Home Cars 30 1980s Cars That Changed The Automotive Industry

30 1980s Cars That Changed The Automotive Industry

Vukasin Herbez November 22, 2018

If you thought the decade of headbands, MTV, pop music, and neon was gone forever, think again. In fact, it looks like there is an ’80s revival. Yes, the decade that taste forgot is back. It’s visible in almost all aspects of modern culture, from music and fashion, all the way to the modern automotive industry.

From an automotive perspective, the ‘80s was a controversial decade that marked a significant change in technology, design, and classification of cars. During those 10 years, the industry changed and they set the course for the trends we enjoy today. However, due to tight emissions and environmental laws, power figures weren’t high.

The auto industry in the U.S. presented numerous memorable, iconic machines in the ’80s. Interestingly, they range from those inexpensive everyday models to those supercars that foreshadowed the future of car technology and design. So here is an eclectic list of the most memorable and well-known ‘80s classics. Keep reading to learn about the vehicles that will bring a smile to any car enthusiast’s face.

30. De Lorean DMC 12

The infamous John Z. De Lorean founded his car company in the late 1970s. Soon, they marketed his De Lorean as the next big thing in the sports car world. For a short time, it looked like America got a sports car brand that could rival Europe’s finest companies. De Lorean presented an interesting concept of a sports car with Gullwing doors, a modern design, and a stainless steel body.

However, they delayed production so when they finally revealed the car, it turned out to be slow, underpowered, and riddled with quality problems. Due to its prominent appearance in the “Back to the Future Movies” and numerous music videos, the DMC 12 is still a popular car. There’s still no doubt that it’s one of the coolest automotive symbols of the ’80s.

29. Honda CRX

Japanese brands dominated the market in terms of affordable performance models in the early ‘80s. And the Honda CRX is the perfect example of one of the most memorable cars from that era. Honda built them between 1983 and 1991. Although they based the CRX on the Civic, it came with a lower, sportier body and only two seats.

Since it was light, nimble, and came with precise steering, the CRX was a true sports car. The only difference was it came with front-wheel drive and produced up to 140 HP. But the biggest selling point of this model was its extremely light body. In fact, the whole car weighed just 1,800 pounds.

Also, it had a high revving four-cylinder engine. Honda never repeated the success of the CRX. Most car enthusiasts still remember it as a car that was a blast to drive.

28. Peugeot 205 GTI

When Peugeot introduced the compact 205 model in 1983, a performance GTI version wasn’t in the cards. Realizing that a hopped-up model could have success on the market, Peugeot presented the 205 with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder and 115 HP. The combination of a lightweight body, precise steering, rev-happy engine, and lively performance proved extremely popular with global buyers.

Peugeot even considered selling the 205 GTI in America. However, since it pulled out of the market in 1991, U.S. buyers never got to experience one of the best affordable compact performance cars of the ’80s. The 205 GTI was practical, economical, and affordable, gathering a cult following in Europe. In the late ’80s, the 205 GTI got a 1.9-liter engine upgrade that delivered 136 HP and improved its performance. As all European hot hatches of the day, the 205 GTI had front-wheel drive, delivering great handling and a superb driving feel.

27. Buick GNX

The Buick GNX was a surprise to everyone and showed the world what Buick could do. With its menacing black paint as the only available color and brutal performance, the GNX was one of the quickest cars of the decade and a true supercar killer. It was a turbo-powered V6 muscle car.

And even though this sounds like heresy, the GNX was a proper American bruiser. Buick presented it in 1987, and the Grand National Experimental or GNX was the car to have. It featured a 3.8-liter turbocharged V6 with 275 HP and a 0 to 60 mph time of 4.7 seconds.

26. Ford Mustang SVO

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. And that was quite the power output for a small engine. As a light car, the ’84 Mustang SVO was hot at the moment.

The package included four-wheel disc brakes and a stiffer suspension as well as sharper steering. All that transformed the little Mustang into quite the capable sports car. For 1985, the SVO upped the power to an impressive 205 HP. That turned the eyes of the motoring public to the third-generation Mustangs.

