Muscle Car Classics of the '80s — Get 'em Before They're Hot!
By Eric Peters, for Second Chance Garage
Eric Peters is a Washington, D.C.-based automotive writer. He owns a '76 Pontiac Trans-Am equipped with a 455 V-8 and 2004-R 4-speed automatic overdrive.
Twenty years ago, the now-legendary and much-coveted muscle cars of the 1960s and early 1970s 289 "hi-po" Mustangs, early Z28 Camaros, 389 GTOs were just tired old cars, common on seedy used car lots, and well-within the budget of most speed-hungry teenagers. Fast-forward to the present, and most of those machines have become rare and collectible rich men's toys $20,000 and up in most cases, with especially desirable models such as the Shelby Mustangs (GT350 and GT500s) "big block" SS 396 and 454-equipped Chevy Chevelles, the '73-'74 SD-455 Pontiac Trans-Am, LT-1 Corvettes and '440 "Six Pak" (triple carburetor) Plymouth 'Cudas and Hemi Challengers selling for twice that sometimes a lot more.
Those who were smart (or just stupid lucky) bought when these amazing cars were someone else's second-hand gas pigs and redneck lawn decor - not today's high-dollar classics.
Learn from the past!
The early and mid-1980s were another period when the domestic automakers began making some neat cars again after almost a decade of bleakness that began with the OPEC oil crisis and lasted through the end of the Carter years.
Examples include the mid-engined, composite-bodied Pontiac Fiero that was built from 1984 to 1988 (the '84 Indy Pace car replicas are especially desirable; ditto the later V-6 equipped GT and Formula models), and the turbo 2.3 liter '84-'85 Ford SVO Mustang a four cylinder hellion that was one of the very first American cars to approach the performance question with sophistication rather than brute force and also one of the first U.S.-badged vehicles to wear huge-for-the time 16x7-inch alloy rims shod with 50-series VR speed-rated (130-plus) "Gatorback" ultra-performance tires. Its distinguishing characteristics included an off-center hood scoop and dual rear spoiler, plus a front end different from other Mustangs, including the more conventional, V-8 equipped Mustang GT. The SVO Mustang was a good performer, too with 205-hp in its second year of production about as much as the GT's 5-liter V-8 as making at the same time.
Both the Fiero and SVO Mustang were unusual, almost experimental cars for their respective automakers and are thus apt to become valuable collectibles in the years to come.
The mid-80s also were the era of the very successful 1983-1988 SS Monte Carlo Chevrolet's last V-8 powered, full-frame V-8 coupe. The SS Monte had the muscular look of a Winston Cup stock car, and featured the final appearance of a carbureted V-8 (Chevy's L69 5-liter "HO" engine) in a GM passenger car before fuel injection took over (for emissions and fuel economy reasons). Extra-rare "aerocoupes" were built for just two years (1986-1987) that featured specially contoured, wind-cheating back glass designed to give the cars an aerodynamic advantage at high speed.
Around the same time, in 1983, Oldsmobile offered the very last V-8 equipped, rear-drive Cutlass-based 442 (and also the similar Hurst Olds in 1984). These cars were also among the final run of rear-drive GM vehicles to be powered by a non-Chevrolet V-8 (in this case, Oldsmobile's venerable 307 cubic-inch/5-liter V-8). The Hurst Olds featured a fearsome-looking (if awkward to use) "Lightning Rod" Hurst shifter that was its defining characteristic plus a bulging hood scoop, decklid spoiler and special paint and stripes. Like the similar SS Monte Carlo, the Hurst Olds and 442 Cutlass were big, powerful American coupes of a type that will never be made again. Hence, their historic value is assured.
