Top 10 1980s motors: The best car from each year of the best decade ever

13w ago


Shahzad Sheikh – AKA Brown Car Guy – is an automotive journalist with three decades of experience on various titles including the Middle East edition of CAR Magazine and Used Car Buyer.


The 1980s absolutely ruled, and that still applies when I take off my rose-tinted Wayfarers.

This decade represents the peak of human ingenuity, creativity and compassion, the likes of which I fear we won't see again – although I desperately hope I'm wrong, despite current evidence to the contrary.

Take pop culture; in music we had Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince, Whitney Houston, Queen... I could go on and on. And I will when it comes to movies: Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, E.T., Terminator, Die Hard, Blade Runner, Star Wars, Ferris Bueller's Day Off... and as a Trekkie the best Star Trek movies: Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home. There are more, lots more. Plus The Simpsons debuted.

We got portable computers (remember the Commodore 64 and the Sinclair Spectrum?) and the first mobile phones from Motorola, the World Wide Web arrived in 1989 and how about the Rubik's Cube, Pac Man and Donkey Kong? Plus the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War ended and Band Aid happened – glorious!

When it came to cars, despite the 80s starting in an economic recession, every single year of the mega-decade gave us some epics autos – so many in fact it's almost impossible to choose the best 10, but here goes.

1980 – Audi Ur-Quattro

The W126 S-Class was the definitive solid luxury saloon, and I lusted after the 560 SEC. At the other end of the spectrum the superabound Toyota Cressida is a legend in its own right, whilst the Renault 5 Turbo hits all the right mental high notes.

The top of the podium, however, must go to the car that revolutionised the WRC and introduced us to the concept of high performance All-Wheel-Drive road cars: the Audi Ur-Quattro.

1981 – Lotus Esprit S3 Turbo

I literally just deleted DMC DeLorean from the headline - the gull-wing sports car was less than it should've been but became more than anyone could have ever imagined thanks to certain time-travelling adventures, and is the second-most 80s car here. The Isuzu Piazza was a delightful oddity, the rotary-engined Mazda RX-7 took America by storm, and the Japanese were on a roll with the A60 Celica Supra.

I have to pick the Lotus Esprit despite its introduction in the late 70s, because the S3 Turbo is when they perfected it, and I love it, and it's my article so there.

1982 - BMW E30 3 Series

Boy racers loved the Ford Escort XR3i; then there's the infamously miss-named Mitsubishi Starion; Porsche's 944, and the sharp-suited Swede, the Volvo 700 series.

The Mercedes W201 190 series is solid, but only existed to give the Yuppie-favourite BMW E30 3 Series a run for its money. Particularly in 2.3-16 guise to take on the fabled M3, but it was never going to usurp the Beemer. Unlike Michael Knight's Pontiac Firebird, which almost did -–who doesn't like KITT?

1983 - Toyota AE86 Trueno

I almost give this year to the Honda CR-X, because I adored mine. The Peugeot 205 is also worthy and then there's the lust-worthy shark-nose BMW M635CSi.

But the Drift King Toyota AE86, based on a humble Corolla hatchback, that launched a million cars sideways, was immortalised in Japanese street racing Manga series Initial D, and sired the brilliant GT86 has to be it.

1984 - Ferrari Testarossa

The Ford RS200 is a premature legend and respect must be accorded the tough old Jeep Cherokee XJ. Meanwhile Toyota concocted a mini Ferrari, the highly acclaimed MR2, and Ferrari itself gave us the fist-bitingly gorgeous 288 GTO.

Then just to outdo itself, Ferrari debut the car that epitomises the 80s with outlandish slats on the side, too-wide shoulder pads and big red hair: the Testarossa, famously driven by Don Johnson in Miami Vice. Awesome!

1985 - Subaru XT

The Ferrari 328 could've made it two in a row, but there's Honda's first luxury car, the Legend, which it is, the mighty Bentley Turbo R and BMW's inaugural M5, based on the E28 5 Series.

However the 80s was about being daring, unique and a little crazy – like having an asymmetric steering wheel with two spokes at 90 degrees to each other, as was found on the bizarre but brilliant XT coupe from Subaru.

1986 - Porsche 959

This was a banner year - with the desert conquering Lamborghini LM002, Mercedes AMG Hammer (an E-Class with a 5.6 V8), A70 Toyota Supra, Honda's best-looking Accord (Aerodeck with pop-up headlights) and every bank robber's wet dream - the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth.

On the other hand there was the automotive feast of high-tech engineering and innovation that was the Porsche 959 which set the bar for every 911 henceforth. A true game-changer.

1987 - Ferrari F40

Then came Ferrari's contrary riposte to the complex Porsche, a raw as you can imagine, and the purest of road-racers. The iconic F40 was the last car signed off by Enzo himself.

This year gave us the dramatic Alfa Romeo 164; BMW E34 5 Series, the world's best exec; the low and lean Honda Prelude with four-wheel steer; the bad-ass Buick Grand National GNX and Vanilla Ice's favourite ride - the restyled Ford Mustang 5.0.

1988 - BMW Z1

Saloons got serious with the Peugeot 405 Mi 16, Mitsubishi's Galant VR-4 (a precursor to the Lancer Evo) and the Ford Taurus SHO. The long-running Suzuki Vitara proved a compact SUV could go anywhere and wear any badge (it was licensed and marketed under multiple brands).

However the remarkable little BMW Z1 roadster was not just cute and quick (thanks to a straight six out of a 325i) and had lightweight plastic panels, but also had doors that would sink down into the sills. Damn!

1989 - Mazda MX-5

What a year! It's as if carmakers were trying to squeeze the last of the automotive brilliance out of this sensational decade. Deep breath now: bonkers Alfa Romeo SZ; slinky BMW E32 8 Series; sharp-edged Citroen XM; go-anywhere Land Rover Discovery; Lexus LS luxobarge and California-conquering Mercedes SL (R129) Roadster. Then not one, not two but three Nissan superstars: 240SX, 300ZX Z32 and Godzilla - the R32 GT-R.

Lotus gave us its modern version of the Elan - the best front-wheel-drive sports car ever, but Mazda encapsulated the feel-good factor in its perfectly executed classic Elan homage, the MX-5/Miata roadster. Simple, affordable, delightful and fun to drive. It went on to become the bestselling two-seater, convertible sports car ever.

Prove me wrong – what do you think was the best decade for cars?

Let me know in the comments below...

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