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20 1980s Muscle Cars That Brought Speed Back To America

Vukasin HerbezJune 29, 2020

Generation X is a demographic made up of people born in the 1960s who became adults in the 1980s. The 1980s were a time of wild hairstyles, MTV, the Walkman, and square cars with bulky plastic bumpers. Although the ’70s had its share of muscle car models, almost all cars from the period were tragically underpowered without any real performance appeal.

Despite that, the muscle car market didn’t die. It was just waiting for better cars. In the ’80s, these faster and powerful cars arrived in various forms. That was just what the market needed. Even though 1980s muscle cars were slow compared to their predecessors, these models are important. They helped keep the muscle car flame burning for the next generation.

Today, there’s a rising interest in 1980s muscle cars. Automotive historians appreciate the role of ’80s muscle cars in American performance car history. Members of Generation X now in their 50s are looking back towards their teenage automotive dreams. For that reason, we looked at 20 of the best American muscle cars of the 1980s.

20. 1982 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28

After 11 years of production of the second generation F-body, GM gave the Camaro and Firebird a much-needed redesign for the 1982 model year. The new model was more advanced and aerodynamic. They also improved the suspension and handling.

The hottest version of the new Camaro was the Z/28 with a 305 V8 delivering 165 HP. Even though the power was low compared to the Z/28 from the late ’60s, the ’82 Camaro was a relatively fast car by the standards of the day. It was 500 pounds lighter than the previous generation.

As soon as the Z/28 hit the streets, those clever backstreet hot rodders realized they could change the intake system and camshaft. This update significantly increased the power and performance of the stock Z/28 for drivers aiming for pure speed.

19. Ford Mustang SVO

The third-generation Ford Mustang appeared as a 1979 model. It brought necessary modernization to the Mustang. The so-called ‘Fox-body’ Mustang was sleeker, more modern and aerodynamic. It was also somewhat lighter and more nimble, which reflected in the performance.

However, the biggest news was the introduction of the turbo engine, a state-of-the-art device at the time. Ford’s Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) department introduced a special Mustang SVO for 1984. It featured a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 175 HP, a lot of power for a small engine.

This engine in a light car made the 1984 Mustang SVO highly popular. The package included four-wheel disc brakes, a stiffer suspension, and sharper steering, transforming the little Mustang into a capable sports car. For 1985, SVO upped the power to an impressive 205 HP, attracting the motoring public to the third-generation Mustang.

18. Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

In most aspects, Firebirds were mechanically identical to third-generation Camaros. They shared almost all engines and drivetrain components. However, they improved the design with one of the signature design details of the decade – pop-up headlights.

The updated headlights, aggressive design, and aero details made the Firebird more attractive than the Camaro. The hottest version of the 1982 Firebird was the Trans Am. It featured the same engine as the Z/28 Camaro. However, the Trans Am handled better thanks to Pontiac’s suspension improvements.

17. Dodge Omni GLH/GLHS

While Europe was embracing the hot hatch class and developing it in the mid-1980s, America seemed quite uninterested. The Golf GTI sold well in the states, but domestic manufacturers weren’t producing any hot hatches. That was, not until the legendary Carroll Shelby teamed up with Dodge to introduce his version of the compact Omni model. Dodge called it the Omni GLH, which means, “Goes Like Hell.”

It was a proper hot hatch. It was also one of the best affordable performance models money could buy. Nobody expected Dodge could produce a hot hatch that could beat the European competitors. But with Shelby’s help, it did just that. Shelby took the 2.2-liter four-cylinder and added a turbocharger.

This gave the Omni GLH a total output of 175 HP and a 0 to 60 mph time of less than seven seconds. Dodge gave the GLH some suspension modifications and other upgrades so it could handle all that power. Interestingly, Shelby and Dodge produced an improved version they called the GLHS for “Goes Like Hell S’More.” Dodge only produced 500 of those models.

