The 1980s: 10 of its best cars
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
The 1980s is the decade when Britain got the colour back in its cheeks. After the dark, dingy brown-ness of the 1970s, with its strikes and power cuts, we got a new shiny decade. It was a time of re-invention and revolution, from electronics to politics. And, of course, cars.
For classic car enthusiasts the 80s hit a sweet spot of great design matched to much-improved reliability. And seatbelts got brighter and stripes got faster. Many great cars came out of that time, plus a lot more that we thought were rubbish at the time but are now getting their moment in the sun.
Here's our pick of the best 80s real-world 80s cars.
It's difficult, looking back 40 years, to fully appreciate just what a game-changer the Audi Quattro was. Today 4WD is everywhere. In the 1980s it was the preserve of Land Rovers and tractors. If your day job involved ploughing, you bought a 4WD. If you were in advertising, property development or something to do with bonds that didn't involve James, you bought a Rover.
The Quattro was made possible because Audi decided to take on BMW and Mercedes. As this was back in a time when competing meant actually doing something different, rather than just saying you did, Audi decided the best way to do this was by being more technologically advanced. And the best way to demonstrate this would be to go rallying. So it did both.
The Quattro was a very simple idea: the firm took its boxy and boring 80 coupe, added 4WD - because 4 driven wheels are better than two when you're driving on dirt rally roads - and attracted the best rally drivers to its cause. It swept the board.
Then it gave fundamentally the same car to its dealers and the rest is history. Audi's current success can be traced right back to the original Quattro.
The car succeeded because rallying demonstrated how devastatingly effective 4WD could be in a sports car. This was not just technology for farmers, it was the key to going round corners very, very fast. And it had the added advantage of being safer too.
The Quattro, like the Golf GTI before it, succeeded because it didn't make too much of a song and dance about its attributes. Yes, there were bigger arches and some snazzy graphics, but mostly it was a boxy, sombre-suited car that could fit easily into the company car park.
Quite quickly other manufacturers cottoned on to the 4WD revolution, but none quite matched Audi's balance of capability and understatement.
While Audi was busy trying to win on the rally stages, Ford had set its sights on Group A touring car success. That required homologating a road-going car. That car was the original Sierra Cosworth.
There were, of course, many fast Fords before the Cosworth and since. What makes the Cosworth stand out is the impact it had on buyers. When it launched in 1985 it was expensive and in very limited supply, because Ford only needed to sell enough to get the model homologated. Despite that, everyone was nervous that it would even meet the limited target of 5,000. But it looked so, so right: in the decade of big hair and big shoulder pads, the Cosworth had huge spoilers and wide arches. And it went like stink: while a humble mid-range Sierra made do with 70 bhp, the Cossie developed over 200 bhp.
None of which really explains why the 80s embraced the Cosworth so wholeheartedly. That was down to Ford's deal with its engine builder. Cosworth insisted on a production run of 15,000 engines, far more than Ford actually needed to homologate the car for racing. So to shift the remaining 10,000 Ford 'Cossied' the 4 door Sierra Sapphire saloon. Cheaper and more widely available, it was this version that started to appear on driveways. And this version that became the most nickable car in Britain in the late 80s. And beloved of bank robbers and getaway drivers.
Like the Jaguar Mk2 before it, the Cossie saloon was very quick, relatively inexpensive and had space for four plus a bootful of swag. So quick, in fact, that just like the Mk2 the police had to get them too in order to keep up. The engine was also immensely tuneable, so that Cosworths began troubling far more exotic machinery at traffic light burnouts. That was if the owner could hang onto it long enough - Cossies were not just easy to steal but carried crippling insurance premiums.
There were tweaked RS500 versions and 4x4 versions, but the fun had to end sometime. The end came in 1992 when the last Cosworth rolled off the line. Its replacement, the ST24 and ST200 Mondeos, were very different beasts: stung by the Cossie's bad boy reputation Ford opted to make its new, sportier cars much more subdued. The era of sensible, sober-suited motoring was back.
VW Golf GTI Mk2
The original Mk1 Golf GTI showed us how a family car could be practical and sporty, but it was the Mk2 that really changed things. Designed form the outset to incorporate a sports model - rather than one added later as an afterthought - the Mk2 put the driver at the heart of things right from the first drawings. And it was also available as a 5 door, which finally made the GTI a proper family car.
