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Critics’ Choice: Best of the ’80s

We searched out the best of a decade’s cars to find our definitive ‘80s cars.

Radical Rides

Porsche 944 - newsroom.porsche.com
Porsche 944 - newsroom.porsche.com

Ah, the ’80s. A decade where the popularity of hairbands, shoulder pads, and jazzercising can help us understand the cultural zeitgeist that gave us cars as seemingly different as the Dodge Caravan and Ferrari Testarossa. Sharp angles and big statements were the order of the day, but this was also the tail-end of the malaise era, and American was suffering through a V8 hangover early in the decade. While the average consumer car was getting fewer horsepower, the racing scene in the ’80s was giving us some of the most significant homologation cars of all-time (take the Audi Quattro, for instance).

But what really makes the ’80s stand out in popular memory are the aesthetics. Sure, some cars, like say the Chrysler Le Baron Convertible haven’t held up well over time, but there are many, many others, like the Porsche 944, that look as good today as they did 30-plus years ago. For this month’s Critics’ Choice, we challenged our writers to find the definitive ’80s ride on Carsforsale.com.

Jesse McGraw

1986 Ford RS200

Shortlist:

1984 Porsche 911 RUF RSR
1987 Buick Grand National
1988 BMW M3

1986 Ford RS200 - carsforsale.com
1986 Ford RS200 - carsforsale.com

When I think of cars from the 1980s, racing is all I can think of. Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt started his rise to fame in NASCAR, F1 was more popular than ever before, rally cars were dirt kicking monsters that carved spectator packed routes, and GT racing featured ludicrous aero kits that we may never see again. There’s a reason this period is commonly referred to as one of the golden eras of racing.

Along with all of that racing popularity and extensive engineering came homologation and special edition vehicles. Cars like the Buick Grand National, BMW M3, Porsche 911, Lancia Delta HF Intergrale, Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe, and Nissan Skyline GT-R all acted as homologation specials or drew inspiration from their racing counterparts. Now, there are some sought after ‘80s racers in that list that I would love to choose, but I knew I had to pick this awesome rally car when I stumbled across it on Carsforsale.com.

1986 Ford RS200 - carsforsale.com
1986 Ford RS200 - carsforsale.com

The Ford RS200 was a homologation special vehicle produced by Ford Motorsport in the United Kingdom from 1984 to 1986 for use in the FIA Group B World Rally Championship. This example I found was produced in the final year of the model, of which only 200 were made to meet FIA’s homologation requirements. Twenty-four of those were made into Evolution models specifically for racing purposes, but the rest were sold to the public. This isn’t a rally-used Evolution model, but the 1986 Ford RS200 is numbered 169. The dealer also states that this is one of the examples that resided at the Ford Motorsport facility in the UK until 1994, until being potentially one of the last customers delivered RS200s from the company.

This pristine RS200 is the most 1980s car I can think of, at least from a racing fandom standpoint. The plastic and fiberglass body holds all of the same curves that Ghia originally designed into it. It has the Hella Rallye 1000 fog lights in the front bumper with vintage stone shields, vents in the hood and on the roof, a big rear spoiler, and, like any good rally car, mud flaps. While the exterior design is nostalgic, it’s what lies underneath the skin that makes the RS200 so impressive.

1986 Ford RS200 - carsforsale.com
1986 Ford RS200 - carsforsale.com

Ford didn’t keep the creation of the RS200 strictly in house. I already mentioned the design help from Carrozzeria Ghia, but a number of others aided Ford in creating this rally monster. Reliant helped in creating fiberglass bodies, former F1 engineers and designers came together to help with development of the chassis, and Cosworth supplied the BDT engine. That Ford-Cosworth turbocharged 1.8L straight-four engine generated 250 horsepower in road going variants, but there were kits out there to bring it up another 50 horsepower. Rally going models ramped that number up to anywhere from 350 to 450 horsepower.

The engine was mid-engine-oriented right behind the cockpit and sent power through a front mounted five-speed manual transmission to all four wheels. The unique placement of the engine and transmission along with the double wishbone suspension featuring twin dampers at all four corners helped the RS200 achieve wonderfully balanced handling. This 1986 Ford RS200 may only be a road faring version, but I’m sure it’d be just as fun as the rally version when getting sideways along gravel corners.

