in a gold or silver '80's model, while silver, red or blue for '81 models. Your choice of top colors could be black, tan or navy. With a 50% deposit put down, the car was shipped from the dealership directly to Solaire, converted and returned upon finishing the remaining 50% deposit. Monthly delivery plans were available if a dealership felt more than one Prelude would be converted. Prices ranged from $14,000-15,500 US Dollars to purchase a Solaire in 1981.

The company claimed to have carried a $5,000,000 liability insurance per the conversions. The dealership could request a copy of this at anytime.

The cars sold well and grabbed national attention. This was the first Honda convertible offered in the US. With their business growing and Solaire starting to work on the Subaru GL, they took the Prelude to the SEMA show in Las Vegas (either 1981 or 1982).

It is stated on several marketing materials that a second plant opened in Jacksonville, FL to help handle east coast sales. Al confirmed this was true, but did not know what company Jim had worked with to do the conversions on the East Coast.

End of Solaire

Solaire was sold to Import Trend Sales, owned by Albert Mardikian, around 1983 or 1984. Albert was known as the "Gray Market" car guy, famously importing high-end European luxury and sport cars and legalizing them for sale in the US. Al mentioned he believed Albert never got around to do anything with the company because in 1985 Albert was indicted on 35 counts in May of 1985 for falsifying legal status of his imported cars. His article is linked here in the LA Times : https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-05-23-fi-8240-story.html

How Many Were Converted?

An exact number of the conversions are not known, but internet speculation had stated 47 were converted. This number is incorrect and most likely came from a now defunct German website stating the European Tropic's production (www.tropicsn.de). During a recent interview with a Solaire factory worker Earle Cook, co-designer Bruce Meyers and owner Al Rowland, all three have stated there were well over 100 of the preludes converted, possibly 150-200 at most in the US.

In the Road & Track Magazine (September 1981) article, it is written that over a 100 cars were converted during the publication. Small Car Trends Magazine (March 1981) stated that 40 cars per month were being produced at the time of their writing.

As of 1/28/22, there are currently 14 registered in the US through the G1preludes database.

How to tell if your convertible is a true Solaire?

With numerous convertibles being sold during the early 80s, it is hard to tell who converted what. Eight noticeable traits are known true to a Solaire Conversion:

  • Triple Rear Window Canvas Top
  • Unique Clasp Design for Top
  • Dual Hinge for Top Mechanism
  • Custom Rear Fiberglass Tub Insert
  • Custom Fiberglass Header on Front Windshield
  • 1/4" Steel Plates Welded Inside to Bottom of Front "A" Pillar, Inside Rocker Panel and Bottom of Rear "B" Pillar
  • Solaire Decal on rear trunk lid (not all conversions had this)
  • Machined Cap Pieces for Side Windows and Door Channel

It can also be indicated on the cars original paperwork, if it was converted as a "Solaire". Al confirmed that there were no markings or ID #'s stamped on the car during production at his shop in Santa Ana. If another coach builder did the conversion with a Solaire kit, they may have added their own unique identifier to the car.

It is a known fact that Solaire was not the only company producing a convertible Prelude during 1981-82. It is confirmed that Jim Bruemmer sold licenses, or "conversion kits" to numerous coach companies in the US and Canada such as Steas, Con-Tech, Classic Touch, Silcco, National Coach (CANANDA). Several kits were sold to a shop in Jacksonville FL, helping sales on the East Coast.

Al reported that he made a special trip to Japan for a John Honda (no company name given) who converted 2, while possibly ordering more kits. A half a dozen kits were sold to a company in South America.

Tropic Convertible

It is believed that the Solaire Corporation reached out to Jurgen G. Weber, Tropic Automobil-Design GMBH (Crailsheim, Germany) in early 1981 for distributing their licensing rights outside the US. Two flyers advertised for the Tropic Conversion show a 1980 Solaire model in front of the Santa Ana headquarters, expressing a convertible conversion for Tropic was happening. Later in 1982, Tropic released a special invitation to interested buyers with a show date of the car across the country. Toured through the summer of 1982, the Tropic convertible was shown off at numerous dealers across Germany. It was advertised that 67 improvements were made to the American design, making the Tropic truly superior to the Solaire. A newer designed windshield cap that incorporated a formed rubber seal and an easier top clasp design. Molded seals around the bottom A-pillar and a newer designed fiberglass tub.

Two versions of the Tropic Solaire have been recorded. Version one relied on structural tubing used in the window framing, version two used a "Y" shaped structural tubing design under the driver and passenger floor panel greatly reducing ground clearance.

The Tropic Prelude was sold in 1982-1983 alongside Tropics Toyota Celica, Opel Ascona and BMW 635 CSi. 46-47 models were believed to have been built before Tropic's closure in late 1983.

2nd Gen Prelude Solaire

Recent discovery of promotional material suggest that Solaire continued with the '83 / '84 model year Preludes before the company closed. Solaire Car Company operated in Australia. Al Rowland confirmed they had worked on a prototype but never made it into production.

Reproduction Decals

10-5-20, carefully reproduced "Solaire" decals in CAD, small batch ran. If you are interested, please see my link. https://www.etsy.com/listing/1092004711/79-82-honda-prelude-solaire-convertible?click_key=d721d8c41af6ea388760f26519ae73aa4d330423%3A1092004711&click_sum=932c14ec&ref=shop_home_recs_5&frs=1