16. 1983-84 Oldsmobile Hurst/Olds

After taking a few years off, Oldsmobile introduced a new limited-edition Hurst/Olds model for the 1983 model year. The Cutlass was the only mid-size rear-wheel-drive platform that could serve as the basis for a muscle car after Oldsmobile’s smaller offerings switched to front-wheel drive.

Under the hood was a 307 V8 with 180 HP that delivered a relatively swift performance and 0 to 60 mph times of under eight seconds. The secret was the famous Oldsmobile Lightning Rod shifter. It was an automatic with three levers, one main and two separate sticks for manual shifting of the first and second gears.

The 1983 Hurst/Olds proved to be a popular car and Oldsmobile sold 3001 examples. They didn’t change the car for the 1984 model year and production rose to 3,500 units. Today, both model years are highly-prized collector cars.

15. 1983-88 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS

Chevrolet introduced the Monte Carlo in 1970. The SS version was the perfect blend of performance and luxury in an affordable package. But they discontinued the option in 1974 and customers soon forgot it. In 1983, Chevrolet decided to reintroduce it with the 1983 model year, continuing the option until 1988 successfully.

The mid-1980s Monte Carlo was one of the coolest two-door coupes of the period. Its performance wasn’t exhilarating, however. Under the hood was a 305 V8 with 180 HP linked to a slow automatic transmission. What the SS lacked in performance, it contributed with looks and reputation. In its five-year production run, Chevrolet built over 180,000 of these sleek coupes.

14. Buick GNX

Back in 1982, Buick started experimenting with turbocharging its line of standard V6 engines. The results were intriguing, so Buick engineers developed a performance version with better acceleration figures. Soon, there was the Buick Grand National with 175 HP. The number wasn’t impressive, but it was a start.

In the next couple of years, the Grand National got a bigger engine with more power, jumping from 175 HP to 200 HP and finally to 235 HP. With those numbers came 0-60 acceleration times of less than six seconds, making the black Grand Nationals seriously quick cars. But in 1987 came the ultimate version they called the Grand National Experimental (GNX). It featured the same 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 but pumped out 275 HP with a 0 to 60 mph time of 4.7 seconds.

Suddenly, Buick’s turbocharged V6 coupe broke every classic muscle car mold. It was even faster than a Ferrari. At that time, the Buick GNX was the fastest accelerating production model in the world. At $29,000, it was expensive. However, legend says some GNX owners paid for their cars by street racing them. Unfortunately, the Buick GNX was one year only model and the company made just 547 of them. Today, those cars are as equally praised as they were in the late ’80s.

13. Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe

Despite being in production for just two short years, the Aerocoupe is one of the most interesting 1980s muscle cars. Basically it was a regular Monte Carlo SS with a few design tweaks. Chevy introduced the Aerocoupe in 1986 and even homologated it for NASCAR races. The GNX featured a panorama-style back window with a back spoiler.

The new rear glass provided a slight fastback profile, improving the aerodynamics on NASCAR superspeedway tracks. Mechanically speaking, the Aerocoupe had the same 180 HP 305 V8 engine as the regular SS. The production for the 1986 model year was just 200 examples. This was enough to homologate the car, but for 1987, Chevrolet produced an additional 5,852 cars.

12. 1985-90 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

The third-generation Camaro was popular. But after a while, buyers wanted more performance and power. So Chevy delivered the legendary IROC-Z version in 1985. The IROC-Z was a tribute to the Chevy-sponsored International Race of Champions racing series.

However, it was much more than just an appearance package and a cool name. Under the hood was a 350 V8 with 225 HP and 245 HP in later versions. Buyers could opt for manual or automatic and tuned suspensions and steering. Chevrolet even offered a cool-looking convertible, the first Camaro ragtop in 18 years. The IROC-Z proved a popular and influential muscle car that finally brought some real performance to buyers.

11. Oldsmobile 442

Oldsmobile revived the most famous name from its performance portfolio in 1985. It was based on the rear-wheel-drive Cutlass platform. This time, the model designation stood for a four-speed automatic transmission, a four-bbl carburetor, and two exhausts.

