The 1980s was the decade that restraint forgot. The world got smaller, the rich got richer and excess was the order of the day.
In the motoring world, the 80s brought us as many horrors as it did heroes. Happily, from a motoring perspective, we’re about to focus (mostly) on the latter.
Prep that perm, parachute those pants and fire up your Walkman – let’s look back at the 1980s in cars.
What is cool?
As it states in the book, How Cool Brands Stay Hot: Branding to Generation Y, “the meaning of ‘cool’ is subjective [but] it certainly signifies some sign of admiration or at least approval.” You cannot learn to be cool, it’s more a personality trait.
Cool is effortless. So while Thierry Henry might be the epitome of cool, we’d argue that Wayne Rooney isn’t. Whatever, here’s a list of cool cars from the 1980s.
Gemballa Avalanche Porsche 930
Only in the 1980s would someone think that the Porsche 911 (930) Turbo needed to be more brash and showy. Enter Gemballa, the spiritual forefather to every aftermarket motor show abomination you’ve ever seen. And yet, the 930 Avalanche is oh-so-cool, in such a quintessentially 80s way. Strakes, a slant nose, a big sprawling wing and six – yes six – exhaust outlets were hints as to the fury within. Many would shudder at the thought of a 380hp 1980s 911 Turbo. It doesn’t stop us wanting one, though.
Alfa Romeo 164 ProCar
Coolest car of the decade or the greatest missed opportunity? The bonkers and slightly terrifying Alfa Romeo 164 ProCar was an F1 car masquerading as the kind of saloon car your dad would drive to the office. The 3.5-litre V10 engine was developed for a stillborn partnership with Ligier, while the chassis and featherlight bodyshell were developed by Brabham. Just two of these 210mph+ mid-engined wonders were built, as the 164 was left without a race series.
The original six-headlight Alpine A310 is cool in a way that the GTA can only dream of, but as a child of the 1970s it’s not welcome here. Which leaves the Renault Alpine GTA to fly the flag for Dieppe. This was the first Alpine to be officially sold in the UK, with Renault taking aim at the Porsche 944/911 and Lotus Esprit. Whether it had enough in its armoury to win the fight is up for debate, but the Regie is cooler, right?
These days, segment-busting cars are the norm and just about every niche has been filled. Just spend a few minutes on the Audi website if you’re in need of a demonstration. But at the beginning of the 1980s, cars tended to slot into neat boxes: saloons, wagons, 4x4s, sports cars and the fast-emerging hatchback. The all-wheel drive AMC Eagle, then, was a true pioneer, built at a time when a crossover was a raised section of track on your brother’s Matchbox Powertrack.
Aston Martin Vantage Zagato
In 1985, Aston Martin renewed a partnership with Zagato to create the limited edition Vantage Zagato. Unveiled at the 1985 Geneva Motor Show, each one of the 50 saloon cars had been pre-sold by the time the production version arrived in 1986. A further 37 Volantes were built. In the same way the Lagonda represents 1970s Aston Martin, the Vantage Zagato is wonderfully 80s.
The Lancia Y10 – sold as the Autobianchi Y10 in its home market – took the Italian marque into the premium city car sector for the first time and was aimed at affluent urbanites. Chic, avant-garde and lifestyle were the watchwords for this achingly cool kammback city car. The Y10 offered a slice of continental exotica to an audience more accustomed to the conservative Metro and Nova.
To be cool you don’t need to be perfect. James Dean, ‘the king of moody cool’, was, by all accounts, far from the perfect gentleman and a bit of a nightmare to work with. Coolness, you see, has the ability to forgive a multitude of sins. So while the Bitter SC will never feature on any ‘best of’ gallery, it remains effortlessly cool thanks to its Italian styling. Hard to believe there’s an Opel Senator lurking beneath a body that’s as elegant as Sophia Loren.
Sure, the E30 M3 and E28 M5 are BMW’s most illustrious cars of the 1980s and will grace the covers of classic car mags for years to come, but is the 635CSi cooler? The E24 looks better today than it did at its launch in 1976, but it’s the M635CSi that deserves its place here, not least because of the presence of the engine from the M1 supercar.
“There is nothing quite like a Bristol. It’s not as common as a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, it’s more exclusive than a Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz, less ostentatious than an Aston Martin. It represents a blend of quiet, understated good taste allied to a high level of equipment, impeccable finish and dramatic performance. We called the Beaufighter “an English gentleman’s very high speed touring carriage,” no better soubriquet could be suggested for the Bristol Brigand; it’s as simple as that.” Motor Sport magazine’s review of 1984 hits the nail on the head.
Daihatsu Charade DeTomaso 926R
You could add the DeTomaso name to just about anything to inject some instant coolness. The DeTomaso Trouser Press, for example. So when the Italian firm lent a hand to create the Daihatsu Charade DeTomaso 926R there was only ever going to be one outcome. This mid-engined homologation special was like a Japanese-Italian Renault 5 Turbo and it had the performance to match.
