Remembering the American muscle of a dying era

AMX, Barracuda, Charger – the 1970s was a golden age for the muscle car. Some of the most collectable cars you can find today come from that era. Although the '70s did indeed usher in some of the best and boldest vehicles in the class, let's talk about muscle cars of the '80s for a minute.

With big shoes to fill, the '80s sort of floundered in the muscle car department. Although efficiency and handing were at the height of everyone's mind thanks to the introduction of sporty Japanese coupes like the Toyota Supra and Mazda RX-7, a few muscle cars survived and lived to tell the tale. 

8. 1986 Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2

1986 Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2

By 1980, the Pontiac Grand Prix had pretty much worn down its welcome in the muscle car segment. A fourth-generation vehicle, it was apparent then that Pontiac was beginning to lose its way. But in 1986, Pontiac’s mostly-forgotten Grand Prix delivered something special – it was called the 2+2. Like its more popular Monte Carlo SS sibling, the Grand Prix 2+2 was a meaner, more muscular version of the standard coupe. It featured a 5.0-liter four-barrel V8, a four-speed automatic and a limited run of only 1,225 vehicles, all of which found homes in 1986 before the model was discontinued in 1987.

7. 1989 Dodge Shelby Dakota

1989 Dodge Shelby Dakota

It wasn't only cars that got in on the muscle car game in the '80s. In 1989 - three years before the famed GMC Cyclone came to market – Dodge and Shelby teamed up to create a high-powered pickup. With an already short wheelbase, the Dodge Dakota seemed like the perfect candidate to go under the knife of famed tuner Carroll Shelby. The 3.9-liter V6 was gutted in place of a 5.2-liter V8, and horsepower sat at a modest 175. Before the GMC Cyclone and Ford F-150 Lightning, the Dodge Shelby Dakota was the fastest muscle truck around. But alas, only 1,475 examples were built - 480 in white and 995 in red. The truck was discontinued in 1990.

6. 1989 Ford Thunderbird SC

1989 Ford Thunderbird SC

You wouldn’t really think of an '80s era Thunderbird as a ‘muscle car’ necessarily. Coming on its 10th generation (!) in 1988, the Thunderbird had severely worn down its welcome in the market. But before it disappeared forever in 1997 (only to be revived again in 2002), Ford made sure to make it interesting at least one last time with the Thunderbird Super Coupe. Although the design of the car was bland, Ford was still putting to use its relatively sporty Fox platform underneath, and a supercharged 3.8-liter V6 sat under the hood that pumped out a respectable 210 horsepower. The Super Coupe was so loved by enthusiasts, in fact, that Motor Trend named it the Car of the Year 1989, even though Ford execs lambasted engineers for building such a terrible thing.

5. 1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

1982 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am

In 1977, Burt Reynolds and his mustache hit the silver screen for the cult classic Smokey and the Bandit. Of course, one of the most memorable parts of that movie was his 1977 Pontiac Trans Am with the flaming chicken hood. But in 1982, Pontiac decided to take its now limelighted Trans Am in a different direction. Both the Firebird and its Camaro cousin got a full overhaul in 1982. Although the Camaro went for the revolution route, Pontiac was a little more subtle with its redesign of the Firebird. The body was smaller, as was the wheelbase, but the overall design remained memorable among enthusiasts. Under the hood was an 8-cylinder engine pushing out somewhere near 150 horsepower. Ironically, the 1982 Firebird starred alongside David Hasselhoff as KITT in the TV show Knight Rider.

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4. 1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

1985 Chevrolet Camaro IROC-Z

While the Pontiac Firebird continued to bask in its movie and TV stardom, the third-generation Camaro had a bit of a different reputation. Affectionately known as a “white trash starter kit,” the 1982 Chevrolet Camaro wasn’t the most popular among enthusiasts. But there was a bright spot. In 1985, Chevrolet introduced the IROC-Z to the lineup. And while it wasn’t the fastest or best-looking in its segment (by far), the IROC-Z overshadowed the competition with its nimble handling and relatively light body. In 1987, Chevrolet offered the IROC in automatic only, which pretty much killed the fun for any enthusiast brave enough to own one.

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3. 1983 Chevy Monte Carlo SS

1983 Chevy Monte Carlo SS

In 1983, after more than 12 years of being off the market, Chevrolet reintroduced the Monte Carlo SS. Which turned out to be a pretty great decision on their part. By 1984 the SS was gaining steam in the world of NASCAR, becoming one of the vehicles of choice for drivers and owners alike. Back in showrooms, Chevrolet was having trouble keeping them on the lots - selling over 24,000 Monte Carlo SS’ in 1984 alone. That 265-horsepower V8 probably had something to do with its success. The Monte Carlo SS lived on until 1988, when Chevrolet discontinued the Monte Carlo lineup...until it was revived again in 1995.

2. 1987 Ford Mustang 5.0

1987 Ford Mustang 5.0

Coming off the utterly terrible Mustang II, Ford wanted to reinvent its mid-range pony car for the 1979 model year. And reinvent they did. A new style, a range of new engines, and a new hope for Mustang enthusiasts everywhere. In 1987, after a few years of reinventing, Ford really sharpened their pencils and delivered a pony car enthusiasts everywhere still drool over to this day. Gone was the “four eyes” front end in place of a more modern design, and the 5.0-liter V8 delivered 225 horsepower, and a respectable 0-60 mph time of 6.3 seconds.

1. 1987 Buick Regal Grand National / GNX

1987 Buick Regal GNX

So far we’ve covered Camaros, Mustangs, and Trans Ams. But if you’re a hardcore muscle car fan, you should have known from the beginning what muscle car would be the best of the '80s - the Buick Regal Grand National and GNX. Introduced in 1987, the top-trim Buick Regal GNX put to use a turbocharged V6 that pumped out an awe-inspiring (at that time) 245 horsepower.

It was the most powerful car in the segment, and could tackle the quarter mile in just 13.2 seconds at 104 mph. It was said to be "the Grand National to end all Grand Nationals." And it was. Only 547 examples of the GNX were produced, and when it died, so did the rest of the Regal performance lineup. Today, if you’re looking to get your hands on an iconic GNX, be ready to spend some serious cash. One recently sold at auction for $163,000. The most expensive Regal ever.

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8 Best Muscle Cars of the '80s