When you bring up Cars in the ’80s, some might first think of the band of that name or possibly the song by Gary Numan. We’re not talking about Ric Ocasek and those Cars or any music for that matter. Vehicles can certainly play integral parts in both television and movies sometimes even becoming as important as the human characters. TV shows and movies in the ’80s had no shortage of automobiles playing prominent roles and many hold a special place in our hearts still to this day. In fact, though it didn’t make the list, I cannot hear the word AUTOMOBILE without hearing “Donger” say it in Sixteen Candles…
Some of these automobiles made this list because of their iconic nature, fundamental role, memorable scene or they just looked pretty awesome. They are not ranked in order based on desire to own or drive, but weighted more on subjective ’80s pop culture significance. To qualify for the list, the automobile had to be featured in a film or television series originally released or airing between 1980-1989. For the purposes of this list, I decided that no animated vehicles or aircraft/spacecraft would be included on the official list. But I did also add some honorable mentions in that realm for good measure.
So without further ado, here are my TOP AUTOMOBILES FROM ’80s TV OR MOVIES…
Honorable Mention #1: The Mystery Machine from Scooby-Doo – Though originating back in 1969 on Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, new shows and many re-runs were still being shown regularly on Saturday mornings and after-school during the ’80s. I decided to not include any of the many animated vehicles from the decade, but I felt this van was so iconic and would make a solid representative for all of our Saturday morning favorites. Despite being a cartoon and not being strictly ’80s, The Mystery Machine still receives an honorable mention.
Honorable Mention #2: Optimus Prime from The Transformers (1984-1987) – Also an animated cartoon, the leader of the Autobots is actually a robot that transforms into a semi-truck. He is a true icon of the decade and there was at least a couple years where there wasn’t anything more popular than The Transformers, so I thought he was well deserving of at least an honorable mention.
Honorable Mention #3: Lone Starr’s “Eagle 5” Winnebago RV from Spaceballs (1987) – It is sort of a tribute to the Millennium Falcon, but part of the humor is that it is a RV and even has a bumper sticker that reads, “I love Uranus”. This is really more of a spaceship than car, but since it is made out of a Winnebago I thought it certainly deserved at least an honorable mention.
Honorable Mention #4: Centauri’s Starcar from The Last Starfighter (1984) – Along those same lines, Alex Rogan (played by Lance Guest) is taken for a ride in a car which turns out to be a spacecraft. He is recruited/abducted by Centauri to fight in a battle between other worlds and taken there in the Starcar featuring gull-wing doors, rocket boosters and a 1984 California license plate that says RYLOS. A bit of trivia is that the Starcar makes a cameo appearance in the year 2015 Hill Valley in the movie Back to the Future, Part 2. Again, even though it looks like a car, it only qualifies for an honorable mention.
Honorable Mention #5: Tron Light Cycles from Tron (1982) – Though they resemble motorcycles, I don’t think the Light Cycle quite qualifies for this list. On the Grid, they move in straight lines, only turn in 90 degree angles and don’t seem to have brakes. Even though Flynn figures out how to escape the Grid with them and they are my favorite part of the Tron arcade game, I believe the Light Cycle only deserves honorable mention for this list.
Honorable Mention #6: ZZ Top’s “Eliminator” 1933 Ford coupe – The car appears on the cover of the band’s 1983 album Eliminator. It was also featured in several music videos from the album including “Legs”, “Gimme All Your Lovin'” and “Sharp Dressed Man” so it was on TV even though it wasn’t necessarily on a TV series. I saw the car when I visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I felt it at least deserved honorable mention.
50. Jefferson’s 1979 Chevy Camaro Z28 from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) – Charles Jefferson (played by Forrest Whitaker) is the star football player. Spicoli and Jefferson’s little brother take the car out and wreck it. After that, there is an exchange that takes place which I have always found to be hilarious ending with Spicoli saying, “Relax, all right? My old man is a television repairman, he’s got this ultimate set of tools. I can fix it.” They come up with the idea of making it look like the car was damaged by rival Lincoln High motivating Ridgemont to win the big game.
