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15 Most Iconic Vehicles from the ’80s

In the 1980s, the American auto industry experienced significant changes, with muscle cars giving way to a new era of innovation. We saw better engine controls and improved safety features that reshaped car design. Also, fuel injection replaced carburetors, and the Audi Quattro introduced all-wheel drive. Like the boxy DeLorean DMC-12, these 15 iconic vehicles …
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In the 1980s, the American auto industry experienced significant changes, with muscle cars giving way to a new era of innovation. We saw better engine controls and improved safety features that reshaped car design. Also, fuel injection replaced carburetors, and the Audi Quattro introduced all-wheel drive. Like the boxy DeLorean DMC-12, these 15 iconic vehicles ruled the ’80s and defined the industry’s future.

Ford Escort XR3 (1980-1986)

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The Escort XR3 was the sporty variant of the popular Ford Escort hatchback. Although it wasn’t a full-blown muscle car, it performed well enough as a compact vehicle. Early models came with a 1.6-liter carburetor engine generating around 96 HP, later upgraded to a fuel-injected version with 105 HP. Regarding looks, it had front fog lights, a rear spoiler, and body moldings that set it apart from the standard Escort.

Vauxhall Astra GTE 16v (1988-1991)

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This was the pinnacle of the Astra GTE line. It had significant features like a digital dashboard and a Cosworth-developed 16-valve 2.0-liter engine, pumping out 150 HP. Combined with its lightweight, it had a thrilling acceleration and a top speed exceeding 130 mph, making it one of the fastest hatches of its ’80s.

Pontiac Trans Am (1982-1992)

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It is the legendary high-performance variant of the Pontiac Firebird, known for its aggressive styling and powerful engines. Pontiac built this model to compete against other muscle cars in the market, including the Chevrolet Camaro and the Ford Mustang. It had a sleek, aerodynamic design, distinctive pop-up headlights, and removable T-Tops roof panels.

Toyota MR2 (1984-1989)

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The Toyota MR2 was a line of two-seater, mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive affordable, lightweight, and exciting sports cars. Unlike most rear-wheel-drive sports cars, the MR2 placed the 1.6-liter engine in the middle of the car, behind the driver and passenger compartment. This layout improved its weight distribution and handling.

Ford Sierra Cosworth (1986-1992)

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It started as an ordinary family car but became a homologation special when Ford partnered with motorsport specialists Cosworth. They created it as a road-legal version of a race car meant to dominate Group A racing in Europe. Thanks to their partners, it had a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four engine that could deliver 204 HP.

BMW M5 (E28) (1984-1988)

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BMW’s Motorsport division, M GmbH, took the chassis of a 535i sedan and added the detuned version of the legendary S38 straight-six engine to create the M5 (E28). Besides infusing an engine producing around 256 HP, they also upgraded the suspension, steering, brakes, and interior. 

Porsche 959 (1986-1993)

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The 959’s story began when Porsche wanted to dominate Group B rally racing. Since the racing class had minimal regulations, manufacturers could create powerful and technologically advanced cars. Unfortunately, Group B was canceled after several deadly crashes in 1986. Then, Porsche decided to homologate their nearly race-ready vehicle for road use, creating the 959 we know today. Thanks to its roots, it had a twin-turbocharged flat-six engine producing 450 HP.

Ferrari F40 (1987-1992)

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The F40 was a birthday present designed by the legendary Pininfarina to celebrate the carmaker’s 40th anniversary. Since Ferrari chose performance over comfort, it had spartan gauges, a bare-bones center console, and lightweight bucket seats. The F40 also had a powerful 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine that could cover 200 mph with a thrilling 471 HP.

Ford Capri 2.8 Injection (1982-1986)

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The feature that made the Capri 2.8 achieve iconic status is the 2.8 Injection was its fuel-injected 2.8-liter V6 engine. This upgrade over the standard carburetor-fed engines increased the horsepower from 150 to 160, depending on the market. It also had improved performance and better fuel efficiency.

Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.3-16 (1983-1988)

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The 190E 2.3-16 started life as a luxury sedan, but Mercedes-Benz partnered with Cosworth to create a homologation special. The motorsport engineering company developed a 2.3-liter, 16-valve engine producing around 180 horsepower. Then, they fitted it with the latest suspension components, a limited-slip differential, and wider wheels, defying expectations of a luxury sedan.

Audi quattro (1981-1990)

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The Audi Quattro turned Audi into a brand synonymous with all-wheel drive (AWD) performance. It was a novelty when they added the system to the car. The Quattro debuted in 1980 and dominated the World Rally Championship due to its superior traction in all weather conditions. Then, the rallying changed its rules to accommodate four-wheel-drive, and many other carmakers followed Audi’s steps.

Alfa Romeo 164 3.0 V6 (1987-1998)

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The Italian 164 marked Alfa Romeo’s entry into the large luxury sedan market. It had a spacious, comfortable interior with premium materials like leather upholstery and wood trim. It also had features like automatic climate control, power windows, and a sunroof that enhanced its stylish look.

DMC De Lorean (1981-1982)

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This vehicle was the only car produced by the DeLorean Motor Company (DMC), founded by John DeLorean, a former General Motors executive. He recruited the services of famed Italian automotive designer Giorgetto Giugiaro to help with its design. Despite its sleek and futuristic design and gull-wing doors, the model had a short lifespan due to delays, cost overruns, quality control, and other issues.

Ferrari 288 GTO (1984-1987)

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Although the Ferrari 288 GTO is usually confused with the earlier 250 GTO, they’re different models because the former inspired the latter. This exotic homologation special had a powerful 2.8-liter twin-turbocharged V8 engine, unlike the usual naturally-aspirated V12s. The 288 dominated the racetrack due to a 400 HP engine and extensive use of lightweight materials like Kevlar, carbon fiber, and aluminum.

Buick GNX (1986-1987)

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Unlike the standard Grand National, the GNX was a collaboration between Buick and ASC (American Sunroof Company) to create a homologation special—a street-legal version of a race car—without the official racing program. While officially rated at 276 HP, many believe the GNX could deliver 300 HP.