The Top 20 Most Unmistakably ‘80s Car Commercials
It’s hard to believe that the 1980s ended more than 20 years ago. Then again, maybe we just don’t want to believe the ‘80s ended that long ago. Either way, it was a pretty long time ago, and while we certainly don’t remember the whole decade (would have been hard considering we were born four-and-a-half-years in), we do remember quite a bit of the music, fashion, the hair (oh, the hair) and, most importantly of all, the cars. Those four era-defining touchstones often came together in TV ads and promotional films. Here are 20 of our favorite such videos, preserved in all their fluffy-mane-babe-filled, giant-“TURBO”-decaled glory. Radical!
1985 Renault Alliance
Watching this promo film for the convertible version of the Renault Alliance – a vehicle that was based on the Renault 9 but modified for American tastes and assembled in AMC’s Kenosha, Wisconsin factory (Renault having owned American Motors Corporation at the time) – make us assume the marketing department just put a list of things on a chalkboard and then challenged themselves to put it all together into a semi-coherent presentation. Elementary special effects? Yep. Breakdancing? Most certainly. Mimes? Damn straight! Unlike most recipes for jambalaya, though, this hodgepodge probably won’t have you asking for seconds.
1988 Cadillac Full Line
Throughout the ‘80s, each of GM’s American divisions had a schmaltzy-but-catchy jingle that would gleefully burrow itself so deep into your brain that the only way to really get it out was to jam an icepick up your nostril, which is impractical for folks who prefer to continue living. We’ll get to some of the others later, but this Cadillac full line spot from 1988 has visuals that are sure to make you giggle if you know anything about Cadillacs from the ‘80s.
People who could afford big-f*cking-yachts and private jets did not buy Cadillacs in those days when the brand arguably hit rock bottom; they bought Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and other yuppiemobiles. No, people who bought the General’s prestige cars back then were retirees, creating a stigma among younger well-to-do types that has only recently been shaken off. Having said all that, we still kinda dig the Allante.
1986 Lincoln Full Line
In the ‘80s, it was far less of a taboo for car companies to call out the competition by name than it is now. And one of the most famous (Infamous?) such ads was made by Lincoln, which took GM to task for its downsized, front-drive C-body luxury cars (Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, Buick Electra and Cadillac DeVille/Fleetwood) which had been introduced the year before. And to be honest, Lincoln had a pretty valid point; even today, few people would mistake a Town Car, Continental or Mark VII for their more pedestrian Panther- and Fox-platform cousins.
Not many company leaders appear in commercials, but Lee Iacocca showed up in many early ‘80s adverts for Plymouth, Dodge and Chrysler to convince American car buyers that the company that came within a whisker of bankruptcy was not only viable, but worthy of their consideration. Judging by the jump in sales all three brands experienced around that time at the hands of the K-cars and their minivan cousins, Mr. Iacocca’s pitches worked. Suffice to say, he was the right man at the right time for Chrysler. Too bad they couldn’t have had him or someone like him about, oh, 30 years later.
1984 Chevrolet Corvette
By 1984 computers and digital technology were evolving at breakneck speed, working their way into more and more assets of our lives. The automotive realm was no exception, as Chevrolet played up the sophistication of the new-for-’84 fourth generation Corvette. But while the C4 was a quantum leap over the C3, a lot of the tech bits (like the 350 cubic inch L83 V8’s Ceasefire, er, Crossfire Fuel Injection and Doug Nash “4+3”-speed manual tranny) have aged even worse than those Tron-tastic graphics.
1984 Volkswagen GTI
Volkswagen has almost always had clever advertisements, both of the print and TV varieties. Thus, this hoonage-packed montage of the Rabbit-based GTI Mark 1 set to a German rework (though “GTI” is uttered using the English pronunciations of the letters, a necessary evil considering the German phonetics, “gay-tay-ee,” would confuse the hell out of American audiences) of Ronnie and the Daytonas’ “Little GTO” was par for the course. Over the top? A bit, but you don’t get the impression the ad agency was trying super hard, either. Many of VW’s modern ads retain most of the cheekiness, but not all of it. And that’s just sad.
