Best Cars of the 80s

by | Feb 3, 2019 | Lifestyle, Motoring

Reading time: 13 minutes

The wonderful ’80s. The years of Scarface, The Shining, Aliens, Blade Runner and Full Metal Jacket. And some truly spectacular driving machines.


Right before ‘the Master’ Stanley Kubrick retired in 1987, he made a small quaint film called Full Metal Jacket. This is the decade of Vietnam memories. Platoon swept the Oscars, as did Born on the 4th of July. Aliens came out, as did Blade Runner, and MTV, Dire Straits and Miami Vice. A decade of exuberance, blond perms, leg warmers, aerobic competitions, Rambo and Rocky, A-Ha and Duran Duran. Timothy Dalton was James Bond and the Ghostbusters terrorized New York. The world was happy, and the cars reflected it. Well, for a bit anyway. In 1987, we had Black Monday, wherein a bunch of hedge fund managers had a Momentary Lapse of Reason and decided to try a Pink Floyd single in real life. They failed.

LSD and Marijuana gave way to a new powder-based chemical enhancement and, curiously, one of these new merchants went and created the DeLorean. It was creative. It was his name as well. The car went back to the future while he stayed in jail. Oh the irony. A thirst for speed arrived on the shoulders of the technological advancements the oil crisis had created, and so the first truly epic supercars came into existence. Too many to make the list, but the 300kph barrier, on ‘mostly production’ cars was broken. The Jaguar XJ220. The Lotus Sprit Turbo. The Ferrari 288GTO. Each had style, panache, and allure. And a promise of a better world arrived with destruction. That of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Lech Walesa revolutionized Poland, and Ceaucescu lost Romania. Europe relished in its new freedom. The ’90s would be much better.

#1 Ferrari F40 (1987-1992)

Porsche shocked the world with the 959 on its arrival in 1986. It was a display of German power, technology, discipline and, most importantly, perfection. Nobody before had put such herculean research and development into a car. It made the 911 become the mother of a Supercar

Ferrari had the stupendous 288 GTO on the road, but it wasn’t enough. It didn’t fight the Germans with the same weapons. Ferrari went ballistic, crazy, radical. The prancing horse made a car with a completely different design; no rounded soft curves, instead sharp as razors drawings. To create the F40, Ferrari didn’t spend billions to make it the most technological car on the planet. Instead, they made it raw, light, brutal. Simple. The F40 didn’t have a four-wheel drive system, but a simple rear-wheel drive that would spit you out of a corner like a cigarette butt. It wasn’t pretty inside, or comfortable. It was rustic, it had FIAT parts inside that looked cheap. The paint was so thin you could see the carbon fibre body peaking through (yes, carbon fibre in 1987). Its 2.9-litre turbocharged V8 was not for shy and inexperienced drivers. It had lag and all the 471bhp were thrown in your face in a few thousand Rpm with the brutality of the IHI Twin Turbo Compressors. It was loud, and very visible because after the Lamborghini Countach, it was the most outrageous car design ever seen and it had a Ferrari badge on it. Power came from an enlarged, 2,936 cc version of the 288 GTO’s IHI Twin Turbocharged and intercooled V8 Engine generating a peak power at 7,000 rpm and 577Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm as stated by the manufacturer, though gearing, torque curves and actual power output differed among the cars.  For that time, this power was a challenge only for the Porsche 959.] The suspension setup was similar to the GTO’s double wishbone setup, though many parts were upgraded and settings were changed; the unusually low ground clearance prompted Ferrari to include the ability to raise the vehicle’s ground clearance when necessary for later cars. The F40’s light kerb weight of 1,369 kg and high power output gave this legend tremendous performance potential. The first independent tests recorded 0-100 kph in 4.7 seconds and a top speed of 321 kph. I remember I had the honor of doing a shakedown of an F40 on the track and the memory of those emotions still run through my veins.


