1985: It Was a Very Good Year!
It was "Morning in America," a time when men were real men, women were real women, and hair was real big. Ronald Reagan had just been sworn in for his second term after winning one of the most lopsided Presidential elections in American history. and the "national malaise" of just a few years before had been replaced by a mood of confident optimism. Technology was on the march: personal computers now had floppy drives and 12 MHz processors, fully-functional mobile phones were down to the size of a box of Girl Scout cookies, and used DeLoreans were being retrofitted with aftermarket flux capacitors. On the big screen, besides the one with the time machine, we had Out of Africa and Witness and The Breakfast Club and Rambo: First Blood Part II. On the small screen, you had The Cosby Show and Hill Street Blues and MacGyver.
On the radio was Springsteen, Madonna--this was way before Nirvana--there was U2, and Blondie, and music still on MTV. The cars then were old school, and you might think them uncool, but this post will be occupied with cars of Nineteen Eighty-Five.
"We live in a material world, and I am a material girl..."
1985 was the age of the "yuppie": aggressive young professionals working in business and finance, making good money and spending much of it on flashy status symbols such as Rolex watches and expensive cars; more precisely, BMWs, specifically the "E30" generation of 3-series BMWs. Not all yuppies drove Bimmers--some of them were rolling in Saabs, Volvos, Benzes, Audis, or Porsche 944s--but the Bimmer was the default yuppiemobile, at least in the popular imagination.
If you set aside the cultural baggage and look at the car objectively, the 3-series BMW of the 1980s seems a curious choice for an instrument of conspicuous consumption. Compared to 1970s "personal luxury" cars, which practically screamed for attention, the E30 Bimmer is almost a stealth plane. It exudes a definite air of German-engineered superiority, but the clean lines and tasetfully restrained ornamentation don't exactly come up and smack you in the retinas.
It also had some of the best driving dynamics of the age. This made it a favorite of the car magazines, but all too often the undeniable merits of the E30 were overshadowed by its status as a cultural marker. Human nature being what it is, if you were one of those people who despised those people who drove BMWs, you ended up loathing E30 BMWs by association.
When I think back to what the streets looked like in the mid-1980s, though, I don't recall seeing a whole lot of 3-series Bimmers. In the town where I lived at the time, and in Youngstown where my parents lived, the most popular four-wheeled status symbol was a General Motors G-body personal luxury coupe. These cars hit the dealerships in 1978 as the downsized successors to the "Colonnade" coupes, and came in four semi-distinct flavors: the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Buick Regal, and Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
Their styling was unmistakably 1970s. The G-bodies had the "formal" roofline and non-opening rear seat opera windows that were all but required by law for personal luxury cars, and while the vinyl half-roof was technically an option, it was rare to see one without it. The fake-wire wheel covers and T-top were pretty common as well.
The Gs were also paragons of badge engineering. The Monte Carlo had subtle fender flares which recalled the ultra-voluptuous curves of its 1973-77 ancestor, and the Olds had a flatter hood than the others, but apart from that the sheetmetal was the same for all four models. The major spotting difference was in the front bumper and grille assembly, which was different for each division. If you couldn't see the grille and you weren't close enough to read the script on the name badges, it was sometimes hard to tell one G-body from another.
The original plan was to build the G-bodies for four model years, after which they would be replaced by the new FWD A-bodies (Celebrity/6000/Ciera/Century). Thing was, the G-bodies were selling just as strong in 1981, at the scheduled end of their product cycle, as they had been at the start in 1978. Someone at GM took notice of that and decided to keep the G-cars in production for a few more years alongside the A-bodies that were supposed to have replaced them. The tooling was already paid for, the original development costs had been amortized, and there were no further capital expenditures necessary other than annual trim changes, so the profit margin on each latter-day G-coupe sold was probably pretty sweet. Keeping them in production also qualified them to compete on the NASCAR circuit--which, in those days, still required the use of actual production-car sheetmetal--and got GM a little free advertising and positive buzz that way.
By 1985, GM had been stamping out between 150,000 and 250,000 of each particular flavor of G-body per year, every year, for six full model years--which meant that there were literally millions of them on the road. Call it the golden age of the G-body, if you like. They were as common as bugs, stacked three and four deep at city stoplights, day in and day out. At times, it seemed like everyone but me--aunts and uncles, co-workers, about half the people in my old neighborhood--drove one. When I met my future wife on a blind date in 1987, even she was driving a Cutlass Supreme.