1986 Toyota Pickup 4×4 Turbo
Many of you young whippersnappers (roughly age 18 and under) don’t remember what Toyota was like before it (proverbially speaking) got its hair cut, started wearing suits, and quit addressing everyone as “Dude.” We, on the other hand, do, and are here to tell you the company could build fun, semi-quirky cars and trucks and peddle them with campy commercials with the best of them. We offer up this spot for the turbocharged 4×4 pickup (It makes one whole horsepower more than a new Prius!) as proof. Break those chains that hold you now, Toyota, and let your freak flag fly once more!
1986 Ford Taurus
It’s hard to overstate what a radical departure from the American sedan norm the original Ford Taurus was when it was introduced in 1986. Its aerodynamic styling (Most of its rivals still looked like they had been drawn with rulers and T-squares.) and front-wheel-drive certainly gave the competition pause, at least initially. But we can’t help wondering: Can it still be considered singing if there’s a shortage of rhyming?
1984 Audi 5000 S
As groundbreaking as the Taurus was among the domestics, it wasn’t a completely original concept. The contemporary Audi 5000 was easy to spot as its inspiration. The Ford, however, lacked the Audi’s solid German engineering, sophisticated electronics, and variants that were turbocharged, AWD or a combination of the two. It also, to the relief of Ford execs, lacked the Audi’s “unintended acceleration” stigma, which would blow up big time a couple years later thanks to a CBS-led witch hunt that almost drove the company from our shores altogether.
1984 Oldsmobile Full Line
Remember how we said each GM brand had its own earworm-ish song back in the days when MTV still, you know, played music videos? This was Oldsmobile’s answer, premiering for 1984. Two things about this ad really strike us: First, the ’84 Olds lineup was pretty broad, with the humble J-body Firenza at the bottom and the leviathan C-body Ninety-Eight (which was in its final year as a V8, rear-drive, body-on-frame dreadnaught) at the top. Second, the career of the one and only Tim Allen has come full circle, as he is again on the payroll of GM’s marketing department, this time providing voiceovers for Chevrolet’s ads.
1987 Isuzu I-Mark
When it comes to TV pitchmen of the ‘80s, David Leisure as pathological liar Joe Isuzu has to rank as one of the most recognizable. The outrageous claims he made about Isuzu vehicles (which were offset by large subtitles conveying the accurate information to keep the lawyers happy) are the stuff of legend. Take the above spot, for example. It’s just silly enough to make you giggle, but judging by Isuzu’s perennial back-of-the-pack status when it sold cars and light trucks in the U.S. (Seriously, who among you remember what you were doing when they announced they were pulling out of the U.S. market?) it wasn’t enough to cause stampedes on Isuzu dealers.
1985 AMC/Jeep/Renault Full Line
More love for the Franco-American tag team? Why yes, thanks for asking. But how can you not love a compilation of quick cuts of stock footage of all of AMC, Jeep and Renault models for 1985 set to the Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited”? In good faith you cannot. But syncing up on-board footage of weaving through a slalom with the line “I’m about to lose control and I think I like it”? Merde…
1988 Buick Brand
Moving on to Buick’s gets-stuck-in-your-head-in-ways-Rebecca-Black-can-only-dream-of song, we find more warm and fuzzy visuals and lyrics, with an added dose of patriotism thrown in for good measure. What we don’t find, interestingly, is the full line of ’88 Buicks. No Skyhawks, no Skylarks and, most galling of all in our opinion, no Estate Wagons. How in the Sam Hill are you going to convince consumers that the Great American Road belongs to you when you don’t show off the great American road trip ride?
