Historiography: The Class of 1982

Thirty years ago…a lot happened.

The list can go on forever, but I will concentrate on the most important thing overall: Graduating high school. As I realize today that I am indeed on the latter side of my forties, remembering every moment of that year seems a bit difficult these days.

Thankfully, there's Google. Not for what I exactly did in 1982 – but, rather, the trivial parts of that year.

At the onset of graduation, I ended up with the responsibility of car ownership. My mother's 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Luxury Sedan was in my care. I was free to do what I please with it – replace tires, fuel up daily, baby the car when it overheated…and so forth.

By that time, I truly grasped the idea of the automobile and its inner workings. At least, it was getting there. Sports, cars and music filled my time in-between studies and various plots to go somewhere else. Girls? Well…you probably know where that went by now.

Next summer, a reunion is being planned for the Reseda High School Class of 1982. Since I skipped out on the 10th and 20th reunions, I am making a point to attend this one somewhere northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Believe me, I am looking forward to being there – it's been too damn long since I've seen many of my fellow Utopians (our class name…I'm not making this up…).

It is because of this upcoming occasion that I offer this little glimpse at our high school senior year through the windshield of the automobile industry.

Isn't that what an automotive journalist supposed to do? Look back at history. Remind us of what went right that year…and, what went wrong? Without further ado, I present the automotive scene of 1981-82 school year…

DEBUTS FOR 1982: General Motors debuted a slew of new vehicles for the model year, starting with the compact J-Body. The J-Body was a global platform that would spawn a total of eight different products ranging from the Opel Ascona to the Holden Camira. In North America, all five-passenger car brands were simply badge-engineered versions of the J. The Chevrolet Cavalier would be the volume seller amongst the five, followed by the Pontiac J2000, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza and the Cadillac Cimarron. Among the five, the Cavalier would survive all of the models made for North America.

The next big GM debut came in the form of the F-Body. Since 1970, GM's pony car held its own through the 1981 model year as both the Chevrolet Camaro and the Pontiac Firebird. These were icons in many ways, ranging from the original Camaro SS to the Trans Am of "Smokey and The Bandit." The third generation Camaro and Firebird would debut with modern styling and a bit more firepower. They would be as iconic as its predecessors in the years to come, especially when America began to rediscover the magic of horsepower.

It is of note that a sizable chunk of the Camaro and Firebird's production took place not far from Reseda – at GM's Van Nuys plant. The plant closed at the end of the F-Body's third generation's run in 1992.

GM also dove into the realm of the small pickup by introducing its first domestically built and developed line – the S-Truck. Chevrolet's S-10 and GMC's S-15 showed that North America can do battle with the Japanese, mainly with Toyota and Nissan. They seemed tougher than their competition, but GM's S-Trucks will soon be joined by other domestic competition in the years to come. Building the S-Truck became necessary as their small pickup truck supplier, Isuzu, began to sell their wares under their own brand and distribution network.

Perhaps the most significant debut at GM was the front drive A-Body. Slotted above the X-Body, the A-Body was intended to replace the first generation of downsized mid-sized models. The older rear-drive models soldiered on as the G-Body until the latter part of the decade. The A-Body was sold as the Chevrolet Celebrity, the Pontiac 6000, the Buick Century and the popular Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera. The A-Body would continue on with minor improvements well into the 1990s.

1982 Chrysler LeBaron. Photo courtesy of Chrysler Group LLC

Chrysler continued its development of the company-saving K-Car platform. Adding to the successful Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, the Chrysler LeBaron was switched to the front wheel drive lineup from an old rear-drive platform. The LeBarons were essentially upscale versions of the Aries and Reliant with padded roofs, a formal grille and other luxury touches inside and out. The big development that stemmed from the new LeBaron was the return of the convertible model. America fell in love with the open roof version that Dodge added another K-Car line above the Aries – the 400. What made the LeBaron special was the return of wood side paneling (albeit vinyl) to the wagon and convertible models – along with the nomenclature "Town & Country." These models were internally called the "Super K."

