Most Iconic 1980’s Cars
Not sure if you remember, but the 1980s were a mixed bag. The movies were either great or dreadful, the music mostly sucked, the hair and clothing styles were laughable even back then, and factory performance cars were almost nonexistent. Despite most V8s on the road making all of 150 horsepower, there were ‘80s cars that performed well or sold in serious numbers and became icons of the decade. Here are 25 cars that represent the 1980s.
Few things, automotive of otherwise, scream 1980s like a Countach. Sure, it was first released in 1974, but the seriously vented, winged shaped didn’t appear until the 1982 500 S model. The original had nice clean lines, and a respectable (for the ‘70s) 375 hp, but the ‘80s brought bigger and better. With more wing, more bodykit, and massive 345mm wide tires, the 1989 25th Anniversary Countach hit 0 to 60 in 4.7 seconds. That’s a good number even today.
This subcompact hatchback is probably the single biggest contributor to the ‘90s tuner craze. While most manufacturers punished you with their economy cars, Honda made one that was fun. While it had the usual economy car bonus – good fuel economy numbers – and it sure wasn’t fast, the CR-X had solid handling and charismatic steering. It looked like a space shuttle for the ground, and with the 5-speed manual it was every bit as fun as a classic British sports car, albeit one people could afford to buy new. The little Honda would litter the used car lots for high-schoolers by the mid-90s….
Toyota Van (R20 & R30)
Gross. I didn’t say all of these would be cool. Who could forget the ‘80s “box on wheels”? The Toyota Van was more appropriately named the Space Cruiser in Europe, fitting as it seemed like a taste of the super cool ‘80s future. Boxy, yet aerodynamic, the economical people mover somehow hinted at a future where Japan ruled the world. The cool thing about the R20 Van is the front/rear layout, and plethora of four cylinder engines and manual transmissions. Meaning, this ugly beast is just a taller AE86.
For far too long, from 1981 to 1995, the K-cars ruled the world. After the gas crisis of the ‘70s, Chrysler’s answer was to make things as cheaply as possible, and spread them as far as possible. The K-chassis spawned everything from compact beaters to mid-size frumpy wagons and sad little minivans. Names include Aries K, LeBaron, and Reliant, among several other forgettable rides. Lee Iacocca penny pinched Chrysler to profitability with these cars, but they became the stereotypical penalty box. There were a few performance standouts though, like the Dodge Spirit R/T, which was faster than a same year Mustang GT.
If you wanted to be cool and pull ‘80s chicks with a sweet ride, you needed a Fiero. It seems laughable now, but 30 years ago this car was quite the head turner, like a mini Ferrari, and kids would point and stare in open mouthed wonder. The idea was cool, with a mid-mounted V6 and auto or manual driving the rear wheels in a good looking coupe. Unfortunately GM’s build tolerances (and shipping a quart low on oil) meant that there was some unexpected publicity for this car. While it died after one generation, everyone remembers the Fiero and their big-haired owners.
The ‘80s Taurus is a joke now, but it’s hard to remember just how groundbreaking this car was for the time. Most American sedans were boxy and upright, with a massive grille distinguishing brands. The swept Taurus was a “bottom breather,” allowing better aerodynamics, and thus fuel economy, and a design that looks like it was pulled from 5 years into the future. While the four and six cylinder engines were snooze-fests, the SHO “sho’d” us that the States could do a fun performance sedan for a bargain price. It’s too bad more manufacturers didn’t pay attention.
If the Countach is too much cocaine for your tastes, odds are you are a fan of the legendary Ferrari F40. Made in similar numbers to the Lambo, the F40 benefited from a decade more advancement in performance technology. Sitting mid-ship is an incredible 2.9 liter twin turbo V8 that sounds like nothing else on Earth. It makes a stout 478 hp, and pushes just 2,400 lbs. The F40 is a legend because it looks awesome, but also because its performance was so far beyond everything else before it.
The most successful model of the DeLorean brand, this was also the only model. The concept was amazing, and the production vehicle could have been just as great, and it almost was. Fiberglass monocoque construction is covered by unpainted stainless steel panels. Gullwing doors, grid tail lights, double wishbone suspension and disc brakes all around. This could have been so sweet. While the DMC-12 is only 2,700 lbs, the dreadful 2.8 V8 puts its performance on-par with a second gen Prius. Ouch. A number of other factors lead to the company’s demise after just 9,000 examples hit the road. They’re still very popular today, and bring back memories of everything from drug busts to Marty McFly.
Back when trucks were bought for work, Datsun/Nissan sold this cool little truck that seemed to make up half of the ‘80s lowrider scene. The combination of simple lines and good looks, plus actual utility and an affordable price lead to lots of sales. The first half of the ‘80s (Atari generation) saw the Datsun 720 as their primary truck, while the later ‘80s (Nintendo generation) saw the Nissan D21. Either truck offered four bangers with an auto or manual. They averaged 100 hp, so you won’t be towing your boat to the lake, you do have to admit they look pretty cool painted a few neon shades and slammed to the weeds.
You know these cars as the wagons and sedans that can be seen in the background of every ‘80s movie. It was Volvo’s single best-selling model at that time, and there are a surprising amout of good drivers still left on the roads today. Classic lines mean a model in good shape looks outstanding today, and while they were usually powered by a 107 hp four cylinder, there were some turbo models and V6s that slipped into the US. Today, this car still offers a lot of utility and reliability for very little cash, and has even found a home among tuners and racers.
