This is a big topic, but today, I wanted to look at some of the most iconic cars of the 1980s. Let’s take a look at the state of the automotive industry and some of the unique releases that came out during this decade.
Then, let’s look at the iconic cars of pop culture that we grew to know and love through television and in the movies. So get out of my dreams and into my car, and hopefully, this blog will have something for everyone.
What Was the State of the Automotive Industry in the 1980s?
Some people may hate the 80s when it comes to cars–but it is also an era loved by many. I think that people who grew up in the 50s and 60s would say that nothing could touch the cars they had back then–and they may be right. But the 1980s had some pretty great offerings and advancements.
The 1980s gave us some very memorable cars, and some duds. It also gave us some of the most iconic cars in pop culture history which we’ll cover in a bit.
But what was significant in the 1980s when it came to the automotive industry? The first thing to look at is the innovation the decade gave us. Every decade has automotive innovation, but the 1980 gave us some specific ones including fuel injection, turbo charging, and better safety features such as airbags.
These are some pretty notable advancements that improved the driving experience. We also got technological advancements such as digital dashboards which helped pave the way for our new instrument clusters today.
The technology didn’t just improve the cars, but made driving them more pleasurable. Some of the tech innovations didn’t even have to do with mechanics, but with the features that made the cars more desirable.
Aftermarket car stereos really began to take off in the 1980s. CD players slowly found their way into our vehicles, and high end cars even started to feature TVs in them. For the rich and famous, car phones also began to be included in higher end vehicles.
Which Iconic Cars Still Survived into the 1980s?
Again, this is a massive subject and their entire blogs devoted to just this–so let’s take a brief overview. What’s notable about 1980s cars is how gearheads got a little bit of everything.
The Buick Grand National was one of the holdouts from the previous eras of muscle cars. It, and the Chevy Monte Carlo SS were really the last of those vintage GM A-body muscle cars.
I had a friend in high school that had one of those Monte Carlos and it was in pretty mint condition when he got it (they were rich, FYI). This was in the mid-90s when he got it, but it was an 80s model.
He put in a CD changer and huge soundsystem into the trunk and you could hear this thing from miles away. It would also haul off the line. Corvettes and Mustangs would always challenge him off the light, and it often would blow them away much to their chagrin.
Looking back, this 18 year old should have never had the privilege of driving such an amazing car.
Speaking of the Mustang, it would be reintroduced in 1984–and not everyone loved it. My dad owned a 1966 classic Mustang and hated the 1984 version. But my uncle was also a previous Mustang owner and loved the new version.
The Mustang would now compete with cars like the Camaro IROC-Z to see who was king of the high school parking lot. The IROC-Z seemed tailor made to be driven while wearing an acid washed jean jacket and mullet of any sort of length. I don’t know about your high school, but mine became a daily car show complete with the screeching of tires on the way out.
Speaking of speed and power, Porsche put out the ruf CTR “Yellowbird.” This became the very first street legal car that could break 200 mph.
Keeping things a bit slower–but still quick and responsive–Honda helped to grow the sport compact market with the Civic Si.
What Was the Best-Selling Car For Each Year in the 1980s?
Even though the Civic has been one of the best-selling cars of all time, Honda didn’t dominate yearly sales throughout the 1980s.They didn’t even make an appearance until the last year of the decade.
The top selling car company would be a three-way tie between Oldsmobile, Chevy, and Ford. This is a countdown of the best sellers from each year as reported by caranddriver.com.
1980 – Oldsmobile Cutlass: 469,573 sold
1981 – Oldsmobile Cutlass: 454,188 sold
1982 – Ford Escort: 337,677 sold
1983 – Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme: 331,179 sold
1984 – Chevrolet Cavalier: 383,752 sold
1985 – Chevrolet Cavalier: 422,927 sold
1986 – Chevrolet Celebrity: 408,946 sold
1987 – Ford Escort: 392,360 sold
1988 – Ford Escort: 381,330 sold
1989 – Honda Accord: 362,707 sold
If we had to pick a winner, it seems pretty clear that Oldsmobile was the standout, and the Cutlass was the best-selling car of the decade at around 1.2 million vehicles sold. But the Escort was right there with them selling just over 1.1 million.
