The 1980s were the last, best time to learn how to drive. Yes, we ran around unbelted. Yes, we drove cars that were wildly unsafe. Yes, we invented the mullet.
But for all those valid concerns, getting a license in the 1980s still represented our first real taste of freedom. If you got your license during the Reagan/Bush years, then here are some experiences you probably remember.
(Editor’s Note: There’s a bunch of photos in this story from Keith McManus that ran in the Sun-Sentinel. They’re not all car pictures, but if you’re nostalgic for the 1980s at all, spend some time with them.)
Your High School Parking Area Looked Like the Set of Heavy Metal Parking Lot
If you’re between the ages of 45 and 55 and you’ve never seen Heavy Metal Parking Lot, boy, are you in for a treat. It’s as if the filmmakers compressed your entire adolescence into 17 minutes.
As the title implies, the mini-documentary takes place in a parking lot, on the grounds of Largo, Maryland’s Capital Centre, on what appears to be a warm summer night when Judas Priest was in town. The dialogue is CLASSIC 1980s, NSFW and hilarious, but the cars on display are like a cross-section of every high school parking lot in America circa 1984.
Your Sparkomatic Cassette Player Had Fast Forward, But No Rewind
Long before cassette players had auto-reverse as a standard feature, you used to have to eject the cassette and flip it over to hear the other side. And in the early years of automotive cassette players, if you were a real cheapskate who didn’t buy into decent stereo gear from Sony or Pioneer, you got a Sparkomatic cassette player off the conveyor belt at Service Merchandise and it came with a fast-forward function, but no rewind.
Apparently, it was really cost-effective for those electronics geniuses at Sparkomatic to build cassette players without a rewind idler, so if you wanted to go back one song, you ejected the tape, flipped it over, fast-forwarded for around 22 seconds, ejected the tape and reinserted it to get back to it. All while driving the car, smoking a Newport and drinking a Coke. You think distraction is a problem with an iPhone.
You Had No Idea How Seatbelts Worked Until 1993
The only people who wore seatbelts in the 1980s must’ve worked for NHTSA. Manufacturers had been installing them in cars since 1968 when they were ordered to by the federal government, and from that point forward, car builders and policymakers tried everything to get people to use them. First was just a gentle reminder on the dash. Then there was a light on the dash. Then a light and a buzzer. Then a buzzer that wouldn’t turn off, so you pulled the fuse, or you wrapped the seatbelt behind you instead of just clicking it over your body the way the manufacturer intended.
In the 1980s, states encouraged seatbelt use by merely suggesting it was a pretty good idea. In 1993, that all started to change as California passed the nation’s first seatbelt law that made not wearing one a primary violation, meaning you could be stopped and ticketed just for not wearing one, rather than having to be stopped for a more serious violation first.
Four-Doors Were For Your Mom
In the late 1980s, four-door cars really started to be seen as something other than what your grandpa drove. Sedans from BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz started their widespread march across the country, and coupes and convertibles started to fade away.
In the earlier part of the decade, though, the cool kids drove coupes. The sedan was the Dodge Dart that your mom drove and handed down to you when she picked up that cute new Plymouth Horizon. They were cars you wouldn’t have purchased on your own, ever, but would drive if you absolutely had to until you could scrape enough money together for a Duster.
$1 Per Gallon Gasoline Was Front-Page News
Even though AAA reports that gas prices are at their highest level in six months, we’re still enjoying a period of relatively affordable gasoline prices at a national average of $2.29 per gallon. If $2.29 was the average price for a gallon of gas in 1982, all hell would’ve broken loose and the world would’ve ground to a halt.
When gas prices climbed to the $1 per gallon level in 1981, and then kept right on rising up to $1.35, it made national news on every network, and in every major city newspaper, which sent photographers to gas stations to take pictures of people on stepladders changing numbers.
(Image Source: InflationData.com)
But the price on the pump only tells half the story. The reason it was nationally reported was because a dollar was simply worth more in 1981. If you adjust for inflation, the real price of gas in 1981 was about $3.50 a gallon, the highest adjusted price for gasoline since 1918, and just a few pennies shy of the $3.54 average that felt so horrible in 2008 and 2012.