1986 Ford RS200 - carsforsale.com
1986 Ford RS200 - carsforsale.com

Inside this RS200 is an interior that looks similar to the rally racing versions but toned down somewhat. Red is the clear theme as it covers the special bucket seats and steering wheel, while the rest of the inside is made up of neutral gray tones. The road going model features nearly all of the gauges the rally version does and is devoid of a radio or other luxury amenities. It did get some carpeting and sound dampening material placed inside, which wouldn’t be typically found on the rally models to cut weight. This 1986 Ford RS200 has seemingly lived its entire life as a show piece in a museum or at car shows, and it’ll probably stay that way at the $409,900 price it’s listed for. That is an unfortunate conclusion yet warranted.

The Group B rally is gone for safety reasons and racing has forever changed since. Plus, I can’t think of anyone that’d want to push this rally relic after purchasing it for nearly half a million dollars. Maybe one day someone can experience this car like a small portion of the 200 models made once had. Flying down backroads at Mach-Jesus and yanking the e-brake to sling around hairpin turns. In the meantime, I’ll just have to ogle at these photos and play the video game recreation of it on Forza.

Chris Kaiser

1981 Ford Bronco

Shortlist:

1988 BMW E30 M3
1980 Pontiac Trans Am Firebird
1981 DeLorean DMC-12

1981 Ford Bronco - carsforsale.com
1981 Ford Bronco - carsforsale.com

When choosing the most ’80s ride I could think of, naturally, one car came to mind, the Lamborghini Countach. No other car screams ’80s-excess quite like radical wedge of the era’s most recognizable supercar. Just one problem, the Countach debuted in 1974.

This hiccup forced me to pause and reflect on what it means for a car to epitomize an entire decade. For ’80s car styling, I needed something equal parts squarish and garish. A burgundy Trans Am Firebird convertible, with orange hood decal, certainly had the garish part locked down. (I’m fairly sure they require you to have a mustache, gold chain, and exposed chest hair just to test drive it.) Like my colleague, Mr. McGraw, I too homed in on the very same pristine red 1988 BMW E30 M3. Most ’80s designs can look horribly dated today, but the E30 is about as timeless as it gets, no matter the decade. And then I found this DeLorean DMC-12 tricked out as Doc Brown’s time machine from Back to the Future, complete with ground effects, flux capacitor, and a signature Mr. Fusion nuclear reactor. The effort and execution floored me.

1981 Ford Bronco - carsforsale.com
1981 Ford Bronco - carsforsale.com

I could have stopped there, but for a real ’80s time machine I need something that instantly took me back to the days when everyone still smoked cigarettes indoors and seat belts were only for going on the highway. I knew I’d found my pick for this challenge when I ran across this 1981 Ford Bronco. From the rectangles-on-rectangles front end to the orange and yellow decals to the faux wood interior trim, this third-generation Bronco brought me back to the ’80s faster than rewatching The Princess Bride for the 53rd time.

This example is in stellar condition inside and out. The black paint job is contrasted by “Chromatic Tape Stripes” fading from yellow to orange. As the seller notes, the original red seats are not just rare but have also faired unusually well over the years. Even the non-removeable floor mats are still in good condition. Note that this ’81 model still has Ford spelled out on the hood and the Bronco horse emblems on the sides. (Ford went with a “cleaner” look for 1982, opting for the blue oval and deleting the horse emblems.) New tires and a mirror-finish to the chrome round out a great package. When you see this Bronco, you know in what decade it was built.

1981 Ford Bronco - carsforsale.com
1981 Ford Bronco - carsforsale.com

Under the hood is a 302 cu-in (5.0L) V8 paired with a four-speed manual with overdrive. This Bronco was originally optioned with both the “Free Wheeling Package” and the Ranger XLT package. These grave it items like those Chromatic Tape Stripes, the interior fake wood paneling, as well as fog lamps, a removeable black fiberglass roof, tinted glass, chrome grille and rear step, and a folding rear seat. The original tape deck has been replaced by a more modern yet still outmoded Pioneer CD player.

For me, this ’81 Ford Branco is as transportive as it is transportation, making it my pick for the most ’80s car on Carsforsale.com.

 Jesse Batson 

1982 Chevrolet Corvette

Shortlist:

1984 Chevrolet Camaro 
1986 Pontiac Fiero
1988 Chevrolet Corvette

1982 Chevrolet Corvette - carsforsale.com
1982 Chevrolet Corvette - carsforsale.com

Whether you’re talking about 1980s car style or 1980s car performance, the Corvette is a safe bet to deliver both in any decade. Our Chevy Corvette Through the Years overview proves that. It’s hard to go wrong with a Corvette unless it’s the 1982 model. The last of the C3 generation, the 1982 Corvette had great style but struggled with performance.

