Want to stand out from the crowd at the next cruise night, but also stay under budget? Feel the need to be weird on the cheap? The 80s are filled with oddball looks at familiar platforms – cars that were either too strange to sell well, too pricey at the time they were released, or simply ones that tried to reach a market that didn’t really exists when they first hit showrooms. Throw in a few unusual prototype-style rides wearing familiar badges, and the 80s are a decade dedicated to satisfying your craving for strange, low-buck motoring. Hurry though, the era’s cars are gaining popularity and won’t be cheap for long!
1. Nissan Pulsar Sportbak
The Nissan Pulsar was sold as a two-door coupe in America between 1983 and 1990. Based on the Sentra, there wasn’t much performance locked up inside the Pulsar as compared to more engaging rivals like the Toyota MR2, but when the second generation debuted towards the middle of the decade it brought with it an unusual modular body panel design that featured a t-top, a removable hatch, and if you played your cards right, a full wagon-style ‘Canopy’ roof on a model called the Sportbak. If you were feeling extra practical you could even leave the rear covering off completely, ditch the t-tops, and drive around in a convertible Nissan pickup. Think of it as the ‘Transformer’ of its day.
2. Ford Ranger Diesel
All those who clamored for an entry-level diesel pickup prior to the launch of the Chevrolet Colorado oil burner seems to have forgotten that Ford beat everyone to the market about 30 years ago with a diesel edition of its compact Ranger. In fact, the Ford Ranger was offered with a 2.2-liter non-turbo Perkins four-cylinder diesel when it debuted in 1983, which was replaced for the 1985 and ’86 model years by a 2.3-liter turbodiesel borrowed from Mitsubishi. The latter’s 86 horsepower represented a whopping 50 percent improvement over the original Ranger Diesel, but even though the truck returned 41-mpg on the highway, very few were ever sold. Other Ford diesel weirdness from the same era included the Bronco II, the Tempo (more on that later), and even the Lincoln Mark VII.
3. Pontiac 6000 STE AWD
Aside from our own Eric Rood’s deep-seated love for his Lemons Rally Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser Wagon, few people have a soft spot in their hears for GM’s long-gone A-body platform that also brought us such disposable daily drivers as the Chevy Celebrity and the Pontiac 6000. As a result, you might not have been aware of the Pontiac 6000’s one claim to being semi-interesting: the availability of the low-volume AWD-equipped Super Touring Edition (STE). This top-tier trim level added all-wheel drive for the 1988 model year, finally allowing it to harness the full fury of its 3.1-liter V6 (incidentally, another exclusive for the Pontiac in ’88). By 1990, the 6000 STE was gone, but the SE retained AWD for one more year of four-wheeling fun – plus, you got a ton of buttons on the steering wheel, and who doesn’t love those?
4. Ford Tempo AWD
Speaking of AWD oddities: who would have thought Ford would take the time and effort to invest in developing a four-wheel drive system for one of its cheapest, and most forgettable 80s cars? And yet, the Ford Tempo AWD is a real thing that actually exists, alongside its Mercury Topaz AWD cousin. Strong sales of these ultra-cheap sedans made the Blue Oval greedy for more, and all-wheel drive seemed like the ticket to crash the traction party previously reserved for compact Japanese imports (with the company even considering a 4WD Escort and 4WD Mustang). With the ability to lock the center diff via a solenoid and switch AWD on and off using a headliner-mounted toggle, the feature was available from 1987 to 1991, but it lacked a viscous coupling so it wasn’t usable on dry pavement without risking drivetrain damage. With 95 percent of these cars rotting in scrap yards seeing a Tempo spin all four wheels in the wild is the automotive equivalent of capturing Bigfoot on film.