The Mk2 GTI was initially criticised for being softer and less focussed than the Mk1 GTI. But that was to miss the point. VW engineered the car to be sporty when you needed it, relaxing and comfortable when you didn't. This was the key difference between the two cars and the key to the later car's success. And in this way the Mk2 set the template for every future family hot hatch.
Here was a car that could genuinely be all things to all people. Great for trips to Netto, just as good for trips to the Nurburgring. Suddenly every hard-charging regional sales manager was trading in his Sierra for a smaller but more desirable GTI, usually in Highland Green.
Rover SD1 Vitesse
In the 1980s everyone wanted to go racing. This wasn't entirely new, because car makers had been going racing to help sell cars since the dawn of motoring, but in the 80s it seemed to take on a new urgency.
Rover got on the bandwagon for several reasons. Yes, everyone else was doing it. Uniquely for Rover, however, everyone associated the Solihull firm with pipe and slippers motoring. And to sell more cars that really needed to change. For Rover, racing was the answer.
To get onto the track Rover needed to homologate its chosen car, the SD1. The result was the Rover Vitesse with something called twin plenums for extra power. The new car was meant to have been called the Rover Rapide, but Aston Martin kicked that idea into touch.
With speed clearly at the heart of the concept, the Vitesse performed the time-served trick of transforming a creaky old model into something new. With the trusty Rover V8 at its heart, pumping out up to 190 bhp, it was quick and entertaining in an old school, rear wheel drive sort of way.
The Vitesse enabled Rover to reverse out of the fuddy-duddy market cul de sac it had driven into and found a new, broader audience.
In the 1980s Alfa Romeo was in the doldrums. After creating some great models like the Alfasud, GTV6 and Alfetta in the 70s the firm was staggering under the weight of a reputation in the gutter, thanks to cars that rusted faster than their warranties ran out. Poor sales also meant it was starved of investment by its owners, the Italian government.
In typical Alfa fashion, the firm made do and mended. Some of the sticking plasters peeled off rather quickly - like the ill-advised tie up with Nissan that gave us the unloved Arna - but some did work quite well indeed. Like the Alfa 75.
The 75 was nothing more than a reheated Giulietta, but that was a good thing. The earlier car was technically advanced, with 50;50 weight distribution thanks to its innovative transaxle layout, and neatly styled. The 75 was not neatly styled - it used a very 80s wedgy, boxy style - but it did have some superlative engines to go with the excellent chassis. These included the V6 'Busso', generally acknowledged as one of the greatest engines ever made. And it was rear wheel drive, at a time when car makers were deserting a set up always favoured by car enthusiasts.
Of course, the 75 wasn't built very well, it had electrics that entertained with their randomness rather than functioned effectively and it had a strange twin-levered handbrake. But it was the last 'proper' Alfa before Fiat took over and began platform sharing. That means it drove really well, unlike any other executive car in fact.
Bentley Turbo R
Bentleys are big and quick. If you want to cross continents quickly and comfortably, you buy a Bentley.
Except for quite a long time in the 70s and early 80s that definitely wasn't the case. Bentleys were just rebadged Rolls Royces, bought by the uber rich who felt a Roller was just a bit too Arthur Daley.
All that changed in 1982 when the firm bolted a big fat turbo to the big old V8 and gave us the Mulsanne Turbo. There was more power but the same wallowy, seasick-inducing ride that came free of charge with the unblown Rollers and Bentleys.
It's the Turbo R that's the gamechanger here. When it came along in 1985 it adopted a different, more sporting set up, making it the first Bentley in a while that was genuinely technically different from the equivalent Rolls. Inside there were sports seats - well, sporty-ish seats - and some red bits. Power was still only about 300 bhp but it was enough to catapult the portly Bentley to 60 in around 6 seconds - more than adequately fast.
The R managed the seemingly impossible trick of turning the big, lardy ocean liner Mulsanne into a wieldy, entertaining GT car. Without compromising the opulence and unruffled air of luxury. Bentleys should be big and fast and the Turbo R was both.
Its image may have been of corpulent captains of industry desperately shuffling their pot bellies behind its huge wheel, but no matter: finally here was a quick, brutal Bentley that recaptured something of the essence of this great marque. It paved the way for the Bentley we have now. Whether we should be pleased about that is up to you to decide.
By the mid 80s Lancia, like its compatriot Alfa Romeo, was in the doldrums. Its reputation was as scabrous as the bodywork on its rusty cars and its model range was old and no longer exciting.
To inject some much-needed showroom tinsel Lancia looked at ways to create high performance 'halo' versions of its ordinary cars. It started with the Lancia Thema 8.32, which showed what could be done by raiding the Fiat parts bin. In this case dropping in a Ferrari engine.