The 307 V8 engine delivered 170 to 180 HP. This wasn’t enough for exciting performance numbers, so Oldsmobile concentrated on handling and luxury. This made the 442 a comfortable car to own. This Oldsmobile was the last rear-wheel-drive 442. In three years, they made just over 10,000 of them.

10. Ford Mustang GT 5.0

The rise in power of domestic cars during the 1980s brought the first real performance to the Mustang in almost 20 years. The Fox-body Mustang grew more powerful with each model year starting with 175 HP in the 1983 model. By the late ’80s, the venerable 5.0-liter V8 engine was pumping 225 HP and 300 lb-ft of torque. This translated to very competent 0 to 60 mph times.

The Mustang was again an affordable performance car with solid styling, lots of options, and enough power to spin the rear wheels in any gear. That’s why most car fans consider the 1988-1993 Mustang 5.0 GT one of the best ’80s muscle cars ever.

This Mustang marked a return to Ford’s roots with a strong V8 engine and exciting performance. Also, the late 1980s Fox-body GT was popular, so they’re plentiful today. This makes them an accessible, affordable choice for entry-level collectors. The aftermarket for those cars is enormous so you can modify your Fox-body GT to make it even faster.

9. Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2

Domestic car buyers were surprised when Pontiac introduced an interesting 2+2 package for its popular luxury coupe in 1986. The model was a muscle car the company lacked since the late ’60s. It was also an interesting version of the Grand Prix, a rather boring car from the ’80s. Like the Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe, the Grand Prix 2+2 had the same platform, rear glass, and rear spoiler intended for NASCAR races.

Unfortunately, Pontiac didn’t provide the 2+2 with performance for street use since all cars had the 305 V8 with 165 HP. However, the Grand Prix 2+2 handled better than the Aerocoupe. It came with gas-filled shocks, stiffer springs, and sway bars as well as high-performance tires as part of the standard package. Pontiac produced this model for two years, making 1,225 of them.

8. Ford Taurus SHO

Back in the late 1980s, Ford caused a revolution with the introduction of the Taurus model. This was the first truly modern American sedan. Ford ditched the heavy ladder-type chassis and big engines. They went in a different direction with a sleek and aerodynamic body, new technology, and front-wheel drive. The Taurus sold in volumes but the most interesting is the famed Super High Output (SHO) version.

The SHO wasn’t a muscle car by any means since it was a four-door sedan. Still, it delivered a significant amount of power so it belongs on our list of the best 1980s performance cars. It featured a Yamaha-sourced 3.0-liter, high-revving V6 with 220 HP.

Today, this doesn’t sound like much, but for 1989, it was a lofty figure. Performance was outstanding with just 6.7 seconds to 0 to 60 mph acceleration times. On the outside, Taurus SHO looked like any other regular Taurus and only the badge on the back revealed its true nature.

7. Dodge Shelby Charger

Dodge combined two of the greatest names in the American performance portfolio in the 1980s – Shelby and Charger. With front-wheel drive, a Dodge Omni platform, and a turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the Shelby Charger wasn’t your typical muscle car. However, it provided strong performance as well as decent power and acceleration times.

Based on the Dodge Omni GHL, the Shelby Charger shared the drivetrain and 2.2-liter turbo engine which pumped 175 HP. For such a small, light car this was loads of power. The Shelby Charger could accelerate to 60 mph in just 7.5 seconds, making it one of the fastest accelerating American production cars for 1987.

Despite the famous name and good performance, this edition of Chargers aren’t that collectible, but they deserve recognition and respect. After all, they are a part of the American performance portfolio from the ’80s as well as a budget-friendly way to obtain a genuine Shelby car.

6. Pontiac Trans Am GTA

The Trans Am was the hottest version of the third generation Pontiac F-body. Pontiac introduced it in 1987 as their top-of-the-range Firebird offering. The package was available until 1992 in limited numbers. The secret weapons of the GTA were its engine and WS6 handling package.

