Top 10 cars of the 1980s
The 1980s yielded some of the most iconic vehicles the world has ever seen, but which legends made it into our list of the very best? - Tyler Heatley
Read on to find out – don’t forget your shoulder pads! A version of this article was first published on YesAuto UK.
The 1980s was a golden era for music, technology, social reform and freedom of expression. This decade also yielded some of the most fantastic cars the world had ever seen, with manufacturers flaunting what they had. There was no holding back, just about everything was on the menu during the 80s.
It was incredibly tough to pick just 10 cars to represent this exceptional period, but here they are.
BMW M3 E30
It’s the granddaddy of every M3 that came after, the E30 is an automotive icon. Originally designed to help homologate a racing variant, this M3 proved so popular that it spawned a series of high-performance cars that are still seen as a benchmark today.
Not only was this one of the most successful racers of its era, but the E30 is still regarded as one of the very best M-cars ever made.
The Audi Quattro revolutionised the German marque and showed the world the true potential of all-wheel drive. This model dominated when it came to rallying, and in the era where victory translated as sales, it was a commercial success also. Its boxy shape makes it a distinctive member of this impressive club.
Original Ur-Quattro road cars are now prized collector items.
Mercedes-Benz 300E AMG 'Hammer'
Long before AMG was absorbed as Mercedes-Benz’s in-house tuner of choice, the small German firm was busy making a name for itself. The ‘red pig’ Mercedes 300 SEL that almost won the Spa 24 hours outright put it on the map, but one of its most famed creations was forged for the road and not a race track. Dubbed ‘the hammer’ it was the ultimate sleeper of the 1980s.
Based on a Mercedes-Benz W124 300E, this mighty AMG was fitted with a 5.5-litre V8 engine direct from the flagship S-Class. However, it was enlarged to 6.0-litres and a bespoke set of twin-cam heads were fitted. These serious modifications meant that power was cranked up to 375bhp. A supercar shaming 186mph top speed and 0-60mph in just 5 seconds made it a serious performance weapon.
Yet, all of this muscular performance was wrapped up in an understated package, ready to reveal itself at the next traffic light grand prix.
Ferrari 288 GTO
One of the most collectable Ferrari road cars ever made, the 288 GTO was originally designed as a more extreme variant of the 308 GTB for Group B homologation. However, Group B was disbanded before it had the chance to race, leaving 272 extreme road cars to find lucky homes.
Ferrari F1 champion Niki Lauda was a big fan of this supercar’s twin-turbocharged 2.9-litre V8 engine.
Lots of people think that the Ferrari Testarossa was the Italian Marque’s most potent Prancing Horse, but that ball was very much in the F40’s court. Instead, Ferrari took its grand touring 12-cylinder mid-engined with the Testarossa, making this more of a super GT than an outright supercar.
Launched in 1984, its naturally aspirated 4.9-litre flat-12 produced 385bhp, making it a serious performance car for the age. Its distinctive side-strakes were actually something of a necessity as large air intakes needed to be covered due to safety laws of the time. Net result? An iconic poster car with a design you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry.
When revealed back in the 1980s, this powerful continental cruiser would get you from 0-62mph in just 5.8 seconds. The Ferrari Testarossa also became a pop culture icon when it joined the cast of the hit TV show Miami Vice.
Lamborghini Countach LP5000 Quattrovalvole
This immortal image of the Countach was first seen in 1974, but the supercar continued to be developed into the 1980s. The LP5000 Quattrovalvole was launched in 1985 and featured a larger 5.2-litre V12 engine with four valves per cylinder – hence the name.
The Countach is often said to be the definitive poster car.
The Porsche 959 was one of the most technologically advanced supercars of the 1980s. It was another child of the Group B era, but as well as competing in the Dakar rally and Le Mans, 959s highlighted how all-wheel drive could be mastered in a supercar. At one point it was one of the fastest cars of the decade with a top speed of 198mph.
Bill Gates famously owns a 959, a car that actually helped bring in America’s ‘show and display’ laws.
Ford Sierra RS Cosworth
Everyone loves a Fast Ford, but the Sierra Cosworth was a real people’s champion. This era of 'win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ saw Ford and Cosworth work together to create a car that did the business on track, but also met the requirement of 5,000 road production cars. While the homologation rules were more of a technicality, the resulting road-legal machines put a serious performance car in the hands of the masses.
Back in their day, these cars were something of a performance car bargain, but today a Ford Sierra Cosworth in mint condition is highly collectable and can set you back close to £100,000.
Peugeot 205 GTI
Still perceived to be one of the greatest hot hatchbacks of all time, the Peugeot 205 GTI was a true ‘power to the people’ machine. Launched with a feisty 1.6-litre engine, this hatch handle brilliantly and was truly affordable.
The Golf GTI might be seen as the first mass-market hot hatch, but the 205 GTI perfected the formula.
It’s fitting that the last supercar to ever be signed-off by Enzo Ferrari himself was also the first to crack 200mph. There’s a strong argument that the legendary F40 is the greatest car ever, let alone the 1980s. Its twin-turbocharged V8 engine produced a raw 478bhp.
It was a white-knuckle-ride to 201mph, but the F40 represents one of the last truly menacing supercars.