If you were young (like I was) and wanted a car that would be fun in the twisties (like I did) and didn't have the money to drop on a Porsche or a Bimmer (as I most certainly did not), 1985 was nevertheless a very good year. It was the golden age of budget sports cars. The showrooms were filled with shockingly good, shockingly affordable pocket rockets: the Volkswagen Rabbit GTI, the original "hot hatch;" the aggressively overclocked Dodge Omni GLH; the brilliant Honda Civic CRX two-seater; the equally brilliant mid-engined Toyota MR2; the mid-engined Pontiac Fiero; and the Ford EXP (alias Mercury LN7). Okay, maybe those last two weren't all that great--the EXP (LN7) was a pathetic wannabee, and the early-production Fiero was under-engineered in the usual GM manner--but the others, in box-stock configuration, can hold their own today against cars designed and built a quarter century after them.
"Glory days, they'll pass you by; glory days, in the wink of a young girl's eye..."
Speaking of golden ages, Honda was certainly in the midst of one. If you walked into a Honda showroom in the 1985 model year, you had your choice of three FWD model series: the third-generation Civic, the second-generation Accord, and the second-generation Prelude. All of them shared a strong family resemblance, with styling in the Guigiaro-inspired creased-and-folded idiom which was then in vogue and still looks good today.
The Civic could be had as a three door hatchback, five-door wagon, four-door sedan, and the fastback CRX. The Civic was built solid as a bank vault, with an air of quality to it that was all out of proportion to the sticker price. It had McPherson struts up front and a semi-independent rear suspension, so well-engineered that it rode and handled like a car with a fully-independent suspension.
Best of all, it was nearly unkillable, mid-80s Honda drivetrains being as close as modern man had yet come to a working method of immortality. The base engine was a carbuerted SOHC four-cylinder, but a fuel-injected "Si" version was new this year for the CRX, and would be made available across the whole model line in 1986.
This was the last model year for the successful second-generation Accord, which had already earned a place in history as the first "Japanese" car built in the US. There was an upscale trim level called the "SE-i" that came with leather seats, premium sound system, and fuel injection, and was nicknamed the "Japanese BMW." One small styling note: this was the last year for recessed front headlights on the Civic and Accord. A change in federal regulations effective for the '86 model year allowed Honda to use the flush-mounted aerodynamic plastic headlights that were already standard equipment everywhere else in the world.
The Prelude was a true sports coupe, with a fully independent suspension and rakish styling. With 160 HP on tap in a car that only weighed 2,200 pounds or so, the "Si" version was nimble and zippy in a way that few cars in those days were capable of.
As good as these cars were, Honda was not content to just keep stamping them out. Honda was redesigning its cars on a three-year cycle, and each generation improved on the last. The next generation Civic (introduced 1987) and Accord (1986) would feature a sophisticated double-wishbone suspension front and rear, the next-generation Prelude (1988) would be available with elegantly-engineered four-wheel steering, and everything Honda sold would be fuel injected by the end of the decade.
"You're out of touch, you're out of time..."
If your impression of 1985 is based on what you've read on nostalgia websites, you might think that the world was, like, totally! nothing but Cabbage Patch dolls, Michael Jackson videos, and unshaven cops in black Ferraris and white Armani sportcoats. As those of us who were older then well remember, it was also a time of apprehension, of a titanic struggle that threatened to become apocalyptic.
An arrogant empire--some even called it an "evil empire"--which had once been all but omnipotent was in decline. It put on a show of being confident and unstoppable, but its failings and deficiencies were becoming too obvious to ignore. Its newest leader recognized that things were bad and getting worse, and embarked on a daring, desperate, and ultimately futile attempt to reverse the empire's fortunes before it was too late.
No, I'm not talking about the Soviet Union--I'm talking about General Motors.
In 1965 or so, GM had a 50% share of the US passenger car market, and its position at the top of the auto industry's food chain seemed permanent. In 1975, it still commanded a respectable 44%. By 1985, it was down to 43%, and would fall to 36% by 1990--and earnings were declining at an even more alarming pace than market share.