#2 Porsche 959 (1986-1988)

Development of the 959 started in 1981. Curious as to how much they could do with the rear-engined 911, Chief Eng. Helmut Bott convinced the GM Peter Schutz that development tests should take place, and even proposed researching a new all-wheel-drive system. Schutz agreed and gave the project the green light. Bott also knew through experience that a racing program usually helped accelerate the development of new models. Seeing Group B Rally Racing as the perfect arena to test the new development mule and its all-wheel-drive system, Bott again went to Schutz and got the approval to develop a car, based on his development mule, for competition in Group B.

The resultant twin-turbocharged 959 was the world’s fastest street-legal production car when introduced, achieving a top speed of 317kph with some variants even capable of achieving 339 kph. During its production run, the 959 was considered the most technologically advanced road-going sports car ever built, and a forerunner for all forthcoming sports cars (not just Porsches). It was one of the first high-performance vehicles with all-wheel drive, providing the basis for Porsche’s first all-wheel drive 911 Carrera 4 model. Its performance convinced Porsche executives to make all-wheel drive standard on all turbocharged versions of the 911 starting with the 993.

The powerplant was a sequential twin-turbo charged flat six DOCH 4 valves per cylinder, fuel fed by Bosch Motronic 2.1 Fuel injection with air-cooled cylinders and water cooled heads, for a total displacement of 2,849 cc. It was coupled to a unique manual transmission offering five forward speeds plus a “gelände” (terrain) off-road gear, as well as reverse. The engine was largely based on the 4-camshaft 24-valve powerplant used in the Porsche 956 and 962 race cars, while the water-cooled four-valve cylinder heads combined with the air-cooled cylinders and sequential turbochargers to produce 444 bhp at 6,500 rpm and 500 Nm of torque at 5,000 rpm from the compact, efficient and rugged power unit.

The use of sequential twin turbochargers rather than the more usual identical turbochargers for each of the two cylinder banks allowed for smooth delivery of power across the engine speed band, in contrast to the abrupt on-off power characteristic that distinguished Porsche’s other turbocharged engines of the period. The engine was used virtually unchanged in the 959 road car as well. It won the Paris Dakar rally in 1986 and placed 1st in-class (7th overall) in the Le Mans 24Hrs that same year. Not many other cars raised the bar of technology like this incredible machine.


#3 Lancia Delta S4 (1985-1986)

The 80s are years of the killer machines. It was the time of the Group B, the rally highest specification till then, that run the World Championship. The regulation requested a minimum number of 5000 road legal cars, in order to have a Group B Homologation. Top manufacturers like Audi, Peugeot, Ford, Toyota, and Lancia were developing true monsters, capable of more than 600 bhp in the race versions. They all had manual gearboxes, brutal turbo engines, and four-wheel drive. There were no electronics at that time. It was a job for men with “Balls of Steel”. Lancia was suffering from years of been beaten by the likes of the Audi Quattro and the Peugeot T16, having only the great 037, rear wheel drive, to challenge the superpowers. The two latter were dominating on every surface. Between October 1985 and 1986 Lancia built 200 examples of a road-going version of the Delta S4, officially named Lancia Delta S4, but widely known as “Stradale”, for the purpose of homologation in Group B. The Stradale’s chassis was a space frame, similar to its rally counter-part, built out of CrMo Steel tubes and aluminum alloy for the crash structures; it was covered by epoxy and fiberglass body panels. Like the rally car, the 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine was longitudinally mid-mounted, equipped with Weber-Marelli IAW integrated electronic ignition and fuel injection, a supercharger, a turbocharger, and two intercoolers. In road tune, the 1.8 produced 247 bhp at 6,750 rpm and 291 Nm of torque at 4,500 rpm. The “Stradale” kept a three differential four-wheel-drive system from the rally car; the center differential sent 30% of the engine torque to the front open differential, and 70% to the rear limited slip. The Stradale claimed the weight of 1,200 kg, while the Rally Group B version could go down to 890 Kg, which made it an even more terrifying animal in the hands of the right drivers. In competition, the car won its first event, the 1985 RAC Rally in the hands of Henri Toivonen and carried Markku Alen to second in the drivers’ championship the following year. For two weeks after the end of the 1986 season, Alen was champion until the FIA annulled the results of the Sanremo Rally due to irregular technical scrutineering. Alén had won that event and the loss of points handed the title to Peugeot’s Juha Kankkunen. We find her ugly and marvelous at the same time. You could tell that it was born just to be sent racing straight away. The Group B cars were banned at the end of 1986, due to the death of drivers and spectators. Those cars were way too dangerous.