If coolness is measured by the number of posters sold, Steve McQueen, Cindy Crawford, the ‘Tennis Girl’ and the Ferrari F40 should be judged as being off the scale. And yes, it would be all too easy to include the F40 here. But for us, the GTO’s link with Group B and the fact that a mere 272 were built makes it cooler than the oh-so-obvious F40. The GTO is the knowing tap on the side of the nose, while the F40 is the Ferrari baseball cap purchased at the theme park.
Fiat Uno Turbo
In the early to mid 80s, the Fiat Uno and Peugeot 205 battled for small car supremacy. They were streets ahead of their rivals and sat comfortably at the top of the sales chart. But when the GTI arrived, the 205 pulled clear of the Uno, not least because it accounted for a massive 15% of all 205 sales. Realising Peugeot could be onto something, Fiat launched the Uno Turbo: the oft-forgotten hot hatch hero of the 1980s, which arrived at a time when Turbo decals were as loud as a Frankie t-shirt.
For a company so synonymous with reliability and – how can we put this – more mature owners, Honda has delivered some cracking performance cars. But there’s more to his Japanese company than Type Rs and everyday supercars developed with the help of Ayrton Senna. The CRX is a good case in point: Honda’s unique take of the new breed of emerging hot hatches.
The Asso di Fiori concept of 1979 was one of Giorgetto Giugiaro’s finest creations, which saw the light of day in the form of the Isuzu Piazza of 1981. The early cars were criticised for their stodgy handling and lack of power, but the fitment of a turbocharger and input from Lotus meant that the Piazza evolved into an excellent coupe. Commercially, the Isuzu was left wanting, but the Piazza remains one of the coolest cars of the decade.
Jeep Cherokee XJ
Had this been a gallery focused on cool cars of the 1970s, this slot might have been filled by the Monteverdi Safari, but although the Swiss SUV lived on until 1982, it is more associated with the 1970s. Which leaves the timeless Jeep Cherokee XJ to fly the flag for 80s SUVs. It’s cool in a way that modern SUVs aren’t.
By the 1980s, the Lamborghini Countach was becoming a parody of itself, all shoulder pads, makeup and excess. Striking it might have been, but cool it most certainly wasn’t. Unless you happened to be a seven-year-old boy. The Jalpa, on the other hand, remains cool. It was the final development of the Urraco and the last Lamborghini to be powered by a V8 engine. Oh, and it had pop-up headlights.
Lancia 037 Stradale
Truth is, we could have filled this entire gallery with cars from the infamous Group B World Rally Championship, but that’s a gallery for another day. The road-going Lancia Rally 037 featured a supercharged 2.0-litre engine developed by Abarth, providing a top speed of 137mph. Only 207 Stradale examples were built, each one a fitting tribute to the last rear-wheel drive car to win the WRC.
Lancia Thema 8.32
Again, we’ve chosen to shun the obvious in favour of something a little more discreet. The brilliant Lancia Delta Integrale would appear on many lists, but the WRC hero is the IMAX 3D to the arthouse cinema of the Lancia Thema 8.32. It was powered by a Ferrari V8 engine, creating one of the greatest sleepers of all-time. An Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio of the 1980s, if you like.
The Lynx Eventer: one of the most British cars ever built and arguably the most elegant estate car in the world. Based on the evidence, it’s a wonder that Jaguar never created an XJS shooting brake of its own, although 67 examples built over a period of 16 years hardly represents a commercial success. But it’s cool, because all shooting brakes are cool.
Opel Monza GSE
Back in the 1980s, the Opel Monza sounded far more exotic than the Vauxhall Royale Coupe. One was named after a race track, while the other sounded like a burger you’d order from a fast food joint. The GSE was the best of the breed, offering top specification and a limited slip differential.
Thanks to its three-abreast seating and left-hand drive only status, the Matra Murena must have felt so exotic in the 1980s, like a bottle of Le Piat D’Or served at a dinner party. It evolved from the earlier Bagheera and sales were held back by doubts over its performance credentials and a high price. In 1983 it was pulled from sale, a victim of reshuffling at Peugeot.
Underneath the Matra Rancho you’ll find the underpinnings of a humble Simca van, which, in truth, wasn’t up the challenge of hauling this faux off-roader. The two-wheel drive ‘on-roader’ pioneered the crossover concept long before the Qashqai and other such wannabes, cementing Matra’s reputation for innovation and forward-thinking.
Mercedes-Benz take on the coupe concept was predictably German, with the SEC based on the contemporary S-Class. Luxury, class and sophistication were guaranteed, but you’ll need the 5.5-litre V8 engine of the 560SEC if you’re hoping to get somewhere in a hurry. Compare and contrast this elegant Merc with the Stuttgart firm’s current range.
Mercedes-Benz W123 CE
It’s a similar story with the pillarless W123 CE: one of the most practical and sensible coupes of the 1980s. It was essentially a two-door version of the venerable W123 saloon, albeit with a shortened wheelbase.