You Had a Minitruck
In just a few short years, minitrucks went from the domain of Japanese gardeners in southern California to the hottest vehicle segment to come along since the Volkswagen Beetle. They were affordable, durable, handsome little trucks that offered good fuel economy like a compact car, but the usefulness of a bed for hauling around other kids, who (as mentioned earlier) had a natural aversion to anything remotely safe.
Datsun and Toyota owned the market, but by the mid-1970s, domestic automakers launched their own lines of small pickup trucks. Ford, Chevy and Dodge started out selling captive imports – Japanese pickups rebadged as American brands – like the smartly styled Ford Courier, Chevy LUV and Dodge Ram 50.
Before long, though, Ford, Chevrolet and GMC were building their own compact pickups in the form of the Ford Ranger, Chevrolet S10 and GMC S15. Dodge hung in with the Mitsubishi-sourced Ram 50 until it built its own truck, but it was the upsized Dodge Dakota instead of a true minitruck.
The Car You Drove Is Now a “Collector Car”
Really special cars like COPO Camaros and SD Trans Ams were always pretty expensive, but in the middle 1980s, you could purchase a 1967 Pontiac GTO by saving the money you earned cutting grass all spring and summer.
A recent scan of the archives of the Chicago Tribune from July 11, 1982 reveals that you could buy a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am — “T-Top, Black, Loaded” — for $7,999.
(Image Source: Chicago Tribune)
The same paper has a line ad for a 1969 Pontiac Grand Prix — “Loaded, Lo mi” — for $4,750 or best offer, and a 1974 Pontiac Firebird Formula 400 with a 1972 455-cu.in. V-8 and fresh paint for $2,500.
You Drove a Car From a Brand That No Longer Exists
“Orphan cars,” they’re called, but in the 1980s, they were produced by brands with proud histories, at a rate that modern car companies would love to achieve today.
It’s no surprise that half the people you knew drove an Oldsmobile in the 1980s. Beginning in 1977 and continuing for several years during the 1980s, Oldsmobile sold a million cars a year, rivaling car companies like Ford and Chevrolet. Twenty five years later, Oldsmobile would cease production completely, something that few drivers in the 1980s could have foreseen.
Storied American car brands like Pontiac, AMC, Plymouth and Mercury were all still going concerns in the 1980s, and they are all history now. European and Japanese brands left America, but are still largely in the car business elsewhere.
You Know the Pain of Shorts and Black Vinyl Seats
Today’s youth drives around in economy cars with standard air and cloth seating surfaces. If you drove a car in high school with air conditioning in the 1980s, you were either some kind of one-percenter, or it was broken. Cloth seats — at least on the used cars of the era — were limited to brands like Cadillac and Lincoln, and the higher trims of cars from Buick, Olds and Mercury.
The bulk of cars we drove around had rugged vinyl seats that would heat to approximately 1,843 degrees Fahrenheit, and that was before Memorial Day. By Fourth of July, sitting on the black vinyl seats of a Camaro while wearing cutoffs would result in a trip to the burn ward.
T-Top All The Things!
In the 1970s, NHTSA was pondering mandatory roof strength standards that would’ve made convertible tops unfit for production in the United States. The industry responded with all manner of configurations that provided acceptable roof strength, but still allowed passengers to enjoy the open air. Targa tops and moonroofs are still with us, but the T-Top — introduced in 1968 on the Chevrolet Corvette — was a feature that ended up on tons of cars in the 1980s.
Thanks to Smokey and the Bandit, T-Tops were wildly popular on GM’s F-body Firebird and Camaro, but GM certainly didn’t stop there. The roofs were on the A-body (and later G-body) midsize cars like the Buick Century Pace Car replica shown above, along with cars like the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix and Oldsmobile Cutlass.
Ford had T-Tops on the now-maligned, but once wildly popular Mustang II, and on both the Fox-bodied Mustang and the badge-engineered Mercury Capri, and also featured that style of roof on a few years of the Thunderbird.
Chrysler reserved T-Tops for bigger cars like the Dodge Magnum and Mirada, and the Ricardo Montalban-approved Chrysler Cordoba.
Searching for your high school car from the 1980s? Begin your quest at BestRide.com.