The 1980s: When Worse Was Better

Thomas Kreutzer
by Thomas Kreutzer

With the wife and kids out of the house on Sunday I finally had a little private time. Naturally, I did what a lot of men do when they find themselves home alone – I caught up on the current season of Top Gea r. To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the world’s most popular television program. On the one hand I am generally unimpressed with lengthy reviews of million dollar hyper cars or high end luxury cars, the seats of which my ass will never grace, but I do enjoy the challenges and the occasional look back at cars of the past. Naturally, I was quite taken by this season’s premiere episode, a modern day test of the hot hatches of the 1980s.

For those of you who are too young to remember, the ‘80s was the greatest decade ever. Beginning with the official death of Disco on July 12, 1979 and ending only with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind on September 21, 1991 it was a decade that lasted almost 13 years. That’s astounding! Moreover, blah blah blah, Reagan, blah blah blah, MTV, blah blah blah cellphones the size of bricks instead of the size of a suitcase. Yeah, it was great. We had some things and we did some stuff but the best part was the cars.

In the Top Gear episode, our trio of aging heroes set out to prove that the small, sporty cars of their (our) youth were better than the youth oriented small cars of today. To support their claims, they are each given a small sum of money and are told to bring back an aging hot hatch. Because it’s Britain, the only car I could actually recognize was Jeremy Clarkson’s VW Golf GTI, but all three seemed to be small, “sporty” and, compared to today’s cars, terribly lacking in options or sophistication. They then put these cars through a series of “tests” in that special way that only Top Gear UK can manage and the results are a lot of fun. If you get BBC America, I highly suggest tuning in and watching the fun for yourself.

The episode put me in an introspective sort of mood. I lived through the entirety of the 1980s, actually beginning my first year of high school in the fall of 1979, but I was not a creature of the ‘80s. My tastes ran towards ‘60s muscle cars, ‘70s hard rock and that special sort of Pacific Northwest fashion sense that Nirvana made a grungy part of the ‘90s. Still, by the end of the ‘80s, with the arrival of my own Tuuuuurbo Dodge I had adapted enough that I at least (sort of) fit in.

the 1980s when worse was better

It turns out that, like our Top Gear hosts, I miss those days and I find myself spending a good deal of time looking back at the cars of that era. I have this nascent idea of bothering poor unsuspecting people on Craigslist by posing as a buyer for their old car and then writing articles about my test driving experience, but of course, I have a problem in that, first, I’m not very good at telling lies and, second, cars of that era are a might thin on the ground in the Western New York region. Perhaps I will try this ploy once I relocate to less salty climates but for now I am stuck living in my own memories.

Compared to modern performance cars, the cars of the 1980s are pitiful pieces of machinery. The turbo Dodge I recall so fondly had a peaky turbo, suffered from massive amounts of torque steer, and blew a head gasket at just 90K miles, but it was light, flickable and, punched way above its weight. The 200SX Turbo I lionized at the beginning of my tenure here at TTAC was much better composed than my Shadow and was a speedy little thing but it turns out that it had just 120 horsepower – that’s actually 2 horsepower less than dowdiest little car Nissan makes today, the Cube. I could find other examples too, I am sure, but there is no point in beating a dead horse there is only one right answer to the question at hand. Today’s cars are far, far better in every way.

But the right answer is, I think, wrong. What we had then may have been technically worse, but it was also so much better. In that same way that a modern jet fighter can outperform a P51 Mustang the new cars have it all over the old ones, but ask any pilot which bird he wants to strap himself into and the vast majority will choose the old one. So it is with cars. I might lose a contest of seed and handling, but at least I’ll go down fighting with a smile on my face. And that’s what it’s really all about anyhow.

Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.

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  • Numbers_Matching Numbers_Matching on Mar 06, 2014

    For me the 80's will always be about the fox based Mustang and its often forgotten stablemate, the Mercury Capri. Eevn though their styling was pretty much finalized in 1976, these cars really captured the optimism of the day with constant upgrades in handling and power. They brought back real, every-day affordable performance.

  • 1981X-11 1981X-11 on Apr 03, 2015

    There is actually a 1980's GM X-Body Facebook Group page. Almost 500 members, over 1000 new and vintage pics, and every-year X-car dealer brochure in the Photo Albums section. Ha!