49. Rick’s 1979 Dodge Power Wagon from Simon & Simon (1981-1989) – This truck featured a menacing “wrecker” bumper as well as the “Macho Package”, which included a roll bar, big tires and a trick paint scheme. His brother A.J. was Rick’s opposite in many respects including car preference choosing to drive a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air convertible, and later, a customized Chevrolet Camaro Z28.
48. Les’ grandfather’s 1972 Cadillac Sedan DeVille from License to Drive (1988) – It is understandable that Corey Haim’s character sneaks his grandfather’s prized Cadillac even though he doesn’t even have his driver’s license since he does it to spend the night with Mercedes Lane (played by Heather Graham).
47. California Highway Patrol Kawasaki KZP motorcycles from CHiPs (1977-1983) – Ponch and Jon drove these as they kept the California highways safe. You can find out more about the motorcycle riding and stunts in my interview with Larry Wilcox.
46. Spenser’s 1967 Ford Mustang GT Fastback from Spenser: For Hire (1985-1988) – He starts the series driving an ivy green ’66 Ford Mustang (likely a nod to Steve McQueen’s Mustang in Bullitt) which is destroyed at the beginning of the second season. He had a new 1987 Mustang 5.0 GT for a few episodes, but later ends up driving this restored maroon 1967 GT.
45. Dodge M4S Turbo Interceptor from The Wraith (1986) – Charlie Sheen plays a teen who mysteriously returns from the dead as a supernatural street-racer driving this invulnerable supercar to take revenge on the gang who murdered him. The original car from the film is actually located at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Michigan.
44. The Jet Car from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) – This modified Ford F-350 pickup truck is powered by a jet engine and is capable of exceeding Mach 1. The car is also equipped with a secret device called an “oscillation overthruster” which allows it to drive through solid matter even a mountain. Flames and smoke can shoot 20-30 feet behind the vehicle.
43. Street Hawk motorcycle from Street Hawk (1985) – The motorcycles used in the series were based on 1984 Honda XR500s, but Street Hawk was built to be an all-terrain attack motorcycle designed to fight urban crime, capable of incredible speeds up to three hundred miles an hour, and immense firepower.
42. Ren’s 1972 yellow Volkswagen Beetle from Footloose (1984) – The car had a rustic quality, but still stood out in a land of tractors and pick-up trucks. Find out a little more about Footloose in my interview with the screenwriter/songwriter Dean Pitchford.
41. The “RV from Hell” build from a 1988 Chevrolet K-2500 from Tango & Cash (1989) – The perfect high-tech assault vehicle when having to deal with FUBAR.
40. Jules’ 1982 Jeep CJ-7 from St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) – It was originally implied that the “Man in Motion” lyrics referred to the wheels on the jeep, but John Parr’s song was really inspired by a news clip about the Canadian athlete Rick Hansen, who at the time was going around the world in his wheelchair (on what was called the “Man in Motion Tour” to raise awareness for spinal cord injuries). But the Brat Pack do cruise around Washington, D.C. in this cool jeep. Booga, booga, booga, ah-ha-ha!
39. Lincoln Hawk’s 1967 Autocar A-10264 Semi from Over the Top (1987) – I have always particularly appreciated the hawk hood ornament and the arm-muscle-building contraption in the cab. Could have also went with the grand prize 1987 Volvo White WIM 64T. Both make me want to turn my hat around and meet you halfway across the sky. An interesting bit of trivia is that these same truck was also used in the 1989 film The Wizard.
38. Mad Max’s V8 Interceptor from The Road Warrior (1982) – Max Rockatansky drives this at the end of Mad Max and for the first half of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. It is based on a 1973 Ford Falcon XB GT coupe, which was modified to become a police interceptor by the Main Force Patrol.
37. Cindy Mancini’s 1986 white Volkswagen Cabriolet from Can’t Buy Me Love (1987) – Her white convertible became a dream car for many girls in the late-80s. I could have just as well gone with Ronald’s father’s 1962 Chrysler New Yorker Town & Country or even Ronald’s riding lawnmower, but I would rather jump in the Cabriolet with Cindy Mancini.
