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.
The Escort-based Mercury LN7 is a fitting way to start. Those frog-eyed headlight surrounds appeared ungainly, and they’ve stayed that way.
Those early EXP/LN7 instrument panels looked great in print, but the panels never lined up like that in reality.
The Omni-based Dodge Charger 2.2 was a first gasp of rediscovering performance, and so it got lots of ink from reviewers.
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.
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.
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.
Luxobarges were not normally advertised in enthusiast publications, but here’s the Buick Riviera showing off its features. Bumper guards!
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.
Jeep shows its strength with its pickup…
…while Ford emphasized economy. Both were pointed upward, like a Soviet victory propoganda poster.
Imported brands were still getting their footholds in the US market, so Audi stressed its German heritage.
Honda showcased a gimmick.
Subaru, as always, stressed all-wheel drive.
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.
While Saab simply let its freak flag fly.
Car stereos were big business. Baseball star Reggie Jackson shilled for Panasonic.
The digital displays we take for granted were promoted in aftermarket units like this Mitsubishi…
…along with this factory Delco unit, which was an option in the more expensive GM cars.
Radar detectors came in all shapes and sizes…
…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.
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.
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.
Catch you next time we pop open another old car mag. Tell us in the comments – which of these products would you buy?