Top Ten: 80's Icons

By James Mackintosh, 13 April 2009

These days, the 1980's have something of a bad reputation. There was Rick Astley,MC Hammer pants, Metallica (personal opinion here!), a minor recession, massive inflation, and a general air of bad taste was prevalent.  However, you have to give the 1980's it's fair share of credit.  Cars were quite bad in the 1970's; by the 1990's the automotive world was well on it's way to the glorious state it's in now.  Cars of the 70's were awful almost entirely without exception; they were inefficient, unattractive, poorly performing, poorly built, crippled by emissions regulations, and filled with tacky tasteless features.

The 1980's bridged that gap between then general feeling of Malaise in the 70's, and the revival of the automobile as we know it.  It was a time when creativity in the field blossomed, and companies stepped out a bit and tried new things - sometimes to immense success.  Sometimes not.  Here we'll examine what I consider to be ten landmark cars of the 1980's, cars that helped to lead us forward towards the sophisticated market we enjoy today.  Let me know what you think.

10) Porsche 928

1986 Porsche 928 S

Let's get one thing out of the way about the 928: a large percentage of Porsche purists hate it.  Purists believe that a real Porsche needs to have a flat six in the back, it needs to be air cooled, and it basically just needs to be called a 911.  This means that Porsche purists pretty much hate everything Porsche has made which isn't a 911, which I think is truly absurd.

The 928 was a major step away from the norm for Porsche.  It was originally intended to supplant the 911 as Porsche's top-of-the-line halo car, but it never quite filled the sports car shoes it was intended to.  The 928 was a dual-purpose car: it was meant to be a powerful, refined and composed Grand Tourer as well as a lithe, agile sports car.  It was quite good at both, but that compromise might be what irks the 911 crowd.  Or maybe that it had a water-cooled V8 mounted in the front; it's hard to tell.

Mechanically, the 928 was a tour de force.  It was absolutely earth shattering when it was introduced for model year 1977.  It was also a powerful status symbol during the 1980's; it said "new money" louder than anything.  The 928 had the guts to back it up, of course.  The mechanical layout was ideal: a large V8 up front, with a racing-style transaxle in the back for properly even weight distribution meant despite it's considerably girth (the original 928 weighed in around 3200 pounds).  The engine was a brand-new design, a water-cooled V8 with 4.5L of displacement and single overhead cams with 2 valves per cylinder.  This V8 produced 228bhp and gave a top speed of 142mph.  Later models switched to a 4.7L 16v V8 with 239bhp and a top speed of 146, which was good enough to earn it the title of "fastest production car in America" in 1983.  The big news came in 1985, with the introduction of the 928S to the US market.  It featured a completely redesigned 5.0L V8, now sporting dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder.  Power was up to a more impressive 288bhp, and in 1986 the 928 held the title of "world's fastest car" with a top speed of 172mph - ridiculously fast in those days.

The final evolution of the 928 in the 80's - the 928 S4 - was a minor restyling to bring the car more up to date, as well as another bump in power (thanks to significant internal changes) to 316bhp.  The 928 (especially in later S4 or GT/GTS guise) is one of those rare cars, like the 2nd-generation 300ZX, that never really seems to age.  The clean, efficient styling - with it's drastic cab-rearward proportions, pop-forward headlights, and hunkered, solid stance - still turns heads today.  Although Porsche abandoned the 928 concept when the final 928 GTS went out of production in 1995, it was a sign that even companies steeped in tradition and the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality can sometimes step out and try something different.  They tried it again in 2002; it was called the Cayenne, and it made Porsche so much money that now they own Volkswagen. I guess trying new things doesn't always hurt.

9) Saab 900 Turbo

1990 Saab 900 Turbo SPG

Yes, I will readily admit my bias on this one - I own a 900 Turbo SPG.  But when you think about it, it's hard to deny that the Saab 900 (and the Turbo in particular) was a cultural icon of the 80's.  Things that Saab had been doing for a while - like front-wheel-drive, turbocharging, hatchbacks, strong safety equipment - all started making a whole lot of sense as the automotive landscape began to change in the 1980's.  The 900 Turbo offered a little bit of everything for everyone.

