Enthusiasts are constantly on the hunt for the best classic rides you can get your hands on for a reasonable price. And who can blame us, as the classic car market continues to suggest that some bubbles may never actually burst? Of course, classic car investing isn’t an exact science, or else everyone would be doing it. But if you’re looking for the best combination of affordability, performance and personality without sacrificing modern tech comforts and old-school simplicity, the cars of the ‘80s and ‘90s are calling, grasshopper.
Specifically, the period from roughly 1985 to 1995. Horsepower figures from the era won’t blow anyone’s socks off these days — but that’s never really been the point, has it? During that era, American automakers were busy making up for the shortcomings (or trying to) of the Malaise era, Japanese brands were riding a wave of cash towards their peak years and the Germans were doing what they always do: making great cars. The Italians, Swedes and Brits were also getting in on the fun, churning out some of the best-loved models these companies ever produced.
Don’t get me wrong: there was a lot of crap produced in this era, especially here in America. But the highlights are impossible to ignore, so let’s take a trip down memory lane.
The ’80s and ’90s saw traditional muscle cars take new forms, an unexpected contender become king of the quarter-mile overnight, and some sought-after SUVs take on new identities and capability.
Ford’s underpowered “Fox Body” Mustang has been a favorite of tuners and drag strip amateurs for decades, and they’re still pretty darn cheap. The 1987-1993 version, also the last of its kind, featured the venerable 5.0-liter (really 4.9-liter) V8 which made 225 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque — small numbers these days but easily pushed higher with some simple modifications. Here’s a single-owner 20,000-mile Mustang GT coupe for just $12,000. Cheap drop-top speed, thy name is Fox Body.
1987 Buick GNX
Want the true ’80s muscle car king of the hill? You won’t find it from Ford, Chevy, Dodge or Pontiac. Nope, the decade’s most powerful, most kickass drag strip monster was a Buick. Specifically, the 1987 Buick GNX, which came in any color you wanted, so long as it was black. Nicknamed “Darth Vader” by die-hard enthusiasts, 547 examples of this blacked-out, turbocharged 1987 Regal Grand National were sent off to McLaren — yes, that McLaren — for some serious tuning, and returned with 300 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque from the boosted 3.8-liter V6.
That was good for a 0-60 mph time of 4.6 seconds, almost half a second faster than the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 911 Turbo of its day. It also boasted a faster quarter-mile time than those two European legends, setting it in 12.7 seconds at 113.1 mph. That’s seriously fast, even by today’s standards, and was only bested by Chevy’s own Corvette ZR1 on its own soil. The lone GNX available to buy outright on Hemmings is sitting at a cool $123,500, which is completely insane — but you can have a similarly badass, albeit less powerful, Grand National from the same year like this one for a fraction of the cost.
Jeep Cherokee, Grand Wagoneer and Wrangler
Boxy muscle cars not your style? How about some of the most beloved Jeep models ever made? Both the Jeep Cherokee XJ and Grand Wagoneer were either born or totally revamped in the mid-1980s, and remain some of the most sought-after SUVs amongst both classic car fans and serious off-roaders. The fan-favorite CJ7 (later dubbed Wrangler) also reached its last and best year in 1985, with 80s-tacular variants like this Renegade before going all square-headlight with the YJ model in 1986 until 1995. If you’re not a round-headlight purist, you can get some very clean, very capable examples of the YJ for a serious discount.
Supra. RX-7. NSX. Samurai. 4Runner. These were all born or heavily improved from 1985 to 1995. Need I say more? Japan was riding an economic boom in the 1980s, boasting four percent average annual GDP growth. Without boring you with an economics lesson, that means that Japanese companies were exporting more than ever, and had lots of cash to play around with. So, thankfully for us all, they decided to have some fun with it. And all of these are U.S.-market examples. There’s a whole new world of Japanese performance now opening up thanks to cars from the era becoming eligible for import to the U.S., as we’ve covered extensively.
The rear-wheel-drive Toyota Celica gained a Supra variant, then the Supra spun off on its own, got two turbochargers to play with, and had a final act as the legendary Mark IV in 1994. That’s why “Supra” is often the first and last name in Japanese performance, and why so many people are so excited that a new one is finally coming around. While Mark IV prices are skyrocketing, you can have a clean Mark II…
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