Automotive design follows the fads and pop culture trends of their intended demographic. Much like fashion, art, and entertainment; society shapes what is desired and what is made. For auto designers, it’s a prediction of future tastes in what consumers want in an automobile; they take a “temperature” of the current market, and forecast what people will like in the future. Now, what happens to trends and tastes in the years leading up to production of those cars can change on a whim and ruin an entire project. In turn automotive manufacturers have to decide whether to keep the project and try to sell it (the “lipstick on a pig” approach), or cut their losses on the research and development of that project. Some companies strike gold. The 1964.5 Ford Mustang, the 1990’s Toyota Supra, and the modern Dodge Challenger; all cars that took trends, and exploited them, becoming massively successful in the process. Other cars were not so lucky. The AMC Pacer, the Chevrolet Iron Duke Camaro , and the modernized 2000’s Ford Thunderbird; all had an initial high promise, but after the first year of production, drastically nose dived in popular opinion, and were killed off.
The forces that influence automotive designers don’t necessarily have to come from just the consumers. Government mandates are probably the second largest variable to consider when creating a new car. These are the basic rules and limits that a car has to fit within in order for it to ever have a chance of seeing the streets. Some rather popular examples came in the 1970’s with the introduction of the 5 mph bumper, emission restrictions, and the Oil Embargo of the OPEC nations, which all started right around 1972-1974. This marked the beginning of what the automotive world aptly names the “Malaise Era” of American automobiles. From 1973- 1983 cars were ugly, new technologies such as fuel injection were unreliable, vacuum lines filled the empty spaces around engine bays, and performance was near non-existent. Now, for some credit, if it weren’t for these growing pains in the US auto industry, we may not be as far along in our technology today. However, times were pretty rough during the mid to late seventies when you were searching for a new car to replace the aging, gas-guzzlers from the 1960’s in the garage.
Nearing the tail end of this “malaise” period, cars began their slow climb from the depths of hell to a more promising future. Technologies introduced during the beginning of the 1970’s like fuel injection became more refined and reliable. Advances in modern manufacturing allowed for the use of more materials such as fiberglass, plastics, and other composites in automotive exterior designs and parts. Changes to importation, such as the Voluntary Restraint Agreement made by the Japanese, led to manufacturing within the borders of the US and an increase in “luxury models” that had higher profit margins for the Japanese manufacturers. The industry wasn’t out of the woods yet though. The US was experiencing the Energy Crisis of 1979 which was, in effect, similar to the Oil Embargo for fuel costs as well as the 1980’s recession which lasted until 1982. This is commonly referred to as the point where the Malaise era ends, because of the economic bounce back the US had starting in 1983.
During this time, a flourish in 1980’s advancements for the automotive world bloomed out of the darkness of the Malaise era. Auto companies were trying to sell the idea of “personal luxury” to the people again. Cars were getting exciting once more, sports cars coming from Japan were actually sporty, muscle cars with real muscle, and turbos as far as the eye could see.
Most people are aware of a Japanese automotive scene in the US, referred to as JDM (short for Japanese Domestic Market). The humble beginnings of this subculture can trace its birth on these shores to Gardena, CA during the 70’s and 80’s where owners of popular Japanese cars would congregate in a Japanese retailer parking lot.
Rows of Datsuns, Hondas, and Toyotas would come together, much like our Cars and Coffee events today. But the 1980’s is where the scene flourished. The main reason for its popularity were four common factors that popular cars share; cheap, reliable, and mass market appeal were the 3 smaller factors. The other was style, these cars were coming from the other side of the pacific with very modern appearances compared of that to the USDM. Case in point, the 1982 Toyota Supra. Its iconic wedge shape, squared corners, use of plastic trim and spoilers, looks very modern in comparison to its domestic rivals.
