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The Most Popular Cars of the 1980s

BY: Alex Perrone
A DeLorean with it's doors open.

From timeless fashion and trends to some of the most famous movies of all time, the 80s were truly a time to remember. For the automotive world, the 1980s were also a time that saw a profound change from previous generations where we moved on from the energy worries of the 1970s with automakers further adopting technologies like fuel injection and turbocharging to help with performance and efficiency. This greater emphasis on sophisticated engineering introduced in the 1980s has helped pave the way for many of the improvements we see today, helping make the 80s a critical decade within not only the American automotive landscape but the automotive field around the world. 

To learn more about this era of automotive history, let’s revisit some of the most popular cars of the 1980s.

1988 BMW M3

A BMW M3 driving down a European road race course.

While today’s BMW M3 sets the standard for a modern high-tech performance vehicle, the first-generation (E30) M3 was all about simplicity and four cylinders. It featured a 2.3-liter powerplant engine capable of producing up to 192 horsepower (hp). While its 6.9-second 0-60 time was respectable for the day, the M3 was also about chassis refinement and handling—a characteristic still embedded in the car’s successors.

Driving enthusiasts also appreciated the five-speed manual transmission of the M3. In addition to improvements in the engine bay, BMW transformed the M3 with numerous body upgrades to enhance aerodynamics. These changes included a prominent rear-deck spoiler and a modified front end.

  • Eager to compete in touring races, BMW built 5,000 of the first M3s to comply with homologation rules that require the car to be available for public purchase.
  • While the US only got the E30 M3 in coupe form, European buyers could also opt for a convertible.
  • The first-generation BMW M3 was named one of the best all-time driver’s cars by Automobile Magazine.

1987 Buick Grand National

A vintage Buick Grand National parked at an outdoor auto show.

While the current selection of Buick models may lack an overall number of vehicles, this General Motors division was still at the center of 1980s automotive performance. During the decade, Buick had been hard at work to establish its credentials on the racetrack, which eventually led to the brand’s NASCAR successes in 1981 and 1982. To celebrate, Buick introduced a Grand National version of the 1982 Regal. Starting in 1984, the Grand National used a turbocharged version of the 3.8-liter V6 engine. 

Buick produced the 1987-only GNX (Grand National Experimental)—a more powerful version of the Grand National—to commemorate the second-generation Regal’s last year. With 300 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque, the GNX became the fastest production car on the planet (0-60 mph in 4.7 seconds) and could easily outpace the famous Ferraris and Porsches of the time. 

  • Buick worked with McLaren to maximize GNX engine performance and suspension capability.
  • Only 547 GNXs were built compared to 10,193 Grand Nationals.  
  • The Buick Grand National was available with a T-Top roof, but Buick axed this option for the GNX to preserve structural integrity.

1985 Chevy Camaro IROC-Z

A red Chevy Camaro IROC-Z.

Not only did the Chevy Camaro have to fend off its archrival, the Ford Mustang, but its corporate cousin as well — the Pontiac Firebird. Cleverly, with all three vehicles targeting the same type of car enthusiasts, Chevrolet sought to capitalize on its ties with the International Race of Champion (IROC) by debuting the IROC-Z edition Camaro in 1985. Thanks to a 305 cubic-inch V8, this Camaro could hit 60 mph from a standstill in 6.9 seconds, making it the first Camaro to break the seven-second mark. 

The IROC-Z was also a standout in the looks department. The vibrant graphics embraced the 80s with enthusiasm, while the subtle rear spoiler and modified front end gave the car a “go-fast” appearance. 

  • The 1985 Camaro’s speedometer only went up to 85 mph to comply with federal requirements.
  • The 215 hp in the IROC-Z’s engine is about what you’d find in a current Hyundai Sonata.
  • Chevy sold 68,403 examples of the 1985 Camaro Z-28, compared to 21,177 IROC-Zs.  

The DeLorean DMC-12 (1981-83) (Pictured Above)

It’s hard not to look at a DeLorean DMC-12 and think of something other than the Back to the Future movies, with the first of the legendary trilogy hitting screens across the country on July 3, 1985. Following John DeLorean’s departure from General Motors, he cobbled together his version of the ultimate car thanks to an assemblage of expertise and components from across Europe. 

The result was a stainless-steel skinned beauty with underwhelming power; its 2.8-liter V6 could, at best, generate 130 hp and a 0-60 time of 9.0 seconds. 

  • The DMC-12 was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro, an Italian automobile designer who penned iconic cars like the BMW M1 and Maserati Bora.
  • Only 9,000 DMC-12s were built at the company’s Irish factory.
  • The average interest rate for a car loan in 1982 was 14%, making cars like the $25,000 (about $78,600 today) DMC-12 unaffordable for many.

1988 Ford Mustang GT 5.0

A black Ford Mustang 5.0 convertible driving down the road.

With a Camaro on the list, it’s no surprise to see a Mustang here as well, with the 1988 Mustang GT marking a turning point for Ford’s iconic vehicle. The third-generation Mustang (dubbed the Fox Body by car enthusiasts) had been around since 1979, leaving many drivers feeling it was a bit “stale.” To help, Ford reworked the vehicle for the 1987 model year, reigniting interest and sales for this iconic line of vehicles.

The 1988 Mustang GT embraced this new, more muscular styling and backed it up with performance thanks to a 5.0-liter V8 under the hood. While earlier Fox Body GTs could be had with four- or six-cylinder engines, the Mustang’s 1987 refresh meant the GT was V8 only.

  • The Mustang GT was available either as a convertible or three-door hatchback.
  • A potent powerplant engine in the 80s, the GT’s 302 “Windsor” V8 produced 225 hp and a 0-60 mph time of 6.1 second, which is about the same acceleration as a current V6 Toyota Camry.
  • Car and Driver and Road & Track raved about the 1988 Mustang GT’s performance, handling, and value.

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