Two Out Of Ten Ain’t Bad

According to these guys, the top cars of the 1980s were (as listed):

  • 1983 Golf GTI
  • 1984 Ferrari Testarossa
  • 1985 Corvette
  • 1986 Porsche 959
  • 1987 Camaro IROC-Z
  • 1987 RUF CTR
  • 1987 Mustang 5.0
  • 1987 BMW M5
  • 1987 Ferrari F40
  • 1987 Buick Grand National/GNX

A couple of points come to mind.  The RUF and 959 Porsches aren’t really “production” cars in the true sense of the word — they’re essentially low-volume tweaked models.  The F40 is a wondercar — still is — but it wasn’t really a car for the general public back then, just as La Ferrari isn’t for today’s public.  As for the rest — and I’m trying not to compare this list to today’s cars in terms of performance — the only one I’d consider owning is the BMW M5, which I have driven, and it was fantastic — even with all the shit we know goes along with Beemer ownership.

And while the Ferrari Testa is the best-looking of all of them, in practice it’s a beast to drive — it once took me about a dozen tries to parallel-park it, to the amusement of many onlookers.

I’ve driven a couple of the others as well:  the Mustang and the Grand National were great, but butt-ugly.  I was nearly talked into buying a Buick, actually, but the purchase was nixed by Wife #2, who pointed out (quite reasonably) that a supercharged rear-wheel drive car with crap handling was not the optimal vehicle for Chicagoland’s icy and potholed streets.  The IROC-Z was really aimed at the street-dragster market, as was the Corvette (then and now), which leaves me out.  And all these cars drank gas quicker than you could toss out the window in 5-gallon cans.  Except for the Golf.

The Golf GTI needs a special mention, as it’s the only other car I’d take from the Hemmings list.  While its 90hp performance is risible by today’s standards, it wasn’t back then;  remember that the Porsche 356 only developed 95hp.  But the VW’s light weight made it truly quick, if not especially fast, and on city- and suburban streets it was a rocket.  And it handled better at speed than the Mustang, Camaro, or Buick.

Frankly, I think one of the 1980s’ best cars (and most glaring omission from the Hemmings list)  was Toyota’s 1986 MR2 model, but no doubt someone’s going to take issue with this.  I thought it was superb, especially when compared to its major competitor, the stupefyingly-bad Pontiac Fiero.

In fact, the Toyota’s only real competition came from Europe, in the form of the Lancia Delta Stradale:

…except of course that the “Mister 2” didn’t break down every quarter-mile, as the Lancia was prone to do.

Feel free, as always, to add your own ideas in Comments.


  1. No mention of the Porsche 924? I hired one for the weekend, just before I got married, (when I still had money), and drove it from Cambridge to Clacton on a Sunday morning and I could not get it to lose it’s grip anywhere on the long and very, very winding route. It was extremely impressive and had a tin roof!

  2. I bought a 1989 Mustang brand-spanking-new and drove that car for 27 years, so to say I’m familiar with it is like saying that Bill Clinton is familiar with cigars. Yes, I can write scholarly papers on wheel spin, and my first winter in it scared the crap out of me (ever try to make a left turn and do a 270, facing the opposite way to the direction you wanted to end up going? In an inch of snow?) By the time I got rid of it it was beat up, rusted, and it would still smoke the tires. One of my lottery cars will be a fully-restored version.

    Oh, two things made me decide to buy it. One, that year (IIRC) Motor Trend had an article on the ten best $14,000 cars (that being the average new-car price that year, oy). The Mustang was on the list, and it said “There are eight good reasons to buy this car. They are arranged in a V-formation under the hood and produce smoke when the accelerator is pressed”. The other was a story from Florida, where then-Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden was driving his Jag at 120 mph. A FL highway cop driving a Mustang saw him, while going the other way at 55 mph, turned around and caught him.

