Those in the car hobby who already have a family heirloom or their old high-school sweetheart car to tinker with should consider themselves lucky. For many who love older cars but stand on the sidelines due to financial hardship, the prospect of finding a lovable older car to restore is all but a pipe dream.
So how can one take part in the hot rodding hobby if the cars themselves are out of reach? The answer is to look at it as a long-term investment, not a short-term fad. Cars built in the 1980s are at low ebb now but will rise in price after it’s too late to get into the game. To help you get a leg up, we identified the 10 most viable future hot rods from the 1980s that you should consider buying now for restoring later.
To most insiders, a restoration involves returning a derelict car with damaged or missing pieces to like-new condition. For some cars where many parts are already being repopped (think 1969 Camaro or 1971 ‘Cuda), restoration is simply a matter of ordering from a catalog like NPD, Original Parts Group, or Classic Industries. For cars built in the 1980s, the industry hasn’t quite caught up, although some companies are quickly catching on. For the Fox-body Mustang crowd, Late Model Restorations is a go-to solution, while for late-model GM G-bodies, Dixie Restoration Depot and GBodyParts.com can really save the day.
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The good news is that cars from the 1980s are still in relatively good shape relative to muscle cars from the 1960s or ’70s. You should be able to capture a 1980s machine in the wild that stills runs for a few thousand dollars—that’s way less than a “classic,” and the car should still be in useable shape until you can afford to fix it up. A big allure to the hobby is owning a slice of your automotive childhood, and for a lot of folks that means bring on the 1980s. Here’s our top 10 cars to start searching for today!
Go to any dragstrip, and you’ll see at least a few 1978 to 1982 Chevy Malibus. These midsized models are a lot lighter than their 1972 to 1977 predecessors, so they make good hot rods. With lots of parts available to support them including performance items like engines, transmissions, rearends, and suspensions, it’s just a matter of picking one that’s your style. Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac also had versions of the same car, plus you could get four-door sedans and wagons under most of those brands, too. See what crazy stuff Brandon Good did to his “budget” 1980 Chevy Malibu here.
Mustang LX 5.0
Ask a lot of guys who were on the scene back in the day, and they’ll tell you the Mustang LX 5.0 was the car that was most responsible for bringing real Detroit performance back at a price regular guys could afford. (I know. I bought two of them.) Unlike their pricier GT siblings, the LX could be ordered stripped down with the 5-liter Windsor V–8 making 225 hp, then modified inexpensively with bolt-on parts. These days, a lot of them are on death’s doorstep due to the beating they received, making now the time to buy. And don’t worry about finding parts—these cars are well supported. See how Robert Miller got his groove on with this 1987 LX “notchback” here.
Pontiac Turbo Trans Am GTA
When the third generation of Pontiac’s Firebird came out in 1982 (with the Chevy Camaro on the same platform) it was a huge hit even if it wasn’t that potent. Over the years, they got faster, and by 1989 (on the Trans Am’s 20th anniversary) Pontiac somehow pulled off the impossible by installing the 3.8L V–6 turbo engine from the 1987 Buick Grand National into the Trans Am GTA Indy Pace Car. When they did this, they bumper power output to 250 hp, but reviewers of the era knew it was closer to 300 hp—unheard of for the day. Only 1,555 were made—all replicas of the Indy pace car—and if you can get your hands on one, it will surprise you with its 162–mph top speed and 4.6-second 0-to-60 time. Read more about ’em here.
Chevy Camaro IROC Z/28
The International Race of Champions—IROC for short—was a racing series created by Roger Penske to allow drivers from the world’s major race series to compete in identically prepared cars on the same track. Things really got going once Chevy got involved to build the IROC race cars using the third-generation Camaro shape as an envelope. The marketing move allowed Chevy to build street versions (1985 to 1990) with special cladding, wheels, spoilers, and decals—but also the Corvette’s tuned-port small-block and tuned suspension. The IROC Camaro was a hit with buyers, and so many were made that they are viable project candidates today. Before you check them out, read about their street history here.
