With the Holiday shopping season upon us, as we careen from Black Friday to Cyber Monday and into the buying frenzy beyond, I figured a nice break could be in order. Let’s consider a different kind of shopping—car shopping, and see how it was a little over 31 years ago when my brother and his wife went out in search of a new compact sedan.
Of course, in those days before the consumer Internet, gathering information on the available choices was not as easy as just clicking a button. But there was an excellent resource at hand: the Consumer Guide Auto Series. Auto ’84 provided a brief snapshot of virtually every model available in the U.S., while Auto Test 1984 offered in-depth reviews on a wide variety of cars picked up directly from dealers. So for honest, real world insights, these guides were great tools, and provided key information for my brother as he went looking to buy. Read on to see the write-ups and data that shaped his shopping list and buying decision in the spring of 1984.
Just after my brother celebrated his 26th birthday in April, he and his new bride decided to get their first new car as a couple. He had recently gotten his architecture degree and was with a practice in New Orleans, while my sister-in-law was a buyer for the Maison Blanche department stores. They figured it was time for a “grown-up” car and wanted the practicality of a sedan, but nothing too big. An automatic was also a requirement, as my sister-in-law did not want the “hassle” of shifting. So they looked to trade in one of their small hatchbacks and get a new 1984 compact sedan.
My brother had a 1976 Toyota Celica GT Liftback. It was the body style of the swanky silver car pictured at the top, but finished in the oh-so-70s green metallic of the GT coupe in the bottom shot. The Celica was fun-to-drive and zippy with its 2.2 OHC I4 and 5-speed manual, even though it produced just 96 hp. Best of all, the Toyota was well made, durable and utterly reliable.
My sister-in-law had a 1979 Chevrolet Monza 2+2 Hatchback. It was painted the ubiquitous GM light blue metallic like the top car pictured, but without the cool wheels featured in the catalog shot. It had the dowdy round headlamp front end like the red car shown above, along with same the boring wheel covers. Her Monza was equipped with the 3.2 OHV V6 with automatic that was only good for 90 horsepower. So a sleepy little car, but the bigger problem was its quality. It rattled and squeaked. Trim fell off. It leaked: rain came in through the hatch, fluids dripped under hood. Worst of all, the engine was prone to stalling, especially in places like the middle of intersections. Oh, and sometimes it didn’t like to start either.
No surprise, then, that the choice on which car to trade in was a relatively easy one. Even though the Celica was older and had the stick shift my sister-in-law hated, it was by far the better car. So the Monza would go, and the next step was to pick the right new car.
Their desires for their next car varied somewhat. My sister-in-law wanted style, a good “fashionable” brand name, and a comfortable, no-hassle driving experience. My brother was looking for a car that would be responsive and fun-to-drive, with thoughtful engineering and useful features. They were hoping to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $9,000 to $9,500 (about $21,000 – $22,000 today).
Though at the time I was a senior in high school, my brother was willing to let me tag along with him to narrow down the choices and pick the best car. Both of us are car nuts, so it was a lot of fun doing the research and shopping around. The goal was to get the list down to a few finalists, and then bring my sister-in-law in to make the final pick (she viewed car shopping like getting a root canal, so she wanted her involvement to be as brief as possible).
We needed to start gathering data, and the comprehensive Consumer Guide Auto Series was the best place to begin. The well-worn Consumer Guides scanned here are the actual ones we used way back when we started the hunt, and even today they provide a good landscape of the compact car choices circa 1984.
First off, there were a few brands that just didn’t make the cut at all. Though Chrysler’s recovery was underway, my brother had no interest in taking a chance on any of their wares. My sister-in-law flat out refused to have another Chevrolet, so no Cavaliers were considered. From there, Consumer Guide Auto ’84 provided guidance to further cull the contenders. Here are some of the cars we read about, but never actually went to see at a dealer.
Even though a sedan was available in addition to the ungainly hatchback body styles, my brother still thought the Stanza was way too frumpy. The whole Nissan/Datsun changeover was strange too, and wouldn’t have met my sister-in-law’s criteria for a “cool” brand.
My brother and I grew up surrounded by GM cars, so it was hard not to at least consider one. But… the choices for a small sedan from The General in 1984 were not that great. The only one that we found remotely interesting was the Pontiac 2000 Sunbird. The Turbo seemed intriguing, but it was from GM, and it was a much-maligned J-car, so we doubted that the quality and reliability would be there. Also, my brother couldn’t fathom driving a car with a name as dumb as “2000 Sunbird.”
