Haven’t you heard the exciting news? There’s a new Corvette out this year! Cadillac is building convertibles again! The VW Vanagon has a water-cooled engine! Oldsmobile is offering some kind of voice warning doohickey and the FIRENZA HAS NEW TRIM OPTIONS!1!!11! All with interest rates hovering just under 13%! It’s 1984, and I just can’t wait to check out the goods at the auto show.
My mother volunteers at a local charity that provides needy families with household items. Her job involves separating and sorting useful donations from not-so-useful ones: broken glass, dead appliances, and in this case, old newspapers. She gifted me a piece of the long-defunct Columbus Citizen-Journal which previewed the upcoming attractions at the city’s 1984 auto show. I eagerly awaited page after page of achingly desirable machines, available for a pittance, indicative of a prosperity and degree of freedom that my Internet-addled generation could never hope to know.
Olds, Pontiac, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Ford, Dodge, and Honda products are all given the puff treatment here, alongside a plethora of ads. Curiously, no Buick, VW, Toyota, Subaru, or any other import marque is included in the paper’s formal writeups. Limited column space, perhaps? On the front page, there’s a marketshare breakdown for 1983: Ford had 17.1 percent, GM had 44.4 Chrysler had 10.3, and AMC 2.5. Imports made up a combined 25.7 percent, with the Japanese holding more than four-fifths of that total. In the whole American market, things have changed dramatically. In the Midwest? Maybe not so much. But hey, check out those conversion vans!
A four-cylinder, turbocharged Mustang! How oddly familiar. The EXP serves as a reminder that in the 80s, there was still a market for inexpensive 2-seater coupes. Will they ever come back? Considering that two-door coupes not called Camaro or Mustang barely exist anymore, I’m guessing no.
Pontiac’s new “showpiece of engineering” won the sales race in the aforementioned market, but changing tastes ultimately doomed it. Perhaps the Solstice would have sold better under the Fiero nameplate.
The Civic lineup was all-new in 1984, with seven different models sold under the nameplate. You could get the gas-sipping CRX, the sporty Si hatch, a five-door wagon, and several others. The EPA rating of 67 on the highway for the CRX was undoubtedly optimistic, but real-world mileage still proved stellar. Before the pointless economy-car horsepower wars, you got 60 horsepower out of the 1.3 liter base engine in the Civic. If you were feeling adventurous, you could get the 1.5 liter with its awesome 76 horsepower. Slow? Yes. Tuned for actually saving gas? Absolutely. Tongues will wag and say that safety regs killed light, simple cars like the CRX, but in a world where the Fiat 500 and the Chevy Spark both exist, I’m not buying it. Size creep was already making its presence felt in the mid-80s. As the column points out, the 1984 Civic sedan was 5.2 inches longer than the ’83. Check out the Subaru ad too. In the current era of pseudo-premium everything, would any car company ever dare to describe their product as “inexpensive?”
The most important new car of the 1984 season was the Plymouth Voyager/Dodge Grand Caravan. Like it or not, this is the vehicle that truly spawned the SUV/CUV revolution. It showed millions of middle-class families that they could have the kind of voluminous, carry-all interior space previously considered the exclusive domain of commercial vehicles. Their relative cheapness and ease of use made consumers unwilling to tolerate the compromises inherent in traditional sedan-based wagons. True truck-based SUVs didn’t take off until the early 90s, but minivans paved the way long before huge fake dinosaurs were eating people out of Ford Explorers.
A BMW sold on its residual value? Your eyes do not deceive you. Exacting build quality, careful engineering, the latest in technological wizardry (Service warning lights! An MPG computer!) all help you “not only hold onto a significant portion of your wealth- the portion that you keep in the form of a car- but to enjoy yourself tremendously in the process.” Is this even on the same planet as the modern-day lease extravanganza? You needed the retained value if you were going to be paying 12.95% APR on a new car loan, though.
Here’s another bank ad. It might have been morning in America, but credit was still quite tight in 1984. 11.95% sounds like buy-here pay-here level financing today, but in the mid-eighties one needed to have great credit to get these kinds of rates. Apparently 60 month terms weren’t that uncommon thirty years ago.
There aren’t a lot of prices in these ads, but the few that are there are revealing. $9999 for a 1984 Marquis Brougham is $22,430 in today’s money, according to the handy Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. For that, you got a front-drive, midsize sedan powered by a carbeurated 120 horsepower V6, an automatic transmission, and air conditioning. You also got one power seat (part of a split bench), steel wheels with covers, no cassette player, zero airbags, and no ABS. Don’t forget the interest rate.
Maybe used is more your style. Then as now, Budget has plenty of no doubt gently-driven rental cars to offer you. How about an ’83 Sentra for $15,227 in today’s dollars? Hey, at least it has a stereo, four wheels, and “air conditioning!” You could get a Citation for a little less. A V6, automatic ’83 Camaro or a Mercury Cougar would set you back $21,284. Deals! There are more than a few cars from 1984 that I wouldn’t mind owning. The G-body Cutlasses and Regals are still among the best designs of the latter half of the twentieth century. I’d love to have a Civic Si and a Prelude, as well as a Fiero and Shelby Charger. I will own another E30 some day. But 1980s new car prices stir no longing for times gone by in my heart.