5. Chrysler Executive
Have you ever looked at a Chrysler LeBaron and thought, “Man, I wish this thing was longer?” Satisfying the inner Tom Hanks in all of us is the Chrysler Executive, a stretched version of the LeBaron that was built from 1982 to 1986 by ASC under contract to the Pentastar. The discerning chauffeur could even order the sedan with a 2.2-liter turbo four. To no one’s surprise, a stretched K-car wasn’t any executive’s idea of high end luxury, and only 1,700 of these limousines were sold across its entire production run.
6. Chevrolet Caprice V12
This one’s a bit of a cheat, but it’s a tale too fascinating not to tell. Back in the late 80s, GM was interested in developing a drive-by-wire system, which used a sensor instead of a throttle cable attached to the gas pedal. After being rebuffed by BMW in its bid to purchase the brand’s new drive-by-wire V12 that had gone on sale in the 1988 BMW 750iL, the General simply bought an entire 7 Series and hacked the motor out, dropping into the Caprice seen above for testing. The project came to light in the 90s when Hot Rod had the chance to explore Chevrolet’s prototype skunk works, proving that ultra off-brand engine swaps sometimes see factory support, too.
7. Oldsmobile Diesel
A sadder story from ’80s diesel lore is attached to the Oldsmobile diesel, a drivetrain that tried, and failed, to woo frugal 80s full-size shoppers. At a time when diesel engines were most strongly associated with big rigs, Oldsmobile was facing a stacked deck in terms of convincing customers that they could take advantage of fuel savings without belching black smoke out of the tailpipe on the way to work. Despite the energy crisis at the beginning of the decade that gave these diesel-equipped models a huge sales boost, GM shot itself in the foot with a series of engines that were loud, slow, unreliable, and horribly dirty to run. Olds also made the motor available to almost every other brand in the General Motors stable, which only had the effect of spreading the bad word about diesel to the widest possible audience.
8. Honda Prelude 4WS
Four-wheel steering kind of feels like the Holy Grail of automotive marketing. Try as hard as they might, no car company seems to be able to make customers actually care about this performance-enhancing feature. Given its tech-focused attitude in the ’80s, it’s not that shocking that Honda was the first production car to bring this feature to Americans with the 1988 Honda Prelude Si 4WS, a vehicle that eschewed the electronic controls seen later from Nissan and Mitsubishi in favor of a mechanical rear-wheel steering system that actually linked a pair of steering boxes underneath the car bay way of a shaft. While there were both high and low-speed benefits to the 4WS system, it wasn’t a night and day improvement from behind the wheel – and certainly not enough to justify its whopping (for the time) $1,300 premium over the standard Prelude Si. Honda would keep the four-wheel steer Prelude dream alive well into the 90s, but it remained a novelty in terms of actually moving metal.
9. Buick Century Turbo Coupe
Some ’80s oddballs are so rare that even to whisper their name risks summoning their long-forgotten spirits, clamoring for the attention that they never received while still among the living. The Buick Century Turbo Coupe – a two-year special edition that disappeared after the 1980 model year – is one such model. This fastback shrunk the Century’s lines down by nearly a foot compared to the model it replaced, and it swapped the standard 305 V8 for an early version of the Buick’s famed 3.8-liter turbo V6 that generated 175 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque. Need more convincing that this weirdo is deserving of some love? Buick wrote ‘TURBO COUPE’ in huge letters underneath the car’s hefty rear spoiler. Less than 1,200 were ever sold. Do you have one? We want to see it.
10. Dodge Dakota Convertible
We started with a convertible pickup, and we’re going to end with one, too. In the late 1980s, a product planner at Dodge decided that the best way to improve the ownership experience of Dakota drivers was to introduce the constant fear of being brained from behind by cargo when forced to stop abruptly. One quick phone call to ASC later and the roof was being lopped off the mid-size truck and a canvas tonneau bag was grafted to the rear of a factory roll bar – the Dakota’s one passing nod to occupant safety. Sold between 1989 and 1991, this Dodge manages to out-weird the Brat and the Rampage in the battle for maximum pickup eccentricity.