25. Audi Sport Quattro

Back in the early ’80s, the Audi was just an upgraded Volkswagen with not much to offer. Then, the motorsport department proposed entering the rally championships with an innovative all-wheel-drive model they called the Quattro. Suddenly, Audi had a championship-winning car.

Also, they were at the forefront of two new technologies. These were the all-wheel-drive system and turbocharging. This resulted in rising interest in Audi as we know it today. The Quattro Sport featured a 2.1-liter straight five-cylinder engine with turbocharger and 306 HP in street trim.

With a short wheelbase, light body panels, short ratio gearbox, and 306 horsepower ready to jump in at any moment, the road going Quattro Sport could go from 0 to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds. That made it one of the quickest cars of its era, showing how capable the Quattro all-wheel-drive system and turbo are.

24. AMC Eagle

AMC revealed the Eagle in 1980. It was AMC’s answer to the rising popularity of AWD vehicles and SUVs. Soon, AMC decided to combine their compact sedan and wagon lineup with the tough, proven Jeep AWD system. The result was a surprisingly capable vehicle with the comfort and luxury of a sedan.

It also had compact dimensions, relatively low weight, and extremely good off-road characteristics. The Eagle was one of the first crossover models in the world. Only today can you see how important and influential this car was. As expected, the Eagle was a relatively popular car, especially in areas with harsh climate and long winters.

AMC even produced coupe, wagon, compact and convertible versions of the Eagle, all with AWD systems as standard. Unfortunately, AMC was losing money elsewhere and was forced out of the business in 1987, which meant the demise of the Eagle as well.

23. Chrysler Town & Country Minivan

In the late ’70s and the early ’80s, the Chrysler Corporation was practically done. Enormous losses, poor sales, and a lack of new models pushed it to the point of no return. When famous ex-Ford executive Lee Iacocca, came to Chrysler during the late ’70s, everybody thought there wasn’t anything he could do to save the fallen giant.

But they were wrong. In just a few short years, he returned Chrysler to a top position in the industry. His main weapon was a new line of minivan models under the Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth names. Today, minivans are a common sight, but in the early ’80s, the minivan was nonexistent.

Iacocca strongly insisted that Chrysler invested in the production of front-wheel drive people carriers with space and comfort inside, but with overall compact dimensions. The first such model was the Chrysler Town & Country. It proved to be the right car for the times as well as the world`s first mass-produced minivan. The model established the minivan class and became the first Chrysler sales hit in decades. It was the perfect car for suburban America. It even replaced those big station wagons preceding the SUV craze of today. The Town & Country proved to be so influential and revolutionary that it remains in production today.

22. Pontiac Fiero

The story of the Fiero is one of the greatest “what if” tales of the American car industry. This compact sports car caused a big sensation when they introduced it in the early ’80s. Everybody expected another GTO from Pontiac. But instead they got a small sports car that was more like something the Italians would build.

It was a bold move for Pontiac to introduce a compact, rear-wheel drive car with the engine behind the driver and pair it with a five-speed manual transaxle gearbox. By 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.

Thanks to its advanced technology, the initial response was great. For example, in 1983 Pontiac sold over 130,000 of them. Unfortunately, Pontiac didn’t develop the Fiero, so the early models were badly put together. Also, the engine power was not that great and the interior was cramped. GM responded by upgrading the car, so by the end of the ‘80s, the Fiero was a solid sports car. Finally, it got 150 HP from its 2.8-liter V6 engine and improvements all around.

21. Porsche 959

The Porsche 959 is one of the fastest, most advanced, and technologically complex supercars of the ‘80s. The 959 was a super Porsche in every way, not only by design but also by performance and price. It was the perfect blend of racing experience with the latest technology. When they added turbocharging, drivers got everything in one car with the 959.

Porsche presented it in 1987 and the 959 had a 3.0-liter turbocharged flat-six engine with 450 HP. All that power went to all four wheels over its intelligent AWD system, the first of its kind for Porsche. The car was also equipped with traction control, ABS, and a host of electronic systems to help the driver.

