People are entitled to their personal preferences when it comes to cars, but a recent article by Rich Cohen in The Atlantic really got me worked up. Cohen’s argument suggests that the era of Baby Boomers dominating the classic car world is coming to a close, and it’s time for Gen X to take the spotlight in the world of automotive enthusiasm.
As a co-founder of Radwood, I’m all in for this shift. However, when Cohen suggests abandoning the iconic V8 muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970s in favor of the more subdued vehicles from the Reagan era, like a 1980 Mazda RX-7 and a 1985 Toyota Celica, I can’t help but roll my eyes. I mean, there’s nothing about those Japanese sports coupes that convinces me Cohen truly experienced the values he claims to hold dear.
Cohen describes the Celica as beautiful due to its efficiency, frugality, and reliability. While I can’t confirm whether his ’85 Celica had the 2.4-liter 22RE engine and rear-wheel drive or the FWD-based T160 generation, both iterations had serious sporting potential, numerous rally victories, and factory-backed efforts in IMSA racing from 1983 to 1988 (even winning the GTO championship in 1987). I’ll admit the Celica was always reliable, but efficient and frugal. Color me skeptical.
Cohen criticizes post-muscle Detroit cars, listing lemons like the Pacer, Pinto, Citation, and Cimmaron. However, he contradicts himself by recalling how his family moved from a Cadillac dealership to a Mazda dealership, driven by his mother’s comment that at least the Mazda wouldn’t break down. Why overlook a reliable GM J-platform with a 1.8-liter four-cylinder for a Mazda with its unconventional rotary engine? Seems like an odd choice, Rich.
While Mr. Cohen reminisces about cars that were more exciting than he remembers, the world of car enthusiasm was evolving without him. The 1980s were an era of excess and extravagance, whether fueled by actual cocaine or the general spirit of the times. The 1970s fuel crisis hangover had dissipated, and the brown-and-tan cars were making way for white-leather luxury, European tuners, homologation specials, and some of the fastest cars ever produced.
Even American muscle car brands had embraced modern performance with fuel injection and turbochargers. Don’t underestimate the value of a Shelby Dodge or a Grand National Buick; they’d leave you in the dust if you challenged them.
While the 1970s brought us iconic cars like the Lamborghini Countach and the Porsche 911 with impact bumpers, it was the 1980s where they truly found their stride in the excess-is-success mantra.
Cohen suggests that to understand America’s “shrunken aspirations,” we should admire a modest ’85 Toyota Celica with manual windows, retractable headlights, and a Bruce Springsteen tape blasting in the tape deck. I’m not sure which America he was living in, but it certainly wasn’t one of “shrunken aspirations.”
The 1980s I know, despite being born in 1987, was an era of unabashed showmanship. Motorsport was fueled by the extravagant spending of drug smugglers. Car designs featured sharp lines, wedges, and a plethora of aero elements courtesy of design legends like Marcello Gandini and Giorgetto Giugiaro. Technology advanced rapidly, providing greater safety, speed, and handling to more drivers. Engines got smaller and more efficient, yet many produced even more power than before. Even the Fox Mustang delivered nearly identical 0-60 times with its 5-liter engine as it did in 1970 with a 428 Cobra Jet.
You can certainly appreciate whichever cars from the 1980s you prefer, and the Celica was undoubtedly a charming and delightful car. However, I’ll be paying homage to the kings of the era: the F40, 959, AMG Hammer, Ruf Yellowbird, Audi Quattro, Shelby GLHS, Saab 900 Turbo, Rabbit GTI, and many more. If you think the 1980s were a dull time for cars, you might be the one missing out on the excitement.