Home Cars The Ultimate Sleeper Cars of the ’70s and ’80s (You Won’t Expect These)

The Ultimate Sleeper Cars of the ’70s and ’80s (You Won’t Expect These)

Cameron Eittreim July 14, 2023

There were few decades in the auto industry that were as instrumental as the 1970s and ’80s. Both decades were periods when the automotive landscape completely changed. Vehicle design transitioned from oversized land yachts to manageable fuel-efficient cars. Japanese automakers also made massive progress in America during this period and continue to dominate today. The amount of technological advancement that car fans witnessed during the 1970s and ’80s paved the way for an automotive revolution.

Many if not most enthusiasts look down upon this era, yet it was one of the most underrated in history. Some cars were critically panned but still offered great performance. GM also had its share of unique sleeper cars during this era, as did Ford. The turbocharger was becoming a more viable option for offering great amounts of power from small engines. The traditional V8 was no longer the only way that automakers squeezed performance out of a car. During the era, several cars flew under the radar, so we looked at the ultimate sleeper cars of the ’70s and ’80s that you might know about. Check them out right here.

Photo Credit: Car Domain

1976 Dodge Aspen R/T

Who could forget about the ​​1976 Dodge Aspen R/T? Well, at the time, everyone did. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t one of the most underrated sleepers of all time. There were under 1000 of these models that made it to production. The Aspen R/T shared a platform with the Plymouth Volare of the same period. The 318 V8 that came under the hood wasn’t a bad engine to start with, and the styling wasn’t bad either (via Hot Cars).

Photo Credit: Dodge

The interesting thing about the Aspen R/T was the fact that it was a lightweight car. Most domestic vehicles from the ’70s were still quite large and in charge. Chrysler went the other way with these models in an effort to appeal to value-oriented shoppers. The Aspen R/T is one of the rarest MOPAR models on the road and is a definite sleeper from this era.

Photo Credit: Mecum

1979 Chrysler 300

The Chrysler 300 was one of the most recognizable nameplates in car history, but it wasn’t always like that. In fact, by the 1970s, the nameplate lost a lot of its recognition. Nevertheless, the 1979 300 was a sleeper in every sense of the word. The styling of the car was very similar to the 1970s Monte Carlo GM was peddling across the pond. The idea was to combine a luxury coupe and a reasonable amount of performance even with all of the restrictions (via Auto Week).

Photo Credit: Mecum

There were only 2900 of these models built, making the car quite rare. It had a V8 engine and a reasonable amount of off-the-line performance. It wasn’t going to blow any doors off but it was one of the fastest Chryslers of the time. Because of the company’s financial situation around this time, the 300 was never able to achieve a high level of success. But the car is one of the most notable sleepers on the road and it’s still quite enjoyable if you can find one.

Photo Credit: Bang Shift

1979 Chrysler LeBaron

The Chrysler LeBaron is that car that just makes anyone look cool, or at least it did back in the day. The wood-paneled convertible was one of the most iconic Chrysler models on the road. The 1970s LeBaron model was a lot of what we’d see until the ’90s. It was a convertible that offered a reasonable amount of luxury and performance for the price. Chrysler added a lot of upper-class elements to it like velour leather seating and a posh interior (via Classic Cars).

Photo Credit: Bang Shift

This generation of LeBaron also offered a 318 V8 under the hood, something that went away in the ’80s and ’90s. This is a great car to use as a platform for a classic hot rod or a cruiser. The prices for these LeBaron models are super affordable considering the classic car market. Drivers enjoyed these cars a lot when they were brand new. Between its luxury and smooth driving characteristics, the LeBaron was a memorable ride in every sense of the word.

Photo Credit: Bang Shift

1972 Dodge Dart Swinger

The Dodge Dart has had a storied history and the ’70s model was something unique. Performance enthusiasts remember the Dart Swinger quite well. This car slides its back wheels like a true performance car, hence the name. The Dart Swinger offered a 318 cubic-inch V8 engine, which was standard fare for most other Chryslers from this period. The engine was one of the most common Chrysler powerplants at the time and offered a decent amount of performance (via Motor Trend).

Photo Credit: Bang Shift

The Dart Swinger was comparable to other muscle cars from the ’70s. Times were changing and the automakers had to adjust with them. New fuel regulations were a common occurrence and the economy wasn’t doing well either. Cars weren’t as fun as they used to be, but Chrysler made the best of a bad situation with the Dart Swinger.