Those are the top ten 1980s icons, but here’s a few more rad rides for your neon headband and acid washed jeans viewing pleasure…
Chevy Camaro IROC-Z
The third generation Camaro isn’t known for its power, as it was a product of its time. Still, unlike most pony cars, the Camaro survived by adapting. While power was usually under 200 hp, the 5-speed manual and rear wheel drive kept things interesting, especially since the IROC was basically the best handling vehicle under $12k. Grab your jean jacket, it’s time to go cruising.
This car entered pop culture through the phrase/rap lyric, “I’m Audi 5000,” which is ‘80s slang for “I’m outta here.” The all-wheel drive sedans were popular, and noted for reliability, until an unintended acceleration debacle on 60 Minutes. While the cars were reliable, Audi’s reputation was sunk, and sales took a decade to recover.
Basically we could put the Thunderbird in each list of auto icons, from ‘50s to ‘00s. The ‘80s were no different, with a distinctive swept ‘bird. Interesting drivetrain options included the Mustang SVO’s turbo four, a supercharged V6, or the Mustang GT’s 5.0 V8. The aerocoupe outsold all competitors, and would sell solidly into the ‘90s.
Dodge sure made a lot of ‘80s icons. This weird little truck-thing is actually a coupe utility, like Holden’s Ute down under. The car-truck looks like a mini El Camino, but is powered by a Mitsubishi four cylinder, and powers the front wheels. While very distinctive, buyers didn’t like it, and the Rampage lasted 3 years on the market.
Dodge Grand Caravan
If video killer the radio star, the minivan killed the station wagon. Tired of the frumpy image of wagons, families flocked to these upright people movers from Chrysler. Built on the adaptable S-chassis, these front wheel drive, four cylinder vans offered zero excitement, but a lot of utility, for not a lot of money. These vans ruled the world for a few years there in the ‘80s.
Dodge Omni GLH-S
The Dodge Omni was a forgettable hunk of garbage, as it was a rebadged French Simca, with none of the personality. Still, they sold well enough for Carrol Shelby to get involved, turning this little econobox into a fairly quick little econobox, and an ‘80s legend.
What a stupid name. What an ‘80s name. The brat was similar to the Dodge Rampage above, a compact front-wheel drive car-truck, but reliable. Under the hood was a 97 hp horizontal four banger, so the Brat couldn’t win races or pull trailers. Still, it was unique, like its name, and it has a following even today.
It’s hard to pick on a Jag, as they’re usually so pretty. The ‘80s XJ and XJ12 were decent looking cars, especially considering the era. However, by the early ‘80s, you were looking at a face-lifted and refreshed version of an ancient car. The big cat soldiered on into the ‘90s, slowly becoming irrelevant. This series of XJ is timeless ‘80s, yet also older than it looks.
I haven’t seen one of these in probably 10 years, but in the ‘80s they were everywhere. The Tercel was a smaller, experimental version of the popular Corolla. It was the first front-wheel drive Toyota, and offered a choice of auto and manual transmissions. Unfortunately it had the power of a Geo Metro, and the looks of a Ford Escort, but reliability saved it.
Before the mighty F40, the Testarossa was the king of Ferrari’s lineup. It was ‘80s brash and bold, with gigantic strakes down the side, directing air to the mid-mounted flat V12. While it screams Miami Vice, the “red head” is still respected today, as its looks have aged fairly well, and it’s an all-around competent car.
Here’s a forgotten classic. This boxy sedan was Toyota’s “large” car, at a time when the Camry was still rather small. The top of the line ‘yota delivered superb reliability, with handling and comfort, making us wonder where the cool version of Toyota is hiding today… The real keepers are the later Cressidas, which are pretty much a four-door Supra.
This is another sedan that was actually kinda fun back in the day. While it was standard ‘80s blocky, it was also an affordable sport sedan, featuring rear-wheel drive and nearly as much horsepower as a same year Mustang GT. In ’84 the second generation showed off massively better looks and “large” 15” wheels. If you can’t find a Cressida, the Maxima is just as good.
No one missed this ‘80s car, but it is still worthy of this list. The early ‘80s saw Honda making a plain, but cheap and solidly reliable commuter. The mid-‘80s saw the third generation Accord, with pop-up headlights and double wishbone suspension. It’s was Honda bringing fun to the masses.
Long before the CLA, there was Merc’s attempt to draw a wider market, without hurting their luxury image. The 190 hit the US in 1982, and brought new meaning to compact luxury. While it looks dated today, it was revolutionary at the time, and sold well over 100,000 units a year.
Back when Hyundai built crap (anything before 2005), they rapidly went through a few vehicles, trying to find one that worked. One of them that worked very well was the Excel. This awkward hatchback sedan featured numerous stupid names like Pony and Scoupe, but an under $5,000 price was enough for Hyundai to move 168,000 units in just 1985.
Ever miss those times or cars? Of course there are so many other notable cars from the 80’s such as the Acura Legend, AMC Eagle and so on. What vehicle from the 1980s stands out as a cultural icon, and time capsule from that era? Let us know what you remember from that time, or even what you owned or drove.