The Ugliest Cars Of The 1980s
The Eighties were a decade of bold, attractive design. Meet the exceptions.
As the largely aesthetics-free 1970s came to a close, it was clear that the 1980s would be a decade of bold design. The '80s did yield some beautiful cars, but also brought forth some horrifically ugly ones. Here are twenty of the worst offenders.
1980 Cadillac Seville
We can't find much in the way of explanation for the "bustle-back" Cadillac Seville, but it's pretty obvious that whoever signed off on the design didn't walk around the back of the car. Some have said the Seville's droopy butt was inspired by the Daimler DS420 Limousine, choice ride of royalty around the world, which just goes to prove that old Billy Joel lyric: "You can't dress trashy 'til you spend a lot of money." The Seville was equally ugly from a mechanical standpoint, having hosted many of General Motors' worst engines: The undersized 4.1 liter V-8, the abominable Oldsmobile diesel, and—of course—the disastrous V-8-6-4. Amazingly, the Seville sold steadily, if not strongly, for its six-year run.
1980 Chevrolet Citation
So many words have been slathered on the awful engineering and execution of GM's front-wheel-drive X-cars that its appearance has largely escaped the shaming it so richly deserves. The Citation was supposed to echo slick European hatchbacks, but it was clearly an American interpretation: Fat, lazy, and damned proud of it. There is something in the Citation's stance, the way it sinks down over its undersized wheels, that makes one think that it would spend all of its time lying on the couch watching Jerry Springer, scratching its genitals, and gorging itself on sour cream and onion potato chips, if only it weren't so busy breaking down and being taken back to the dealership for warranty repairs. How did buyers of the 1980s look at this thing and not know it was going to be miserable?
1980 Excalibur Series IV
Excalibur Motors got its start when Brooks Stevens designed the questionably-named Studebaker SS, an early retro-mobile that mimicked the Mercedes-Benz SSK. In 1963 he started his own company to do just the same, and truth be told, the early models weren't as awful as they could have been. In 1980 the company decided it was time for a major restyle, and so the Excalibur Series IV was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. With its split windshield, squared-off backlight, and faux wire wheels, it looked like a pimpmobile that had undergone deeply-discounted (and ultimately unsuccessful) reconstructive surgery. Happily, Excalibur went bankrupt in 1986, but the company was revived three times between 1987 and 2003 before finally dying out for good. Hasn't anyone read The Monkey's Paw?
Photo by Selyobwoc, used under CC by SA 4.0
1980 Ferrari Mondial
Anyone who says there is no such thing as an unattractive Ferrari clearly hasn't encountered this visual horror. While other Ferraris are svelte and sexy, the Mondial is long and lumpy, the predictably disagreeable result of combining a back seat, a mid-engine layout and a transversely-mounted V-8 all in the same car. Surprisingly, the awkward proportions aren't the Mondial's worst styling trait—it's that awful bent-down nose with the Venetian blinds running across its full width. Though we don't have proof, we're pretty sure the Mondial was the result of a bet at Pininfarina: "A hundred thousand lire says I can design a Ferrari that can't get its owner laid!"
1980 Fiat Panda
Fiat wanted the Panda to be a back-to-basics economy car, but it seems it carried the theme way the hell too far. The straight-edge sheetmetal stampings, unpainted bumpers and flat glass indicated a level of parsimony usually reserved for the feeding of prisoners. Inside, the Panda had the most unfinished-looking dashboard this side of a Telsa Model 3: An unadorned cloth-covered shelf with a small box containing the speedo and heater controls, which appeared to be glued on more or less in front of the steering wheel. The seats were as thin as pizza boxes and only slightly less comfortable to sit on. The Panda had all the ambiance of a folklift, but without the comfort or performance. Amazingly, Fiat kept this penalty box in production for twenty-three years.
1980 Toyota Corolla Tercel
The Tercel was Toyota's first transverse-engine, front-wheel-drive car, and it's difficult to imagine what led to its ridiculous-looking docked tail. Our guess is that the engineers asked the stylists to emphasize the compactness of the powertrain, but neglected to tell them which end of the car housed the engine. Or perhaps there was a typo in the specs, and the designers didn't find out until moments before design sign-off that the car needed to be ten inches shorter than they thought. Whatever went wrong, the result was that the tinny, cheap-looking Tercel wound up looking even tinnier and cheaper-looking than it needed to be.