Although all this is standard in most new cars today, it was space-age technology in the late ‘80s. Also, the performance of this technological tour de force was astonishing. A 0 to 60 mph sprint was possible in just 3.7 seconds.

20. Subaru XT

The Subaru XT is one of the ‘80s legends destined to be a classic. However, most car enthusiasts have forgotten about them. With its coupe body, pop up headlights, digital dashboard and optional all-wheel drive, the XT was a capable, modern car for its time.

Production started in 1985 and stopped in 1991. Buyers loved its angular wedge design and its features, so it was received with general praise. But the best versions are the ones with the 2.7-liter flat six engine and Subaru’s signature all-wheel drive system.

19. Toyota Corolla AE86

The Toyota AE86 story is quite interesting since they never intended this model was to be a proper performance machine. However, it became one of the biggest JDM legends of the ’80s. The trick was that the AE86 was a version of the standard Corolla model.

But since the eighth generation was also the last rear-wheel-drive model, the Toyota engineers wanted to add a high revving 1.6-liter engine to see how it would transform the car. And the results were fantastic. In fact, the AE 86 wasn’t the boring slow Corolla, but an agile, light and nimble machine.

It appealed to drivers who wanted a precise driving machine but didn’t have the money for a new BMW E30 325i. Due to its rear wheel drive platform, stiff suspension and optional limited slip differential, the AE 86 became a legend drivers still use in drift events around the world.

18. BMW E30 M3

When most people think of BMW performance, they think of M cars. But among the dozens of models that wore the M badge which one is the most iconic? Of course, it’s the M3 E30. BMW produced it from 1985 to 1992.

And the E30 M3 was, in fact, a homologation special they designed to go racing in the European Touring Car Championship. The heart of the E30 M3 was the S14 straight four engine with 2.3-liters of displacement producing 195 HP, and later 215 HP. Since the car was light, the performance and road holding was great.

In fact, the M3 turned out to be the most successful racing car in touring racing history. The road going variants later received the bigger 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that developed 238 HP, which was a hefty number, even by today’s standards.

17. Ford Mustang GT 5.0 H.O.

The rise in power of domestic cars during the ‘80s brought the first real performance car to the Mustang range in almost 20 years. The Fox-body Mustang grew more powerful with each model year, starting from 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.

And that translated to the quite competent 0 to 60 mph times in the eight-second range. Once again, the Mustang was an affordable performance car with cool styling and lots of options. Best of all, it delivered enough power to spin the rear wheels in any gear. That is why the 1988 to 1993 Mustang 5.0 GT is one of the best ‘80 muscle cars and a true legend of this decade.

16. Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

The third-generation Camaro was a popular car. But, after a while, the buyers wanted more performance and power. So, Chevrolet delivered just that in the form of the legendary IROC-Z version. Entering the car market in 1985, the IROC-Z was a tribute model to the Chevrolet-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 in the early years and 245 HP in later versions. Car buyers could opt for a manual or automatic.

Also, they tuned the suspension as well as steering. Chevrolet even offered a cool-looking convertible that was the first Camaro ragtop in 18 years. The IROC-Z proved to be a popular, influential muscle car that finally brought some real performance to the market.

15. Toyota MR2

Back in the mid-80s, Toyota shocked the automotive world by introducing the MR2, a small mid-engine sports car. It delivered a great performance and superb road holding at an affordable price. However, in those days, people considered Toyota to be a dull manufacturer of economy models without any interesting cars.

But the MR2 changed all that since it was totally different from any other Toyota models. In fact, it appealed to those fans of spirited driving and dynamic handling. They presented the first generation MR2 in 1984.

It featured 1.5-liter and 1.6-liter four-cylinder engines they mounted centrally behind the driver. The motor was between the cabin and rear axle, which gave this little car fantastic handling.

14. Jeep Cherokee XJ

Jeep presented the Cherokee XJ in 1984, and it was an enormous success. With its boxy yet elegant looks, great build quality and lots of usable features, the second-generation Cherokee was the SUV of the ’80s. And most of all, it became a globally successful model.