Photo Credit: Barn Finds

1973 Dodge Dart Sport

By the time 1973 rolled around, the Dart was still one of the most common Dodges on the road. The model wasn’t insanely powerful but it was quite the sleeper. With its V8 engine and lightweight design, the Dart Sport was far beyond what it should have been. The 5.2L V8 only had about 152 HP but the car was a lot lighter in terms of curb weight. The styling of the Dart wasn’t as ugly as you’d imagine from this era and had a nice vibe to it (via Country Classics).

Photo Credit: Barn Finds

The Dodge Dart was one of the most well-known Dodge models from the past, and it continued well into the ’70s. The lightweight design and reasonable performance made the Dart something people enjoyed driving. With its V8 power and the simple platform, it was one car that didn’t need a whole lot of modification to make it perfect.

Photo Credit: RM Sotheby’s

1975 Dodge Charger SE

The Dodge Charger name has been used on several cars over the years, with each generation sporting a slightly different look. The 1975 Charger SE was a downsized ride that had a method to its madness. The Charger SE was one of the most successful Dodges in the NASCAR circuit, winning 14 national races. That success on the racetrack translated to increased sales for the model. Nowadays the Charger SE is one of the most underrated MOPAR cars from this era (via Car.Info).

Photo Credit: RM Sotheby’s

But the unique styling and V8 power make it a classic that most people can afford. The Charger was one of the most highly recognized models of all time. The fact that the model only continues to be popular just goes to show how a great brand identity can make a difference. Muscle cars from the 1970s weren’t the best in the latter part of the decade but the Charger SE was quite well-designed.

Photo Credit: Shelby

Dodge Omni GLHS

This was designed by Carroll Shelby and also featured one of the fastest turbocharged engines of the period. You may be saying come on, a Dodge Omni designed by one of the car world’s most loved legends? Well, yes. Because this wasn’t your ordinary Dodge Omni model. It was slick black and meant business when it hit the road. Most the automotive publications of the time heavily featured it. Shelby did everything to ensure that this little speed rocket had the best handling in the segment (via Car & Driver).

Photo Credit: Mecum

Between its blacked-out styling and off-the-line performance, the Omni GLHS was one of the fastest production cars of the time. The fact that it was compact and fuel-efficient was another huge advantage for the car. The Omni GLHS had a 2.2L turbocharged engine that made a world of difference when it came to its speed and reputation.

Photo Credit: Car Pixel

1985 Volvo 240 Turbo

The Volvo 240 Turbo was a well-known car from the 1980s and was even more unique as a sleeper. The performance of the 240 was hammered out by a 155-horsepower turbocharged four. While the amount of horsepower didn’t look like a lot on paper, the 240 Turbo handled business well. The rest of the car was pleasurable to look at, unlike other Volvo models from the same era (via Portland Volvos).

Photo Credit: Volvo

The 240 Turbo was one of the rarest cars that hit the market and consumers were eating it up left and right. The performance and the luxury-appointed interior were two of the best-selling features, not to mention all the great safety enhancements that it had as well. There were some fun sleeper cars in the 1980s and this one was up there.

Photo Credit: Car And Driver

Ford Taurus SHO

When the 1989 Ford Taurus SHO hit the market, it was one of the most underrated cars of all time. From the outward appearance, it didn’t look like anything other than a run-of-the-mill Taurus. But that’s where the trickery comes into play because Ford designed the SHO to be a sleeper car. The turbocharged engine provided drivers with a satisfying amount of power (via Car & Driver).

Photo Credit: Car And Driver

The car also had some enhancements on the outside of it, which helped to make the car a bit more unique. Performance sedans weren’t that common in the 1980s so the SHO had a unique position in the market. The car was unique at a time when Ford was pivoting from the weak performance era of the 1970s. Everything about the car was unique and rare, which helped bolster its reputation.

Photo Credit: Dealer Accelerate

1985 BMW M5

The M-Series lineup wasn’t always what it is today and these cars weren’t always the leader in performance. Instead, the original M5 was a decidedly ordinary-looking car. But its engine gave the M5 a serious level of performance. The M5 came equipped with a turbocharged engine and an interior that was different from any other Beamer (via M Magazine).

Photo Credit: Dealer Accelerate

The M5 became an iconic part of 1980s culture with drivers who wanted something that stood out from the crowd. The four-door design coupled with the great performance made the car a unique offering. A lot of drivers couldn’t pass up the one-of-a-kind fun that it offered. There aren’t a lot of cars that were like the original M5 sedan on the road.

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