Muscle Car Classics of the ’80s… Get ‘Em While You Still Can (Afford ‘Em)

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Back around 1980, the now-legendary, much-coveted and Big Bucks muscle cars of the 1960s and early 1970s were just tired old cars; common sights at seedy used car lots – and still well-within the budget of speed-hungry teenagers. I know because I lived it. A friend of mine bought a ’71 GTX 440 – a running, “all-there” car – for $2,200. Other friends had early Camaros, SS Chevelles, big block Mustangs. These were owned by high school kids working french fry jobs on the weekends. Damn, we were lucky!  

Fast-forward to the present. Cars like these have become rare and collectible Rich Old Men’s toys – $30,000 and up in most cases, with especially desirable models such as 289 Hi-Po or Shelby Mustangs (GT350 and GT500s), early GTOs,  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) ‘Cudas and Hemi Challengers selling for six figures. Or even more. 

Those who were smart (or just stupid lucky) bought when these amazing cars were still someone else’s second-hand gas pigs or redneck lawn decor – not today’s high-dollar “investments.”

Lesson: 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 absolute shit cars that any of us who were there to experience try hard to forget.

But by the time RR was saddling up for his re-election bid things were beginning to look better. Style – and increasingly, performance – was making  comeback.

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). Also the turbo 2.3 liter ’84-’85 Ford SVO Mustang – a four cylinder brain smasher 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 16×7-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 that (plus the fact that they’re just cool cars) ought to assure that they  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, mid-sized, 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 ijection 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 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 maybe the most famous muscle car of the ’80s –  the Buick Regal T-Type and the sinister-looking Regal Grand National. 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 an advertised (but notoriously under-rated)  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 serious 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 GNX models. Regular Grand Nationals were shipped from the Assembly line to ASC/McLaren – a specialty tuner shop – and fitted with a larger turbocharger that featured a low-drag impeller, plus a new Garrett intercooler and revised low-backpressure exhaust system – all of which helped 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  350 advertised hp 2003 Corvette), the official advertised horsepower rating of 270 was about as honest as GW Bush’s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. 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 “5.0” 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 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 Oh” ‘Stangs that it is still a simple matter to locate a nice used one today for less than $5,000. Since Ford retired the 302 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 Batmobile-styled ’93-up “fourth generation” cars that were cancelled by General Motors in 2002 – 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 still just old cars – cheap cars –  today. Just like the classic muscle cars of the ’60s and ’70s once were. You can find decent drivers in the classified ads for not much more than you’d pay for a well-worn Corolla  – exceptions being the Grand National, the GNX and the GMC Typhoon and Syclone, which are already unaffordable and have been for years. The thing to know is that the rest of them are going to follow suit.  As interest in ’80s-era muscle grows – and attrition decreases the supply of  survivors –  they’ll become increasingly harder to find. And more expensive, too.

So, don’t wait too long to make a move – or you might be waiting a long time to get behind the wheel of a late-model classic!

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12 COMMENTS

  1. Some great cars have been mentioned but, lets not forget the turbo Mopars and the Shelby Dodges from 1984 -93. Honda gets a lot of credit for cars like the Integra, Prelude Si and the CRX Si but the truth of the matter is Chrysler and Carroll Shelby beat them all to market by a good 3 or 4 years. Plus none of those Hondas could run with the Turbo Mopars of the era much less the V6’s and V8’s.

    • Hi Ken,

      I remember cars like the Omni GLH-S! Their chief deficit was the same as the later Neon SRT-4’s: They didn’t hold up well over time. The Hondas did.

  2. I remember getting my license and my dad bought a 72 Monte Carlo for the rock bottom price of $500. It had a 402 big block in it and would be worth a fortune now. After high school, I bought a 73 Charger SE for $1,000 and wound up selling it for $400 at auction after getting married. I miss that car. Dad bought a 87 SS Monte Carlo brand new in 86 and I loved that car. So much, I bought a wrecked 81 Cutlass Calais in 88, which in 81 was basically the same handling package, but a WEAK 260 V-8. I totalled in in 95. All these years have passed, but I still waxed nostalgic on these cars and when I saw on e-bay a 86 Olds 442 with T-tops and the whole 9 yards and I wound up winning it for $2,500. I see that some examples of these are already starting to hit $15,000 or more. I am hoping the more rare Cutlass 442 will be good for my investment.

    • Hi Chris,

      Great cars! I remember the ’80s-era intermediates very well. I can recall going car shopping with my parents at the local Olds dealer. They bought a ’98, but there was a brand-new Hurst Olds (with the Lightning Rod shifters) on the showroom floor… had the Olds 307, too – last of the Oldsmobile V-8s….

  3. I had a 1982 Mustang GT with the manual transmission in high school in 1994-1996. I paid $1900 for it. It was a dog at the time with only 150 hp. I remember getting smoked by Jeep Cherokees and new (at the time) mini vans. My friends and my brother and I completely trashed it with sledge hammers and spray paint right before I went off to basic training, but now, I wish I still had that car. It was in great condition when I bought it!

    • Hi Rick,

      Yup!

      And with a little work, that 2 barrel 302 could have made real power – in a car that was light and had all the essentials to be a great street machine.

      I think we all have a story like that….

  4. hey what do you think of the 84 olds cutlass supreme with the v6 i got a decent 1 for 600 and am thinking of dropping a 350 into her

  5. Must be ahead of the curve. Some new folks bought a property adjcent to my shop. I hooked them up with a scrap guy to help clear the property. They GAVE me an 88 T bird Turbo Coupe. Haven’t done a thing with it yet, but spring time is coming.

    • Great car! I remember them well; Ford had a great ad campaign for them, too. I’ll see if I can dig up a vid and will post it here if I do…

    • You forgot to mention the 1984-92 Lincoln Mark 7 LSC that introduced 4 wheel anit-lock disc brakes months before the Corvette did and like the other Regan Era Muscle cars these were also desierable. Not to mention that you could fit many components from the Mustang 5.0 engine. P.S they are still pretty easu to find

      • anti-lock brakes first appeared in the 1970s, then vanished for awhile and reappeared in the 80s. Most likely the electronics hardware in the 1970s wasn’t quite reliable and cheap enough.

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