I was born in 1973, but I really started to notice cars in the 1980s. There are plenty of valid arguments about how bad the cars from this decade were, but I still get excited about them. Car companies were trying to meet new fuel and safety standards, but still satisfy the demands of enthusiasts. It was a tough task, but they somehow made it happen. Sure, the top-of-the-line Camaro Z28 only had 165-hp in 1982, but it looked good, it sounded good, and the advertisements were totally awesome. The Heartbeat of America? We Build Excitement? Pure genius.
When the redesigned Corvette debuted in 1984, I was certain that it was without a doubt, the most amazing car I had ever seen in my life. I suppose it looks old and dated now, but at the time it was state-of-the-art in every way. The suspension was like a work of art. The liquid crystal gauges were at the height of high-tech. Everything, from the unidirectional tires and wheels, to the shape of the optional lumbar adjustable leather seats, to the design of the air filter cover was just perfect. My dad brought a few of these home as company cars when they were new, and I thought riding in them was absolute heaven.
I have always been a big NASCAR fan, so I was aware of the street versions of whatever they were racing. Ford redesigned the Thunderbird in 1983, and the aerodynamic shape proved to be tough on the superspeedways. These were built on the same Fox platform as a Mustang, so they were strong performers. The hot ticket was the Turbo Coupe, which featured a 2.3-liter turbocharged four that was good for 190-hp. I can still picture this in Bill Elliott’s red, white, and gold Coors/Melling paint scheme.
The “bathtub T-Bird” was so successful, Chevy had to go back to the drawing board with their blocky Monte Carlo. In 1983, they debuted the SS, which gave it a hotter cam and urethane nose. But this car really took the NASCAR circuit by storm in 1986 with the addition of the Aerocoupe. They made a handful of production cars so the big glass window would qualify for NASCAR competition. This was about the time that Dale Earnhardt was building his reputation as “One Tough Customer.”
Pontiac also had a version of the Aerocoupe in 1986. Known as the Grand Prix 2+2, it also featured that large backlight and tiny trunk opening. They also had a unique urethane front fascia. The street cars were all silver, and like the Monte Carlo, were all equipped with a 305-c.i. V8. This wasn’t a particularly stellar season for Pontiac, and the 2+2 was dropped at the end of the year. Only about 1,200 of these were ever built.
The Monte Carlo and Grand Prix were both General Motors G-Bodies, and as it turns out, one of the hottest cars of the decade was also built on that platform. It wasn’t from Chevy or Pontiac, though, and it did not have a V8 under the hood. The Buick Grand National was the terror of the streets back in the day, and by 1986, the turbocharged, intercooled, 245-hp 3.8-liter V6 had power and performance that rivaled even the Corvette. The Grand National/T-Type was built on-and-off in limited numbers between 1982 and 1987. The Holy Grail is the 1987 Grand National GNX, on which McLaren and ASC upgraded the turbocharger for even more power. Only 547 GNXs were built.
To this day, the Fox platform Mustangs enjoy a huge enthusiast following. They were a true muscle car: lightweight, nimble, and powerful. They had some four-cylinder engine choices, including a sophisticated turbocharged version, but most people gravitate toward the 302-c.i. V8 models. Normally referred to as the 5.0, this power plant was ready-made for easy and effective performance upgrades. During the ‘80s, these cars were good for anywhere from 190- to 225-hp depending on the year, and at the time that was quite an accomplishment.
Across town, the Pony Car wars were heating up at Chevrolet. A brand-new Camaro arrived on the scene in 1982, and the vaunted IROC-Z hit showrooms in 1985. This was the street version of the Camaros the stars raced in the International Race of Champions. In addition to the normal Z28 goodies, they featured special paint and graphics and 16-inch aluminum wheels. I know 16-inch wheels don’t sound impressive now, but in 1985, they bordered on the ridiculous. A 350-equipped IROC was the top dog Camaro in the 1980s, and they were all automatics. You could only get a stick with a 305.
Chrysler had the occasional front-wheel-drive Shelby Charger or Daytona, but their performance aspirations were somewhat limited in the 1980s. They were just coming off a huge government bailout, and most of their new products were derived from some version of their front-wheel-drive K-Car platform. A large chunk of those were the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans. Introduced in 1984, these two vehicles have gone on to sell more than 13-million units. These things were everywhere. Things were about to get better, though--the Viper concept came out in 1989.
If you were looking for pure ‘80s luxury, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than the 1984-1985 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible. Converted by ASC, these cars were expensive and exclusive. The interior was stuffed with button-tufted leather. A Biarritz coupe would have come with a stainless steel roof, but that obviously wasn’t an option here, so it was the interior that put these over the top. They are rare, with only 3,000 built between the two years. Incidentally, they also converted a handful of Buick Rivieras into convertibles like this from 1982-1985.
Finally, let’s do a study in contrasts. The worst car produced in the ‘80s, and probably one of the worst cars ever sold in the United States, was the Yugo GV, which infiltrated our shores between 1985 and 1992. You could say one thing for them: they were cheap. At $3,995 in 1987, they cost less than most used cars. They were imported by automotive entrepreneur Malcolm Bricklin from Yugoslavia, and even though they did try and improve them for the American market, they didn’t meet American expectations. They actually sold more than 141,000 of them in this country, however. Three of those may actually be in running condition to this day.
On the flip-side, more kids probably had a Lamborghini Countach poster in their room than any other car. These radical machines had been around since 1974, but it was the ‘80s when they really hit their stride. The picture depicts a U.S.-spec Countach 5000QV, which came out in 1985. These had a 5.2-liter V12 behind your head that churned out 414-hp. That was huge in 1985. They also cost $100,000—also huge in 1985. That astronomical price tag, combined with the fact that these were very difficult cars to live with, probably explains why they only sold 610 2000QVs between 1985 and 1988.
There were lots of other interesting cars in the 1980s, but this story is getting pretty long. Instead, feel free to look at the slideshow of ‘80s cars below. I took all of these pictures at various car shows, auctions, and auto museums over the last few years. Click this link for a better version of the slideshow.