OLD CAR MAGS: The Ads In April 1981’s Motor Trend

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The year 1981 was a funny one in the car biz. The seller’s market of the late-1970s sank with the recession, and the underpowered models that proliferated disappointed car enthusiasts far and wide. From this slice in time comes a look what the advertisers in May 1981’s Motor Trend hoped readers would buy.

This issue came in a 10-magazine haul from eBay.

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The Escort-based  Mercury LN7 is a fitting way to start. Those frog-eyed headlight surrounds appeared ungainly, and they’ve stayed that way.

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Those early EXP/LN7 instrument panels looked great in print, but the panels never lined up like that in reality.

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The Omni-based Dodge Charger 2.2 was a first gasp of rediscovering performance, and so it got lots of ink from reviewers.

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The EPA fuel economy estimates were pure fantasy. Updated figures at fueleconomy.gov go back to 1984, and a 2.2 Charger from that year would pull 21 city and 31 highway.

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Base price would be $16,680 in 2015 dollars, which sounds amazing. But just about everything was optional, including the sport suspension. Stripes and a stuck-on hood scoop were riding on limp, family-tuned shocks. Ridiculous, and so true to 1981’s inability to produce a true muscle car.

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Related: Five Cool Cars From The Height Of The Malaise Era

Red meant performance, and Chevy also used it to promote its sporty Citation, the X-11.

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The stain of unreliability was indelibly ground into the 1980 Citation, and so the second-year slogan aimed to ameliorate that. If you have to say that it works, then there’s a good chance that it won’t.

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Luxobarges were not normally advertised in enthusiast publications, but here’s the Buick Riviera showing off its features. Bumper guards!

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More traditional luxury shows up as Johnny Rutherford’s wife’s ride, a sparkling white 1981 Chrysler Imperial. We’re assuming the boxes of hairspray she’s buying in bulk are in the trunk.

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Related: Found On Craigslist: 13 Fun Ones From 1981

Jeep shows its strength with its pickup…

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…while Ford emphasized economy. Both were pointed upward, like a Soviet victory propoganda poster.

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Imported brands were still getting their footholds in the US market, so Audi stressed its German heritage.

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Honda showcased a gimmick.

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Subaru, as always, stressed all-wheel drive.

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Related: Found On Craigslist: Cars Of The Year – Where Are They Now?

Swedish brands were also pounding their stakes into the ground. Volvo was beginning its decades-long quest to be seen as something sportier than a box.

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While Saab simply let its freak flag fly.

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Car stereos were big business. Baseball star Reggie Jackson shilled for Panasonic.

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The digital displays we take for granted were promoted in aftermarket units like this Mitsubishi

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…along with this factory Delco unit, which was an option in the more expensive GM cars.

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Radar detectors came in all shapes and sizes…

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…but those in the know stuck with Cincinnati Microwave’s top-performing Escort. It’s a thousand kinds of strange that the first endorsement in the third column is from Penthouse Magazine. I snuck a view into my older brother’s Penthouse collection for an entirely different reason.

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No car mag from this period would be complete without the cigarette ads. These models piercing their gazes into the camera was a distinctly 1970s style.

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This gave way to a less-threatening 1980s side glance, even as this model appears to embody all the ruthless evil we ascribe to those sellers of cancer sticks.

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Catch you next time we pop open another old car mag. Tell us in the comments – which of these products would you buy?

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