In the whirlwind of automotive evolution, the 1980s emerged as a pivotal decade, a veritable rollercoaster in the world of cars. This era witnessed the transformation from the colossal, rear-wheel-drive behemoths to their sleeker, more efficient front-wheel-drive counterparts, all thanks to the magic of fuel injection. The 1980s wasn’t just about change; it was about extremes in the automotive realm. For every groundbreaking model that hit the streets, there was a clunker that made us cringe. Let me take you on a ride through the 1980s – the decade that served up some of the most iconic and, admittedly, some of the most horrendous vehicles ever. Hold onto your hats, because here comes the rundown of the 1980s’ worst offenders in the car world.
1980 General Motors X-Cars
1980 was a pivotal year for General Motors with its X-Cars, the embodiment of a revolution within the automobile giant. The Chevrolet Citation, Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Omega, and Pontiac Phoenix, were the knights of the dawn of a new era at GM, an era marked by the promise of technological progress. However, the reality was cruel: these models accumulated a series of disappointing technical failures. Despite GM’s expertise in front-wheel drive, acquired since the 1960s with iconic models like the Cadillac Eldorado and Olds Toronado, the X-Cars suffered from cascading problems – poor welds, failing transmissions, engines vibrating and unstable structures. Their biggest failure? The brakes, whose failures have led to tragic accidents. GM found itself besieged by bad press and legal proceedings, while these cars were engulfed in a deluge of criticism. By 1980, more than a million buyers were catapulted into this whirlwind of disaster. GM had to react quickly and eventually managed to salvage some technical elements to integrate them into its mid-range A-bodies models, such as the Chevrolet Celebrity, Olds Cutlass Ciera, Pontiac 6000 and Buick Century, as well as in the Pontiac Fiero. But the X-Cars will go down in history as the flops of the ’80s, accelerating the decline of GM’s market share, a fall that continues to this day.
1980 Lada Riva / Nova / Signet
Imagine a vehicle designed by Fiat, deemed too archaic and mediocre even for the Italians – here was the Lada, the brainchild of Soviet manufacturer Volzhsky Avtomobilny Zavod, a name that could be translated as “Bureau of Automobile Distress”. This car was the perfect embodiment for a people for whom going home after four hours in a bread queue, without being interrogated by the KGB or exiled to Siberia, was considered a good day. This little red terror never reached the United States, but it came dangerously close, being marketed in Europe and even Canada. In the UK, where the Riva was the cheapest car available, the importer had to invest an average of 15% of the selling price to bring it up to British quality standards, a notion that seemed almost non-existent. In 2001, the Riva underwent a crash test and scored zero stars. Amazingly, this torture chamber on wheels remained in production until 2012.
1981 Chrysler Imperial
For car enthusiasts, the 1981 Chrysler Imperial stands as a testament to ambitious but flawed automotive engineering. Branded by Chrysler as “an electronic marvel,” this car was a bold yet troubled foray into high-tech luxury. At its heart lay a digital dashboard and electronic fuel injection system, both pioneering yet plagued with reliability issues. The Imperial’s distinct bustle-back styling was a nod to classic design, yet it concealed its modest origins as a Dodge Aspen, beefed up with heavier sheetmetal. This extra weight burdened its 318 cid (5.2-liter) V-8 engine, already struggling under stringent emissions controls. The Imperial’s hefty price tag of $18,000 was a significant leap from the more reliable Cadillac Coupe deVille. Even the star power of Frank Sinatra, who endorsed the car with a special package, couldn’t save it from its fate. With fewer than 11,000 units sold over three years, it was a commercial flop. However, it’s a fascinating piece of automotive history, illustrating the perilous balance between innovation and practicality in car design.