Despite being a modern, comfortable vehicle, the Cherokee XJ retained all those infamous Jeep characteristics like rugged mechanics, dependable AWD drivetrain and rugged engines. And all that helped it claim the title as one of the best SUVs of all time. In some foreign markets, they built the Cherokee XJ until 2014, which shows how desirable this Jeep was.

13. Chevrolet Corvette C4

Chevrolet unveiled the C4 in 1984 and it is a true ‘80s classic. The wedge-shaped body, pop up headlights, rear hatch and bright colors made this generation a true pop culture icon. However, there is much more about this car than the funny stereotypes. In fact, the Corvette C4 was the car that singlehandedly saved the Corvette from its demise due to the recession and lack of popularity.

The car was new from the ground up, with a new chassis, engines and design. Also, it came with a crazy digital dash in the interior. Over the years, Chevrolet transformed it into a world-class sports car with the performance and road holding that could rival those more expensive European exotics. In fact, the chassis of the C4 is so good, they still use it, in modified form, for the current C7 generation.

12. Ferrari Testarossa

The ultimate ’80s Ferrari is the Testarossa. Ferrari presented it in 1984 and based it on the 512 BB architecture. It came with a flat 12 engine and rear engine configuration. But what made it famous was the styling and brutal performance that made it a legend of the period.

The Testarossa was an interestingly engineered car with a wide track due to the flat 12 engine. This helped achieve more room in the interior, but it was hard to maneuver the car in tight spaces. Although it sold well, it was only when it was in the popular TV show, Miami Vice, did they crown the Testarossa the symbol of ’80s car culture.

11. Lincoln Town Car

The early ‘80s brought much-needed downsizing to the whole American car industry, so enormous cars with monster engines were a thing of past. Lincoln responded by presenting a popular Town Car model they built on Ford’s venerable Panther platform with a 5.0-liter V8.

The Town Car was a recognizable boxy shaped sedan with a big chrome grille and bumpers, providing a comfortable ride. It was the typical luxury-style model, but the buyers loved its proportions, soft ride and plush interior.

10. 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.

9. 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. The 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.

8. Nissan Pulsar NX Sportbac

One of the most unique ’80s cars was the Nissan Pulsar in the NX Sportbac package. The idea behind this car was to combine a regular two-door coupe with the wagon body style, but not in the “Shooting Brake” kind of way. Nissan decided to make a normal coupe, but add body extensions, which transformed the Pulsar into a wagon.

When Nissan presented it in 1986, the Pulsar Sportback received some positive attention from car consumers. But, eventually, people turned to the more conventional coupe styling. Soon, the wagon canopy addition was less desirable and popular. They discontinued the Sportbac model in 1990. And, it still remains one of the strangest production cars they ever made.

7. Ford Thunderbird Turbo Coupe

The Ford Thunderbird isn’t a car you would normally consider a muscle car. However, in the ’80s, 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 Turbo Coupe, available in 1985.

The TC received a Mustang SVO, a 2.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine with a manual transmission, 190 HP, and a top speed of a whopping 143 mph. The top speed was enhanced by the relative lightness of the car and aerodynamic shape of the ninth-generation Thunderbird.

6. Cadillac Cimarron

Today, almost all American luxury brands have downsized their lineup, offering more affordable and compact versions of their big sedans. But, back in the early ’80s, this move was something still unheard of and hard to understand. In those days, Cadillac had somewhat of an identity crisis, so they sought a way to reinvent themselves to fight their foreign competitors.

After long meetings involving their product development managers, they decided to introduce a small Cadillac with a lower price to attract more customers. The problem was that Cadillac didn’t have a small platform, so they turned to Chevrolet. They borrowed the modest Cavalier chassis along with the small, slow four-cylinder engine. Although Cadillac dressed the Cavalier with unique trim, new colors, and a new name, the Cimarron wasn’t enough.

The sales were poor and Cadillac was under fire from their brand loyalists for ruining their image. All over the industry, the Cimarron was a laughing stock and remained until this day one of the worst examples of downsizing ever. For that reason, most people believe this model should remain forgotten. Even though it was visionary and influential.

