QOTD: What Were The Most Jaw Dropping Cars Of The Eighties?



We’ve looked at the most “jaw dropping” cars of the ’60s, then moved on to the ‘70s – now let’s turn to the ‘80s.  For me, this decade was much more of a challenge……….

I have to agree with a comment Dave B made on our ‘60s post; “The sixties were a jaw dropping decade. Where do you start?  It would be easier to list the few duds.”  Absolutely true.  The ‘70s post was a little more difficult, but I still was able to narrow a Top 5 down in fairly little time.  The ‘80’s?  This one took some thought…….

The same thing can be said in describing the decade – not a lot there.  There were certainly some momentous events; the assassination of John Lennon, the “Challenger” disaster, the fall of the Soviet Union, but compared to the previous two decades, it lacked some of the same verve and energy.  It was the “buttoned down” decade.

Fortunately, from an automotive perspective, it marked a reversal from the low-point in the 70s – manufacturers were figuring out how to meet government emissions standards and add horsepower.  In turn, there were some real high-points – production cars with levels of performance that had never been achieved before.  Using the same “Rules of Engagement” (ROE) – cars that impacted you favorably (not negatively) – and focusing on production vehicles from US, European and Japanese manufacturers, here’s one take on the Top 5 Jaw Droppers of the ‘80s;


1980 Renault 5 Turbo


Other than the beautiful and innovative Citroens, French cars didn’t interest me much.  Wasn’t a fan nor paid any attention to the Renault 5 or “Le Car” in the US.  But then I saw this version – fat-fenders, angry, snarling – talk about two ends of a continuum.  Given the AMC-Renault connection that started this year, it makes me wonder if some enterprising Renault executive wasn’t wandering through the AMC historical collection and ran across the ’69 AMC Hurst/SC Rambler (“Scrambler”) and said; “we can do that.”  Outrageous (in a good way).


1983 Ford Thunderbird

tbird 2

I was torn between including one of three ground-breaking Ford designs here; the Taurus, the Mustang SVO or the T-Bird.  I went with the T-Bird since it was the car that spearheaded the design renaissance at Ford, and the brand as a whole.  If you can recollect the prior 80-82 model (Jason Shafer did a great piece on that version here), then you know why the ‘83 T-Bird dropped so many jaws.  It heralded Ford’s aero design philosophy that went on to achieve great success in cars like the Taurus, Sable, and Lincoln Mark VII.  And the Thunderbird Turbo Coupe was a particularly gutsy and innovative step for a major US manufacturer with its 4 cylinder turbo power-plant and 5 speed manual transmission (see Paul’s superb post here – his first new car).  A home run by Donald Petersen and Jack Telnack.


1984 Jeep Cherokee (XJ)

jeep 3

Is it a car?  A truck?  A SUV?  I guess it’s all three, but what it really is, is “Just Right”.  Maybe the most perfectly designed vehicle of the ‘80s (again, see a great post by Paul here).  The original XJ Cherokee is an icon – and another styling triumph for the late Dick Teague, AMC Vice President of Design.  Call me old school, but put any year XJ Cherokee alongside a 2002 KK Liberty and a new 2016 KL Cherokee, and I’ll take the original every time.


1986 Porsche 959


This car wasn’t a “looker” like some of the others models listed here – in fact it appears rather cartoonish – though the aerodynamic additions to the front and rear make it interesting visually.  No, this car stuns with pure objective performance.  Here is Porsche’s penultimate performance street product of the ‘80s, and the most potent production automobile of the decade.  The first street-legal production car to achieve almost 200 mph, with a 3.6 second 0-60 time and the quarter-mile in 11.6 – and this was in 1987.  Listed at $225K, it was said Porsche lost an equal amount on each one sold.  As quoted in Road and Track; “The supercar that redefines what it is to be a supercar.”  Phenomenal.


1989 Nissan 300ZX (Z32)

1989 Nissan Fairlady 300ZX Twin Turbo (Z32); top car design rating and specifications

Every Corvette owner enjoying their C5, C6 or C7 should write a thank you note to Nissan.  The Corvette was “treading water” throughout most of the ‘80s – with an L98 350 engine that made 245 hp.  Frankly, there wasn’t much competition, and GM, in their typical penny-pinching ways, didn’t spend any money to make it better.  Then in 1989, the 300ZX bowed with a twin-turbo 300 hp engine, HICAS 4-wheel steering, and crisp, modern, concept car styling.  GM was so embarrassed they rushed to bring out the ZR-1 in 1990.  This generation 300 ZX still looks great today – much more attractive in my view than the current 370Z.

Honorable Mention

1983 Toyota Sprinter/Corolla (AE86)

1983 BMW 635 M6 (E24)

1986 Ford Taurus

1987 Ferrari F40

1989 Nissan Skyline GT-R (R32)