You can see how things are slowly moving to Honda as we get into the 90s and they would begin their domination of the automotive world.
The Not So Great Cars of the 80s
When you think of 1980s cars, the K-car may spring to mind. This bland offering from Chrysler had all the excitement and performance as a can of beige paint. I remember riding in these several times as a kid and they were all driven by someone with blue hair, or who had trouble seeing over the steering wheel.
There were also bland standouts such as the Ford Taurus, and the Chevy Cavalier. This seemed like an era where many cars started to look pretty identical regardless of who made them. A lot of the familiar design was due to the safety designs that would reduce the damage from impact–but parking lots started to look like a sea of similarity.
And then there was the minivan.
I remember being excited about minivans when I was a kid in the 80s. I had one friend who was the first family I knew to own one. And I’m not sure why, but it was kind of a thrill to ride in one. I think it was because it had the two different levels of seating. Not that it felt like a limo, but the closest we had to this was sitting in the back seat of a station wagon.
The mini van made it feel like taking your living room out on the road with you. There was lots of space and you weren’t squashed in next to your siblings that would result in the inevitable fight.
Here are a few more of some of those worst offerings from the 80s:
The 1985 Yugo: Ugh, this one just hurts to look at–and it’s pictured just above. There was actually a lot of hype for this car but not only did it look ugly, it ran like crap. Just as soon as the Yugo arrived–it was gone.
1989 Chrysler TC: Many consider this one of the very worst of the decade. The TC was rushed through the development stage and had so many issues that people steered clear. It looked OK, but it couldn’t seem to decide if it was a convertible or a regular car.
Square body Chevrolet: This truck looks like it was designed with just a ruler as it’s a complete box. It came out in the 70s but gained prominence going into the 80s. It looks like a giant toy car will come to life and theirs talks that it may be brought back in 2022.
1980 Dodge Omni:
This is another one that hurts the eyes to look at. It’s one thing to look awful but run ok–but that was not the case here. The engine was so bad that the Omni couldn’t recover and faded quickly.
1980 Morris Marina: Some may look back on this fondly, but mainly because it looked like a car your grandparents would drive. The Marina is considered one of the great lemons of all time.
1987 Suzuki Samurai:
This was like the Dodge Omni wearing a 4×4 exterior. The Samurai was more like driving a Big Wheel. If you needed ruggedness and towing power, you were better off going for a square body Chevy. The Samurai didn’t have enough power to tow a sprinkle donut. Plus they would easily tip over if you took a corner too sharply.
OK, that’s enough of the crap. Let’s get to the best of pop culture cars by counting down the ten best.
The 10 Best 1980s Pop Culture Cars
This is a pretty easy list to put together, but also tough at the same time I wanted to make this a top ten so that means a few favorites had to be left out. Honorable mention goes to the Spaceballs Winnebago.
When it comes to movies and TV, I think it’s safe to say that the 1980s may be the best decade ever for cars. This era gave us some of the coolest, and most memorable cars in pop culture history.
10. The Bluesmobile
From the iconic Blues Brothers movie, the Bluesmobile was actually a 1974 Dodge Monaco. Dan Akroyd chose the car as he believed it was the hottest of all cars used by the police in the 70s. He also gave it a Canadian twist by making the license plate read BDR 529 which was a tribute to the Black Diamond Motorcycle riders club in Toronto.
13 different cars were used over the course of the filming and most were former police cars used by the California Highway Patrol.
9. Ferrari 250 GT California
The classic Ferrari used in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The 250 was a pretty iconic car and came out in 1961. What’s remarkable about this car is that there were only around 100 of them ever made.
So here’s the ugly truth about the 250 GT from the movie: it wasn’t a real Ferrari at all. The vehicle they used was a 1985 Modena GT SPyder. This was basically just a replica car that Ford fitted with a fiberglass body that resembled a Ferrari 250 GT.
Three were made for the movie and one of them would end up being restored and auctioned off in 2018 live on NBC. The Car went for around $375,000. No one is sure what happened to the other two, but one was just the fiberglass body that was destroyed by Frye in the movie.
