LISTS: Top 5 American Cars of the 1980s

Continuing our countdown to Back to the 80s, we come to the Top 5 American cars of the 1980s. While today, a lot of us look at 70's muscle cars through rose tinted glasses thinking of only the pre-emissions cars, the fact of the matter is that by the turn of the decade it was bleak, we had boogie vans and lowriders but performance vehicles they were not. By 1980 an a mere 170 hp came out of a 350 small block Chevrolet V8, a Dodge 318 cubic inch V8 generated a shocking 120 HP and 140 HP came out of Ford's Windsor 302 V8. Add to that some atrocious design issues, the Japanese coming out of left field with extremely good cars, a general lack of innovation and you begin to understand why we called this era The Malaise. However, after the turn of the decade things were picking up and by the mid-1980s America was back in the game.

At Chrysler, Lee Iacocca (god bless him) spearheaded their first government bailout and actually saved the company with an amazing amount of innovation. GM and Ford also took steps to up their quality, not through old hat tricks but through legitimate quality improvements and R&D. This fresh infusion of technology saw better drag coeffecients, fuel injection and turbocharging which allowed more economic power to be had. All of that innovation lead to the birth of the Modern Muscle Car and even non-muscle cars were finally on a level to battle imports. The American car was back with a vengeance.

We're running a poll on the MNCEC Facebook group and here are your Top 5 Best American Cars of the 1980s as chosen by you at time of writing.



Honorable Mention: Chevrolet Corvette C4

Although the Chevrolet Corvette ranked rather low on the list, we are including it as an Honorable Mention because it best encompasses the quantum leap in quality during the era more than anything else here. In 1982 the 14 year old C3 chassis was getting long in the tooth. It had fallen to a paltry 180 HP as a minimum (in California only) and the quarter-mile time was matched with a lethargic 16.4 second pass. Due to some last minute legal jack-assary by the State of California, no 1983 Corvette was made but when it returned in 1984, it came out with a bang. 

Gone were the warmed over lines left from the 1960s and what we got was a sleek streamlined design with all the modern accoutrement that made the 80s so cool. Digital dashboards, computers for everything, a new wicked flip up headlight design, and a gaggle of more power thanks to... SCIENCE! That 16.4 second quarter mile pass 2 years prior turned into a, blistering for the era, 13.9 seconds seemingly over night. Almost every year of production had the C4 see an increase in power and handling. There was a stint in Le Mans and IMSA with the C4 and a SCCA one-make race series which gave credibility to the new chassis as well. However the ultimate variant would be created by the famed Corvette tuners, Callaway. It was the Callaway Sledgehammer, an 898 HP monster. In 1988, it set the closed course top speed record of 254 MPH at the Transportation Research Center in Ohio, which would stand for the next 25 years.

5.) Dodge Omni GLHS

I wanted to take the plug-ugliest little box Chrysler made and turn it into something that could whip a Ferrari or a Porsche, at a price the average guy can afford" - Carroll Shelby

This car was a result of Carroll Shelby having a tussle with Ford over a trademark dispute. Carroll quit working with Ford and joined back up with Lee Iacocca (god bless him). You may recognize the Iacocca name as the father of the Ford Mustang. After being fired from Ford Iacocca went to Chrysler, along with his K-car designs for a reliable modern economic car which ended up saving Chrysler from certain financial doom. 

Once Shelby got his hands on the Omni, his original plan was to name it the "Coyote" but that evolved into the initials GLH. One would imagine it would stand for a "High-output" of a GL trim level but that's far too lame for Shelby, it literally stands for Goes Like Hell. The myth is that Chrysler assumed nobody would figure it out so perennially lazy Chrysler said "f*** it" and let it happen, we can't verify that but it seems plausible. The original GLH was powered by a 2.2L engine that would get Turbo'ed at 7 psi for 146 HP, which was on par for how much full sized muscle cars were making at the time. The GLH was a very quick car but in 1986 Shelby pulled out the ultimate version, the GLHS or "Goes Like Hell Some-more." It nearly doubled boost pressure to a still conservative 12 psi, added a front mount intercooler, Koni shocks and Goodyear tires. That's not to count the 9 billion SHELBY stickers all over the car and Bosch foglights. What was the result? 175 HP, 6.7 seconds for a 0-60, and when Hot Rod magazine compared it to a '66 GT350, the GLHS beat the pony car by over a second. There was also a MOPAR tuned ECU which would bump power to 205 HP.

