The Best and Most Memorable Concept Cars of the 1980s

After the dreariness of the 1970s—in car design as well as other aspects of life—the ’80s were a decade of turnaround. Okay, sure, we all thought we were minutes away from getting nuked by the Soviets, but the economy was taking off like the Space Shuttle and Wall Street was practically Xeroxing millionaires. Meanwhile, cars just kept getting better and better: Automakers were getting the hang of tightening emissions and fuel economy standards, and improvements in computer design meant cars with more curves. Let’s take a look at some of the most memorable dream cars from an era when America dreamed big.

1980 Briggs & Stratton Hybrid

We’re used to concept cars coming from major automakers, but in 1980, small-engine manufacturer Briggs & Stratton introduced this last gasp from the malaise era: A six-wheel hatchback with a B&S 18-horsepower air-cooled twin-cylinder combined with an 8-horsepower electric motor, which could power the car independently or in tandem. The extra axle supported the weight of the 10 car batteries that lived under the trunk floor. Like today’s PHEVs, the batteries were charged by braking, running the engine, or plugging in. Acceleration was pokey, but the car could top 60 mph eventually, and a frugal driver could get 85 mpg. Briggs & Stratton still owns the car and it was recently featured on Jay Leno’s garage.

1981 Ford Probe III

Before the questionable Probe name was used on a production car, it adorned a series of concepts. At a time when most Ford cars were still boxy boxes, the Probe III gave the world a preview of the aero styling that would come to define Ford design in the late 1980s. The Probe III was really a preview of the European-market 1982 Sierra—a car that would eventually come to the States in hot-rod form as the Merkur XR4ti—but it also showed cues that would be used on the revolutionary 1986 Taurus, not to mention the louvered tail lights that would appear on the 1988 Ford Mustang GT.

1984 Ford Maya

Back in the 1980s, Ford was seriously considering a mid-engine, targa-top, two-seat sports car for the American market, and the fully functional Maya concept shows us what it would have looked like. Power for the production car was to be a 250-horsepower 3.0-liter 24-valve V-6 co-developed with Yamaha, though the concept reportedly had a less-powerful placeholder engine. Styling was done by Giorgetto Giugiaro, and the design was criticized for looking too much like his Lotus Etna concept. (We think it’s a pretty good stand-in  for the BMW M1.) Ford built a couple of follow-on concepts, but ultimately the project was halted—mostly. The engine was used in the Ford Taurus SHO, and Ford would, of course, eventually produce another mid-engine supercar, and another one after that.

1986 Chevrolet Corvette Indy

We all know that Chevrolet built numerous mid-engine Corvette prototypes before finally putting one into production. Of all the mid-engine dream Corvettes, the 1986 Corvette Indy is arguably the most intriguing, with its 600-plus-horsepower twin-turbo 2.65-liter V-8, Kevlar and carbon-fiber body, active suspension, four-wheel-drive, and four-wheel steer-by-wire. The Indy evolved into the 1990 CERV III, which looked like a production-ready car (though it actually wasn’t). Alas, we’d have to wait nearly a quarter of a century before the mid-engine Corvette became a reality.

1986 Pontiac Trans Sport

The Chrysler minivans were the hot ticket in the mid-1980s, and competing automakers were scrambling to bring their own “garageable vans” to market. Pontiac showed a preview of its family hauler with the Trans Sport concept, which featured a composite body, gull-wing rear doors, a glass roof, and a built-in Nintendo Entertainment System. Power came from an experimental 2.9-liter turbocharged V-6, and the two-tone paint and grooved side-cladding echoed the styling of contemporary Pontiacs. Sadly, when the production version appeared in 1990—one of GM’s hapless “Dustbuster” vans—it wasn’t nearly as cool or exciting.

1987 Chrysler/Lamborghini Portofino

Chuffed with its 1987 purchase of Lamborghini, Chrysler repurposed a Kevin Verduyn design called the Navajo and applied it to a stretched Lamborghini Jalpa platform, which it called the Portofino (not to be confused with the Ferrari Portofino), a mid-engine, rear-drive sedan with four scissors-style doors, the idea being to show the possibilities of a Lamborghini sedan (an idea Porsche would bring to fruition two decades later). There never was a four-door Lambo (at least not under Chrysler ownership), but the styling of the Portofino would have a heavy influence on Chrysler’s most daring and successful designs—the cars we know as the Dodge Intrepid, Chrysler Concorde and Eagle Vision.