Mitsubishi Lancer 2000 EX Turbo
The Mitsubishi Lancer 2000 EX Turbo was the genesis of a new breed of performance heroes, with the 4G63 engine found under the bonnet going on to power the forthcoming Evolution models. And if that’s not cool enough, the reverse lettering on the chin spoiler evokes memories of the BMW 2002. Enough said.
Peugeot 405 T16 Pikes Peak
Peugeot 205 GTI: best hot hatch in the world, yadda, yadda, yadda. Look, we’ve heard it all before, and while there’s no doubting the Pug’s supremacy, it is, perhaps, a tad obvious for this gallery. And if you’re wondering why we’ve included a Peugeot 405, search for ‘Climb Dance’ and all will become clear.
Peugeot 505 GTI
It might not look like it today, but in the 1980s this was a saloon car with genuine pedigree. It was the last rear-wheel-drive car to be built by Peugeot and, in the right spec, could give a German saloon a run for its money. The 505 GTI is massively underrated, but you’ll struggle to find one, as there are fewer than 20 on the road.
If you’ll allow us to flout our own rules, we’d like to include the Porsche 959 in our gallery of cool cars. This car had it all: the pin-up styling, the tag of ‘fastest car in the world’, and enough techno-wizardry to change the supercar forever. The 959 is the prep school kid who excelled in mathematics, captained the football team and was a hit with the ladies. In short: it had it all.
Renault 5 Turbo
The French have a habit of delivering lightweight, front-wheel drive hot hatches, but the Renault 5 Turbo rewrote the rulebook. With the rear seats removed, the 1.4-litre engine was placed behind the driver, creating something that was more supercar than hot hatch. The original 5 Turbo was loaded with unique parts and production was limited to 400 units. The later Turbo 2 was more production-friendly and cheaper to buy.
Renault 21 Turbo
In 1988, Regie went hunting Cossies and German saloons with the 21 Turbo. On-boost, this thing could disappear over the horizon in a blur of yellow foglights quicker than you could say “dodgy electrics”. The Quadra four-wheel drive version arrived in 1989.
The Renault 25 was a tech-laden executive car built in true French style. That’s to say that when it was working it was almost without peer, but issues were as omnipresent as a cloud of Gauloise smoke in a Parisian bar. We’ll take a pre-facelift 25 Baccara, if anybody is offering.
A cool MPV: have we left our marbles in Mothercare? Perhaps, but the original Espace is another pioneering vehicle which can credited to the genius of Matra. It also helps that the one-box vehicle looks like a TGV.
Saab 900 Turbo
The Saab 900 Turbo is ‘jättebra’, which we sincerely hope is Swedish for ‘fantastic’ or ‘excellent’. We were going to go with ‘häftigt’, but we’re worried that means ‘cool’ as in something a refrigerator should do. Whatever, the Saab 900 Turbo is effortlessly cool.
Hear us out with this one. The Mk1 SEAT Ibiza boasts styling penned by Giugiaro, engines developed by Porsche and a single wiper. That it looks so good should come as no surprise, because Giugiaro had proposed the concept for the second generation Golf.
Skoda 136 Rapid Coupe
In the 1980s, the idea of a cool Skoda would have been unheard of. The Czech firm was the butt of countless jokes rolled out by end-of-the-pier entertainers and those in search of cheap laughs. But the only thing cheap about the 136 Rapid Coupe was the price: this was a cut-price Porsche 911. Of sorts.
Even today the Subaru XT looks like a vision of the future. Like the Audi Quattro, the XT was a turbocharged four-wheel drive car for the executive who craved something a little different. But that’s where the similarities end. If the styling isn’t cool enough for you, search for photos of the dashboard.
Toyota Corolla AE86
Can a Toyota Corolla be cool. Provided it is suffixed by the letters A and E and the numbers 8 and 6, the answer is a resounding yes.
Toyota Space Cruiser
When it comes to the concept of the people carrier, the Toyota Space Cruiser is the antithesis of the Espace. For while the Renault was designed by Matra to be a car-like MPV from the ground up, the Toyota relied on its van roots. But it’s called the Space Cruiser, which is one the greatest names given to a car. Which means it’s cool.
Volkswagen Polo Sprint
PoloDriver.com tells the story of how the Volkswagen Polo Sprint played a vital role in the development of traction control, and likens the wide-arched, rear-engined oddity to the Renault 5 Turbo. Sadly, it was a one-off – we’d have liked to see this supercharged Polo going head-to-head with the Renault.
Volkswagen Passat GT
The B3 Passat is cool in a retro Dub kind of way, but what makes the GT stand out? Well, it’s powered by the same 16v engine you’d find in a Mk2 Golf GTi and yet, to the untrained eye, it looks like a regular Passat. On the wagon, only a subtle 16v badge on the tailgate provides a clue as to the car’s potential.
When the Volvo 780 arrived in 1985, it was the most expensive car the company had ever launched. Powertrains and chassis were shipped down to Turin, where Carrozzeria Bertone set about creating the sexiest Volvo since the P1800. So cool and so very Volvo.