Let’s take a look at some sweet 1980s cars that could even be purchased with the savings from a part-time job. Mind you, that sort of cash isn’t going to get you into a pristine example of these rad rides but rather for a running, non-basketcase version. Think of it as a driveable project car. While there isn’t anything too obscure in this list, we think it’s a good start in your search for a relatively affordable cool, classic car.
Chevrolet Camaro or Pontiac Firebird
The third-generation F-Body provided years of source material for mullet-mocking and hair-metal bashing, but the Camaro and Firebird still remain a great way to get cheap horsepower. With the astonishing number of third-gen cars floating around today and with some patience, you can still find a good, inexpensive F-Body with a V-8. If you’re a bells-and-whistles type, you can find all sorts of trim and special edition models: Z/28, RS, and Berlinetta for the Camaro; Trans Am, GTA, and Formula for the Firebird to name a few. Even better, the F-Body aftermarket is absolutely enormous and relatively inexpensive.
Ford’s Fox-platform Mustang ran all the way through the 1980s and the original pony car remains available in huge numbers. While the low end of the asking price looks similar to the F-Body Camaro and Firebird, it seemed from our research that there were more Fox Mustangs closer to that pricing floor. A bit lighter than the Camaro, the Mustang remains popular in drag racing for the ability to take on big horsepower. You won’t struggle to find a running V-8 car, though it may need an item or three. Curiously enough, the turbocharged four-cylinder SVO seems to command a bit more money. Like the Camaro and Firebird, the Fox Mustang has massive aftermarket support.
Ford Thunderbird or Mercury Cougar XR7
Ford didn’t use the Fox platform just for its Mustang. In fact, the company built a number of cars on the platform, including the Ford Thunderbird and its upmarket sibling, the Mercury Cougar. While parts interchangeability among Fox cars isn’t really as ubiquitous as the internet might suggest, the Thunderbird and Cougar both got the same engine options as the Mustang with V-8 and turbocharged four-cylinder engines available in the performance trims. The big two-doors received typical luxury coupe appointments, making them slightly more “adult” than the sporty Mustang. The V-8 still moved these heavier coupes about pretty well. Interestingly, lots of Thunderbird Turbo Coupes are still floating around in reasonably good shape, though they seem to bring about $500 more than a V-8 car.
Ford Taurus SHO
The Ford Taurus has been junkyard fodder for a decade now, but the high-performance SHO trim has stuck around in bigger numbers than the pedestrian models. Featuring a high-revving, Yamaha-designed V-6, the SHO debuted in 1989 and ran to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds with quarter-mile times in the low 15-second range, which was only a half-second slower than a contemporary Mustang GT! Unfortunately, as one ad we found said, “These cars have almost all been modified or trashed” and, from the looks of some, it’s more like, “modified AND trashed.” With some patience, however, you can find an affordable all-original car that has been someone’s pride for decades.
Oldsmobile Cutlass or Chevrolet Monte Carlo or Buick Regal or Pontiac Grand Prix or Chevrolet El Camino
The boxy A-Body—later renamed the G-Body—General Motors models remain a favorite for the same reason as the Camaro and Firebird: cheap horsepower. Despite their hefty looks, most of these cars weighed about the same as a Camaro and featured similar engine options. The pinnacle of the type is almost certainly the Buick Regal GNX with its turbocharged V-6 and menacing triple-black look, but the general Lego nature of GM platforms means that with some clever junkyard and parts-catalog digging, you can build a potent V-8 Cutlass or even a GNX clone. These cars are popular with the big-wheels-and-candy-paint crowd, so there is still some market competition for them. However, a running V-8 car is still plenty affordable.
The little Pontiac Fiero is often remembered for having the engine behind the driver “just like a Ferrari” (though it’s less frequently said that the 90-hp “Iron Duke” four-cylinder was “just like a Ferrari”). Later Fiero GTs got a healthier 2.8-liter version of GM’s 60-degree V-6 and since the Fiero’s discontinuation in 1988, people have dreamed up all kinds of swaps. Later and bigger-displacement GM V-6 swaps remain popular, as do “Faux-rarri” body kits. These kits look, at best, like putting on dad’s dress shirt for the homecoming dance.