This brings us to the Buick Regal T-Type and the sinister-looking Regal Grand National the absolute high water mark for '80s performance cars. Of all the Reagan-era muscle coupes, these are the meanest. Grand Nationals were painted all black (with the exception of the introductory year 1982 models, which were offered in silver and charcoal), and powered by ever-more-potent versions of Buick's 3.8 liter turbocharged V-6. By 1986, these ferocious rides packed 235-hp, and could blast to 60-mph in under 6 seconds amazing performance for a coupe the size of most of today's "full-size" sedans.
The last year of production, 1987, went out with a bang. Before Buick (along with the rest of General Motors) switched over to front-wheel-drive (for fuel economy reasons) a final run of GN's and T-Types left the factory including 547 very special GNX models. Regular Grand Nationals were shipped from the Assembly line to ASC/McLaren, a specialty tuner shop, and fitted with a larger turbocharger with low-drag impeller, a new Garrett intercooler and revised low-backpressure exhaust system to goose the output of the 3.8 liter engine to a rated 270-hp and 360-lbs.-ft. of torque. Since these big, heavy cars ran the quarter mile in the mid-to-low-13s at more than 100-mph (as quick as a brand-new 350-hp 2003 Corvette), the official advertised horsepower rating of 270 was almost certainly under-reported. GNX models are distinguised by their fender flares, meaty wheels and tires, fender vents and "GNX" badging. They're arguably the last true American muscle cars in the tradition of the old GTOs and SS Chevelles.
The mid-1980s were also a great time for bread-and-butter performance machines such as the 5-liter V-8 Mustang GT (and the more discrete 5-liter LX, which had the GT's engine, but not its body cladding and trim) that were manufactured from 1982 until the early 1990s in more or less the same basic form. Featuring Ford's tried-and-true 302 cubic inch/5-liter V-8 — the same basic engine that was used in the very first Mustangs in the mid-1960s — these cars offered affordable performance, were easy to work on and benefited from a vast support network of aftermarket parts suppliers and "speed shops" that specialized in the traditional Ford small-block V-8. Ford made so many "five-o" 'Stangs that it is still a simple matter to locate a nice used one today for less than $5,000. Since Ford retired the 5-liter V-8 shortly after restyling the Mustang in 1994, the older 5.0 cars are destined to become interesting collectibles in the coming years. Limited production models such as the Cobra especially so.
Also of interest are the '80s-era Chevy IROC-Z Camaro and its Pontiac cousins, the Trans-Am GTA and Formula Firebird. The later (post 1985) models featured GM's "Tuned Port Injection" (TPI) V-8s — in either 5-liter or 5.7 liter forms — and racy bodystyles that were immensely popular at the time. These "third generation" Camaros and Firebirds far outsold the lackluster '93-up "fourth generation" cars that were recently cancelled by General Motors and there were a variety of low-production/special edition models that will command a lot of money in the years to come. These include the all-white 15th Anniversary cars built in 1984 and the 20th Anniversary 1989 Trans-Am featuring the first-ever use of a V-6 engine instead of a V-8 in a Trans-Am. Pontiac fitted these cars with the same basic 3.8 liter turbocharged V-6 as used in the deceased Buick Regal Grand Nationals and this powerplant had the beans to whup its V-8 powered competitors every time.
As the '80s ended and '90s began, GM also produced the impressive (and very low production) GMC Typhoon and later the Syclone in 1991 and 1992, respectively — which featured a 280-hp turbocharged 4.3 liter V-6 bolted to a full-time all-wheel-drive system. Capable of sub-5-second to 60-mph times, these monsters were among the quickest and fastest vehicles available then or now and their low production and phenomenal performance capability assures their future collectibility.
Many of these "future classics" are merely old cars today - just like the classic muscle cars of the '60s and '70s once were. Most of them can still be found in regular classified ads, and are generally affordable exceptions being the Grand National, the GNX and the GMC Typhoon and Syclone which are already "hot" in the old car market). That won't last, though. As interest in these cars grows, and attrition decreases the supply of "survivors," they'll become increasingly harder to find — and more expensive, too.
Get them while you can!