While the Rabbit GTI was already earning kudos as the king of the hot hatches, the Jetta had just gotten the sport treatment with the GLI for 1984. However, that model was available only with a manual, and was therefore crossed off the shopping list. Anyway, by 1984 the Jetta was an aged design, and the notion of German engineering superiority seemed rather far-fetched for the non-GLI versions. Plus VW’s quality reputation at that point was nothing to brag about.
Enough with the non-starters, what did we go test drive? Let’s use the Consumer Guide Auto Test 1984 as a proxy, since CG went to dealers, got cars, and put them through extended use tests. Their observations were very useful as condensed test drive overviews, and based on our experience, quite accurate.
First off, there were a few “long shots” we started with, mostly out of curiosity.
Since my brother is very design-oriented, he was interested to see Ford’s new aero styling direction, which he viewed as quite fresh looking. The buzz was also beginning to build that Ford’s quality was getting better and their products were improving. In person, however, the Tempo didn’t seem like Ford’s best effort. The interior felt claustrophobic with its high dash and thick pillars. The engine was gruff and not particularly quick. So off the list for the Ford.
Our Great Aunt Lovey, who lived in the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts, had bought a 1980 Subaru GL Sedan after a lifetime of driving Plymouths (her Volare was the culprit for ending Mopar’s reign in her driveway). While my brother and I had only seen the car in person once, we rather liked it, and Lovey raved about it. So why not have a look? Upon closer inspection, though, all the faults Consumer Guide pointed out were accurate for the car we tested. The GL did have quirky charm, but just wasn’t good enough for the top tier.
Now let’s move on to the top finalists. We drove three more cars, and felt they all deserved to make the final cut, which would involve my sister-in-law. It was decision time!
Naturally, Toyota would be high on the shopping list, given how happy my brother had been with his Celica. Plus, the 1984 Camry was an all-new FWD design. It had earned the Consumer Guide Best Buy Rating for the category. So what was there not to love? Well, uh, the styling to start. Both my brother and sister-and-law (and I) felt the car was dumpy and square. In fact, my sister-in-law said it was “like something an old college professor would drive.” Completely competent, but utterly boring, the Camry wasn’t going to cut it for these twenty-somethings.
The Mazda 626 sedan that we drove was a really, really nice car. Finished in metallic silver, it was sleek and stylish. The interior was comfortable and well trimmed. The handling was responsive. Car and Driver had named the 626 to its Ten Best list for 1984. The Mazda was very tempting, but there was one more leading contender to consider.
So it wasn’t named a Consumer Guide Best Buy. The car CG tested was a hatchback, not the sedan. so not all points listed were relevant. But there was no ignoring the many merits of the Honda Accord. The total package was harmonious and very high quality.
For their 1984 Ten Best Cars, Car and Driver hit the nail on the head: the Accord was well balanced, thoughtfully engineered and beautifully built. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts, and it made for a fantastic small family sedan. Exactly what my brother and his wife were looking for!
If only the dealer experience had been as good. All Honda products were in extremely high demand back then. Even with the additional production coming from Marysville Ohio, Accords were in short supply. So it was a seller’s market, and there was no picking a car off the lot and driving it home that day. My brother had the “privilege” of providing a 10% non-refundable deposit so that he would be “allocated” a car from a future shipment. The request was put in for an Accord sedan with automatic, in first choice Stratos Blue or second choice Greek White.
In June (keep in mind we’d been shopping in late April and early May), the dealer called to say the truck with their car had arrived. But, the only automatic sedan available to them from that shipment was an Accord LX model (for an extra $1,400) in Graphite Gray. Take it or leave it.
Well, they took it. The car was that good. Without even asking, the dealer ever-so-kindly added extra cost “paint protection” and “underbody rustproofing” (that last one being especially rich, given that in subtropical New Orleans, the only salt you’d ever see on the road is if someone accidentally dropped a to-go container of jambalaya while crossing the street). So, with the full sticker price, added “protection” costs, destination charges, tax and title, the Accord LX was theirs for just north of $11,000.
It was over-budget, and the buying experience was subpar, but the car itself was every bit as good as its billing. It was great when new, and aged gracefully, with no mechanical issues to speak of. This ’84 Accord started the Honda buying trend in my family, and faithfully served my brother and his wife for 6 years, when it was traded in for—you guessed it—another Accord in 1990.