The cause of GM's decline was obvious to everyone, with the apparent exception of the people running GM: a never-ending sequence of poorly-designed, poorly-built, customer-alienating vehicles produced by a dysfunctional corporate culture. 1985 was the last model year for two of GM's more epic fails, the X-body compacts (Citation/Phoenix/Omega/Skylark) and the Oldsmobile diesel V-8. Its 1985 offerings also included the underwhelming Chevette, the terminally mediocre J-cars--including the Cimarron, GM's most cynical exercise in badge-engineering--and various dishwater-dull hyper-generic sedans which were more than a bit behind the technological curve. Even more ominously, younger buyers--the customer base of the future--were trending heavily away from GM and toward the imports.
A GM optimist could point to some positive signs. The third-generation Camaro and Firebird were decently executed, and the C4 Corvette was a major improvement on the C3: attractive, well-built, and "defiant in its performance." The Fiero looked like, if not a home run, at least a decent line drive single--though its built-in flaws were soon to become all too apparent. Even some of those behind-the-curve cars, like the G-bodies mentioned above, were actually selling pretty well. Still, GM was in serious trouble, whether the folks in charge could bring themselves to admit that or not.
President Roger Smith was one of the few GM executives who seems to have understood the problem, and, like his Kremlin counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, he had a plan to turn things around and save the empire. GM's version of peristroika and glasnost was a new division called Saturn, established in January of 1985, which would build and sell its first cars five years later. Saturn was intended from the start to be a "different kind of car company" with a more efficient, less hierarchical, less fratricidal corporate culture--which, it was hoped, would eventually spread to and reform the rest of GM. That, of course, made Saturn a threat to the people whose individual fortunes prospered under the existing order, and it was sabotaged from within. Long before its demise in 2009, Saturn had lost any pretense of being different and devolved into just another GM division, offering the same badge-engineered cars as other GM divisions.
"Everybody wants to rule the world..."
When they were first imported in significant numbers in the early '70s, Japanese cars were derided as cheap tin boxes with goofy styling. As the Disco Decade wore on, Detroit cars became underpowered, unreliable, fuel-guzzling beasts, often festooned with absurd faux-luxury styling cues ("radiator" grilles, vinyl landau roofs, opera windows, carriage lights, hood ornaments, wire wheel covers), and sent out the door with assembly defects even British Leyland would have found unacceptable. Before too long, those tin-box Japanese cars were looking pretty good in comparison. They were easy on gas and competently assembled, which is more than you could say for the likes of the Plymouth Volare. Best of all, they ran forever. In those days, it was considered something of an accomplishment to get your Detroit-built ride to hold together for 100,000 miles--for a Honda or a Toyota, 100,000 miles was the end of the break-in period!
By the early 1980s, it was clear that the Japanese were a major competitive threat to the domestic auto industry. As established industries often do when threatened by outsiders, the Big Three turned to the government for help, lobbying for import quotas and protectionist tariffs. To forestall the erection of trade barriers that would shut Japanese manufacturers out of North America just as things were starting to go their way, Japan signed on to the 1981 "Voluntary Automobile Import Agreement" that capped the number of Japanese-built cars imported into the U.S. at 1.68 million a year. The limits stayed in place into the 1990s, when they were phased out under the "Uruguay round" of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
As the ink was drying on the final execution copy of the Voluntary Automobile Import Agreement, the Japanese manufacturers set about figuring out how to turn these restrictions to their advantage. First of all, because the number of Japan-built cars they could sell was fixed, while the demand for them was increasing, they could invoke the laws of supply and demand to justify bumping the price of their cars up a bit. They also made a point of sending over bigger and flashier cars with better trim and more standard features--and a higher profit margin per unit than their more proletarian offerings.
The other response was the "transplant," a factory located in the United States, owned and operated by a Japanese company, building "Japanese" cars. The cars a transplant built may have had "import" brand names, but they didn't count against the voluntary import quota because they weren't being imported. By 1985, there were three Japanese transplants in the US: Honda's assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio, the first of the breed; Nissan's in Smyrna, Tennessee; and NUMMI, a GM-Toyota joint venture in Fremont, California which built a derivative of the Toyota Corolla and stuck "Chevrolet Nova" badges on it. (VW also had an assembly facility in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, which had been operating since 1978, though it is not generally counted as being a "transplant.")