For the Delta, the path to halo glory was a little slower. First there was the HF, then the HF Turbo and then along came the HF 4WD. All of these were little more than reheated versions of the humdrum Delta, with increasing power but not much in the way of fundamental changes to the basic car.
That all changed with the Integrale. Launched in 1987, the new car was a much more focussed, more powerful and more aggressive model with a clear DNA link to Lancia's successful rally cars. And a brilliant name.
The Integrale went on to get more power and more aggressive styling, but it was the original that set the template. The engine may have been from a Fiat but Lancia transformed it: the original 8v had 180 bhp going, of course, through all four wheels. So it stuck to the road like glue. In fact, like nothing else in its class. The Audi Quattro pioneered 4WD for road cars but it was the Integrale that showed what could be achieved with a humble hatchback.
Lancia was, albeit briefly, back. What followed after the Integrale were increasingly insipid models that traded on brand heritage rather than moving things along. Our roads may be safer with fewer Integrales on them, but they aren't more exciting.
Launched at the tale end of the 80s, the original MX5 encapsulates the creativity and flair that was flying around in the decade of synthesisers and, daringly, men in makeup. It wasn't a new idea, of course, but it took an old idea and made it much, much better.
Back in the 60s and 70s if you wanted a small sports car you looked to Britain. We made lots of them: Lotus, Triumph and MG all offered a choice of inexpensive two seaters that were made here and did rather well over there.
These cars were well loved and sold well, but they were never particularly sporting - except the Lotus - and none of them were very well built. They also stayed in production much, much longer than anyone expected, mainly because there was very little competition so sales remained healthy.
By the time Mazda launched the MX5, the British had fully retreated from the small sports car market. With the exception of Reliant and its oddball SS1. Nobody in the industry believed there was a market for a cheap, fun drop top. The MX5 proved them wrong.
It succeeded because it did what it was designed to do so very, very well. It was fun to drive, it was easy to own and it was fairly practical. All things you could say of the Triumph Spitfire and MG Midget. There was nothing new about the MX5, it just did it all much better. Which was its genius.
The MX5 kickstarted a renaissance in cheap convertible sports cars that continues to this day. Thank you Mazda.
Peugeot 205 GTI
Like the MX5 there was nothing particularly clever or new about the Peugeot 205 GTI. But boy did it move the game on.
To develop the GTI Peugeot looked at what VW had done with the original Golf and made it better. Lighter, nimbler and visually more exciting, the 205 GTI was the Volkswagen's hyperactive younger sibling. And for a nation of go-faster motorists, that was a very good thing indeed.
The original GTI wasn't particularly quick - it had just 105 bhp - but it was light and the chassis was superb. It also looked good and, because this was the 80s, there was an awful lot of red inside. 80s drivers liked redness.
In a market crowded with GTI clones the Peugeot stood out because it was just so good at what it did. Yes, it was built from balsa wood and yes, if you lifted off mid corner you were quite likely to create GTI shaped holes in hedges, but its fallibility was part of its charm.
Peugeot would go on to make arguably an even better GTI in the 306, but it was the 205 that first showed just how exciting a small hatchback could be.
Saab 900 T16 Turbo
When money is tight, car makers get creative. We've already seen that with Lancia and Alfa. In the 1980s the same was true of Saab.
The original 900 Turbo, launched in 1978, was intended as no more than a stop gap model until Saab could launch the 9000, part of the Type 4 joint venture with the Fiat Group. That it lasted well into the 90s owes a lot to one model: the T16S, launched in 1988.
Saab may have pioneered turbocharging with the 99 but the T16S showed that a fast, turbocharged car could also be a safe, stylish and luxurious everyday executive car. And it was fast: the T16S got, as the name implies, a new 16 valve head that developed 175 bhp. At the time Saab said that this was the most power that could safely be put through the front wheels. It's worth remembering that to put similar amounts of power on the road Audi and Lancia reverted to 4WD. And Saab was doing this with a 20 year old design.
The T16S was technically clever, with wraparound screen and innovative dashboard layout; it also looked great too, thanks to Saab's 'Aero' bodykit. With its characteristic all-or-nothing turbo delivery it was exciting as well. James Bond even drove one, albeit very briefly.
The 80s gifted us many great cars, these are just a few of them. Let us know what we've missed in the comments below.
Thanks for reading. You can find out more about what we do at www.greatdrivingdays.co.uk or call 01527893733