Cowland on Cars

Excess all areas: Why ‘80s classic cars are the coolest

by Paul Cowland
3 August 2022 4 min read
Excess all areas: Why ‘80s classic cars are the coolest
Photo: Luza Studios via Getty Images

In the era when your steed was all about greed and speed, many of the world’s finest cars were born, reckons unashamed ‘80s enthusiast, Paul Cowland.

Every classic car era creates its own design epoch. The ‘50s saw the dawn of Xeroxed Americana. The decade that followed was more crisp and diminutive. The 1970s disappeared in a louvered haze of swoops and velour… which then brought us to the very best period of all. Ever. The 1980s.

Having lived through it all, it was an incredibly exciting time to be a young car enthusiast. While the staple FOTU fayre of cars like the Austin Mini Metro humbly rolled into showrooms at the start of the decade, what was to follow has never been equalled, in my humble opinion. Cars, and car design, were about to get VERY exciting. And it was to permeate every strata of ownership; whether your budget was Reliant or Rolls Royce.

Toyota MR2 Mk1 review Hagerty
That most quintessential of 1980s shapes, the Toyota MR2. Photo: Charlie Magee

Everything was about to go ‘11’…

First, a little social history. It was a time of unashamed capitalism. As Gordon Gecko famously said in the hit movie ‘Wall Street’, greed was indeed good. Making money was more than acceptable, conspicuous consumption was encouraged throughout and the ‘Yuppie’ – a mnemonic contraction of the many Young, Upwardly Mobile Professional People abound, was born. And they all wanted to telegraph their new-found success via the medium of their motorcar.

It led to manufacturers racing to pack their cars with tech. This was the decade of mass home computer ownership, so naturally, cars had voice modules, digital displays and stereo systems that looked like somebody had crowbarred a couple of desks out of the nearest recording studio. If your folks were really doing well, they might have even had an early car phone screwed elegantly to the centre console of their Jag XJ, leafing nonchalantly through their Filofax to find the numbers to call while hitting V-Max on the newly-completed M25.

As people were making themselves wider with shoulder pads, irrespective of gender, car designers followed suit. It was the era of girth. Think of the unmistakeable Ferrari Testarossa as your poster child, here. For those lower down the social order, the neat, geometric line of the contemporary fashion became the design language of the day. The stunning Japanese ‘Origami’ movement was born, creating cars like the Subaru XT, Toyota MR2 and even Nissan Laurel. There must have been a run on set squares at the time, because there wasn’t a curve to be seen in showrooms anywhere… well, until the plucky ‘Jellymould’ Sierra arrived of course – and changed the game forever.

Paul Cowland attempts to start his Subaru XT
Cowland with his Subaru XT. A more iconic 1980s shape you’ll struggle to find (the XT, not Cowland). Photo: Matt Howell

Once the finance payments had been made on your newly fitted double glazing, you’d no doubt want to ensure your chosen steed stood out from your peers, and it’s perhaps this, more than any other reason, that I love the 1980s so much. It was the decade where mass bodystyling became de rigeur. (It was also the decade where the use of italicised French phrases in order to look cool became the publishing norm…)

Although enthusiasts in the 1970s had the odd Kamei chin spoiler to bolt on to their Super Beetles and the occasional rear window blind to self-tapper to their Capri, it was the 1980s that saw the manufacturers getting truly involved themselves. Past masters Ford quickly dived in with their own RS styling range, meaning everything available from the showroom floor could leave with lips, wings, skirts and spoilers, even if what lay beneath wouldn’t have been able to pull a baby giraffe over.

And this set the tone for everyone else to jump in. Even the high street names like Halfords would have every aerodynamic appendage you could possibly imagine, for cars as obscure as the Skoda Estelle or Zastava Yugo. And wheels. And side stripes. And the essential ‘Backflash’ – a red vinyl graphic that told the world what they’d already read from your rear model badges – only in 10 inch high letters. Heaven forbid that your neighbours hadn’t realised that your Astra was the more desirable GTE model. Oh yes, telling everyone that your car was fuel injected or turbocharged was how one placed oneself in society. The current trend for ‘no carbs’ is clearly nothing new.

1980s tuning catalogue
The 1980s saw the trend for bodykits and tuning accessories hit a whole new level. Photo: Antony Ingram

Red was to become the unofficial colour of the 1980s. It was everywhere. The most favoured shade for all Porsche, Ferrari and Golf GTi purchases of the time, it could also be found on interior piping, seatbelts, instruments, badges and the braces of most drivers. Nothing suggested speed, success or modernity in quite the same way – and it perfectly fitted the palette and vista of the times.

Thankfully, it looks like the 80s (and a fair smattering of 90s) are about to come round again. Hagerty is bringing the incredible Radwood show back once again to the UK, and like the decades themselves, it’s an unashamed celebration of excessive automotive confections. Expect alloys, side stripes, graphic equalisers, rear spoilers, synth pop and mullets. And that’s just the stuff I’m bringing. The rest of the show is even better.

So come and join us. Fire up your exuberant 80s or 90s ride, grab your Diadoras and Le Shark Polo, Pop on a set of Wayfarers – clean your tape heads and set Duran Duran to top volume on your Alpine head unit. The fun starts from 11am on the 20th August at Bicester Heritage – tickets are available here. Braces are entirely optional, but get ready to party like its 1989.

Read more

Helen Stanley let her imagination run wild with her BMW E30 restomod
The original Toyota MR2 stole our hearts – and still does
Talking dashboards, car phones and graphic equalisers: The ’80s car tech we still miss

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  • John Kent says:

    Of course the 80’s were the greatest – it was the era of the incredible Ferrari F40! Plus I had two x Mk1 Astra GTE’s, a Citroen BX and my wife owned a Mk1 Toyota Corolla GT hatch – all great cars and all with those iconic straight line designs!

  • George says:

    I was so impressed I bought the ultimate French wedge, a Renault Alpine GTA Turbo with an alpine head unit (the graphic equaliser is in the front boot in case I want to put it back in), racy turbo graphics on the rear bumper telling everyone I’ve overtaken what just hit them 😉

  • Neil Nettleingham says:

    The 80’s was such a great time to grow up in. The neon lights and sounds of the arcades that bought us all the best driving games such as OutRun, Pole Posistion and Chase H.Q.
    No wonder that as soon as I was old enough to drive for real I dreamt about owning all those iconic 80’s cars from the games and TV. Now I’m older I can finally own and enjoy those 80’s classics I couldn’t afford when I was a teenager.

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