Old, broken, ugly, and slow are words that some would commonly associate with cars from the 1980s. Though it did birth one of the greatest eras of the industry, the turbocharged two-door sports-car, the 1980s had cars which were built at the cusp of the oil crisis, so finding cars that were still gunning for performance and speed got harder to find, and even harder to justify.
That said it wasn’t impossible to find a car that barely complied with emissions standards while still breaking the 200 horsepower mark, with the exception of the minivan category, but minivans didn’t reach that milestone until the 1990s anyway.
Here are the best cars of the 1980s:
For our purposes we’re going with the definition of a sedan, which is an enclosed automobile capable of carrying four or more people, with two or four doors.
The search for a 1980s sedan with at least 200 horsepower stopped at the Ford Taurus SHO. It’s FWD layout means handling through corners suffers a bit next to, say, an RX-7’s superior RWD, nevertheless under the hood was an impressive Yamaha-made 3.0-liter V6 SHO (Super High Output) engine, with a redline of 7,000 and more than 200 horsepower, mated to a Mazda-built 5-speed manual transmission. It’s curb weight at almost 3,300 pounds made the SHO a FWD Mustang, but it had four doors and a top speed of over 140 MPH.
It’s been defined to death in more ways than there are stars in the universe, but we’re going to go with the muscle car definition of stuffing an oversized engine into a sedan.
As uninspired a choice as the Mustang GT is for the best muscle car to restore, the simple fact is that it’s the best because parts are everywhere. For practicality’s sake, if you’re looking to restore a car, you might not want to expense a massive dig in Cairo for long-lost parts.
The year 1987 is important because of the engine. 1987-1989 (technically 1992 but this is the 80s) Mustangs with the 5.0-liter V8 came from the factory with forged pistons which, coupled with an iron cylinder block, means you can tackle massive horsepower gains with some confidence.
Here’s another definition coming your way. Sports cars are not necessarily designed to go fast, they are designed to handle corners with precision. But, what if you could have both?
It’s extraordinarily heavy at more than 4,000 pounds, which is hardly in keeping with the traditional lightweight sports cars of the 80s, including the Mazda RX-7 and Nissan 240sx.
Hopefully the roaring 320 horsepower-producing 5.0-liter V8 under the hood makes up for it. The Mercedes 500 SL is widely known for handling quite well, thanks to suspension obtained from the much lesser-powered 300 SL of the same generation. The car feels bulky, but doesn’t act as such.
What are a truck’s true duties? It needs to be strong and durable, with a strong emphasis on towing power.
The 1980s weren’t super great for trucks in terms of technology and ingenuity. These days there are trucks with steel frames and aluminum body panels in an effort to save weight.Times were different in the 80s for trucks, they were slow to evolve. But trucks were pure back then. They were built to be work horses, not to compete with Rolls Royce Phantoms.
One of the best examples of this is the GMC Sierra from 1988. It could come equipped with a 5.7-liter fuel injected V8 that made about 210 horsepower and about 300 lb-ft of torque, with a tow capacity of about 10,000 pounds. In other words everything you need in a truck.
Anyone who says Minivans aren’t cool hasn’t looked back far enough through the tomes of 1980s minivan history.
Many will point to the Toyota Previa as the best minivan of all time, thanks to its (extraordinarily rare) supercharged mid-mounted inline-four cylinder engine and AWD layout. That car put out 158 horsepower, which to today’s standards isn’t much. It was also hard to work on, and is extremely hard to find.
Thanks to the Chevrolet Astro, the Previa wasn’t your only option for a RWD/AWD 160-hp minivan. Granted that number didn't reach 200 until the '90s so we’ve had to dumb down our standards for this particular category, but make no mistake a minivan from the 1980s doesn’t get much better than the Chevrolet Astro. You can even fit a motorcycle into the cargo area.
Simply put, a compact car lies somewhere between a subcompact and a mid-size car when defining where it fits on the vehicle size spectrum.
Believe it or not the Nissan Skyline GT-R is classified as a compact car up until its 1989 model year and, thankfully, is now legal to import into the United States. Aside from the R32’s 276 producing twin-turbocharged 2.6-liter inline-six engine, it also used a RWD-dominant AWD system, where power was sent primarily to the rear wheels but in the event of wheel spin a massive amount of torque is sent to the front wheels, thus splitting the power to all four wheels.
While this car is legal to import, keep in mind that doesn’t mean it will pass emissions tests. Especially in states under a massive green umbrella like California, you might need to strap a pile of emissions equipment onto the engine just to register it.
Luxury meant something else 37 years ago compared to what it means today. Now you can find luxurious features like heated seats and two-way climate control, traction control and complex transmissions designed to make the engine more gas efficient… in a truck. Back then, you could only find these amenities in an executive sedan, and no one did it better than BMW.
The 750iL got a wine cooler, telephone and fax machine, heated door locks, and windshield wipers that automatically increased their spring pressure to accommodate for freeway speed.
The iL's (for “long") exclusive luxurious features continued with full leather seats, dual climate control, folding tables and heated rear seats. Under the hood was the M70 engine, a single overhead cam 5.0-liter V12 that produced around 300 horsepower and more than 400 lb-ft of torque.
The engine was also on the up-and-up, with an aluminum alloy cylinder block, electronic throttle control, timing chain (vs. a timing belt in other BMW engines), and hydraulic valve lifters. Perhaps gratuitous by todays standards the 750iL also had two alternators and two batteries, making maintenance expensive and inconvenient. If you made enough money to own one of these, though, that might not have been too much of a problem.
Cars from the 1980s are nothing if not charming. Tiny turbocharged Japanese coupes and big-engined German titans made for a mischievous lineup that snuck its way into North American markets like a sleight-of-hand magic trick. Sure, they aren’t as reliable anymore, nor are they as durable or practical, but even after almost 40 years cars from the 1980s are still more fun than anything you can get on the road today.
Avid Formula 1 fan and motorcyclist, I enjoy chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream and long rides to the beach.