Chevy tried to make a car that was somewhat cheap to fuel up, could pass United States emissions requirements, and still looked and felt like a Corvette. Unfortunately, they made some mistakes in trying to achieve those goals. Fear not, though! There are still good reasons to choose this particular 1982 Corvette.

1982 Chevrolet Corvette - carsforsale.com
1982 Chevrolet Corvette - carsforsale.com

When it comes to power, the 1982 Corvette had some, despite needing to keep up with U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The original 1982 Chevy Corvette had a 5.7-liter V8 engine that made 200 horsepower and 285 lb-ft of torque. Despite that, the 1982 Chevrolet Corvette was actually one of the slowest ever built.

The 1982 model was the one that debuted an automatic four-speed transmission in a Corvette for the first time. Get behind the wheel of a modern Corvette and you’ll not only find an automatic transmission, but you’ll find that it works well. Our review of the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette, which is equipped with a Tremec 8-speed dual-clutch automatic, is one example of that. An automatic four-speed transmission may be common these days, but it wasn’t a big hit with the Corvette faithful in 1982. The 700-R4 four-speed kept the first and second gears low so that the acceleration was quick (going 0 to 60 mph in about eight seconds), but the fourth gear overdrive reduced highway RPM by 30%. The Corvette became a gas guzzler at high speeds. Corvette-buying customers missed the Turbo-Hydramatic three-speed found in previous models.

1982 Chevrolet Corvette - carsforsale.com
1982 Chevrolet Corvette - carsforsale.com

What really hurt the ’82 Corvette was the introduction of the throttle body injection system, dubbed the ‘Crossfire Injection’ system. The new fuel delivery system involved two throttle bodies that were placed on the top of the engine, feeding separate rails of cylinders. The left throttle body sent fuel to the right cylinders. The right throttle body sent fuel to the left cylinders. Hence the ‘Crossfire’ name. The injection system did help the ’82 Corvette improve fuel efficiency by 5 mpg from the previous year, but at the time people found it unusual, unnecessary, and complicated.

Wait, didn’t I say this 1982 Corvette is still a good option? Yes! Let’s get to why. A LS3 small-block V8 engine was placed into this 1982 Corvette. This is the standard engine in the fifth-generation Camaro SS and C6 Corvette. The LS3, sold by Chevrolet Performance Parts, is designed for high performance, delivering a 10.7 to 1 compression ratio. The result is 525 horsepower and 485 lb-ft of torque! A hydraulic ASA cam utilizes high-rate valve springs to maximize intake efficiency. It rides on a heavily upgraded suspension, too. Take away the problems of the original 1982 Vette, replace it with some new components, and you’ve got an impressive vehicle!

1982 Chevrolet Corvette - carsforsale.com
1982 Chevrolet Corvette - carsforsale.com

Of course, we have to talk about the style of this resto-mod. The engine may have needed some tweaks, but the body didn’t. The ’82 Vette was the last one manufactured with the classic look from the 1960s. The lines and shape of that era of Corvettes stand the test of time. The pop-up Detroit Speed headlights on this Vette are a great feature. This version of the Corvette also features a sugar scoop design with a vertical rear window. The C3 Corvette models have T-tops for nice weather back road cruising. That feature is enhanced on this modernized Corvette with custom sunshades.

Solid fiberglass was planted under custom Cadillac Sage Metallic two-stage paint. That uncommon choice gets bonus points from me. You can’t go wrong with a jet-black or shiny red Corvette. Those will always be classics. This choice is great though. The bronze wheel covers make it stand out even more. The result of the chosen color combination here is a striking 1982 Corvette!

1982 Chevrolet Corvette - carsforsale.com
1982 Chevrolet Corvette - carsforsale.com

The cabin has an updated AM/FM radio and temperature control knobs, both placed on the center console. An anti-theft system and alarm are also included. This car also has power windows and power door locks. Green Ultraleather material is used for the bucket seats. Most of the rest of the interior is made to match the outside sage color.

This Corvette is a notable example of a well-done resto-mod that kept some favorite classic C3 features while improving upon the original 1982 model. It mixes style and performance with some classic 1960s features, 1980s attitude, and modern improvements. You can’t go wrong here!

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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