In the 80’s, Datsun rebranded itself in the US and decided they had made enough of a presence that they could finally use their real name, Nissan. There was a two-fold reasoning behind this. The parent company, Nissan, uses Datsun as a “tester brand” for going into new markets, as well as the economy/cheaper brand of vehicles that they sell across the globe. Nissan chose to use the name Datsun in the US, as it was uncharted territory for the Japanese auto manufacturer and if they had botched it in the 60’s and 70’s, their true name of Nissan would not have been tarnished. Now that they had a successful run from the late 1960’s into the early 1980’s, Nissan went through a transformation from Datsun brand cars, to “Datsun by Nissan” labeled on their vehicles, and by 1985 all of their cars were finally badged as Nissan.
Another changing factor in the 80’s was the Voluntary Export Restraint Agreement, which limited the number of Japanese cars traveling to our shores to approximately 1.68 million a year. Japanese auto manufacturers saw that in order to maximize profits, they needed to introduce their home market “luxury” models into the US. I say “luxury” because a comparison of what 1980’s luxury automobiles in Japan were to US luxury cars of the time would be unfair. The same still holds true today. If you compare dollar for dollar what cars in the US feature, compared to the same price in Japan, there are huge gaps in missing amenities in the land of the rising sun. The answer behind this has to do with strict automotive laws in Japan, and much higher taxes that we don’t experience here (This also led to the huge Kei car popularity in Japan, starting in the 1980’s, but that’s another story). What did that mean? The Honda Accords, Nissan Maximas, and the Toyota Camry had comparable or better features than their USDM counterparts, and still remained cheaper, more reliable, and arguably a more modern in design.
The US was not far behind, but slower to grasp the turning of the times. Much of the automobiles for sale from our home country were from three different states: manufacturers were in limp mode in order to save itself from despair (the Chrysler K-cars), platform sharing worse than STDs at a Limp Bizkit concert (GM’s H, J, G, and X body cars), and an identity crisis (Fox Body Mustang drastic change in looks from previous models).
Chrysler was on the verge of bankruptcy at the end of the 1970’s. It had a fleet of large boats with wheels that they were trying to sell as cars, like the Cordoba, and they were failing to compete with their competitors. They sought help of Mr. Mustang himself, Lee Iacocca, to help them turn around. Iacocca was tenacious and went to the US government and secured a $2 Billion dollar loan (the same tactic used recently by other companies near bankruptcy). Iacocca then went forward with the K-car platform. Ugly by today’s standards and definitely not the highest quality, but it single-handedly saved the Chrysler Corporation. In a matter of five years, Chrysler rebounded by selling the K-cars in various models and trim to people at really cheap prices. By the mid-1980’s Chrysler went into a joint venture with Mitsubishi, who was trying to see the same success as their Japanese competitors in the US. This brought us the rebadged Mitsubishi Starion known to us as the Chrysler and Plymouth Laser. Chrysler also went through another partnership deal with purchasing what was left of American Motors and saving the Jeep brand from going down with the ship. They used what was left of AMC to make their Eagle brand, and sold rebadge Mitsubishi Eclipses as the Eagle Talon. Chrysler, though still the smallest of the Big Three in Detroit, was tasting success they hadn’t seen since the 1950’s and 1960’s.
General Motors went into the decade of the 1980’s in similar fashion financially as Chrysler, sans the need for a bailout. However, they used platform sharing like no one else before, by creating a trim level in each brand tied to one platform. The GM X-Body was used to introduce FWD to the brand and housed pretty much all of their economy cars from 1980 to 1985. The J-Body took over for the sedan and compacts market and with the death of the X-Body in 1985. GM’s J-body fruit was squeezed for every last drop, the platform was used until 2005 until its final demise. The G-Body was the old carry over from the 1970’s where GM used the frame for its big body, big engine cars. General Motors decided this platform was where we get to see some excitement in the Buick Grand National. This platform sharing multiplied the effect that the K-Car did for Chrysler. GM sold cars people wanted, all while saving money with badge engineering.