36. Jack Cates’ 1964 Cadillac DeVille convertible from 48 Hrs. (1982) – Not your normal police detective’s choice of transportation. In 48 Hrs., Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy spend quite a bit of time driving the streets of San Francisco in this light blue classic until it ends up crashed ironically through the window of a Cadillac showroom.
35. 1964 Chevy Malibu from Repo Man (1984) – Emilio Estevez is on the hunt for this car which literally glows green in the dark because it contains four radiation-emitting space aliens in its trunk.
34. “Pork Chop Express” from Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Jack Burton (played by Kurt Russell) drives this 1985 Freightliner FLC120 when he’s not helping fight an ancient battle between Good and Evil.
33. Axel Foley’s crappy blue 1972 Chevy Nova from Beverly Hills Cop (1984) – Though it might not stand out so much back in Detroit, Axel Foley looks even more out of place driving his car into ritzy Beverly Hills. When he sees his old friend Jenny Summers, she asks, “I remember you used to drive that crappy blue Chevy Nova” not expecting Axel to still be driving that crappy blue Chevy Nova. Another car choice that tells you a lot about their owner and helps with character development without saying a word. I love when he leaves it with the valet and says, “Can you put this in a good spot? ‘Cause all this sh*t happened the last time I parked here.” Can’t you hear Eddie Murphy’s laugh or the Harold Faltermeyer score just looking at it?
32. “Bigfoot” Ford F-250 pick-up from Take This Job and Shove It (1981) – A couple monster trucks were featured in this film including the original and most recognized of the group which was growing quickly in popularity at that time. The tires alone stand 66 inches tall! I remember in the early years of ESPN that they often filled programming slots with monster truck races.
31. Happy Toyz semi-truck with Green Goblin face from Maximum Overdrive (1986) – Emilio Estevez (again) saves everybody in this film written and directed by Stephen King about a machine revolt. Machines, including trucks, come alive in an effort to torment and kill all of the humans. My favorite parts are the AC/DC soundtrack and the giant Green Goblin face that is mounted on the grill of the Happy Toyz truck.
30. Lisa’s 1959 pink Cadillac Series 62 convertible from Weird Science (1985) – “He don’t even have his license, Lisa!” You could certainly go with the 1984 Porsche 928S that Wyatt drives, but I will go with the pink convertible that they drive home from the bar. I absolutely love that whole part from the bar, to the ride home, to encountering Chet. “Okay, forget it. I’ll drive. Give me the keys!”
29. Cobretti’s 1950 Mercury Monterey coupe from Cobra (1986) – Sylvester Stallone drives this matte grey coupe as an intimidating member of the “Zombie Squad” and vigilante cop who only follows his own rules.
28. The Kid’s purple customized 1981 Honda CM400 Hondamatic motorcycle from Purple Rain (1984) – Prince’s bike was featured in several scenes and prominently on the movie poster. I was very happy to see one of the originals used in the film on display when I visited Paisley Park.
27. Stiles’ “Wolfmobile” from Teen Wolf (1985) – After Michael J. Fox starts turning into a werewolf, his buddy Stiles capitalizes on his fame by selling merchandise and even re-branded his van to the “Wolfmobile”. He even drives around town with the wolf demonstrating some extremely dangerous van surfing (which should never be tried at home).
26. Transcon Medi-vac Ambulance from The Cannonball Run (1981) – This is the vehicle that Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise drive on this cross-country race. It is also worth mentioning the Lamborghini Countach driven by Adrienne Barbeau, the red Ferrari 308 GTS driven by Dean Martin and Sammy Davis as well as the Aston Martin driven by Roger Moore.
25. Rocky’s 1984 black Lamborghini Jalpa from Rocky IV (1985) – Rocky takes a drive during a montage scene set to “No Easy Way Out” by Robert Tepper. You can find out more about the song playing during that scene in my interview with Robert Tepper.