1981 DeLorean DMC-12
1981 DeLorean DMC-12 – Ah, the DeLorean DMC-12! With its iconic gullwing doors and gleaming stainless steel exterior, it ignited the fervor of automotive enthusiasts long before its legendary appearance in Back to the Future. However, only those unfortunate few who actually owned one truly understood the depths of its disappointment. The feeble 3.9-liter V-6 engine could muster only a meager 130 hp, which was merely a fraction of what was necessary for any semblance of respectable performance. The build quality? Abysmal. The British government had poured millions into the project, demanding that the factory be established in Northern Ireland, conveniently omitting the fact that the locals had no idea how to build cars. Early buyers forked out thousands over the astronomical $25,000 price tag (equivalent to roughly $70,000 today), only to realize the car’s abysmal reality. By the time the world grasped the extent of its awfulness, John Z. DeLorean was stuck with thousands of unsellable vehicles. In a desperate turn of events in 1982, with the U.K. refusing further financial support, DeLorean ventured into a cocaine-trafficking scheme, leading to his arrest and subsequent acquittal. DeLorean Motor Company met its demise in 1982, and the last remnants of these cars reached the United States, labeled as 1983 models.
1982 Cadillac Cimarron
In the passionate world of automobiles, let’s take a spin back to 1982 and meet the infamous 1982 Cadillac Cimarron. It’s hard to fathom that Cadillac, with all its prestige, believed it could go head-to-head with the likes of the BMW 320i and Audi 4000 using a rebadged Chevrolet Cavalier. But believe it or not, they went ahead with it!
The Cimarron’s birth was shrouded in controversy from the start. The J-car platform it was based on was never meant to be a Cadillac. It was a rushed decision, made four years into the J-car’s development, driven by dealers who saw the success of the compact Seville and demanded something even smaller to take on the imports.
Picture this: there was barely any time to squeeze in a different engine; they had to make do with the underwhelming four-cylinder from the Cavalier. Suspension engineers were handed a mere week to work their magic on the Cimarron’s ride and handling, which was far from ideal.
Car enthusiasts scratched their heads at this golden runt. Magazines tried to put on a brave face, praising its compact dimensions while turning a blind eye to what was glaringly obvious to even the most car-agnostic individuals – Cadillacs should be large, opulent vehicles, not budget-friendly, slow economy cars with over-the-top leather seats.
What’s truly astonishing is that Cadillac allowed this automotive horror show to linger on stage until 1988. That’s right, it took them six long years to pull the plug on what can only be described as one of the worst cars of the entire 1980s. The Cimarron didn’t single-handedly tarnish Cadillac’s image – the brand had been firing a Gatling gun at its own foot for years – but it certainly inflicted some of the most severe wounds.
1982 Renault Fuego
In 1982, Renault’s partnership with American Motors Corporation had filled its corporate brain with delusions of adequacy, and it brought the stylish Fuego (Spanish for “fire”) to America as its resident sports car. But, alas, there was a problem: the American expectation for sports cars is all about sportiness, and the Fuego fell short in this regard. Its soft springs, over-boosted steering, and easy-chair seats didn’t quite fit the bill. The base engine, in particular, was comically slow, and even the 107-hp turbo version felt feeble, taking over 10 seconds to reach 60 mph. Renault tried to address this in ’84 by enlarging the base engine, but it only made the turbo version seem pointless. Adding to the misery were issues like abysmal build quality and a shortage of available parts.
Meanwhile, Americans had other options in the form of competent front-wheel-drive coupes from Germany and Japan. Even half-hearted attempts like the Ford EXP and Dodge Omni 024 seemed like passable sports cars when compared to the Fuego. Finally, Renault got the hint, and the Fuego burned out after 1985.
1983 Alfa-Romeo Arna
In the automotive realm of 1983, a peculiar collaboration was forged between Alfa-Romeo and Nissan, giving birth to the enigmatic Alfa-Romeo Arna. Donning an acronym for a name, this curious creation was destined to leave an indelible mark on the automotive world, albeit not for the reasons one might expect. Drawing inspiration from a distant relative, the Nissan Sentra, the Arna boasted Alfa-Romeo’s mastery in crafting powertrains, front suspensions, and steering systems. The stage was set for greatness, or so it seemed. However, beneath its unassuming exterior lurked a disappointing reality – the Arna’s handling prowess was as lackluster as its witness-protection-program-inspired styling.