First, engines.  The 900 Turbo began life with a 2.0L 8v turbocharged I4, which made 145bhp in US trim.  1985 saw the introduction of the 16 Valve Turbo I4 (on the SPG... not to brag or anything!) which was, coincidentally, the first car in the US to combine turbocharging and a four valve head on a four cylinder engine.  And combine them it did to great effect - 175bhp was more than the 325e knew what to do with at the time, but when you stay out of the boost range, the 900 Turbo returned quite respectable fuel mileage.

Then there was the ergonomically designed interior (controls laid out where they fell naturally to hand, something American companies are STILL figuring out), the option of seating four people in comfort or folding down the rear seats and being able to haul a couch, the fantastic handling in poor weather conditions, the remarkable high-speed stability, the supremely comfortable seats...  It's hardly a surprise that yuppies were drawn to the 900 Turbo like moths to a blowtorch.  Saab was on their A-game in the 80's, and the 900 Turbo is the best proof of that.  It showed people that you didn't need to accept compromise in your luxury car.

8) Honda Civic CRX

1986 Honda Civic CRX HF

It's harder to recall now, but the Honda CRX was an revolutionary car when it debuted in 1983.  Based on the compact Civic architecture, the CRX was a small 2-door 2-seat hatchback coupe with two purposes: to be fun to drive, and to be economical.  These were two mutually exclusive concepts in the eyes of most Americans at the time, so the CRX was quite well received when it arrived.  There were two versions at launch: the HF (for High Fuel efficiency) had a 1.5L 8-valve lean burn four cylinder and returned amazing fuel economy numbers (41/50); the regular CRX had a 12-valve 1.6L with more pep and a more sporting demeanor, while still returning absurdly good fuel economy (29/35).  Note: both fuel economy numbers are under the current EPA calculation method, not the one used at the time.  A CRX HF really can go 50 miles on a gallon of gas on the highway, which is 5mpg better than a Prius - with only one battery.

The CRX revolutionized the idea that a commuter vehicle had to be an awful torture box.  It was nimble, immaculately assembled, fun to drive, extremely economical, funky looking, and people loved them.  When CRX sales started in the US, there were drastic shortages of the CRX and dealerships were getting away with charging 2,000 to 5,000 dollar premiums over sticker - on a $10,000 Honda!  When does that happen any more?  The CRX evolved gradually until it's final year of production in 1991, gaining the well-regarded D16A6 16-valve engine in the Si sports model along the way, and getting a minor facelift in 1988.  The del Sol that replaced the CRX in 1992 never quite filled the illustrious shoes of it's predecessor, and to this day the tiny CRX is still extremely popular with motorsports enthusiasts and frugal commuters alike.

7) Acura Legend

1987 Acura Legend Coupe

From the perspective of today, the Acura Legend really isn't that interesting of a car.  It's a mid-size Japanese luxury sedan, with a V6, 4-speed automatic, and front wheel drive.  What else is new?

Well, for one thing, the Acura Legend was the car that started an entire genre we take for granted - the Japanese luxury car.  When the Legend was launched in 1986, people couldn't believe that Honda had the audacity to make a $20,000 luxury car.  They dismissed it as a gimmick, they said it would never stick and was doomed for failure - no one was going to pay that much for a Japanese car.  Heaven forbid.

Well, I guess they were wrong.  Acura's been around for 23 years now, and they've launched a whole fleet of imitators - in fact, Lexus (Toyota) and Infiniti (Nissan) were both created directly in response to the dominant force of Acura on the market.  And the success of the brand - and the genre as a whole - lies with how overwhelmingly competent the Legend was compared to what it was competing against at the time.  It wasn't scorched-earth-fast - power came from a single-cam 24 valve 2.7L V6 with 160bhp - but it was sewing machine smooth, whisper quiet, refined as anything on the road, and almost never broke.  The Germans took notice immediately - as did everyone else.  Without the Legend, Lexus and Infiniti never would've entered the market, and the automotive landscape in the luxury realm would look quite a bit different - and quite a bit worse - than it does today.  Bravo, Honda.