  3. Your anti-American car bias, courtesy of your furrin upbringing, is in full evidence. I entered high school in 1980, in Texas, and the #1 car at the time was a pick-up truck. But, as far as cars, the mustang was #1 among my classmates. The camaro had some cool moments, but the wedge body style just wasn’t nearly as popular as the ‘stang. But the Gran National? !!!!! That was the beast. The Elephant. The fastest American production car since the Hemi Cuda. Completely out of the reach of us high school kids, but still.

    But where’s the Japanese love? Among many kids, the Toyota Celica and it’s sister, the Supra were considered perfect. And the Nissan (we still called them Datsun’s) Z-cars? Absolute perfect sports cars. The 280 and the 300Z were objects of lust. I can’t say I ever drove one, but I got to wring out several Celicas. My friend had one with a 5-speed and even with the anemic engine you could snip snip snip the gear shift and wring it out through the suburban neighhoods each morning on the way to school.

    With all respect to the Hemmings guys, I’d take a Supra or 280Z over 3 or 4 cars on their list. Assuming properly restored with a full range of parts to keep it running. Or hell, I guess I’d take the Ferrarri and then sell it to buy 5 of the cars I want. Cash is always king.

  4. If Enzo had intended his cars to be parallel parked, they would be fiats. Ferraris are supposed to be driven from your villa to your club, restaurant or the Casino, with maybe a stop at your Factory or your mistresses apartment. …… But never someplace where you would need to park where the plebeians park.

    What were you thinking?

  5. The reason cars got better in the ‘80s versus the ‘70s was that Volvo introduced the Lambda Sond oxygen sensor in the exhaust and fed the data back to a computer that could compensate. As an electrical engineer who studied the principles of feedback control, i knew at that time the answer had been found. Today we live in horsepower heaven.
    Among my technical heroes is the little known Harold Black. In the mid-30s he had been working on the problem of removing distortion in long distance voice transmission. While taking the ferry one Saturday morning from his home in NJ to Lower Manhattan where Bell Labs was located at the time, it came to him. On that trip he developed the mathematics for negative feedback control and wrote the equations on an ad page of the New York Times with a lot of white space. Upon arriving at his office, he explained his work to a colleague who signed the paper and wrote “read and understood” as was the custom at that time. That scrap of newspaper is among the most precious artifacts in Bell Labs’ possession. Don’t get me started on the MBAs, lawyers, and executives not to mention Judge Green who destroyed all that. I go all RCOB on that subject.

  6. Finally, a car thread where I have some input.

    I was on a business trip in 1986, going to a Silicon Valley training class for 2 weeks with a free weekend in between. When I rented a car, they were almost out and upgraded me to an MR2. It was a fun car to drive around, the first 5-speed I ever drove.

    Things got a bit dicey, though, over the weekend. I left Santa Clara and drove up to San Francisco.
    San Francisco was not a fun town for manual transmissions. They put stop signs on steep uphill streets, and people ride your bumpers.

    Pity about SF dying; it was a nice visit but I won’t go back there until California gets sane again. Which means I won’t be going back there.

  7. I don’t disagree with your comments about the rarer selections on the list, but you have to admit the 80s were slim pickin’s for great cars. I have to agree with the majority of your comments especially on styling. The 80s, for the most part, was styled with a ruler and a protractor. The Fox body Mustangs will never be collectible the way the 60s models were, but they could run. I saw a showroom stock race at Green Valley Raceway back in the late 80s, and a bone stock 5.0L Mustang lapped the entire field twice including an SVO Mustang with the turbo engine. What sticks out in my mind is that race also had a GTI gamely trying to keep up with the bigger cars and there was a tight left hand turn before the long straight in which the drivers rear wheel on the GTI would come off the ground.