1987 Lincoln Vignale

Alfredo Vignale was a former Pininfarina designer whose company eventually wound up under Ford ownership, and the name was applied to this concept for a high-end Lincoln roadster. The Vignale was designed as a competitor to Cadillac’s Allante, which went into production for the 1987 model year. Presumably, it signaled Ford’s intention to pounce in case the Allante succeeded—but of course the Allante didn’t succeed, and in fact was a money-loser that ended up as one of General Motors’ biggest failures of the 1980s. No surprise, then, that the Vignale never made it into production. Today, the Vignale name is used on high-trim Ford cars in Europe.

1987 Oldsmobile Aerotech

The Oldsmobile Aerotech was designed as a showcase for Oldsmobile’s then-new Quad 4 engine, a 2.3-liter four-cylinder that featured dual overhead cams and 16 valves—old hat today but heady stuff in the mid-’80s, especially for Detroit, which had been struggling for years to build a halfway-decent four-banger. Designed by the legendary Ed Welburn, the Aerotech was based on an Indy car chassis and was effectively a rolling aerodynamics lab. Turbocharging brought the Quad 4 up to 900 horsepower—quite a bit more than the 151 horsepower it made in stock form—and AJ Foyt took the car up to 218 mph. A second version of the Aerotech, with a 1000-horsepower Quad 4, hit 275 mph. The Aerotech produced reams of positive publicity for the Quad 4, and Oldsmobile later built a third car in the early ’90s to promote the upcoming Aurora’s 4.0-liter V-8.

1988 Cadillac Voyage and Solitaire

The Cadillac Voyage (pronounced the French way, as in “bon voyage”) was a full-size, aero-friendly, all-wheel-drive Cadillac concept powered by a 275-horsepower version of the just-introduced 4.5 liter V-8. The shape should look familiar, as it would be used for the 1993 Cadillac Fleetwood, though the concept bears a much stronger resemblance to the closely-related 1991 Chervrolet Caprice. For 1989, Cadillac followed up with the Solitaire, a two-door version with a 430-horsepower 6.6-liter V-12 engine. There was never a production two-door version of the ’90s-era Fleetwood, but the basic shape of the Solitaire’s backlight and trunk lid would influence the 1992 Cadillac Eldorado.

1988 GMC Centaur

The half-van, half-truck GMC Centaur certainly resembled the man-horse hybrid after which it was named. The idea was to blend a family hauler and a pickup, which the Centaur certainly did. In order to maximize interior space, the Centaur’s 3.0-liter straight-six engine was located under the bed and ahead of the rear axle. Four-wheel steering increased its maneuverability, and the resemblance to the 1986 Pontiac Trans Sport concept (see above) is obvious—from the front, at least. This wasn’t a new idea for GM, by the way—the Corvair Rampside of the 1960s was a rear-engine van with a pickup box modeled after Volkswagen’s Type 2 pickup. The Centaur idea never made it to production, but GMC was right about the idea, as we all know how popular family-friendly crew-cab pickup trucks are today.

1988 Pontiac Banshee IV

The Banshees were a series of Pontiac concept cars built between 1964 and 1988. Pontiac described this last Banshee as “the future of driving excitement”, and it meant that literally—the Banshee’s styling was a warm up for the fourth-generation 1993 Firebird and, to a lesser extent, the Chevy Camaro. Designed as both a test bed and a styling concept, the Banshee was a fully functional car powered by a 230-horsepower 4.0-liter fuel-injected V-8 with overhead-cam cylinder heads integrated into the block. And lest you think GM had lost its soul, the Banshee employed a five-speed manual transmission and rear-wheel drive. Among the concept’s future tech: Adjustable pedals, moving-map navigation, and a head-up display. Need more Banshee? Check out this very ’80s Banshee IV video made by Pontiac PR.

1989 Dodge Viper RT/10

We’ve saved our favorite 1980s concept for last (thank goodness we did this list in chronological order): Dodge’s stunning Viper RT/10. The concept was intended as a modern-day Shelby 427 Cobra powered by a crazy-big ten-cylinder engine that was to be shared with future Ram pickups. The concept did indeed have a V-10, though it was reportedly cobbled together from two V-8s and unrelated to the production mill. Reaction to the Viper concept at the 1989 Detroit auto show was overwhelmingly positive, and Chrysler gave it the green light. When the production Viper appeared for the 1992 model year, it looked almost exactly like the concept car.

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