Chrysler also spawned two more variants from the Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon (L-Body) family for 1982 – the Dodge Rampage and the Plymouth Scamp. Based on the same principle as the Chevrolet El Camino, the Subaru BRAT and the Volkswagen Rabbit of the time, the Rampage/Scamp were a variation of the small sports coupes on the same platform as the Omni/Horizon (Dodge 024 and Plymouth TC3) – with a truck bed.

Ford added a sportier variant to the recently introduced Escort and Mercury Lynx with a pair of two-seat coupes from the same platform: the EXP and LN-7. These models were aimed for the small sports coupe set as an alternative to the 024 and TC3.

The biggest news from Dearborn was Lincoln's answer to the neo-1930s styling of the Cadillac Seville and the Chrysler Imperial: The Continental. The Seville came out as a concept that luxury can be modern and classical at the same time. It worked. The Imperial came along as it tried the same play on one of the rear-drive platforms lying around Highland Park. Luxury buyers didn't think much of it. Lincoln decided to prop up the Fox platform again for a smaller luxury sedan. The design was a mix of a cleaned-up Versailles and a 1941 Zephyr. There was a Continental tire impression on the trunk. Though it sold for $2,000 less than the front-drive Seville, it was still over $21,000 – big money back then.

American Motors also had a debut for the 1982 model year. Through its renewed partnership with Renault, AMC imported the curvacious Fuego coupe. Despite the promise of sportiness with both naturally aspirated and turbocharged engines available, the French hatchback coupe was quite a disappointment. Though I loved how it looked, it turned out to be a classic quality letdown for both Renault and AMC.

From Japan came the second generation Honda Accord. Since its 1976 debut as a hatchback coupe, Honda's larger car created a huge buzz and following augmenting its leadership in engineering and technology. The new Accord would become one of the first Japanese passenger vehicles to be built in North America at the Marysville, Ohio plant.

Toyota pulled out all the stops on its newest Celica and Supra. The design may be a bit folded over for most tastes; they catapulted Toyota into sports car lore. The Supra alone set the standard for Japanese six-cylinder coupes with its brutal power and right handling. Datsun's 280ZX was clearly outmatched by the Supra. In terms of the four-cylinder Celica – this would be the last rear-drive model of the line. But, boy, were they quite good. Not as good as the Supra, if I'm honest.

As Datsun continued rebranding itself to Nissan, the 210 finally gave way to a front-drive model – the Sentra. It was a relatively inexpensive line that offered a body style for every person – including a two-door hatchback coupe. They sold quite well, but Nissan had other issues looming as their sales had been hampered by a two-prong assault by both Toyota and Honda in the USA. Nonetheless, The Sentra did just fine here in its first model year.

Amongst the Europeans, Porsche introduced the 944 to awaiting enthusiasts wanting a better solution for the 924. Not satisfied with the Audi-developed four underneath the hood of the 924, Porsche went back to the drawing board with their own engine. The main thing they employed was a set of balancing shafts, a technology also used by Mitsubishi at the time. The result was an improvement, but not a lot of enthusiasts were convinced in the long run of the 944's legacy.

1983 Audi Quattro. Photo courtesy of Audi of America

While sharing showroom space with Porsche, Audi introduced its most potent product of the time – the Ur-Quattro. North Americans simply called it the Quattro Coupe. Though introduced as a 1983 model, the Quattro arrived to the delight of enthusiasts who wanted a rally car in their midst. Seriously, this had the cred and the victories to back it up. In their entire run in the USA, they only sold 664 units. But, knowing this beast was lurking on the roads in America probably caused a lot of coupe manufacturers to head back to the drawing board to find how to integrate all-wheel drive into their performance machinery.

BMW followed up on their 5-Series success with the E28, a sharpened up version of their executive sedan. It began with the 528e, but it would spawn a whole series of E28s that would prove legendary during its run through 1988 – including the first M5.

