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How Muscle Cars Work

Midsize Muscle Cars in the 1980s and 1990s

The renaissance of modern muscle cars in the 1980s and 1990s relied mostly on the pony car, but the classic midsize body type hosted its share of reborn stormers.

The hottest of these came from Buick, of all places, part of the brand's early-'80s effort to liven up its traditionally staid image. All were contemporary rear-drive Regal coupes using turbocharged versions of Buick's mainstay 3.8-liter V-6. First up was the 1982 T-Type, sporting fat tires, beefed-up chassis, and a jazzed-up exterior.

1983 Hurst/Olds
©2007 Auto Imagery, Inc.
The Hurst/Olds was back in 1983 after several years on the sideline. It wasn't
as powerful as its predecessors, but it looked tough and handled well.

Horsepower was 175-180, then 200 for 1984. There was also a fancy 1982 limited edition called Grand National, after the Chevy-powered Buicks then starting to clean up in NASCAR. The GN took the next year off and then returned with a mean all-black exterior and other unique touches.

Muscle Cars
That Inspired
the New Breed
The resurrected midsize muscle cars took inspiration from the last of the classic muscle breed. To learn about out these classics, see:
  • Healthy torque, ram air, and a stout suspension meant muscle was still alive in the 1971 Buick GS 455.
  • Muscle cars were in retreat, but the 1971 Oldsmobile 4-4-2 W-30 fought back with a functional-scoop fiberglass hood and 350 bhp.
  • The 1971 Plymouth 440+6 held out against the anti-muscle tide with 385 bhp of good-old tri-carb, big-block bravado.

For 1986, both T-Type and Grand National added a turbo intercooler that swelled horsepower to 235. Another 10 horses made the '87s among the fastest cars around, with 0-60 scoot of about 6 seconds.

But the best of these Buick muscle cars was the 1987 Buick GNX, a $30,000 end-of-the-series screamer with a bigger turbo and even meaner looks. Horsepower was 300 advertised, 276 actual, matched by prodigious torque. Performance was sensational even by today's standards. Car and Driver magazine timed just 4.7 seconds 0-60 and 13.5 at 102 mph in the quarter-mile.

Exciting stuff, but completely irrelevant to Buick's business: No more than 5,000 T-Types sold for 1982-87, just 547 GNXs. These rapid Regals got plenty of enthusiast attention -- especially the GNX, which is now a pricey collector's item -- but mainstream Buick buyers just scratched their heads.

Meanwhile, the Hurst/Olds returned for 1983 after several years away. It was much like the Regal T-Type, being based on the related Cutlass Supreme, but used a mild 180-bhp 307 Olds-built V-8. A special feature was a mandatory automatic transmission with Hurst's "Lightning Rod" shifter that provided a main control stick and separate levers for manual shifting of first and second. Though lacking the brash brawn of the old big-blocks, this new H/O looked purposeful, handled well, and was decently quick at around 8 seconds 0-60, 16 in the quarter.

Production -- by Olds, not Hurst -- stopped after '84 and 6,501 total units. A new 4-4-2 then came in, basically the H/O with more sedate looks and a normal single-stick shifter. It lasted through 1987 and about 4,210 sales.

Chevrolet followed a similar low-calorie formula for a 1983 revival of an SS option for its midsize Monte Carlo coupe. An "aero" nose was the most notable thing about it.

For 1986 came the Monte SS Aerocoupe and a sister Pontiac Grand Prix, the 2+2. Each was built to qualify for NASCAR, evident in the special down sloped rear window designed for better "aero" and more top speed. The 2+2 also sported its own wind-cheater nose but was dropped after one year and 1,118 units (only 200 in street-legal trim). The Aerocoupe saw 200 first-year copies and 6,052 for '87.

Those ballistic Buicks excepted, '80s midsize muscle cars were pale imitations of the best of their '60s forebears. Still, they conjured up some of their spirit. It fell to a full-size muscle car to recapture both the style and the substance of its ancestors.

The 1994-1996 Chevrolet Impala SS was based on an auto-show concept that had people waving checkbooks. Its formula was time-honored. Stuff a mass-market Caprice four-door sedan with a 260-bhp 350 V-8 pulled from the Corvette sports car. Give it tighter gearing, quick steering, firm suspension, and performance tires to make it surprisingly agile for a two-ton full-size Detroiter. And lay on a monochrome exterior, subtle rear spoiler, handsome five-spoke wheels, and a rumbling baritone exhaust to leave no doubt about its purpose.

Though not quite a fire-breather, the resurrected Impala SS could stop the quarter-mile clock in a creditable 15 seconds or so. And with prices in the low $20,000s, it was a great buy in modern performance with a heavy dose of nostalgia. Demand strained Chevy's ability to supply 6,300-plus for '94, more than 21,000 for '95, and nearly 42,000 for '96, after which GM bailed on full-size rear-drive cars.

1989 Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Despite an attractive price tag, the 1989 Ford Thunderbird
Super Coupe failed to capture the imagination of the public.

There was one other "near" muscle car in this period, the Ford Thunderbird Super Coupe. Appearing with the new T-Bird generation of 1989, it intrigued enthusiasts with handsome European-influenced styling and a supercharged 232-cid V-6 making 210 bhp through 1993, then 230, good for 0-60s in the mid-7s or less. Like the Impala, the S/C moved like a star halfback, thanks to a standard firm suspension and performance tires, and was also attractively priced in the low $20,000s. But somehow, it never really caught on, and demand plunged once the Bird regained an optional V-8, which most buyers found far easier to live with. Ford pulled the plug after 1995.

The S/C was a noble effort, but it lacked the classic excitement of true high performance. Not so with the new hot wheels that roared in after 2002, as you'll see on the next page.

Return to Muscle Car Information Library.

For related car information, see these articles:

  • The engine is what gives a muscle car its flamboyant personality. To learn everything ­you need to know about car engines, see How Car Engines Work.
  • Muscle cars wouldn't have much muscle without horsepower -- but what exactly is horsepower? How Horsepower Works answers that question.
  • NASCAR race cars embody the muscle car philosophy of power. Read How NASCAR Race Cars Work to find out what makes these charged-up racers go.
  • Are you thinking of buying a 2007 muscle car, or any other car? See Consumer Guide Automotive's New-Car Reviews, Prices, and Information.