Big hair, neon lights, Jordache shorts, and fast cars. The 1980’s were loose, wild, and rock and roll were the perfect matches to the powerful machines rolling out of Detroit. Although the late 1970’s were the start of the Malaise era of cars, the late 1980’s saw a real resurgence in fun cars with power. Automakers had learned to cope with emissions regulations and with technological advances engines became more powerful, more efficient, and thanks to computers, we were introduced to some pretty impressive dashboards.
This was also the decade that turbocharging really began to take hold. Two of our cars came equipped with the spinning shells, and almost all of them had factory experiments done to determine if they would be a smart fit. Regardless, speed was back baby and if you had one of these cars you were most likely wanted dead or alive around town. Here is our list of the best American cars of the 1980’s!
5) 1987 Buick Grand National GNX – 276 horsepower – $29,000
The boosted V-6 of the Grand National GNX is the stuff of legends. The turbo lag was a bit fierce, but as soon as it hit, it hit hard. 276 horsepower is a respectable number, but we all know what turbos are indeed about – consistent torque. The Buick boasted 360 lb-ft of it spinning to the rear wheels.
What genuinely makes the Grand National cool is that it was a joint operation between Buick and McLaren. They designed the porting, engine mapping, precise Garrett turbocharger, and then enhanced the transmission. 60 mph (100 kph) came in just 4.7 seconds, and you looked great getting there because of all the individual trim, badges, and all-black styling. The only real downside to the GNX was that they only came with an automatic transmission and only 547 of them were built.
4) 1987 Ford Mustang GT 5.0 – 225 horsepower – $12,106
If you saw our piece on the best American cars of the 1970’s, then you already know the Boss 302 made the list. The 1987 Ford Mustang GT has the same engine mill, so it was bound to make this list also. Although it looked similar to the Mustangs that Ford had been rolling out for the last ten years, the ‘87 models were refreshed with a much-needed aero kit. Other new features were fuel injection (1984) and new cylinder heads.
Piece it all together, and you have 300 lb-ft of torque and a sprint to 60 mph (100 kph) that flies by in less than 6.2 seconds. The notchback look and two-tone paint won’t let you forget that this car was current when Madonna was new, but competitors won’t forget that a car that old beat them either.
3) 1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z – 220 horsepower – $11,719
No car on this list embodies the zeitgeist of the 1980’s than the IROC-Z Camaro. Heavily angled blocks make up the styling, roof panels can be removed to spell out a T, large swaths of plastic coat the interior, and there is an 8-track player in the center console. But the Camaro was not all about boulevard cruising, in fact, it was for the opposite, the International Race of Champions.
That is right, this is probably the best handling car on the list, pulling off a 0.84g result on the skidpad. The Camaro was light and could be precisely placed all over a track. It was also faster to 60 than its Mustang rival by a tenth of a second (6.1 seconds). When you hit the finish line in a quarter mile, you would see figures around 14.5 seconds posted on the board. The IROC was a track-star no matter what track it was.
2) 1986 Dodge Omni Shelby GLHS – 175 horsepower – $7330
Carroll Shelby is a man made famous by Ford, and the Dodge Omni was never going to be a famous car until him. Shelby made the Omni go like hell, literally; that is what GLH stands for “Goes Like Hell.” The best of the best were the GLHS because they came directly from Texas, where Shelby’s facilities were located. There, in the dark recesses of his mad-house, he took an air-to-air intercooler and strapped it to the 2.2-liter turbo four and with the addition of some personally designed intake manifolds found three more psi of boost! That pushed torque up to 175 lb-ft, which was almost more than the tiny 15-inch wheels could handle.
Speaking of handling, though, Shelby didn’t forget that. The GLHS is lower, by a half of an inch and sits on Koni shocks specifically designed for the car. Add in thicker anti-sway bars in the front and rear and the car quickly became the undisputed hot-hatch king. It also looked impressive with the decals and black styling hints.
1) 1988 Chevrolet Corvette – 250 horsepower – $33,500
The C4 Corvette was the Corvette that took the model line into the modern era. Everything was new, the body panels (made of molding plastic now), the chassis was redesigned, the styling was entirely revisited, and the transverse leaf-spring rear suspension unique to the Corvette was first introduced in 1984. Other excellent features were the LCD that had graphs for speed and RPMs, the removable Targa roof, and the first use of the hatchback design.
Despite the anemic V8, which put out a paltry 250 horsepower, the Corvette’s focus was on handling. All-new, lightweight suspension components and wheels were used to make the most out of all 250 horses. Improved braking systems were also outfitted to the Corvette, actually bringing the package to new heights.
Although not the fastest car of the 1980’s, the C4 Corvette was by far the most important for American car manufacturers, especially Corvette.
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