  8. Toyota MR2…
    Best. Car. I. Ever. Owned.
    From 2008-2010 I owned a 1989 automatic, non-supercharged MR2 in near perfect condition.
    It was, quite literally, GLUED to the road.
    In 1986, the MR2 out-performed the 1985 Ferrari 308 in 0-30mph.
    (…apparently shocking EVERYONE at the time!)
    And while I won MANY “impromptu races” against modern cars (and a few motorcycles!), it never felt any different than doing 40mph down a flat country road.
    All with just 112hp and manual-steering!
    Ergonomically? Surprisingly, very comfortable…even though sitting with your butt just 8 inches above the road. All controls were within arms reach, the interior felt open, and the visibility was FAR better than you would have expected.
    Being a mid-engined two-seater, everyone assumed no storage space.
    Between the front trunk (commonly known as the “frunk”!) and a fairly sizable storage space BEHIND the engine at the rear, I never had any issues carrying any cargo short of furniture.
    …did I mention 29-35mpg?

    The only quibbles I had with the car were the following:
    Because the radiator was located in the front, the coolant lines stretched the length of the vehicle through a very circuitous route and made bleeding the cooling system a challenge.
    You had to alternately jack up the front and rear of the vehicle to get all the air out.
    Because less than 1300 of the 1989 model were imported into the US, parts were near impossible to be had. The few of the minor parts I purchased came from Europe and Australia.

    Unfortunately, medical bills and potential lawyers fees forced the sale.
    I miss it constantly and would take it back in a heartbeat over anything modern!

  9. So, I’m going to guess that the author of that list is European…because the VW model he lists was called the Rabbit in the States until 1988. My first car was a 1987 VW Rabbit GTi, and yes, it was a great and fun car. Quick driving in city conditions, good gas mileage, and even managed to accomodate my lanky 6’2″ frame. That car survived just under 2 years of being used to deliver pizzas (my college job) and I survived driving it from Fort Lewis, WA to Fort Benning, GA (no cruise control) in the middle of August after I joined the Army.

  10. 1970 914:
    Although replacing the clutch was an endeavor, the resulting third-gear chirps compensated.
    The removable hard-top stored in the rear trunk; with the side-windows up, zero wind mussed my hair.
    My buddy owned a 914-6 for a couple weeks.
    In fourteen days, he burned off all the tires going perpetually sideways.

    1986 MR-2:
    My acquaintance owned one during the 1990s.
    I was not comfortable with the ‘church-pew’ up-right seats; they couldn’t recline because of the mid-engine fire-wall.
    The removable hard-top exploded off while on Interstate 80 between Sacramento and frisco (before it became known as ‘needle-shitsco’).

    1987 Jaguar XJS:
    After replacing the V-12 with a Chevy 350, it earned the title ‘daily-driver’.
    Pathetic heater/air-conditioning vents; defrosting the windows required a constant re-supply of paper-towels.

    1987 Ford CF8000 ExpeditionVehicle:
    My daily-driver since I converted it in 2003.
    Twenty-four months twenty-four thousand miles around south America.
    Snacks and a nap within easy reach.

    1987 928s.
    Ergonomically perfect.
    Easy to fuss about with the engine.
    Slight continual ‘settling’ of the aluminum body while driving caused minor windshield leaks.

    1953 Austin Healy 100-4:
    After I installed a Chevy V-8 and Oldsmobile axle and enormous gumballs, I enjoyed it tremendously.
    In the interests of safety [strike-through], heater and wipers became garage-shelf optional.

    1987 Mustang 302 convertible:
    During a test-drive on Interstate 80 east of Sacramento — 80mph *across* the weigh-station scales, sideways on the off-ramp — I realized my impulse control was tragically lacking.

  11. +1 on the golf and the M5 being the only cars I’d want from that list.

    No jag xj12?
    No Porsche 930? No 911??
    Mazda RX7, Bentley, Aston Martin V8 vantage, bmw e23 or e32 7 series…..

  12. F*** that. The top 10 were all pickups. I might include the Corolla or the Civic is pressed.

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