8. The Griswold Family Station Wagon
Nothing gets more iconic than the four-wheel drive sled owned by the Griswolds. So this is actually a unique car created just for the films. In the National Lampoon world, this station wagon is a Wagon Queen Family Truckster station wagon. The design is based on a 1979 Ford LTD Country Squire.
It was meant to mock all those giant, wood-paneled family station wagons that littered the roads in the 70s and 80s. They took it up a notch as designer, George Barris, went over the top with the wood and the avocado green metallic paint scheme.
You might not have noticed, but the car has 8 headlights. It’s hard to tell by looking, but some other details include the grille area being largely covered by the bodywork of the car, the fuel filler cap in the weirdest position, and the airbag is made of a trash can liner.
You may have this higher on your list, but I put the Ecto-1 down a bit because it seemed more like a toy than a car. But it’s still an iconic 1980s car.
So the Ecto-1 is a hybrid car, both in the movie and in real life. In real life, the vehicle used for it was a 1959 Cadillac. In the context of Ghostbusters, the Ecto-1 started as part hearse and part ambulance. Dr. Ray had found the vehicle when he had mortgaged his mothers house to buy the firehouse for the Ghostbusters office.
His mechanical skills allowed him to repair the hybrid vehicle to turn it into what was essentially a company car. But besides the mechanical changes needed (in the context of the movie) the Ecto-1 needed to be fitted with supernatural features including:
- Muon Scrubbers
- Radio GPS locator
- High-Intensity microfoams
- EMF scrubbers
The Ecto-1 remains not just one of the most iconic pop culture cars of the 1980s, but one of the most famous vehicles in film history.
6. The Batmobile
The Batmobile just makes the cut for one of the most iconic cars of the 1980s coming in during 1989. We hadn’t had a Batmobile since the campy Adam West version of the 1960s.
But the Batmobile came back in a BIG way thanks to Tim Burton. This was a mind-blowing car for a kid in the 80s as all we knew was the cartoony one we saw on TV or had the toy version of. The new Batmobile was as bad ass as it could get and was like an armored tank.
You obviously can’t walk into a dealership and buy a Batmobile, so the one used in Batman, and Batman Returns was created by Anton Furst. It was designed on a Chevrolet Impala chassis.
Simulated specs on the Batmobile say the super aerodynamic design means it could hit speeds of 330 mph. The ficontal aspects of the Batmobile allowed it to turn with a grappling hook and jump among many other features. Based on the movie, the Batmobile is said to be able to go from 0-60 in 3.7 seconds which would get it beat by a Tesla today, but that held up pretty well in the late 80s.
And it could shoot rockets.
5. Turbo Teen
You might not consider this a real car, but this was one of my favorite cartoons, and it’s my list, so you will listen to every damn word I have to say!
If you’re not familiar with Turbo Teen, it’s basically Transformers meets Knight Rider. Actually, that’s exactly what it is. This is the story about a teenager who can turn into a sports car depending on his body temperature. This all happened because Brett Matthews crashed into a government laboratory late one night and he and his car got hit by a molecular beam that morphed the two together.
It also was intended to be a kids, cartoon version of Knight Rider, but they still wanted it to stand on its own. To do this, they made the simple change of using red instead of black for their car color.
You can pass this off as not being relevant for the most ionic 1980s cars, but I loved this show as a kid so it stays!
I’ve got a whole blog all about this short lived–but should have done much better–cartoon right here.
4. The A-Team GMC Van
All of these cars are cool, and the A-Team van is no different. This is another iconic 1980s car that I had a toy version of–and it was amazing.
I think what made the A-Team van so significant was how simple it was–but still looked bad ass. The black and red paint scheme gave it a definable look, and the spoiler on the back end made it stand out more than just a van.
The van used is actually called a GMC Vandura which is a pretty awesome name. It’s a simple black and grey metallic van, but the red striping and spoiler was all that it needed to become iconic.
What’s interesting is that there were only 6 of these made for the show. In the first season, the GMC logo on the front and back was pretty prominent, but then was blacked out from season 2 onward.
There were a few continuity errors as a sunroof was needed for some scenes, but then in other episodes no sunroof appeared on the vehicle. The A-Team van is one of the most iconic in TV history and one of the surviving vans has been featured at the New York International Auto Show.