#4 Audi Quattro (1980-1991)

Here she is, the absolute dominant machine of the 80s Group B World Rally Championship. It was presented in Geneva in 1980 and it featured an innovative Four Wheel Drive System (Quattro), never seen on a sports car before. At that time, sports cars were traditionally rear wheel drive and extremely difficult to drive at the limit. Audi pushed all the manufacturers to a level they could not even imagine. They all had to bow to this German majesty which won the WRC in 1982, 1983 and 1984. As stated by the Group Homologation rules, Audi had to build at least 5000 units in order have it certified for Group B. The idea for a high-performance four-wheel-drive car was proposed by Audi’s chassis engineer, Jörg Bensinger, in 1977, when he found that the Volkswagen Iltis could outperform any other vehicle in snow, no matter how powerful. The engine was to a 2,133 cc inline-5 with 10 valves, still generating 197 hp, but with peak torque lower in the rev-range. In 1989, it was then changed to a 2,226 cc inline-5, 20 Valves DOCH setup generating 217 hp, now with a top speed of 230 km/h. The rear suspension was altered early on with geometry changes and removal of the rear anti-roll bar to reduce a tendency for lift-off oversteer. For the 1984 facelift, the wheel size went from 6×15-inch with 205/60-15 tires to 8×15-inch wheels with 215/50-15 Pirelli Cinttires P5 tires. At the same time, the suspension was lowered by 20 mm with slightly stiffer springs for improved handling. For 1987, the Torsen center differential was used for the first time, replacing the manual center differential lock. The last original Audi Quattro was produced on 17 May 1991, more than two years after the first models of the new Audi Coupé range (based on the 1986 Audi 80) had been produced. As far as the Group B version is concerned, the final factory cars of 1986 were rated at 592 hp. In 1987, the car won the Pikes Peak International Hill Climbing driven by the legend Walter Röhrl.


#6 BMW M3 (E30) (1985-1992)

Based on the 1986 model year E30 3 Series, the M3 was only available in coupe and convertible body styles. The E30 M3 used the BMW S14 inline 4 Cylinder Engine. The first iteration of the engine produced 192 hp with a catalytic converter and 197 hp without a catalytic converter. In September 1989, power was increased to 212 hp. The sportier “Evolution” model (also called “EVO2”) introduced in 1988 produced 220 hp. Other changes included larger wheels (16 X 7.5 inches), thinner rear and side window glass, a lighter bootlid, a deeper front splitter, and additional rear spoiler. A more powerful and lighter “Sport Evolution” model (sometimes referred as “EVO3”) with a limited production run of 600 units increased engine displacement to 2,467 cc, which produced 235 bhp at 7,000 rpm and 240 Nm of torque at 4,750 rpm. Sport Evolution models have enlarged front bumper openings and an adjustable multi-position front splitter and rear wing. Brake cooling ducts were installed in place of front fog lights. The E30 M3 differed from the standard E30 by having a 5×120 wheel bolt pattern. The E30 M3 had increased caster through major front suspension changes. The M3 had specific solid rubber offset control arm bushings. It used aluminum control arms and the front strut tubes were changed to a design similar (bolt on kingpins and swaybar mounted to strut tube) to the E28 5 Series. Other components taken from the 5 series included the front wheel bearings and brake calliper bolt spacing. The rear suspension was similar to the standard E30 models. European models were outfitted with a dogleg version, with first gear being down and to the left, and fifth gear being a direct 1:1 ratio. This allowed 2nd and 3rd gear to remain on the same vertical channel to help quick changes. All versions were clutch-type limited-slip differentials with 25% lockup. It was the start of a legend that still last till date.