Volkswagen went to its latest Passat for their newest mid-sized sedan in North America, the Quantum. The Quantum was available in a three-door hatchback, four-door sedan and wagon. But, their best product of the year was the second generation Scirocco sports coupe. The Karmann-built model continued on the Golf/Rabbit platform, but with a modern design and interior. While the first generation was well-loved by VW enthusiasts, the second generation provided just as much fun, if not a better sorted drive.

THE SALES CHART: Going into 1982, the Oldsmobile Cutlass was the best selling passenger car in the USA. However, the Ford F-Series pickup sold the most units of any vehicle available in this country. Back in 1981, we did not view the pickup on an equal playing field as the passenger car. That would change rapidly throughout the decade

Introduced the year before, Ford brought out the front-wheel-drive Escort as part of a world car program. A true world car program is supposed to have the vehicle exactly the same in every market. However, Ford Americanized the Escort to the tastes of the marketplace. Since there were some economic issues that staggered throughout the year, the Escort became the best selling passenger car in 1982. The Cutlass ended up in second place. Overall, 1982 was a banner year for Ford.

The luxury car market had been status quo for decades with Cadillac on top of the heap. However, its leadership began to crumble a few years prior to 1982 thanks to a two-pronged premium car attack. On one flank, were the Germans. Mercedes-Benz sales had been on a huge climb through the 1970s into the early part of the 1980s. The new W126 S-Class was introduced the year before to great praise. Even with a slow economy, luxury car owners knew where to go for a grand product. BMW had also been gnawing at Cadillac’s leadership with a growing number of devotees to the Ultimate Driving Machine brand. The strength of the 3-Series and the iconic rise of the 6- and 7-Series provided a new challenge for the once and mighty crest-and-wreath.

However, there was a growing threat on this side of the pond: Lincoln. Ford had been planning and plotting the eventual takeover of the luxury market, though they were still two years away from introducing the one product that would help do that – the Mark VII. Lincoln had also been encroaching into the livery market slowly, as they matched sales with the Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham. Reliability problems with Cadillac's V8-6-4 and V8 diesel engines opened the door for Lincoln to grab some sales away from GM.

1982 Toyota Celica Liftback. Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.

THE SCENE AT RESEDA HIGH: Only a few people bought new cars that attended my high school. To my recollection, one person bought a new car – a Pontiac J2000. There may have been one or two others – perhaps my friends would help me out here.

Reseda was mainly a hard-working, middle-class neighborhood waning towards a period of decline. The Class of 1982 could be seen as the "last great class" at Reseda – depending on which perspective you looked at. As diverse, or "cosmopolitan" as stated by Assistant Principal Donna Smith at our orientation in 1979, as we were, that was reflected in the parking lots at our high school. Some came by a voluntary bus program from other parts of Los Angeles, while others came in from nearby Tarzana and a few neighborhoods in Encino.

The cars we drove reflected our roots and ambitions. Yet, we also dutifully rode the bus. Whether it was an old Crown school bus making its way from South Central Los Angeles or Monterey Park – or, the RTD on Reseda and Victory Boulevards – we got to school and back knowing that someday we will have a car like a few other classmates.

The students at Reseda High worked hard for what they wanted out of life. We lived and played hard. From what I've seen 30 years alter, most of us not only made it out of Reseda – we became successful as a result of our upbringing.

Every time I drive a vehicle review subject, I am reminded of where I came from. Yet, I am also reminded of how much things have changed since. Somewhere in a Lexus IS 250 C, a Chevrolet Silverado 2500HD, a Buick Regal or a Hyundai Elantra is a bit of Reseda inside of it. Deep inside these gleaming new vehicles lurk the ghost of a 1972 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight that used to carry seven passengers, a few beer bottles and a bully club in the trunk. That elongated and bruised piece of sheet metal, once semi-affectionately christened the "Cruise Missile," provided grounding and context for this website and the multitude of words describing the industry and the realm of transportation today.

For us, 1982 was a watershed moment. For the automotive industry, it may not have been the most exciting year in terms of product and sales. The year laid down a foundation for a future that would be bright and ambitious for the Class of 1982 – The Utopians of Reseda High School.

Cover photo by Randy Stern

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