The engine was a 350 V8 with 210 HP in early models and up to 245 HP in later versions. The rumor was the engine was the same as the Corvette. They used the same TPI fuel injection system and displacement, but not similar motors. The Corvette had aluminum heads while Pontiac used iron cast ones.

However, power and performance were similar. The WS6 package offered unmatched road holding and braking capabilities. It consisted of four disk brakes and a stiffer suspension. The WS6 also came with special wheels and performance tires.

5. Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe

A Thunderbird isn’t the car you usually consider a muscle car. But in the 1980s, Ford introduced a couple of Thunderbirds that could have that designation. They were an interesting addition to the performance car scene in those days. Although the T-bird was available with a V8 engine, the best performing version was the ’87 Turbo Coupe.

The TC received a Mustang SVO, a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with a manual transmission. It delivered 190 HP with a top speed of 143 mph. The relative lightness of the car and aerodynamic shape of the ninth generation Thunderbird delivered quite impressive performance.

4. Pontiac Trans Am 20th Anniversary Model

In 1989, Pontiac celebrated the 20th anniversary of its favorite muscle car, the Trans Am. They decided to introduce a limited run of 1,500 cars to commemorate the occasion. But they wanted their anniversary edition to be special, not just another decal and paint job. So Pontiac decided to install Buick’s 3.8-liter turbo V6 from the GNX to create the fastest Trans Am of the decade.

It turned out to be extremely rare and expensive. The white commemorative edition could accelerate 0.1 seconds faster than the GNX from 0 to 60 mph at 4.6 seconds. The reason was simple. It had a better weight distribution and gearing from a Pontiac gearbox. Today, these are rare and highly-prized collectors’ editions.

3. Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe

Ford introduced the 10th generation of the venerable Thunderbird in 1989. It had a redesigned platform and a more elegant, sleeker body. Again, this was a luxury coupe with no sporty ambitions. However, the Ford engineers created an interesting performance model car fans considered a muscle car in the Thunderbird Super Coupe.

Just like the Turbo Coupe, the SC had a smaller engine. But this time they supercharged it to achieve higher performance. The 3.8-liter V8 got a supercharger and intercooler and a high-tech motor management system delivering a respectable 210 HP.

Customers praised the SC for its handling and braking capabilities. It reached high top speeds thanks to its aerodynamic shape and clever engineering. Its 0 to 60 mph acceleration time was just 7.5 seconds.

2. Pontiac Fiero

In the 1980s, everybody expected another GTO from Pontiac. However, they got a small sports car that was something Italians would build. It was a bold move for Pontiac to introduce a compact rear-wheel-drive car with the engine positioned in the center and pair it up with a five-speed manual transaxle gearbox.

For the standards of the day, this was the most advanced American production model. Car customers were hyped by the appearance of the Fiero with its cool, modern design and advanced technology. The initial response was more than they expected, as in 1983, sales figures were over 130,000 cars.

Unfortunately, Pontiac didn’t develop the Fiero, and early models were badly put together. The engine power was not that great and the interior was cramped. GM responded by upgrading the car, and by the end of the ’80s, the Fiero was a solid sports car with 150 HP from a 2.8-liter V6 engine.

1. Shelby Dakota

The Dakota was a compact pickup truck sold between 1987 and 1996. It was dependable, tough-looking, and came with a wide arrange of engines and trim levels. But Dodge wanted more, so in the late ’80s, the company conceived a performance version made by the legendary Carroll Shelby.

Shelby took the regular production Dakota and installed a 5.2-liter V8 engine with 175 HP. Despite the fact the power output was relatively small, the Dakota was light and had lots of torque. This meant this compact truck delivered a convincing performance. Shelby also dressed up the Dakota with special paint, trim, a rollbar, and wheels, which made this compact muscle truck stand out on the streets.

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