#7 Mercedes 190 EVO II (1983-1990)

This high-performance model was known as the 190 E 2.3-16V, and debuted in September at the 1983 Frankfurt Motor Show, after its reputation had already been established in the (DTM) (German Touring Car Championship). Three cars, only slightly cosmetically altered, had set three world records in August at the Nardo Testing Facility in Italy, recording a combined average speed of (247.94 km/h) over the 50,000 km endurance test, and establishing twelve international endurance records. In roadgoing trim, the 2.3 L 16-valve engine generated maximum power output of 185 hp at 6,200 rpm and 236 Nm at 4,500 rpm. The oversquare 95.50 x 80.25 mm bore and stroke dimensions ensured that the car could easily rev up to the 7,000 rpm redline. Acceleration from 0–100 km/h was in less than eight seconds, and the top speed was 230 km/h. An enlarged 2.5 lt engine replaced the 2.3 L in 1988. It offered double-row timing chains to fix the easily snapping single chains on early 2.3 engines and increased peak output by 17 bhp with a slight increase in torque. Mercedes were not keen to publicize the fact that their most capable saloon had an engine developed by a British company, Cosworth. However, some cylinder heads from 2.5 L cars were found to be stamped with the Coscast logo indicating they were cast at Cosworth’s foundry just like the 2.3 L cars. Cosworth also lists the project code “WAB” for the development of the 2.5-16-valve head just as they do for the 2.3-16-valve head. Due to their performance, the 16-valve cars were different from the other 190 models. The body kit on the 2.3-16 and 2.5-16 reduced the drag coefficient to 0.32, one of the lowest CD values on a four-door saloon of the time, whilst also reducing lift at speed. The steering ratio was quicker and the steering wheel smaller than that on other 190s, whilst the fuel tank was enlarged from 55 to 70 L. The Getrag 5-speed manual gearbox was unique to the 16-valve and featured a dogleg change pattern, shifting down and left for first. The gearchange quality was, however, noted as “notchy, baulky criticisms which weren’t leveled at the BMW M3(E30) which shared the same gearbox. An oil cooler was fitted to ensure sufficient oil cooling for the inevitable track use many of these cars were destined for. The 190 E 2.3-16 was available in only two colors Blue-Black metallic, and Smoke Silver. The 2.5-16 added Almandine Red and Astral Silver. All 2.3-16-valve 190 models are fitted with a Limited Slip Differential (LSD) as standard. The sexiest Mercedes sedan to date.


#8 Nissan Skyline GTR R32 (1989-1994)