Ford had to save its own image. They went through horrendous problems with the Ford Pinto at the end of the 1970’s, the Mustang II was a complete joke, no matter how many stickers they put on it, and Mercury and Lincoln were as boring as vanilla pudding. At the end of the 1970’s styling was teetering between that of the old 1970’s fake chrome plastic to modern body lines of a new direction. The Ford Fairmont Futura fits this bill where the front half looks like it’s stuck in 1973, and its back half is in 1982. Step in the Fox Body Mustang and the 5.0. The new Mustang was released in 1979 with its shorter wheelbase and shared the same body with the Mercury Capri. Polarizing to Mustang fans at first because it had no shared appearance from the previous model, this car reintroduced athleticism to the brand. In 1982, the 5.0L came back into the brand after its hiatus from the energy crisis, refined and ready to go. Ford even ventured into its first Turbo with the Mercury Capri and Mustang Fox body.
So the 1980’s were where automotive companies redefined themselves. But the 1980’s brought us some much cooler stuff than the K-Car and badge engineering. Auto manufacturers also tried bold, new ways to spruce up their cars.
Digital dashes may be all the rage now, but back throughout the 1980’s it was an option on almost any car, from compact to luxury. Granted these digital dash displays weren’t any more than some LEDs on a circuit board, but back then this was our introduction to the computer age. You could get them with RPM curve graphs showing your power band, speedometers that filled up a bar across your dash, and a display that did a “diagnostic” on your engine every time you started your car (the diagnostic basically checked your oil pressure and coolant temp). Car advertisements stressed how technological advance their cars were becoming, with computers running different parts of the car, glowing dash lights, recorded voices telling you about your car. You didn’t see digital dash boards on any mid-90’s cars, or had some lady in your sound system tell you your door was open. It’s funny how these excess technological devices were such a novelty then, but are desired now. But they had a downside; they broke all the time, were inaccurate, or just got annoying after a while.
Another 1980’s technological advance was the widespread use of turbos. Due to the energy crisis, the introduction of turbos to domestic market allowed for car companies to reduce displacement without reducing power. Japanese auto manufacturers pioneered the technology behind turbos and had them in all of their performance oriented cars during the 1980’s. Domestically, a lot of this came from shared partnerships such as the Chrysler-Mitsubishi partnership mentioned before. Chrysler used turbos from Mitsubishi in its K-cars as well as in the rebadged Mitsu’s from the land of the rising sun. Ford had a 2.0L turbo used in its Fox Body cars. GM sourced a turbo in its T-Type line-up and it’s beautifully American Buick Grand National. The decade went turbo crazy. You could buy turbo sunglasses, turbo drinks, and turbo video.
The 1980’s was a renaissance in automotive production. It may not be the renaissance where everything was as beautiful as an Italian painting, but the successes and struggles our market went through to get out of the Malaise era makes this a pillar of change in our automotive history.
We are starting to see the emersion of the 1980’s classic car, now that the decade is over. Over the past decade, cars from the 1980’s are more of an occurrence lining the parking lots and grass fields of the summer car show; more than before. These cars are starting to strike the nostalgia bone in our Generation X population and I foresee this becoming the next large chunk of classic cars driving across the Barrett-Jackson stage. With the 25 year import law, there is also an emersion of 1980’s foreign classic cars, most notably with Japaneses cars. There are companies who’s entire business is importing foreign cars and retrofitting them with emissions and safety equipment to meet US spec so a customer who wants a 1989 Nissan Skyline, can walk in, purchase it, and take it to register in their state with no hassle. Currently, we are also seeing a price spike in classic and performance cars from the 1980’s. A running condition 1985 Chevy Camaro IROC can go for over $10K today, where ten years ago, a high schooler could of bought one with the earnings from summer job, and still have enough leftover to buy gas and take their girlfriend to the movies. A Buick Regal T-Type, the lesser known Grand National’s brother, used to be bought as the cheap imitation to the GN; now their prices have skyrocketed to where a pristine example sells for near $20K.
Some car people over look the 1980’s because of the gaudy, flashy appearance of cars from that decade, and, to our standards, ancient electronics that cause headaches in the garage. But I think it’s time for another look. Soon the beasts from the 1960’s will be out of reach for purchase or rarity, and even the 1970’s cars may skyrocket in price for the sheer fact they are getting old. The 1980’s may be the most recent bastion for finding affordable classic cars, well at least for now.