4.) Fox Body Ford Mustang/Mercury Capri

The Fox Body Mustang was the first American muscle car that really broke hold of The Malaise. Of course, in the process it got hit like a ton of bricks by The Malaise as well. The car was originally slated to replace the widely hated Pinto-based Mustang II with a larger Fox chassis based car featuring a proper 302 V8. Nearly immediately upon release though, the second oil crisis of the Malaise hit and Ford responded by limiting the V8 to 4.2L and 120 HP. That was HP number not seen by a Ford V8 since the 1950s and even the carbureted 2.3L turbo 4-cylinder engine outperformed it, so long as it's turbo stayed lubricated. All of this was temporary though because Ford was working on modernizing the technology behind their platforms and specifically their Mustang.

The first step of Ford's malaise beating plan started in 1983, the strategy was to improve performance as much as possible without turning to electronics. They dressed their 5.0L with a 4 barrel carburetor and a reworked exhaust which netted an emissions strangled 175 HP. The important part is they wanted people to feel free to work on (*cough* modify *cough*) their own car. They did ease their buyers into fuel injection in 1984 with the SVO 2.3L turbo fuel injected 4-cylinder mustang. Later in 1986, Ford felt comfortable enough with the usability of their fuel injection to switch the 5.0L over to EFI, bringing the car up to 200 HP. Then in 1987, they backed up the fuel injection with the aerodynamic front end we all know from the Vanilla Ice music video. This strategy seemed to work because the Fox Body Mustang had yearly sales higher than Subaru as a whole throughout the 80s and is still one of the cheapest muscle cars to build on a budget. It even held up a fight in professional racing as the Fox Body Mustang saw touring car use both at home and in Australia. Amazingly the Fox Body kept itself in production until 1993 but that's not to say it got stale, for it's last year 235 HP was on tap in the SVT Cobra. Throughout it's course of production, tuning companies came out of the woodwork offering pre-tuned versions, McLaren had the ASC McLaren Mustang and Saleen cut their teeth with this chassis too. Even your local police department got in on the action with the SSP Mustang Coupe police interceptors that Ford offered.


3.) DMC DeLorean DMC-12

If you want the most literal interpretation of the DeLorean, it is technically a Euro despite being American owned. I say technically because Northern Ireland outbid everyone else in the world for the plant location of the DeLorean so it's point of origin is in Europe. However, if you want a figurative interpretation of the DeLorean it is a French Powered, Italian designed, American car festooned with gullwing doors while being steeped in a air of white collar crime, international terrorism, and drug smuggling. Much like the accolades of the E30 M3, we could spend an entire post explaining the downfall of DeLorean but that isn't all that the DeLorean was about.

Prior to gaining it's fame outrunning Libyan terrorists and traveling through time so Michael J. Fox can flirt with his mom and fight Gary Busey, it was known as a slightly underwhelming but intriguing GT car with bizarre doors. Frankly, the car was an astonishing feat, John DeLorean was able to independently design, market and sell a car from scratch and it wasn't completely terrible. In fact, it was actually an innovative car that had a slew of power gizmos on the interior, used fuel injection and was able to handle quite well despite a top heavy rear mounted engine position. On top of all of the mechanical features, with the help of Giorgetto Giugiaro's master design work, the car was both extremely safe and aesthetically pleasing. The only real downside to the performance of the car was that the gearing was so unnecessarily long that the 130 HP V6 was out of it's element. The 0-60 time was a 10.6 seconds in an Automatic and a slightly better 8.8 seconds in a manual. Luckily, DeLorean is back in business and you can buy an essentially brand new one from the company, even with additional power to make use of that long gearing.