After canceling the Skyline GT-R in 1973, Nissan revived the GT-R again in 1989. The new generation GT-R, commonly shortened to R32, was designed to dominate Group A racing. Nissan was back in serious business. Nissan Kohki (Nissan’s power train engineering and manufacturing facility) originally tested a twin-turbocharged 2350cc bored and stroked version of the previous RB25 Engine. This set up produced 313 hp and used a Real Wheel Drive drivetrain. Nissan soon decided to make the car four-wheel drive, in order to compete at the highest level in Group A. Nissan developed a special motorsport-oriented AWD system for this purpose called the ATTESA E-TS. Although this assisted with traction, it made the car 100 kg heavier; the added weight put the GT-R at a disadvantage to other cars in the 4000 cc class. Nissan then made the decision to increase the displacement to 2600 cc, and put the car in the 4500 cc class, with the car’s weight near-equal to competing cars. The 4500 cc class also allowed for 11-inch-wide tires. New engine block and heads were then developed to better match the increased displacement. The result was a 600 horsepower car. The road version adopted this new 2,569 cc powered all wheel drive concept was put into production as the R32 Nissan Skyline GT-R. The R32 developed 280 PS at 6,800 rpm and 353 Nm of torque at 4,400 rpm; it had a curb weight of 1,430 kg. Nissan officially started its production run 21 August 1989 and began its Group A campaign in 1990. The special Nismo specification deletes ABS, which are not legal in Group A, and the rear wiper to save weight. The bonnet and front bumpers are aluminium rather than the standard steel, again to save weight. Overall the GT-R Nismo weighs 1,400 kg for the standard GT-R. Tyres are Bridgestone RE71 in 225/55R16 fitted to 16″ alloys. Mechanically the GT-R Nismo uses the RB26 engine of the ‘standard’ GT-R but replaces the stock Garrett T03 turbos with larger T04B models, sacrificing the faster spool up of the ceramic turbo wheels for the enhanced reliability of steel wheels. The GT-R Nismo was only available color code KH2 “Gun Grey Metallic”. The birth of the first Japanese supercar and possibly the most popular Japanese machine for the maddest of the tunings.


#9 Volkswagen Golf GTi (1983-1992)

Generation II of the most popular VW, after the Beetle, sold 6.2 Million units during its nearly ten years of life. It carried the success of the Generation I, the emblem of the hatch back car that has probably never been surpassed. The original Golf had been one of the few front-wheel drive hatchbacks on sale when launched in 1974, but within a decade almost all mainstream manufacturers had launched a Golf-like family hatchback. During the life of the Golf MK2, there were a number of external style revisions. Notable changes to the looks of the Golf MK2 included the removal of quarterlight windows in the front doors, and the introduction of larger grille slats with the August 1987 facelift. The GTI model existed from 1985–1987 and the GTI 16V existed from 1987–1992. it featured a naturally aspirated Bosch K Jetronic fule injected 1,781 cc inline four cylinder engine, developing 110.5 hp. In 1986 a Golf GTI 16V was introduced; here the 1.8-liter engine output was 137 hp at 6100 rpm and 168 Nm at 4600 rpm of torque and the model was marked by discreet red-and-black “16V” badges front and rear. It was a peppery hatchback that set the standard for all the manufacturers in the world. The GTI badge, which means Grand Tourism Injection, has become more connected to the famous Golf model than to its real technical meaning. What you call branding over a legend.


#10 DMC De Lorean (1981-1983)

The DeLorean was the only model ever produced by the company. It was a sports car originally manufactured by DMC, for the American market from model years 1981 through 1983. The car features gull-wing doors and an innovative fiberglass body structure with a steel backbone chassis, along with external brushed stainless steel body panels. It became widely known and iconic for its appearance, and because a modified DeLorean was immortalized as the DeLorean Time Machine in Back to the Future famous movie. The body design of the DeLorean was a product of Giugiaro of ItalDesign and is paneled in brushed SS304 stainless steel. A distinctive feature of the DeLorean is its gull-wing doors. The common problem of supporting the weight of gull-wing doors was solved by other manufacturers with lightweight doors in the Mercedes 300 SL and a hydraulic pump in the Bricklin SV-1, although these designs had structural or convenience disadvantages. The DeLorean features heavy doors supported by cryogenically preset torsion bars and gas-charged struts. The engine is a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo 2,849 cc V6, rated at 130 hp at 5500 rpm and 207Nm at 2750 rpm of torque that was designed and built under special contract with the DMC. The suspension of the DeLorean is a four-wheel independent suspension, coil springs, and telescopic shock absorbers. The front suspension uses double wishbone, while the rear is a multi-link setup. DMC’s comparison literature noted that the DeLorean could achieve 0–100 km/h in 8.8 seconds, when equipped with a manual transmission and was capable of nearly 180 km/h. About 9,200 DeLoreans were produced between January 1981 and December 1982. One of a kind