The transplants were highly automated, and operated in a manner similar to factories in the home islands: just-in-time inventory, a "team" approach with workers involved in defining and designing their jobs, fewer job classifications, and a lot of cross-training. These are practices that are widely used in manufacturing today, even by the Big Three, but in the 1980s this was all cutting edge stuff.
"So take these broken wings, and learn to fly again, learn to live so free..."
When Lee Iacocca became chairman of Chrysler in November of 1978, the company seemed to be on its deathbed. No, wait, that's an understatement--it was on its deathbed, the priest had just finished administering the last rites, the nurse was reaching for the "off" switch on the life support machines, and there was some guy in a long robe with a sickle hanging out in the hospital hallway.
The story of Chrysler's rescue and renaissance under Iacocca is a little too long and complex to go into now (click here for a pretty thorough account). Suffice it to say that by 1985, Chrysler was out of the woods and making money again, and Chairman Iacocca, star of Chrysler's TV commercials, was something of an industrial folk hero.
A major factor in Chrysler's survival was the success of the K-cars. Begun under Iaccoca's predecessor, but finished and brought to market on his watch, the K cars were the first successful American-designed FWD family cars. (The GM X-bodies had come out a year before, but those can hardly be called "successful.") The original Reliant and Aries weren't great cars which excited pistonhead passion and buff book hagiography, but they were good enough: roomy for their size, easy on gas, reasonably reliable, and very reasonably priced.
Best of all, the underlying engineering proved to be extremely adaptable. By 1985, most of Chrysler's automobiles were riding on the K-car platform. There were the K-cars themselves (Aries/Reliant), the enlarged "Super Ks" (Caravelle, 400, 600, LeBaron, and E-class), the sport coupe deriviative Laser and Daytona, the mildly embarassing stretch limo Executive, and, most important of all, the Caravan and Voyager minivans.
The minivans had been introduced the year before, to rave reviews from the magazines and the buying public. In 1985, Chrysler had the minivan market--a market that had not even existed before the Caravan and Voyager--pretty much to itself. They were selling as fast as they could come off the assembly line, and would continue to do so for years to come--and the minivan would become a permanent part of the American automotive landscape.
Ford had also gone through a rough patch in the late 1970s, but had responded with a renewed emphasis on quality and some innovative new products of its own: the FWD Escort/Lynx, the Tempo/Topaz, and the dramatically restyled ninth-generation Thunderbird, nicknamed the "Aerobird." The Aerobird was a complete break with--if not a stinging rebuke of--the 1970s high baroque styling of its immediate predecessor, the "Fairmont Bird." The softer shape gave it a low drag coefficient and better highway gas mileage, and also helped it to stand out from the rest of the crowd.
In the summer of 1985, Ford unveiled the 1986 Taurus, a completely new FWD midsize car intended to replace the last of its 70s-vintage intermediates, the Fox-platform LTD. The Taurus took the Aerobird's design language and turned it up to eleven, matching the softly-rounded low-drag exterior with a softly-rounded interior which showed impressive attention to detail in things like the ergonomics of the driver's position.
The Taurus would go on to sell in impressive numbers, and its aerodynamic styling would prove to be very influential on the design of family cars in the next couple of decades.
"That ain't workin', that's the way you do it, get your money for nothin' and your chicks for free...."
1985 was also the year in which Malcolm Bricklin and oil billionaire (and friend of the USSR) Armand Hammer conspired to import the comic-opera Yugo. The Yugo's most lasting contribution to American life was as a source of revenue for tow truck drivers and the punch line to a joke:
Q: How do you tell a Yugo from a Ferarri?
A: A Ferrari can go from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds, and a Yugo can go from 0 to 4 in 60 seconds.
As proof that we do not live in a just and rational world, Mr. Bricklin made a fortune on the Yugo project.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The photo of Lance and Muffy with their E30 comes from BMWBlog; the photo of UAW members agitating for domestic automobile content comes from the history section of the United Auto Workers website; the photo of the first Marysville Accord is a vintage Honda PR image; the scans of printed materials are from various sources around the Web.