Buick Estate Wagon
We’ll call this the start of the “Bigger is Better” section. GM’s B-Body wagons (Chevrolet Caprice and Impala; Pontiac Parisienne and Catalina; Buick Estate and Electra; and Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser) have plenty of heft, but since most of these cars had the V-8 option ticked, the majority are reasonably quick. As a bonus, these cars can tow, seat eight, and have enough room for a four-piece rock band, plus drums and amps. The rear-facing third-row seat remains awesome (Ford’s wagons had two longitudinal seats facing each other in the rear, which is also awesome), as do the swinging rear gate.
Cadillac DeVille or Fleetwood
Low-budget performance is all well and good, but sometimes you just need seriously inexpensive comfort. Look no further than an ’80s Cadillac DeVille or Fleetwood. Surprisingly, many still have immaculate interiors, low miles, and to-the-hour maintenance records. The V-8 engine choices (4.1- and 4.5-liter units) aren’t going to set any land-speed records, but the Cadillacs look best when cruising at low speed, anyway.
Lincoln Town Car and Mark VI
Basically, take everything said above about the Cadillac and apply it to Ford’s luxury brand’s sedan and coupe. Both Lincolns were built on the Panther platform—the same platform that underpinned the Ford Crown Victoria until its discontinuation in 2011—and featured a design that made the Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme look sleek. Plush interiors and low miles are still the names of the game, though the Town Car and Mark VI both used versions of the Mustang’s 5.0-liter V-8.
Jeep‘s off-road reputation was well-earned before the 1980s, but the brand found itself at the fore of the SUV game with the Wranglers and Cherokees it built throughout the 1980s. In fact, the Cherokee (and its upscale Wagoneer cousin) was more or less the sole reason that Chrysler plunked down cash to buy Jeep’s then parent-company AMC. That’s a story for another day, but the original Cherokee “XJ” has a huge following to this day and you can find everything from a bone-stock survivor to a hacked-and-modded trail runner without much effort. Like 1980s pony cars, the aftermarket support is still astronomical and a Jeep is almost certainly the cheapest way to head off the beaten path. We’ll give an honorable mention to other American offerings, such as the Ford Bronco, Dodge Ramcharger, and Chevrolet Blazer and Suburban.
Ford F-150 or Chevrolet C10/K10 or Dodge Ram
Generally, any 30-year-old truck won’t be a looker so be prepared for some bangs, bruises, and rust. If you’re not of a particular loyalty, our bit of research shows that the Chevy tends to cost a little more than its Dodge and Ford counterparts—possibly because there are a few more plug-and-play speed parts options.
Chrysler Daytona, CSX, Omni GLH(S), Lancer, Laser, Lebaron GTS, Charger, or TC by Maserati
While Ford and General Motors competed in pony car wars, Chrysler downsized to turbocharged four-cylinder engines in front-wheel-drive cars. Carroll Shelby—of Ford fame—slapped his name on some of the Chrysler’s K-car derived models such as the Shelby CSX (an extra rapid Dodge Shadow Turbo). Shelby also lent his expertise to those cars’ predecessors, the Shelby Charger and Dodge Omni GLH (which famously stands for “Go Like Hell”). They’re all fairly dated by modern standards, but each has a substantial following. If you’re after luxury, the turbocharged 1989 Chrysler TC by Maserati—a joint venture with the Italian automaker that included a few extra horses and Italian coachwork in what was basically a Lebaron convertible—has fittingly come down to just-slightly-more-expensive-than-a-Lebaron territory.
Reasonably Affordable 1980s Project Car
- Chevrolet Camaro or Pontiac Firebird
- Ford Mustang
- Ford Thunderbird or Mercury Cougar XR7
- Ford Taurus SHO
- Oldsmobile Cutlass or Chevrolet Monte Carlo or Buick Regal or Pontiac Grand Prix or Chevrolet El Camino
- Pontiac Fiero
- Buick Estate Wagon
- Cadillac Deville or Fleetwood
- Lincoln Town Car or Mark VI
- Jeep Cherokee
- Ford F-150 or Chevrolet C10/K10 or Dodge Ram
- Chrysler Daytona, CSX, Omni GLH(S), Lancer, Laser, Lebaron GTS, Charger, or TC by Maserati