5. Toyota 4Runner

Toyota’s answer to the Ford Bronco and Chevrolet K5 Blazer came quite late in 1984. It followed the same recipe as its competitors: a shortened Hilux truck chassis with a single cabin and a removable hardtop. The 4Runner came in time to battle with the second generations of the Bronco and the K5.

But while it couldn’t compete with the two due to a lack of V8 power, it gained recognition with its ruggedness and durability. In all honesty, even without the V8 under the hood, the 4Runner was a great SUV for the day and especially capable in off-road conditions. Today, the palette of inline four engines is considered the most reliable.

So the smartest way is to try and find these versions, despite the obvious lack of power compared to the V6 models. If you wish to go off-roading in the 4Runner, the models with smaller engines have better all-terrain capabilities than their big-engine counterparts.

4. Porsche 944 Turbo

This forgotten gem from Stuttgart is one of the best affordable sports cars you can still buy. And, they are still budget-friendly today. However, if you don’t act fast, the chances are that the prices will go stratospheric soon. They designed the 944 as an entry-level Porsche, giving it an interesting layout. In fact, it comes with a front-mounted engine and rear-mounted transaxle gearbox.

Best of all, the handling is sublime. Even though the base 170 HP engine wasn’t slow, the real treat is the turbo. It has a 2.5-liter turbocharged engine that puts out 250 HP. Due to being lightweight with a good transmission and aerodynamics, the 944 Turbo is a fast car. The 0 to 60 mph takes only 5.9 seconds and it can top 162 mph. So, even today, this little Porsche can outrun some modern sports cars.

3. Toyota Landcruiser J60

It is insane that quality examples of the J60 series Landcruiser are bringing north of $30,000 today but this is the reality of the collector car market. The classic ’80s SUV was affordable not that long ago, but now the prices are getting out of hand. However, most restoration projects are still somewhat affordable. So, if you have the means to perform it, you should consider finding an ‘80s Landcruiser.

Toyota introduced it in 1980 and discontinued it in 1989, selling the J60 all over the world. And it was especially popular in America. The Landcruiser combined the ruggedness of a classic FJ40 with a durable 4.2-liter inline six-engine and a bigger, more comfortable body. The combination proved so influential, the J60 is now the focus of collectors all over the world.

2. Lancia Delta HF Integrale

Lancia introduced its compact model, the Delta, in 1979. However, it was on the market for five years before the company started thinking about a performance version. Lancia was always big in rallying. And after the banning of their Group B model S4, they wanted something that could work well on the street and track, so the HF Integrale was born.

Initially, this model featured a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that produced 185 HP, but later it went up to 220 HP. It had a permanent, well balanced all-wheel-drive system. The Delta HF Integrale is an important hot hatch because it was the first with all-wheel drive. This marked the beginning of a transition from the front wheel drive, simple hot hatches, to the high-tech, all-wheel drive performance monsters we have today.

The combination of a powerful engine, sharp handling, great traction and low weight was intoxicating for magazine testers of the day. The Delta HF Integrale received nothing but praises. Over the years, the Delta HF Integrale has been a successful concept on rally stages all over the world and among hot hatch fans. They ceased production in 1994 after creating almost 40,000 of them.

1. Lamborghini LM 002

Lamborghini made the Urus, a superfast SUV with a twin-turbo V8 and impressive performance. Still, many car fans are not so impressed. Yes, the Urus is a mighty fast luxury cruiser, but it isn’t as wild and unexpected as the mid-80s Lamborghini LM 002.

This crazy creation debuted in the mid-80s as Lamborghini’s attempt to enter the world of luxury SUVs and widen its appeal. The LM002 used a special chassis and suspension as well as Lamborghini’s famous V12 engine. The 5.2-liter unit with 400 HP was the same one as you would find in the legendary Countach.

These are the 30 iconic cars from the ’80s that changed the car industry forever. Did any of them take you for a walk down Memory Lane? If you look hard and long, you may be able to find your favorite in mint condition. But, you should hurry before these classics are long gone.

Please wait 5 sec.