1981 AMC Eagle Kammback
If you think this looks like some redneck took an AMC Gremlin and made his-self a 4x4, you're half right. What really happened was that some car factory took an AMC Gremlin and made itself a 4x4. Back in the late 70s, AMC had outdated cars and no money—but they also had the Jeep division and its know-how, and so they came up with the Eagle line of 4x4s. The Hornet-based—sorry, Concord-based—wagon was pretty cool, and the sedan was silly but sensible, but when they got to the Gremlin-based—er, Spirit-based—Kammback, cheapest of the Eagle models, they were perhaps taking things just a little too far. The Wagon sold like hotcakes, presaging the success of the Subaru Outback and other crossovers, but the Kammback only found 5,603 buyers. Look through AMC's old sales brochures and you'll see that they never show the Kammback from the rear, probably because they knew people would recognize it as a Gremlin on stilts. Say what you will about AMC, but their marketing people weren't stupid. Or at least not as stupid as the Eagle Kammback.
1981 Maserati Biturbo
Masers are supposed to look cool. They are supposed to look sexy. They are not supposed to look like Chevy Citation coupes.
1982 Nissan Stanza wagon
Many automotive pundits have rightly pointed out that the crossover SUV was really invented in the 1980s with cars like the Nissan Stanza wagon, but they didn't sell because the public just wasn't ready for them. Wrong! They didn't sell because they looked like this.
1983 Glenfrome Facet
We're at a loss to explain the Glenfrome Facet, which looks rather like a cross between a Lamborghini LM002, an AMC Gremlin, a congenital skin disorder and an industrial accident. Glenfrome was a British firm that specialized in customizing Range Rovers for rich Middle Eastern clients, and while we are assured there is a Range Rover under all that tortured sheetmetal, we don't entirely believe it. Designed by Dennis Adams, the scoundrel responsible for Marcos Engineering's rolling eyesores, the Facet had a removable targa top—hydraulically lifted, natch—that could be stored under the hood. Glenfrome billed the Facet as a go-anywhere sport coupe and sold it for £55,000 (about $82,500 at the exchange rate of the day, or about $214,000 adjusted for inflation), proving once again that old adage about fools and their money.
1984 Ford Tempo
The Tempo was the first North American car to use Ford's new aerodynamic design language, which centered around European-style flush-mounted headlights—except those headlights weren't approved in time for the Tempo's 1983 launch, so it had to make due with square sealed-beam headlights in chrome buckets. Oops! The promised headlights finally arrived for 1986, but in 1988 Ford restyled the Tempo sedan with a frumpy, squared-off rear end—so within the space of two years they fixed one end of the car and ruined the other. Oops again! The Tempo coupe escaped this ignominy and actually evolved into a pretty decent-looking car. Unfortunately, decent looks didn't help the crude engine (created by lopping two cylinders off Ford's '60s-era 200-cid straight six) or the cheaply-engineered suspension.
1984 Lincoln Mark VII
The Mark VII LSC was actually a pretty slick performance car, but what made it so good was the same thing that made the styling so bad: It was basically a Mustang GT with big chrome-y overhangs stuck on the ends. The LSCs were fast, but non-LSC cars basically had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
1984 Zimmer Quicksilver
Zimmer built what are known in polite circles as "neo-classic" cars, the fine art of taking perfectly good automobiles and ruining them with tacked-on old-timey styling bits. Of all the visual pollution created by Zimmer, the Quicksilver is arguably the worst offender. Zimmer started with a production vehicle and stretched the wheelbase 15 inches, providing for a basketball-court front end that was filled with… nothing. That's because the Quicksilver was based on a Pontiac Fiero. No, that is not a typo. Despite having a tennis-court-sized hood designed to recall the giant V-8s and V-12s of yesteryear, the Quicksilver is powered by a crummy little V-6 located behind the passenger compartment. Despite the giant chrome bumper, the Quicksilver kept the Fiero's pop-up headlights, because why throw away a perfectly good set? Here's the punchline: Zimmer sold this ostentatious heap for around $50,000, the same price as a contemporary Mercedes 500 SEL. We can think of better uses for that kind of money, like gathering it into a pile and setting it on fire.
