The 1980s have a lot to answer for. Shakin’ Stevens, Kajagoogoo, shoulder pads and overpaid bankers to name just a few. And yes, quite a lot of the cars were rubbish as well. But, also, quite a lot weren’t. In fact, there’s a strong case for arguing that the 1980s were the best decade for classic cars.
I should declare an interest: I grew up in the 80s. My dad tended to source our family wheels from the crap end of the showroom, so I surprise myself in plugging the decade’s cars. But while the Renault 20, Volvo 240, Fiat Strada and endless Volvo 740s that graced our driveway were hardly pinnacles of motoring excellence, the way they and their betters were built is what really matters.
By the 1980s most manufacturers, including Fiat and Austin Rover, had seemed to grasp the fundamentals of making cars. The breakthrough seemed to come in ditching People and employing Robots to populate their factories, as Fiat were keen to point out when they launched the Strada. Machines, car companies discovered, were less bothered about tea breaks, rates of pay, petty injustices and Monday mornings and more interested in doing the same thing continuously without interruption.
Alongside the rise of the robots came advances in how cars were designed and engineered. Out went points and carburettors, in came electronic ignition and fuel injection. Goodbye manual chokes, hello auto. Cars got more complex but also more reliable.
Of course, because the early factory robots were designed and built by people and put to work by the same people who put the actual people to work, not everything went entirely smoothly from The Off. The Fiat Strada and Austin Maestro appeared to be built by robots with attitude. The sort of attitude that previously kept Red Robbo in tea and biscuits for many years.
These glitches apart, 80s cars became more durable and dependable because of this advanced technology and improved and consistent build quality. What makes the 80s such a particular high point for classic cars is that the period that came after built on these changes but didn’t improve them for old car fans. In the 90s cars spawned more complexity – catalysers, ECUs, ABS, on and on the list goes. All great and admirable and desirable in new cars, but potential killers when the car reaches classic status. Complexity equals cost and many otherwise good cars with life left in them have been scrapped because of the failure of one of more of these later innovations.
Not so the 1980s cars. They may rot, they may have iffy build quality, but they are more reliable than their forebears and less complex than their successors. That, for me, makes them great.
This isn’t just some whimsical trip down memory lane. I run a fleet of 30 classic hire cars and it’s consistently the 1980s cars that are the most reliable and easy to live with. They aren’t without their irritating niggles but our XJS’, Capri, Quattro and Mini are all less cantankerous than our 60s and 70s cars. Sure, they may be newer but often they’ve done more miles and they’re all 30+ years old now.
Classic cars seem to go through a 30 year cycle, so 1980s classics are appreciating in value rapidly. My advice, if you want to invest in a classic, is to buy in now. The cars of the 1980s are, arguably, the last classic decade you’ll want to own. I’m happy to be proved wrong, but, like an annoying know it all, I’m not convinced I will be.