3. The General Lee
All of these cars are of course cool, but there was nothing cooler than seeing Bo and Luke Duke slide over the hood and jump through the windows to get into the General Lee.
The image of the General Lee is a little problematic now, but is still one of the most iconic cars of the 80s–and of all time. The “General” is a pretty old car. It’s a 1969 orange Dodge Challenger. With a painted 01 on the side door, this car was able to defy gravity and survive giant cliff and ramp jumps.
The origins of the General come from the old bootlegging days which is where the origins of Nascar come from. Back in the times of prohibition bootleggers would run moonshine in souped up cars so they could outrun the cops (the basic premise of the Dukes of Hazzard).
Then The bootleggers would brag about how fast their cars were and would end up racing each other to see who was the fastest and voila! Nascar was born.
The General Lee was based on the car of a famous bootlegger named Jerry Rushing. Rushing named his car “Traveller” which was the name of one of Lee’s favorite horses. The name Traveller was also given to the car in the movie Moorrunners which is all about bootleg liquor and this movie is what evolved into the Dukes of Hazzard TV series.
I keep using the word cool here, but how can anything be cooler than KITT and Knight Rider? This show blew my mind as a young kid and the black Pontiac Trans Am that was used as KITT could not be any more iconic.
To make Knight Rider memorable, the car had to be epic. KITT started out as TATT: Trans Am Two Thousand before becoming KNight Industries Two Thousand.
KITT went through a ton of changes and design over the four year course of Knight Rider. It started as that simple F-bodied Trans Am, but with a few alterations. The one big change was the LED display on the front which just made it even cooler.
Apparently, Pontiac eventually didn’t want any mention of KITT being a Trans Am. Four main cars would be used with various alterations over the course of the show. There is talk that the first Trans Am from 1982 cost the show $100,000 to put together. It was also said that the next versions only cost around $18,000.
Fun Fact: KITT was created by the same George Barris who gave us the Griswald family station wagon and he also created the original Adam West Batmobile and the Munsters Koach.
There’s so much more to cover about KITT and Knight Rider, but we’ve got to move on. Foruntaly, I have a blog all about the show and the iconic car right here.
Could there be any other? The Delorean is not only the most iconic pop culture car from the 1980s, but the greatest car in movie history. The Delorean is as much as a character in Back to the Future as Marty and Doc.
The Delorean itself is a pretty amazing story on it’s own. I have a blog all about the rise and rapid fall of the Delorean right here, but let’s look at a few highlights.
John Delorean was the man behind the Delorean who was either crazy, or a genius, or both. Before Back to the Future, there was a lot of hype about the new, all steel body, futuristic car that was being released by a brand new company.
It had gull wing doors, and looked like it would be faster than hell. But it was pushed out way too fast. When it was released in 1981, it just wasn’t’ ready for the market. The quick production led to many performance issues as it was put together by many people who had never worked in the automotive industry before.
The Delorean was slow, unresponsive, and not comfortable to ride in. And what was supposed to be an affordable sports car, became more and more expensive for something that just wasn’t worth it. The rest of the story involved John Delorean trafficking cocaine to try and make up for the losses as they only sold 6,000 cars.
But then a cool time travel movie came out that would make the Delorean one of the most iconic cars in history. So the Delorean on it’s own is not great, but when fit with a flux capacitor–it transforms into the best pop culture car of all time.
If you want some more on Back to the Future, check out my blog on 21 things you probably missed in the movie. And definitely check out my article on the Delorean as it’s a pretty crazy story.
So that’s it, some of the most iconic cars of the 1980s, and of all time. The 1980s gave us a lot when it came to the automotive world. It brought us new innovations and features to make the driving experience better than ever.
The decade offered up some great new cars and released its fair share of duds, too. But when it came to pop culture cars, the 80s gave us the greatest of all time that no other era can touch.
Thank you, great episode, and I really appreciate the effort you put into the show notes. the new coke and et episodes were great also, I haven’t caught all of them though. keep up the great podcast. I’m going to pass this podcast on to family 🙂
Thanks so much, Bill. Glad you enjoyed it. I’m not sure where your family likes to listen to podcasts, but I should be on pretty much all podcast platforms now.
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