2.) Pontiac Trans Am 350 GTA / Camaro Iroc Z

I'm going to challenge myself not to mention mullets, the iron duke 2.5L 4-cylinder version or trailer parks during this. Honestly, the third generation Camaro and Trans Am doesn't really get the respect it deserves. The poor reputation came from the relative difficulty of tuning these when compared to the carburetor clad SBC (Small Block Chevy) from the previous generations. Bolt on performance wasn't easy either, due to an extremely finicky fuel injection system, the most timid cam on earth, mile long intake runners (13.65" long) and poor flowing cast iron heads. All of this was to appease emissions regulations. The standard V8 Camaros and Firebirds came with a 305 cubic inch V8 making in the ballpark of 190 HP, which a lot of Honda kids had their first muscle car kill against. But, there was a much better variant made by both Chevy and Pontiac, The Chevrolet Iroc Z and the Pontiac Trans Am 350 GTA.

On these high output variants, the standard 305 was chucked in lieu of the L98 350 c.i. V8 from a C4 Corvette, albeit the aluminum heads stayed with the Corvette and these received iron variants. Even with the asthmatic iron heads they were able to crank out 220 HP and more importantly 330 lb-ft making it feel like a proper muscle car. With the extra power and a Posi-Traction (limited-slip) rear end, it laid down a 14.43 second quarter mile during a Motor Trend test. Remember 5 years prior the Corvette was in the mid-16 second range. I know that's barely news worthy numbers these days but if it wasn't for the steps taken to make 220 HP in 1987, we wouldn't have cars like the Demon today making 840 HP from the factory. These were also raced during the era and they both have a pretty storied racing pedigree including a run in IMSA GTO class throughout the 80s.

1.) Buick Grand National GNX

Now we come to the number one spot. Throughout this article we've been seeing great cars from America made during a time people dismissed American products. The common theme has been overcoming the desperate grasp of The Malaise to lay the groundwork for modern performance cars. The G-body chassis was the last bastion of the old school muscle car that The Malaise hit so hard. It encompassed cars like the Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass, Chevrolet El Camino, Chevrolet Monte Carlo and many others. They were a body-on-chassis, front-engine rear drive, V6 or V8 powered commuter car just like how America always had done so well. In 1987, when Buick was axing the last of their cars that mattered, oops I mean last of their RWD cars, they wanted to make it memorable. So what did it mean when an American company went all in, not worrying about drivability, appeasing Jonny Polar-Bear, or being "sensible"?   This meant they weren't going to go supernova and leave a normal neutron star as their legacy, hell they wouldn't even leave a magnetar star, they left a big ol' super-massive black hole for their legacy. They made the Grand National GNX.

Since 1982 the Grand National had been appearance package WE2 for the Buick Regal T-Type, which was a turbocharged V6 variant of Regal. The T-Type would of been one of the forgotten cars of the 80s, but the Grand National package made it look so much better. It blacked out all of the chrome, which was the defacto way of making a performance look and made it's looks match the performance. Once Buick decided to go the route of the eunuch they wanted their muscle cars to go down guns blazing, so people would remember they were once a cool company. The Grand National had the special edition GNX package limited to 547 cars and it added a performance tuned PCM, better flowing heads, a larger turbo, more boost, a larger intercooler and slightly larger rear tubs to fit bigger tires. The top speed was limited to 124 MPH, unless you had one of the Grand Nationals that the FBI ran which was unlimited. The best part was, GM lied about the performance figures, they said the GNX had significantly less power than the Corvette to protect the C4's image. This all netted a 13.8 second quarter mile and a 0-60 time of 6.1 seconds which still holds up to date. In an era when high 14 second quarter mile times made front page news, this was down right aerospace quality. The most historically memorable part of this car is that the fastest muscle car of the era came with a turbocharged V6 instead of some megalithic big block V8. It really showed technology had overcome the death grips of The Malaise and displacement wasn't the sole key to affordable power. Perhaps we could say that Buick Performance martyred itself to save Muscle Cars as a whole.