Muscle Cars (and Trucks) That Defined the 1980s
With the popular Netflix show stranger things being an absolute sensation, all things 80s came back into fashion. All things ’80s, from Metallica to leg warmers, return, but we’re caught up with some of the American irons that roamed the streets throughout the ’80s. It doesn’t take a TV to appreciate the blistering performance of the Buick GNX or the sleek design of the iconic fox-bodied Mustang. For those old enough to live in the 1980s, it could be nostalgia for what you or your parents drove. Whatever the motive, the 1980s were a great decade that brought us some great cars.
So what makes the 1980s so special in muscle car history? The 1970s saw record gasoline prices and a wave of environmental legislation that killed the muscle cars of the 1960s. 426 HEMI-powered Mopars were the first to go, followed soon after by Chevys at 454 engines and Fords with 428 engines. Even the bright and fun paint jobs, loud exhausts and sporty body panels are gone in favor of dull brown paint and boxy body panels; muscle cars were just a shell of themselves. When engineers began to work around new emissions laws and falling gas prices in the late 1970s, muscle cars began to return in style. Although muscle car performance didn’t return to 1960s numbers until the 2010s, the 1980s were a much-needed step in the right direction.
Fire up your 8-track player and find your hairspray, here are the muscle cars (and trucks) that defined the 1980s.
9 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS
Although the Monte Carlo started life as a personal luxury coupe, it quickly became a piece of muscle car history. When the Chevrolet Chevelle was discontinued, the Monte Carlo was selected as the new homologation car, and the rest is history.
The road version used aerodynamic body panels, a 305 cubic inch V8 and a three-speed automatic transmission. The Monte Carlo SS could hit 60 in just under 9 seconds, above the 1980s average. This piece of Chevrolet has a special place in our hearts, and in the garages of NASCAR teams and car enthusiasts.
8 Dodge Daytona Turbo Z-CS
Dodge had no rear-drive V8 cars in the 1980s alongside the Diplomat, a heavy-duty sedan produced primarily for police work or retirees, and the unpopular Mirada. So what should Mopar fans do? Luckily, Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca was friends with tuning legend Carroll Shelby and got his help sprucing up some of the gas-efficient front-wheel-drive cars that dominated the Dodge showroom floor.
Shelby gave the car its typical treatment, tight handling, big brakes and a pumped-up engine. Shelby threw a turbo and intercooler on the otherwise ordinary 2.2-liter inline-4. The turbo-4 could take the little coupe to 60 in the 7-second range, faster than many V8 performance cars of the time. The Chrysler cars built by Shelby also highlighted an interesting point in his career. While Carroll Shelby may not be known for his work with Dodge today, his time with Dodge brought him out of retirement and that’s enough to earn this car a spot on our list.
seven Oldsmobile Hurst/Old
Based on the same platform as the Monte Carlo, but with its own touches of Oldsmobile and Hurst, this epic ’80s cruiser was high-tech for the day. The transmission had three joysticks, allowing the driver to change gears manually or let the transmission do all the work. The plush interior and 8-track player provide all the comfort you need to manage your three controllers.
The Hurst/Olds used a modified 307-cubic-inch, 3.73-speed V8 in the rear, good for an 8.4 0-60 mph time, putting it between the Monte Carlo SS and its faster Buick sibling, the GNX.
6 shelby dakota
Another collaboration between Dodge and Carroll Shelby, this time the Dakota compact truck. Shelby worked its magic, shoeing the 318-cubic-inch V8 found in full-size Dodge trucks and full-size cars like the Diplomat and Fifth Avenue.
The Shelby Dakota was good for a 0-60 run of 8.6 seconds, comparable to most muscle cars of the time. The Shelby Dakota also started the muscle truck trend of the 1980s, inspiring the GMC Typhoon, Ford Lightning SVT, and even another Dakota variant built in the late 1990s. So the next time you find yourself coveting a muscle truck Ford or GM, be sure to thank Dodge and Carroll Shelby for leading the way.
5 Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 IROC-Z
The Chevrolet Camaro Z-28 IROC-Z was the ultimate “mullet-mobile”, using t-tops, a 350 cubic inch V8 and retro-wave style graphics. The 3rd generation brought style and performance back to the Camaro name after the rather plain and slow cars of the 1970s.
The 350 V8 could take the Z28 to 60 mph in under 7 seconds, but the handling was more impressive. The stiff suspension combined with a fairly powerful V8 made the Camaro competitive against cars like the Porsche 928, Toyota Supra MkII and Datsun 300ZX, quite impressive for a muscle car built before the traction and stability control.
4 Cherolet Corvette C4
The last Corvette C3 under 200 horsepower, only offered an automatic transmission and had been out of fashion for 10 years. The change was necessary. In 1984, the Corvette C4 was introduced, using a new 5.7L V8, manual transmission, and updated body panels that matched the fashion of the time.
The 1989 C4 could hit 60 mph in 6.4 seconds and had a top speed of 151 mph, although later cars from the 1990s could hit 60 in 4 seconds and top speeds of around 170 mph. The Corvette C4 effectively saved the Corvette, and we can thank it for the high-performance Corvettes we have today.
3 Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am (3rd generation)
The Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am captured all the beauty a 1980s car would need, including chrome wheels, pop-up headlights and t-tops, making it the perfect hero car for the TV show to hit, Knight Rider. The highly modified, self-aware Trans-Am, better known as the KITT, took America by storm and cemented the ’80s Trans-Am as a legend.
The real Trans-Am used a 350 cubic inch Chevrolet V8 and could hit 60 mph in just under 6 seconds. Some versions used a turbo V6 similar to the legendary Buick GNX, but more on that later.
2 Ford Mustang GT (Fox-Corps)
The Fox-Body Mustang was the ultimate pony car of the ’80s, kickstarting the muscle car market when it hit showrooms in 1979. The 5.0L V8 and 4-speed manual transmission have gave buyers a taste of performance they hadn’t seen since the 1960s. The rounded looks were derived from European sports cars and influenced American car design throughout the 80s and 90s.
The 1989 Ford Mustang GT could hit 60 mph in the 6-second high range, making it a favorite of hot-rodders and police alike. Several Highway Patrol agencies have ordered simplified versions for use as pursuit cars, and some have only been retired in the last 5 years, a testament to their performance. The Fox-bodied Mustang also proves to be the most popular platform for building drag racing cars to date. Whether or not you’re a fan of the Blue Oval, it’s hard to argue with the impact of the Fox-Body Mustang.
1 Buick GNX
The Buick GNX was based on the same platform as the Chevrolet Monte Carlo and Oldsmobile Hurst/Olds but had one major difference; a V6 powertrain. Buick engineers found that using a V6 could allow them to get ’60s performance numbers with ’80s gas mileage. Put a turbo on the V6 and give McLaren the reins to tune the car, and you’re ready to have a monster in your hands.
The GNX could do the 1/4 mile in 13.9 seconds, faster than the Ferrari Testarossa and Chevrolet Corvette. The GNX could also be available in any color…as long as it was black. Only 547 cars were produced, so they are extremely collectible; reach prices in excess of six figures. Performance and influence like that are hard to argue with, earning this beastly Buick the top spot on our list.