Love or hate them, muscle cars play an important part in any gearhead’s adoration of cars. Who can resist craning their neck when met with a rumbling V8 soundtrack? However, the ’80s presented a big problem for carmakers. How to still attract gearheads while delivering the noise? In reality, they didn’t. Most ’80s cars switched to smaller engines relying on forced induction to plug the performance gap.
Before reaching for the tissue box to soak up some tears, there are some notable exceptions. Several American cars still rocked V8 engines. Ford continued to mass-produce Mustangs which during the ’80s would have been a Fox Body model that you could have with a V8. It’s a similar story over at Chevrolet. Once the dismal C3 was gone, it was business as usual that would steer gearheads toward the 1990 Corvette ZR-1.
As much as ’80s-era muscle cars still have the wow factor, it would be easy to pick up a bad one in error. Muscle-esque in stature, only to find weak mechanicals. You’d be wise to keep these duds at arm’s length, better still avoid them altogether. Landing a dud can be a painful learning experience.
10/10 Adore It – Buick GNX
Tread very carefully when you come across the GNX at the lights. At first glance, the Buick appears an ’80s coupe wearing a black paint job. Remember that thought as its owner blows you into the weeds on his way to 60 mph in 4.4-seconds.
We adore the GNX, Buick’s run-out special with the heart of a dragster. In effect, the GNX is a Regal given an almighty performance boost in the form of a turbocharged V6 motor. On paper, Buick claimed the 3.8-liter V6 produced 245 hp. Independent testing has since proved otherwise.
9/10 Adore It – Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe
Ford, around the same time, also toyed with forced induction. The Thunderbird as a result shipped with either supercharged or turbocharged engines.
While not as stealthy as the GNX above, the Super Coupe can still mount a surprise performance or two. Beneath those understated sleek lines, Ford’s Essex V6 wearing a blower dishes out 210 hp. By no means are these stellar figures, but it’s enough to drag the T-Bird to 60 mph in 6-seconds.
8/10 Adore It – Callaway Corvette C4
Wearing an all-new design for GM, the fourth-generation Vette reinvigorated the company’s image. More importantly, the new line-up came with a welcome boost in performance.
More is good, but it’s a never-ending circle of performance that Reeves Callaway was happy to cash in on. Under the hood, you’ll find a stock 5.7-liter LT1 engine sandwiched by two turbochargers cranking out 400 hp. It’s a simple approach that works well, and one we adore for the insanity of it.
7/10 Adore It – Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am GTA
GM, during the ’80s, was a cost-cutting firm like no other. Cheap cars resulted in more than a few headaches for gearheads. The Firebird was no exception, spanning, budget, mid-range, and the hotter GTA variant.
The more letters it wears the better. GTA spec Firebirds boasted the best of GM/s corporate parts bin. Engines received multi-point fuel injection similar to the Corvettes set-up. Other tweaks included a revised WS6 suspension and brake set-up. It’s a heady mix of performance and style that’s hard to ignore.
6/10 Adore It – McLaren Mustang
How could the Ford McLaren Mustang not be among the most coveted ’80s muscle cars? The name combination along, Ford, McLaren, and Mustang are worth countless bragging opportunities.
Cramming a Fox Body Mustang with race-derived engines was a common practice. Saleen and Shelby both catered to the gearheads’ whims. But, McLaren? Proven racer winners with a reputation second to none have to be the holy grail of collaborations. As good as the McLaren Mustang was, gearheads never took a shine to it. We suspect the 2.3-liter front-mid mounted engine has a lot to do with it.
5/10 Walk Away – Chevrolet Camaro
Near identical to the Firebird above, the Camaro had the potential for affordable performance. But, if it doesn’t have a “Z” in its name, gearheads should walk away.
Without Z/28 or IROC-Z trim levels, the Camaro is a huge disappointment. Dumbing down the range for more sales, Chevrolet first slipped up with the Iron Duke motor. Recognizing four cylinders wasn’t going to cut it, GM upped the ante with a 2.8-liter V6 cranking out 135 hp. However, the gains barely squeezed the Camaro under 10-seconds to 60 mph.
4/10 Walk Away – Oldsmobile 442
As resurrection projects go, the Oldsmobile 442 had the potential to be a serious muscle car. Yet, somewhere along the way, GM’s bean counters weighed up the costs versus profits and got their own way. The Oldsmobile did return, only heavier and slower.
Unlike its predecessors, the 442 didn’t deliver tire smoking thrills gearheads craved. In part, this was due to a heavier Cutlass Salon and later Cutlass Supreme chassis on cost-saving grounds. But, to get to the heart of the problems, you only have to dig around under the hood. Throughout its revival, the 442 kept its dated Rocket-derived 5.0-liter LG8 engine with a paltry 170 hp.
3/10 Walk Away – Chevrolet Citation X-11
An unmitigated disaster from the outset, Chevrolet’s Citation ranks up there with the worst cars of all time. In a misguided attempt to boost credibility, Chevrolet added a few misplaced muscles.
In doing so, the Citation gained a hood bulge hinting at a bigger engine and more horsepower. While this proved to be positive using a 2.8-liter V6 cranking out 135 hp the X-11 was stuck in a performance rut. Even this engine upgrade could only yield 9-second 0-60 mph time by the end of production.
2/10 Walk Away – Chevrolet Corvette C3 (1982)
If muscle car success is due to looks alone, the C3 Corvette would come up trumps every day. Sadly, for Chevrolet, the 1982 Corvette’s muscles had long since evaporated.
The Corvette’s woes came about during the ’70s with ever stricter SMOG emissions laws. By 1982, the 5.7-liter V8 engine fitted out with Cross-Fire injection sank further into the abyss. At best, with 200 hp on tap, gearheads reported a 0-60 mph time of 8.2-seconds.
1/10 Walk Away – Dodge Challenger
With good intentions, Dodge resurrected their Challenger in 1978. Only the iconic muscle name remained, flogging a dead horse until 1983. The Second generation car was a simple rebranding exercise designed by Mitsubishi.
Under any other model name, we could have forgiven Dodge executive’s cost-saving plan. But, sinking so low to mar the Challengers’ muscle car reputation was unforgivable. In place of V8s, buyers had a choice of four-cylinder engines peaking at 105 hp. Muscle car fans should walk away from this one.