Prev NEXT  


How Sports Cars Work

Sports Cars of the 1980s

At first, the 1980s did not seem much better for sports cars than the 1970s. Once again, the economy was slumping due to another energy crisis. But while U.S. calendar-year car sales bottomed out in 1982 at just over 7.9 million, they rebounded back above 10.3 million in '84 -- the best since pre-recession 1979. The total was 11.4 million in 1986, the best year ever.

But Motown struggled against another trend: the steady, seemingly unstoppable sales growth of Japanese-made cars, which only accelerated once North American "transplant" factories began turning out Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys, and other popular models.

Ironically, these plants hired many workers that had been laid off by the Big Three in do-or-die cutbacks prompted as much by the sour early-1980s market as Japanese competition. By 1989, Japanese-brand models accounted for a third of total U.S. car sales -- and each of the Big Three was selling cars produced by a Japanese "affiliate." Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

The U.S. sports-car scene mirrored the general fall and rise of the nation's economy and new-vehicle market. The decade began on a sad note when the MGB and Triumph TRs followed the Midget and Spitfire to the heavenly parking lot. For the first time since World War II, Americans had no new British-built roadsters to buy. It hardly seemed possible. However, it wasn't all gloom and doom for sports cars in the 1980s. Here are profiles of some of the greatest sports cars produced during this decade:

Alfa Romeo Giulia Alfa Romeo GTV-6 Alpine Renault A310 Alpine Renaut GTA
Aston Martin DBS and AM Vantage
BMW 6-Series
BMW M1 Datsun 280ZX
DeTomaso Pantera How Ferrari Works Fiat 124 Sports/Spider 2000 Fiat Bertone X1/9
Jaguar XJS Lamborghini Countach Lotus Esprit
Maserati Merak
Maserati Khamsin Maserati Kyalami Mazda RX-7 Mercedes-Benz 350/450/380
Morgan 4/4 Morgan Plus 8 Nissan 300ZX
Pontiac Fiero S/E and GT
Toyota MR2
Triumph TR7 Triumph TR8
TVR Tasmin Family

The Alfa Romeo Spider rolled on against all odds but increasingly looked a relic of another age -- which, of course it was. So, too, the Fiat X1/9 and 124 Spider, only they wouldn't last the decade, running through 1988 and 1985, respectively. Before the end, Fiat handed over marketing and some design functions to the coachbuilders, who applied their own names -- and little else -- for the upgraded but short-lived Bertone X1/9 and Pininfarina Spider 2000.

Among Italian exotics, DeTomaso was still frozen out by its inability to meet U.S. regulations, while grim economic realities forced Maserati to abandon its high-power GTs for lower-priced sporty sedans blatantly patterned on the popular BMW 3-Series. Ferrari, by happy contrast, pushed excitement to new heights with the burly flat-12 Testarossa, the racy 288 GTO with mid-mounted V8, and, to celebrate the marque's 40th birthday, the super-rare competition-inspired F40.

DeLorean sports car
Perhaps the iconic sports car of the 1980s was the DeLorean, which was featured in the movie, "Back to the Future."

To no one's surprise, the Porsche 911 and related Turbo sailed through the Eighties with thoughtful yearly improvements that kept the now-classic rear-engine sports car forever young. The posh 928 grand tourer steered a similar course. What did surprise was the 944, a faster, more agile, and much better-built "entry-level" Porsche based on the 924. Almost a brand-new car, the 944 was a revelation right out of the box, and became even more so when higher-performance S and Turbo models came along.

Chevrolet provided more good news with the 1983 release of the first clean-sheet Corvette in 20 years. Its only link with the past was a hallowed small-block V8, and even that was fully updated. Though less flamboyant than the "shark" it replaced, the "C4" was a more practical, sophisticated Corvette just right for its time. The same could be said for the popular Datsun/Nissan Z and Mazda RX-7, which also began new design generations that emphasized comfort and conve-nience without spoiling the sports-car fun.

The 1980s also produced its share of interesting newcomers, some from unexpected quarters. The Pontiac Fiero and Toyota MR2 followed earlier "parts bin" models by using high-volume drivetrains in a unique two-seat package with mid-engine mystique. Each had its own distinct character, but both were fun, affordable, and easy to live with. Cadillac raised eyebrows with the swank Allante convertible for 1987, and Buick did likewise the following year with its own two-seater, the Reatta. As spinoffs of larger front-drive models, neither could be serious driver's cars, though they were enjoyable luxury tourers.

Another sporty image-builder, the 1989 Chrysler's TC by Maserati, suffered from much more humble roots, though it, too, seemed a good idea at the time. And then there's the DeLorean DMC-12, which embodied so many not-so-good ideas as to strain belief. History has long since recorded the rear-engine coupe with the stainless-steel body panels and gullwing doors as an exercise in personal hubris. It was thus almost fated to fail, which it did in spectacular, headline-grabbing fashion. Today, the DeLorean is thought of as either a campy prop from the Back to the Future movies or a symbol of most everything wrong with the 1980s.

Of course, every era has its contradictions. And for all the ups and downs, the 1980s not only left us some very capable, rewarding sports cars, it paved the way for even better things. Though the Acura/Honda NSX, Dodge Viper, Mazda Miata, and others would await the Nineties, they were conceived in the tough, winner-take-all environment of the 1980s. Considering how good they would be, maybe greed wasn't so bad, after all.