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Why you should appreciate performance cars of the 1980s

The decade of excess is not often grouped among the great automotive eras, but it should be. In fact, not only should it be warmly remembered for producing some truly memorable performance machines, it should be regarded quite simply as the single most important period in the history of the automobile.

Seriously? Yeah, seriously.

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How on earth could the 1980s rank as the greatest automotive decade of all time? For crying out loud, this was the era that gave birth to the minivan. And yet, here’s the thing. It’s not the cars per se that made the 1980s such an important automotive decade, but the technological evolution during the period that redefined virtually every aspect of modern life, cars included. Manufacturers were forced to find a new way forward from the emissions and fuel regulations established in the 1970s, and the technological shift that followed altered the course of motoring so drastically that the entire automotive landscape can be boiled down to just two time periods: pre-1980s and post-1980s.

Think of it as analog versus digital—pre-1980’s mechanical systems that were essentially unchanged since the early days of motoring, versus post-1980’s microprocessors that assumed control of those systems in ways no human ever could. The key ingredients found in modern performance cars—advanced engine control units, mainstream forced induction, active suspension systems, traction control and anti-lock braking systems—all came of age during that in-between period of acid washed jeans and glam rock, otherwise known as the 1980s.

Right about now you’re probably expecting a few words on the definitive ‘80’s supercars that led the horsepower resurgence, but they weren’t the driving force behind our current golden age of horsepower. They were global halo cars, technologically impressive but too expensive and too high-strung to have a significant affect on working-class performance. Yes, eventually some of that technology would trickle down; 1980’s supercars were certainly part of the revolution. They just didn’t lead it.

That honor goes to—wait for it—the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. And not just any Trans Am—the turbo model.

Wait, what?

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Before the profanity-laced comments start flying, you should know there’s no better example of how technology evolved the automobile through the 1980s—at least from a performance standpoint—than the Trans Am. In 1980, this once-mighty muscle car made just 210 theoretical horsepower, courtesy of a turbocharged 4.9-liter V-8 that was, for lack of a better word, crap. It was an early forced-induction effort from GM that was both inefficient and unreliable, but with the strict emission regulations of the time, there was little else to be done. Manufacturers were trying to figure out how to use new technology to make cars fast again. Not every attempt was a success.

As we all know, things gradually improved as the decade progressed. But the Trans Am is our chosen hero because it began the 1980s as an epic fail, then closed out the decade not just as the domestic king of performance, but as one of the quickest cars in the world. In 1989, the Turbo Trans Am was jumping to 60 in 5 seconds and turning low 13-second passes in the quarter mile. Throughout the entire Trans Am lineage, only the 1998-2002 WS6 variant was faster, and even then we’re only talking by a couple tenths. That’s not bad, considering Pontiac’s first turbocharged attempt 9 years prior was the slowest Trans Am of all time.

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That’s only part of the story. What’s more important here is that GM didn’t accomplish this feat through engine displacement, but through technology. Powering the 1989 Turbo Trans Am was a slightly reworked version of the 3.8-liter turbocharged V-6 borrowed from the legendary 1987 Buick GNX. Conservatively rated at 250 horsepower, actual output was closer to 300.

So why choose the Trans Am over Darth Vader’s sinister Buick? Credit certainly goes to both cars for revolutionizing performance through the 1980s, but whereas Buick closed out the decade as a brand of front-wheel drive rental cars, Pontiac held the gear head-approved performance layout of front-engine, rear-drive. That’s significant, because manufacturers were trending heavily towards front-wheel drive platforms across all model lines during this time.

Chrysler was there by the end of the decade, and Ford was preparing to drop the Mustang in favor of its new “modern” front-wheel drive performance car, the Probe GT. A massive write-in campaign is credited with saving the Stallion, but Blue Oval execs certainly had an eye on the cross-town competition. If GM had morphed the Trans Am to a front-wheel drive platform, our 2015 lineup of performance machines could look very different. Instead, GM stuck with the Trans Am through its dark days, choosing rear-wheel drive and excessive horsepower at a critical juncture in automotive history.

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So at the very least, we owe the Trans Am a beer. What the heck, let’s pour out a round for all the unsung horsepower heroes of the 1980s. They deserve our attention, our appreciation, our passion, and our respect.

Categories: Gear Grinding

Calvin Escobar
About Calvin Escobar

The Car scene is so diverse Where I come from, most enthusiasts recognize the amazing engineering (particularly the engines). The bulk of the ridicule originates from the manner in which many of the vehicles are modded/maintained. Thus, the jokes and or hate tends to be aimed more at the owner rather than the machine. All of which makes seeing properly sorted old Toyota's and Hondas at car meets, auto shows, and track days all the more refreshing.