The 10 Most 1980s Car Features

Craig Cole
by Craig Cole

The 1980s was an important decade that shaped the world we live in today. During this period Madonna surged to stardom, personal computers revolutionized how people worked, Back to the Future burst into theaters and the Berlin Wall came a-tumblin’ down. Not surprisingly the automotive world was just as eventful.

Despite a near-death experience Chrysler bounced back, largely thanks to the minivan. Ford’s revolutionary Taurus set the standard for midsize sedans and John DeLorean introduced his iconic stainless-steel sports car.

Of course that’s not all. There are literally tons of vehicle features that are perfectly indicative of the ‘80s. What, you weren’t born during this glorious time period? That’s ok! Don a stonewashed jean jacket and join us for at trip down memory slow lane.

Thanks to the innovative compact-cassette you could take your favorite tunes with you in the car and still have room for passengers or cargo. This musical innovation dispatched with the eight-track player and its notoriously bulky cartridges. You could think of it as a VCR for your ears.

Like Sony’s iconic Walkman this feature spread the joy of music and helped define the 1980s. Dashboards from practically every manufacturer sported small rectangular slots where tapes were inserted.

Despite being surpassed by several other technologies, notably CDs and eventually MP3 players the cassette tape lived on well into the 21st century. Lexus, and Ford with its antiquated Crown Victoria large sedan, were the last automotive holdouts, keeping this feature alive until just a few years ago.

If your 1980s-ish car had headlight wipers chances are you were a baller. These chicken wing-sized blades cleared the lamps during inclement weather or when the lenses were covered in dirt. Think of them as the infotainment system of the day; they were high-tech and sought after… maybe.

These wipers were a staple feature of Volvo and Mercedes-Benz cars from this time period. And come on, who can argue with extra complexity and maintenance afforded by this technology, especially when the payoff is so irrelevant? Classify them with power antennas, bag phones and the column shifter… GLORIOUS!

Of course bench seats are by no means exclusive to the 1980s; vehicles such as rickshaws and horse-drawn carriages had them centuries before. But these billiard table-flat accommodations were extremely popular during Ronald Regan’s two terms in the White House, though not because of it.

Vehicles from pickup trucks to SUVs to family wagons had bench seats. They were designed to carry a maximum number of passengers in minimum comfort; side bolstering was nonexistent and hopefully you liked the people you were sitting next to. Additionally these chairs were often trimmed in velour that had been dyed in an obnoxious color. Fold-down armrests were a mark of true luxury; they were like Korea’s DMZ for squabbling siblings.

No automotive seating technology is better for transporting a family… or starting one! The unobstructed breadth of a bench seat practically encourages heavy petting and other licentious acts.

Another 1980s seating trend was button tufting. Ostensibly designed to make a car’s interior look plusher, this feature only highlighted the driver and/or automaker’s poor taste.

As the name suggests, buttons were sewn into the seating surface to give it a sort of “puckered” appearance. Oftentimes the little medallions were arranged in a geometric pattern for maximum gaudiness. Making the bad taste even more oppressive, this design trend was often applied to chintziest vinyl available, a glossy material that was also offered in horribly kitschy hues.

What’s old is new again… except when it isn’t. Along with other technological innovations like the calculator watch and Apple Macintosh computer, digital instrumentation was a big thing 30 years ago.

At the time, dreary green-on-black readouts were the mark of advanced engineering, though they’re laughably hideous by today’s standards. Still, modern vehicles are starting to go digital once again. Models like the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic as well as high-end luxury cars such as the latest Mercedes-Benz S-Class feature digital instrumentation, though full-color LCD screens have taken the place of alarm-clock readouts.

Aside from questionable electronics and garish vinyl the ‘80s are also famous for boxy styling. While not 100 percent certain, we suspect it was a legal requirement that cars of the period be designed exclusively with a straightedge. Rulers and squares were permitted; French curves and protractors were banned.

At this time Audi started a trend with it sleek, “aero-styled” vehicles. The cars they produced during this decade still look pretty attractive today, something you cannot say about products like the Pontiac 6000 or Dodge Aries.

Playing into the oppressive boxiness that was prevalent during this time period is another unfortunate design trend. For whatever reason fake wood paneling was splashed across more 1980s vehicles than we care to remember.

In decades past cars that featured REAL timber were often top-end versions of pricey models. High-brow vehicles from Buick, Packard or Mercury featured genuine wood that was painstakingly pieced together by master craftsmen (or women). Like the trimmings of a fine yacht these furnishings were then slathered with a durable, weather-resistant finish for lasting beauty.

Unfortunately wood-grained plastic and contact adhesive just aren’t as elegant. Nothing creams “class” louder than simulated imitation mahogany… low class, that is.

Don’t be a dummy, buckle up! Safety was an important issue during the 1980s and many new cars came with little stickers on the side glass reminding drivers and passengers alike to fasten their restraints. In a bid to get more people to buckle up automakers introduced motorized seat belts that made certain you were strapped in like an astronaut at launch time.

Serving front-seat riders these curious devices were attached to tracks that ran along the vehicle’s A-pillar and headliner. When you turned the ignition on they’d motor along said pathway, terminating near the B-post; of course you still had to manually fasten the lap belt so they were only half automatic. This sort of safety restraint was quite popular during the 1980s, though it lasted well into the ‘90s.

Not quite multi-port fuel injection, but not quite a carburetor, throttle-body injection was the interim gasoline-delivery technology that really came into its own during the 1980s. Thanks to the advent of affordable computer controls automakers could more precisely deliver air and fuel into engine cylinders, something that drastically improved efficiency and emissions.

Rather than having a dedicated injector for each cylinder throttle-body or central fuel injection placed a single delivery port at the throttle that served all cylinders. Think of it as half carburetor, half fuel injection. This technology was very cost effective and as a result extremely popular during the 1980s.

While hardly new, front-wheel drive was very trendy during the ‘80s. In a bid to improve their fuel economy numbers automakers switched from traditional rear-wheel-drive to this bass-ackwards layout.

The move brought about vehicle like Chrysler’s K-Car line, the Ford Escort, GM’s X-body models and countless others. Front-wheel drive afforded motorists things like more spacious cabins, lower vehicle mass, better traction, dumpy handling and crippling torque steer.

Craig Cole
Craig Cole

Born and raised in metro Detroit, Craig was steeped in mechanics from childhood. He feels as much at home with a wrench or welding gun in his hand as he does behind the wheel or in front of a camera. Putting his Bachelor's Degree in Journalism to good use, he's always pumping out videos, reviews, and features for AutoGuide.com. When the workday is over, he can be found out driving his fully restored 1936 Ford V8 sedan. Craig has covered the automotive industry full time for more than 10 years and is a member of the Automotive Press Association (APA) and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA).

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