Buick Grand National GNX
You hear a lot about the 1978 to 1988 GM G-body—an excellent platform on which to build a hot rod—but the granddaddy of them all would have to be the 1987 Buick Regal Grand National GNX. Just 547 units were built—or should we say, converted—by ASC/McLaren. As with the 1989 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am GTA Indy Pace Car, lots of lyin’ was being done by GM—the good kind—as the GNX was way underrated at 276 hp. With it’s upgraded turbo, intercooler, injectors, torque-arm rear, high-performance suspension, and larger-diameter euro-lace wheels, the GNX was the devil’s own hot rod long before the Hellcat was conceived. See how George Lyons rescued the third GNX ever built (and the official test car Buick sent to magazines) after sitting fallow for over 20 years here.
Chevy Monte Carlo SS Aero Coupe
Returning to the 1978 to 1988 GM G-body theme, the Chevy Monte Carlo SS is arguably the most widely recognized personal luxury coupe of the 1980s. Endowed with the 305ci small-block Chevy, it was popular with performance-minded buyers even if it wasn’t all that fast. NASCAR was a big driver of sales as the Monte Carlo was Chevy’s entry into the sport, and by 1986 the model became available with a sloped rear glass. This enhanced the aerodynamics on superspeedways and gave the car a special look. To homologate them for NASCAR, Chevy built 200 in 1986 and 3,500 for 1987. These were the best of the breed, and though they’re rare, they can still be found. See how Jegs built one to show off some of their performance parts here.
Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2
Not to be outdone by sibling brand Chevrolet, Pontiac was also heavily into NASCAR and used its version of the GM G-body—the Grand Prix—to do battle on the speedway. When Chevy went with the aero-back glass, Pontiac did the same for the 1986 model-year Grand Prix and raised the ante with a special aerodynamic nose and grille. The car was called the “2+2” and was available in limited quantities like the Chevy aero coupe. (Just 1,118 were made.) As an interesting side note, Richard Petty’s last win was scored not in a Mopar but in a Pontiac Grand Prix. Check out Chris Bischof’s open road-race 1986 Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2 here.
Hurst Oldsmobile Cutlass
While Oldsmobile was also deep into the NASCAR weeds in the 1980s, they did not make a special homologated version of the Cutlass. Instead, they went for the drag racing crowd and, through their long association with Hurst Performance, joined forces to build a limited run of Hurst Olds Cutlasses for the 1983 and 1984 model years. Built in significant enough numbers to warrant a search (3,001 were built for 1983 and 3,500 for 1984), the Hurst featured a “lightning rod” shifter built by Hurst that was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. While there’s nothing special about the 307ci Oldsmobile small-block under the hood, the upgraded dual exhaust, chrome wheels, and special paint/graphic treatment made it a standout in most other ways. Of all the ‘80s G-bodies, these were by far the most beautiful and, as a result, one of the most stolen cars of its day. Tom DeMauro’s read on the subject is well worth the time here.
Lincoln Mark VII
What many folks don’t realize is that the Lincoln Mark VII is just an upscale version of a Mustang. Built on the Ford Fox-body platform from 1983 to 1992, the Mark VII rolled in style with space-age style, a comfy cockpit, and that all-important V–8 Windsor engine and AOD four-speed automatic. When you find them, they are often less expensive than same-year Mustangs and in better shape, to boot. The best part is they take the same engine, powertrain, and chassis aftermarket parts as same-year Fox-body Mustangs, making them great hot rods. We can’t understand why more folks don’t snatch them up; there’s such a dearth of hot rod Lincolns that we could only find this one black and white photo from decades ago.
Chrysler Conquest TSI
Are you a Mopar fan and upset there’s no ChryCo machinery so far? We could’ve made a lame effort to talk about the K-car versions (the Shelby GLH and GLHS) or the 318ci-powered Dodge Dakota pickup, but why do that when Chrysler imported the rear-drive Mitsubishi Starion, called it the Chrysler Conquest, then upped the power in TSI trim (174 hp) with an intercooler and bigger injectors? The Conquest TSI, if not the fastest thing on the road, it sure looked it with its sleek styling, wide fender flares, big rolling stock, and plenty of aero enhancements. I took a test drive in one when they were new, and it moved out well while making all the right sounds. These get LS-swapped all the time, but wouldn’t you rather have a Hemi? Hoonigan is on the right track with this one here!