My Favorite Malaise Era Vehicles

MN Cars & Coffee September 2017
All Photos by Randy Stern

I grew up at the right time – the Malaise Era, to be exact.

The industry was in the midst of change. Some of it was instigated by the oil-producing nations across the ocean. To manage change, the industry had to do something to meet the challenges of emissions controls, safety regulations, and achieving higher fuel consumption.

Not everything looked great. For the era, it was refreshing, Yet, necessary actions did produce some memorable vehicles. These were vehicles that I can honestly say that I remember when they first arrived at the dealerships.

This My favorites column will focus on vehicles I got really excited about during the Malaise Era. More so, these were vehicles I actually liked, enjoyed, even drove. They still yield find memories even to this day.

Here is that list…promise not to frown, OK?

VOLVO 700-SERIES (1983-92): Some will deride this car was too boxy. Some will point to its engines – namely, the Redblock and the Douvrin. But, being it was the first European car I ever drove (a 1985 740 GLE sedan), it brought Volvo completely upmarket with its luxury and overall design execution. The sedan would be soon joined by the iconic wagon and the Bertone-built 780 coupe. The wagon remains an icon with its superb use of space and utility. However, my heart is with the sedan – namely the 740 GLE. You’d be surprised how well it scoots. Even better is the 740 Turbo – a luxury/muscle sedan/wagon that will surprise and reward you at the same time.

1987-88 Ford Thunderbird

FORD THUNDERBIRD (1983-88): Would you believe that this was the first car I ever rented? It was a 1985 Thunderbird with the V6 and plenty of equipment to play with. Yet, there was more to this T-Bird. This began Ford’s aerodynamic era in North America. It also jumpstarted the company after years of dubious quality and design. The Thunderbird name was returned to a mantle where it meant something – not just in design alone. By plunking a turbocharged four-cylinder engine underneath its long hood, a new era for the vaunted 'Bird began.

Pontiac 6000STE

GENERAL MOTORS A-BODY (1982-1996): With the mid-sized A-Body, GM figured out the transverse-mounted, front-wheel drive equation for larger models. The X-Car of 1980 was the first start, but it took two more model years to see a successful result from this change in vehicle structure. Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick may have shared a common body language, but the difference is in the details. Some even distinguish themselves by adding more performance, driving dynamics, and levels of luxury. While the Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera was my most preferred model of the four, I really enjoyed the Pontiac 6000 STE for its daring to be different amongst the crowd. The A-Body was the right platform for GM at the time.

Back To The 80s

CHRYSLER LeBARON (1987-1995): While the K-Car returned Chrysler back into the black and helped repay the loans to restart the old company, it took many variations to help its cause. The minivan won over American families with its versatility and utility. However, the return to fiscal success gave Chrysler the license to do other cool things to augment its lineup. The LeBaron coupe and convertible were two of those "cool things." The convertible was a smash hit, thanks to a purpose-built design and alluring style. Did I mention it was available with a turbo engine? For me, it was the coupe. Compared to the Thunderbird, it was nimbler. The turbo engine made the difference, giving the LeBaron coupe a sporting personality. It was the most fun you can have in a Chrysler product – next to the Dodge Daytona.

Spring Dust Off Show

CHEVROLET CAPRICE CLASSIC (1977-1990): It was GM's first downsized car. It reinvented the full-sized sedan that had been the vanguard of the American automotive industry for decades. While it was smaller it had a more accommodating interior. The wagon was even spacious – and perfectly shaped inside. It took some science and engineering to ensure that the new full-sized Caprice was both nimble and comfortable to drive. They also made for great public safety vehicles. As it continued to be revised – concluding it's run with flushed headlamps – the Caprice remained a symbol of the honest-to-goodness American car.

1986 Ford Taurus

FORD TAURUS (1986-1991): While the Thunderbird kicked off the aerodynamic era for Ford, the Taurus cemented both the design language and Ford’s re-emergence as America’s automobile manufacturer. The Taurus was absolutely the right car for the era – taking what they learned from the world and making it right. The design was just the icing on the cake, as Ford completely re-engineered its mid-sized product with a transverse-mounted engine and front-wheel drive, Some people even said that it was much better engineered than GM’s A-Body. I actually agree. The result is better driving dynamics – something you never considered in an American sedan until its arrival. That was what locked me in with the Taurus in the first place – the way it drove.

1985-85 Toyota Corolla Hatchbck

TOYOTA COROLLA (1984-1987): The E80 Corolla changed everything for Toyota's most popular model since the 1970s. It was the first with front-wheel drive – the sedan, Liftback, and FX hatchback, to be specific. It was also the most modern, spacious, and efficient Corolla of its time. The driver’s area was airier and offered better control. It drove quite well – better still in the FX! Let's not forget about the FX16! That was a hot hatch that could hunt for GTIs. I could throw in the NUMMI-made Chevrolet Nova, which was on the same platform. In all, the E80 front-drive family moved Toyota forward in the 1980s.


VOLKSWAGEN GOLF (1985-1992): The Mk2 was a step ahead of the original. It was also the first Volkswagen I got to enjoy. If you step back a bit, you will find more shine on the GTI than the normal Golf. That's fine, because it was the GTI that captured the hearts of American enthusiasts. However, it would be the Jetta that would steal more hearts away from the Golf in this country. Even with the shift to the Jetta and its three-box design, the regular Golf offered equal amount of fun even without the GTI’s trim and horsepower. It was an economy hatch that had more than enough flair to make the commute enjoyable. Perhaps the most important part – we got our Golfs from the Westmoreland, Pennsylvania plant – until 1988, that is.

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