While many dismissed it as a mere rebadged Nissan, they couldn’t have been more mistaken. The Arna, for all its quirks, embodied the very essence of Alfa-Romeo’s renowned traits. It had an uncanny ability to shed parts like dandruff, exhibited an unbridled enthusiasm for breaking down, and rusted at an astonishing rate, keeping in tune with the speed of sound. In 1987, Fiat came to the rescue of a beleaguered Alfa, and the first decree was clear – the Arna’s journey must come to an end. When Fiat decrees that a car is too wretched to endure, you can be certain it’s one of the most lamentable creations ever to grace the roads.
1983 Chrysler Executive
In the heady days of Chrysler’s triumphant revival, Lee Iacocca and his intrepid crew were hell-bent on proving that the mighty K-Car could conquer any challenge, even if it meant donning the garb of a luxurious limousine. They took the bold step of elongating the Chrysler LeBaron’s wheelbase and infusing it with an extra dose of steel, because, by golly, what that 2.6-liter engine needed was a bit more heft to carry around!
Behold, Chrysler unleashed not one, but two magnificent variants – the Executive Sedan and the sprawling Executive Limousine, the latter boasting the capacity to accommodate a grand total of seven souls, provided six were willing to exit the vehicle and lend their might in pushing it up inclines of all kinds. The audacity of it all!
But alas, dear Chrysler, fate had other plans in store. The economic engines roared to life, ascending skyward like a majestic rocket ship, as Wall Street churned out millionaires at a pace rivaling rabbits in their prolific reproduction. In this era of opulence and excess, no one of import wished to be seen traversing the city streets in a pint-sized limousine, for it cried out to the world in unmistakable terms: “Behold, I am but a hapless CEO of dubious stature!”
Oh, the trials and tribulations of the 1983 Chrysler Executive, a testament to automotive ambition and the relentless pursuit of distinction in a world that cared not for subtlety nor humility!
1983 AMC-Renault Alliance/Encore
Ah, the 1983 AMC-Renault Alliance/Encore, a true symbol of transatlantic collaboration! When Renault teamed up with AMC, it was like a turbocharger boosting a struggling American automotive legend. Their aim? To conquer the U.S. market. And boy, did they rev their engines with ambition! The stage was set at AMC’s Kenosha factory in Wisconsin, a place where automotive dreams were to be forged. Enter the Renault 9, quickly followed by its sibling, the 11. Rebranded as the Alliance and Encore for the American streets, these cars were more than just metal and rubber; they were a blend of French flair and American muscle.
Sure, you might say AMC’s build quality was only a notch above Renault’s – like comparing a sputtering carburetor to a leaky oil pan. But let’s shift gears to the real deal: these machines were spirited underdogs. They might have been assembled with a shrug rather than a precision torque wrench, and sure, they weren’t the fastest on the track, boasting an engine with less kick than a sleepy mule. But, oh, how they glided around corners! With a price tag of just $5,595, these European-inspired beauties were a steal.
Just as they started to hit their stride, though, the plot twisted. The American economy picked up speed, and suddenly, compact, budget-friendly cars were left in the dust. Back in France, Renault was floundering, and AMC? It became an anchor dragging them down. In a dramatic pit stop, Renault passed the baton to Chrysler in 1987. Chrysler, with a masterstroke, ditched the petite French cars, instead turbocharging the Jeep brand into an off-roading, cash-generating juggernaut.
1984 Ford Bronco II
In the exhilarating era of SUVs, Ford unleashed the Bronco II, a robust, half-size off-road warrior born from the new Ranger pickup’s DNA. Despite the shadow of the Pinto’s legacy, Ford bravely roared into production with the Bronco II. Yet, it was a wild ride – the Bronco II had a notorious knack for flipping over, sparking a storm of rollovers, tragic accidents, and lawsuits. Ford stood its ground, claiming any vehicle could meet its fate in reckless hands. However, the Bronco II seemed to be a magnet for thrill-seekers, its crash-and-death rate skyrocketing. So much so, that insurance titan Geico wouldn’t touch it. The cost? A staggering $2.5 billion in settlements for Ford. In 1990, the Bronco II was retired, making way for its successor, the Explorer – a name that would soon ride into its own turbulent tempest.