6) C4 Corvette

1991 Chevrolet Corvette (C4)

Corvettes have always been as American as apple pie and frivolous lawsuits; it's just that up until the C4, they'd never actually been any good.  The 1984 (C4 generation) Corvette was designed to show that America could indeed build a world-class sports car, and it did that to great effect.  It was an entirely clean-sheet design over the previous (C3) generation Corvettes, which had been in production from 1968 up until 1982.  By model year '82, the Corvette was a choked up pastiche of it's former self - the base engine only made 165bhp (for shame!) and the competition was moving onwards and upward.

So when the C4 arrived on the market in 1984, it shook things up.  The chassis was all new, boasting considerably higher torsional rigidity numbers than the flimsy older car, and vastly more sophisticated suspension.  The engine, the L83 "Crossfire" (basically a mix of carburation and mechanical fuel injection) was a carryover from the C3, and produced an adequate-for-1984 205bhp.  This rather sad motor was swapped for the considerably better port-injected L98 TPI in 1985, which made 230 and then later 245-250bhp.  The suspension was unique, utilizing transverse composite leaf springs in the rear instead of coils.  Bodywork was no longer fibreglass but FRP (Fiber Reinforced Plastic) to conserve weight.  The transmission was the most interesting part of the package: a Doug Muncie-designed "4+3" was basically a four-speed manual with an electronically engaged overdrive for the top three gears to keep fuel economy reasonable.  This was somewhat problematic, and was later ditched for a more traditional ZF 6-speed manual.

Long story short, the C4 Corvette - at least with the stiff-riding Z51 suspension package - kicked ass and took names on a large scale.  It was capable of accelerating to sixty in under six seconds, pulling nearly 1.0 g's of lateral acceleration, and stopping like it had dropped an anchor into the tarmac.  It also provecd to the world that when we put our minds to it, we could build an absolutely top-shelf product.

5) Jeep Cherokee

1993 Jeep Cherokee

The media tends to credit the success of the sport utility vehicle to Ford's Ranger-based Explorer from 1990, but the truth is that the segment was popularized by Jeep's Cherokee, which debuted way back in 1984.  The Cherokee (XJ chassis) replaced the aging truck-based model of the same name.  The Cherokee used a unique (for the time) unibody construction to make the ride more civil, but it's off-road capabilities were still quite impressive.  While it was a pretty simple vehicle, it must be noted that the AMC 242ci I6 under the hood is one of the all-time great motors: powerful, torque, robust, and nearly indestructible.  It also gave the Cherokee an indecent turn of speed, relatively speaking for the time.

Families in need of a useful, practical vehicle flocked to the XJ Cherokee  in great hordes, spawning a legion of imitators that have never really filled the Cherokee's shoes.  The XJ chassis Cherokee was in production up until 2001, when it was replaced by the Liberty - which many Jeep fans admit was not really a step fowards for the brand.  What more needs to be said?

4) Chrysler Minivans

1986 Dodge Caravan

We're getting  closer to the end here, and the cars need less and less explanation.  It is impossible to overstate the importance of the Chrysler minivans; they created an entire (wildly popular) market segment as well as brought cash-strapped Chrysler back from the verge of existence.  The funny thing is, there wasn't anything magical about them: they were just stretched K-car (Aries, Reliant) chassis with a boxy body stuck on top.  But the brave first step by Chrysler lead the company out of near-collapse, stimulated the economy, and gave an entire generation of children something to hate when they grew up.