1985 Alfa Romeo Milano
What the hell happened here? Our best guess: The Milano was originally designed as a large car, then the decision came to downsize it, and halfway through the conversion the CAD software crashed.
1985 Cadillac deVille
You have to admire the 1977 Cadillacs, which managed to survive GM's corporate downsizing mandate with some modicum of dignity and individuality. When the time came to downsize again, that all went out the window. The 1985 Cadillacs were runts, tiny and undignified and way the hell too similar to the Oldsmobiles and Buicks with which they obviously shared most of their parts. The Cimarron gets much of the blame for killing Cadillac, but these half-pint excuses for luxury cars deserve a gallon-sized share of the blame. GM in the 1980s had its corporate head firmly up its corporate rectum, and a fix was way too long in coming. The 1989 DeVilles got a wheelbase stretch, a longer trunk and better proportions, but by then the damage was done—the brand that was once the Standard of the World was now the Laughingstock of the World.
1985 Subaru XT
In the 1980s it seemed that the Japanese automakers could do no wrong, but the Subaru XT coupe proved they could do plenty. Seemingly designed with only the aid of a straight-edge, the XT Coupe might have been an '80s design classic had it looked a bit more like a car and a bit less like a doorstop. The interior was even more bizarre, with an LCD dash that looked like a cheap video game, a sideways-L-shaped steering wheel, and a giant shift lever that was uncomfortably phallic. Its turbocharged engine produced a mere 111 horsepower, meaning the turbo's boost was more like a stiff breeze. Subaru made a 4x4 version with air springs that raise the ride height for off-roading, and that was kind of cool—but cool isn't necessarily pretty.
1986 Monte Carlo Aerocoupe
Back in the 1980s, Ford's slippery Thunderbird was giving Chevrolet's blocky Monte Carlo what-for in NASCAR racing, the problem being that the Chevy's upright rear window made it about as aerodynamic as an apartment building. The solution was to graft on faster glass, and that required Chevrolet to build at least 200 for customers in order to qualify it as a production car. (Pontiac had its own version, the Grand Prix 2+2.) The result was uglier than expected, the elongated rear glass seeming to highlight the Monte Carlo's ridiculously long front overhangs. GM at this time couldn't be bothered to spend money on frivolities like engineering, so rather than build a proper hatchback, they gave the Aerocoupes a tiny trunk lid, leaving plenty of space for golf clubs and big suitcases provided you first ran them over with a steam roller. Despite their extreme rarity, Aerocoupes still command pedestrian prices, proving that ugliness transcends time.
1986 Buick Riviera/Cadillac Eldorado/Oldsmobile Toronado
The trouble with GM's new-for-1986 E-body cars wasn't so much that they were ugly; a bit blobby, perhaps, but they certainly weren't as unattractive as the other cars on this list. No, the problem was that they were nearly identical to the mass-market N-bodies (Buick Skylark, Oldsmobile Calais, Pontiac Grand Am) that dealers were flogging to the bad-credit-no-credit-no-problem set. Imagine if Lexus made the stunning LC coupe look exactly like a Toyota Yaris, and you'll see the problem. Intended to battle a forecasted rise in oil prices, these new E-body cars went on sale just as gas prices tumbled, and all three models saw the sorts of massive sales declines that often lead marketing executives to jump out of windows.
1987 Nissan Pulsar NX
The Pulsar NX's claim to fame was that it had interchangeable rear hatches, which means you could drive it as either an unfinished-looking hatchback or a dopey-looking half-wagon. Turns out this was a feature desired by precisely zero buyers. Good dynamics might have overcome the Pulsar's silly looks, but it was based on the Sentra and driving it packed all the thrills of a new-hire orientation at Staples.
1989 Nissan S-Cargo
"Oh, I get it—it's a cargo van that looks like a snail, and you called it S-Cargo!" The fact that this rolling joke made it into production is evidence that for all the wonderful devices Japan had created by the late 1980s, they still hadn't invented a working sense of humor. The S-Cargo was theoretically an homage to the Citroen 2CV, but in reality, the two cars are about as similar to each other as Diego Velázquez's Christ Crucified is to Andes Serrano's Piss Christ. If only they'd waited until Photoshop had been invented to come up with this idea—it would have been an April Fool's joke and twenty-four hours later we all could have gotten on with our lives.