1984 Mercedes-Benz 300D Turbodiesel
As crazy as this sounds now, diesel cars made up almost three-quarters of Mercedes-Benz’s U.S. sales during parts of the early 1980s. Think about that. Not even Toyota can claim that kind of take rate with hybrids today. And the car that arguably led the charge was the W123-body 300D. Slow by today’s standards and dated-looking even in ’84, the 300D (like all W123 oil-burners) was and is tougher than Chuck Norris wearing a unitard made out of diamonds. Hell, cockroaches will be driving them while munching on Twinkies long after we humans are gone. If that doesn’t make them worthy additions to the 3.0L Benz family shown in the ad, please explain what does.
1987 Pontiac Brand
Continuing the GM March of Jingles, we come to Pontiac. For most of the second half of the 20th century, Pontiac was positioned as GM’s fun-loving, sporty division. One look at the Fiero and Trans-Am confirmed that. So what if the Grand Am and Sunbird don’t quite fit the same mold? At least they looked decent for their day. Then again, the fact that most of this commercial was shot at night or in low-light conditions made that a moot point.
1984 Nissan 300ZX
Remember when turbocharging used to be a big deal? Nowadays you can find turbo engines in everything from small hatchbacks like the Mini Cooper S to trucks like the Ford F-150. But in 1984, when Nissan introduced the 300ZX with an available turbocharged 3.0L V6, it was huuuuge news. How huge? Try 200hp. Yeah, we know, there are probably some riding lawnmowers with that much power these days. But that ’84 Corvette we saw earlier? That thing made 205hp from a 5.7L V8, and you couldn’t get it at your Datsun dealer.
1985 BMW 735i
Lately Audi has been billing itself as the engineering-centric alternative to the snooty, more established luxury brands. A quarter century ago (Ye gods it hurts to say that…), though, BMW was professing to be that manufacturer, boasting that its prestige lay under the hood and behind each wheel. You could argue that that in itself was being pretentious, but the fact of the matter is most BMWs since this commercial first aired were purchased by style-conscious slaves to status who care not one whit about how stable and entertaining their Bimmer is in the turns. How much you wanna bet Audi will one day be in the same position?
1989 Lexus LS400
Speaking of shaking up the luxury market, the debut of Lexus in 1989 definitely caused its share of chaos. To show how serious the new brand was about taking the fight to the Europeans (the American luxury marques had all but given up on everyone but senior citizens and livery companies by then), Lexus chose to showcase the flagship LS400 in rather extreme demonstrations of its advanced technology and engineering features. The most memorable of these is seen above, as it illustrated the engine’s remarkable smoothness. It’s also inspired spoofs and tests of its accuracy. Not many BMW or Mercedes-Benz spots can claim that.
1988 Chevrolet Brand
The final stop on the GM jingle tour is Chevrolet. Now Chevrolet had some memorable jingles and taglines before “The Heartbeat of America,” but none of them have had quite the staying power after being replaced as this campaign did. This despite the fact that, with the obvious exception of the Camaro and Corvette, this period wasn’t exactly the brand’s golden age. Still, then, as before and as now, Chevy is an iconic name in American pop culture, due at least in part to marketing like this that plays up that reputation.
1985 Plymouth Duster
Finally, we come to what is almost certainly the most ‘80s car commercial (if not for any product) under the sun. Plymouth’s Turismo (a sporty, three-door relative of the Horizon econobox) was available with a package that set nostalgic Moparistas’ hearts aflutter – Duster. But to get the kids on board with the neo-Duster, Chrysler decided to go in with guns (the figurative kind, not the ones you could have bought from Oliver North) blazing. The result was this loosely-disguised music video shot on a set that motoring savant Murilee Martin succinctly described as a coke factory (No, not the soft drink…). Hey, this is the ‘80s we’re talking about. The hair, the music, the clothes, the neon, the hyper-exaggerated dance moves…it’s all here, and it’s all gnarlier than a DayGlo green L.A. Gear-branded Walkman.