The vans themselves aren't noteworthy as much as the segment they created and the good they did for Chrysler.  It IS worth noting, however, that these were coming out at the same time Chrysler was busy turbocharging everything they sold, and the minivans weren't immune from this.  It's possible to get a ChryCo minivan with a 2.2L or 2.5L 8v Turbo I4 and a 5-speed manual, which is just as easy to modify as any other turbo Mopar engine - and to great effect.  If you need proof... perhaps this'll do:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mXFy3zZ4XjY

3) Mazda Miata

1989 Mazda MX-5 Miata

Mazda's Miata single-handedly revived the 2-seat sports car genre when it debuted in 1989, and nearly 800,000 Miatas later, we've never looked back.  It's remarkable how such a simple vehicle can have such social impact: the Miata reminded people that it was ok to take things lightly and have fun again.  The MX-5 (it's official name) was nearly a carbon-copy of the old Lotus Elan, only everything worked all the time and it didn't leak oil all over your driveway.  Plus, you could put the roof up or down in about 12 seconds - two latches and a swing of the arm was all it took.

Power came from a sweet-revving 1.6L DOHC 16v inline four, driving the rear wheels through a slick-shifting five speed transmission.  Independent suspension and disc brakes at all four corners gave the Miata the agility it needed to be truly entertaining, and it's light weight (due to spartan equipment and minimalistic proportions) meant it was easy on gas, too.  Result: lines around the block and up the street at Mazda dealers in 1989, huge price premiums, and demand far outstripping supply.  I almost wish this sort of thing still happened today.

The Miata was thought to be a gimmick with perhaps a 4-5 year shelf life then a short, brutish end - but sales remained strong through the MX-5's life, and it's now an integral part of Mazda's lineup and something of a cultural icon in and of itself.

2) Audi Quattro

1980 Audi Quattro

The Audi Quattro as a car itself is much less important than the Audi Quattro representing the concept it introduced to the production market: that 4WD can be a performance enhancer when done properly, not just something for the off-road crowd.  The Quattro was based on the B2 chassis 80 Coupe, but utilized a turbocharged version of Audi's corporate 10v 2.1L inline-five cylinder engine, mated to permanent 4WD.  The 4WD system had lockable center and rear differentials for varying terrain conditions, and Anti Lock Braking with a defeat switch for use on gravel/snow.

Performance at the time was quite impressive; the original 200bhp 10v motor could accelerate the Quattro sixty in only 7.1 seconds, and later 20v versions were somewhere in the sixes with a maximum velocity north of 140mph.  The boxed, flared fenders gave the Quattro a unique, menacing appearance that has burned itself into the collective memory of rally fans everywhere.  It's impact on the market when it debuted in 1980 is difficult to express: here was a car that was just so much more capable than nearly everything on the road, it was hard to get one's head around it.  It had abundant grip and poise in corners, the power to fire out of them rapidly, and anti-lock brakes to haul things down to a stop easily.  In 1980, nothing else offered this kind of foolproof, all-weather capability.  Without the Audi Quattro, we wouldn't have cars like the Subaru STI, Lancer Evolution, Nissan Skyline GT-R, etc.

1) VW GTI

1990 Volkswagen Golf GTI 16v

The Volkswagen GTI wins handily in my mind for opening a niche that is still relevant today, and arguably doing it the best of.  It was the perfect combination of utility, practicality, frugality, and sheer fun-to-drive.  The GTI basically introduced the concept of the hot hatchback to the world (although it can be argued the Mini Cooper did the same, it didn't offer nearly the same practical aspects as the Golf GTI), a genre that is becoming ever more popular and relevant as time goes by and gas prices rise.  It was a simple formula:  take one basically good small car, tighten suspension, increase horsepower and fit bigger brakes, add in tasteful body addendum, and sell a ton.

The GTI had a higher-compression 1.8L I4 with 112bhp, a close-ratio 5-speed gearbox, bigger brakes, higher spring and damper rates, and thicker anti-sway bars.  Later GTI's were available with a 139bhp 16v 1.8L, also seen in the Scirrocco.  Although it wasn't exactly a pavement-rippler, the GTI had enough power to be entertaining while still returning good fuel economy.  And it was also a capacious hatchback with folding seats, meaning it was a great grocery getter and commuter car.  The reason such a simple car is loved so dearly by so many people, even today: it was everything to everyone.

Next article My thoughts from the 2009 New York International Auto Show. Day 1