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20 1980s Muscle Cars That Brought Speed Back To America

Vukasin HerbezJune 29, 2020

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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