24. Buck’s 1977 brown Mercury Marquis Brougham from Uncle Buck (1989) – Just by putting John Candy in this car, which he called “The Beast”, helped establish the character of Buck Russell. In addition to random backfiring (a sound filmmakers created using a combination of a gunshot and a firecracker), The Beast burned so much oil that it left a think smoke screen trail behind it wherever it went. It also featured a massive 22.7-cubic-foot trunk which was perfect to transport his niece’s jerk boyfriend when he was trying to scare him.
23. “Christine” the 1958 Plymouth Fury from Christine (1983) – Another film based on a Stephen King novel featuring a vehicle taking on a life of its own. “Arnie” (played by Keith Gordon) purchases and restores the old 1958 model which mysteriously begins to have an effect on his attitude and even appearance and then proves to be sinister evil when it later kills a couple other people. The car is eventually destroyed before it can do any more harm. You can find out a little more about Christine in my interview with Keith Gordon.
22. Joel’s Dad’s 1979 Porsche 928 from Risky Business (1983) – When Tom Cruise is left home alone, he is told not to touch the stereo or his dad’s Porsche. He breaks the first rule when he dances around in his underwear to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”. He then breaks the second rule when he proceeds to take the Porsche out for a spin. Later we helplessly watch the car take a swim in Lake Michigan when it rolls out onto a pier and the pier collapses. Joel is forced to throw a party to pay for the damages and he ends up learning the lesson that sometimes you just have to say, “What the f#*k”.
21. Lloyd Dobler’s blue 1976 Chevy Malibu from Say Anything… (1989) – He makes this car seem cool. Lloyd and Diane get intimate in the car and it is also the scene of their emotional breakup. After he tells the guys where she dumped him one says, “Oh man, your car? Man, Dissed in the Malibu. That’s your castle, man.” Then he is standing in front of it during the triumphant and iconic scene later when he is holding the boombox above his head.
20. Fonz’s 1949 Triumph Trophy TR5 Scrambler motorcycle from Happy Days (1974-1984) – This has to make the list just because of how iconic the character was and the role the motorcycle played in making him the Fonz. His leather jacket was another part that made the character. But early in the show’s run (long before he jumped the shark), censors declared Fonzie could only wear a leather jacket if he was riding or stood in the general vicinity of a motorcycle since it was considered a piece safety equipment. Thus, in order to show him wearing his leather jacket, Fonzie was rarely too far from his bike.
19. “Coyote X” from Hardcastle and McCormick (1983-1986) – Daniel Hugh Kelly is a car thief who gets busted, but let out by the judge in order to help him with some vigilante justice and the best part is that he is allowed to keep the awesome car he stole.
18. 1949 Buick Roadmaster convertible from Rain Man (1988) – Charlie Babbitt (played by Tom Cruise) feels jilted when his father passes and all he inherits is this classic car and some prize rose bushes. He ultimately takes it on a priceless cross-country road trip with his brother (played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman) who reveals many things including that “Dad lets me drive slow on the driveway every Saturday” and “I’m an excellent driver”.
17. Magnum’s Ferrari 308 GTS from Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988) – One of the many luxuries that Tom Selleck enjoys while doing his investigation work in Hawaii is the use of a red Ferrari 308 GTS. It’s a pretty sweet gig, if you can get it. In the first season, the Ferrari was a 1978 308 GTS (one mirror, no rear spoiler, no front hood vent, red vents behind the headlights). For the second and third seasons, it was a 1980 308 GTSi (two rectangular mirrors, black vents behind the headlights). For the rest of the series, it was a 1984 308 GTSi Quattrovalvole (black vents on the hood and a black spoiler on the rear of the roof panel). The cars used in the show had to be specially modified to accommodate Selleck, who stands 6’4″ tall. The padding was removed from the seats so he would sit lower in the car, and the seats were bolted as far away from the steering wheel as possible to maximize the leg room. Even with these modifications you can still see that Selleck’s head is often higher than the top of the front windshield frame and you very rarely saw Magnum drive with the top up.
16. Chrysler Town and Country modified to be a Dodge 600 from Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) – This is one of my all-time favorite movies and this “rental car” appears in several great scenes including when they are driving the wrong way on the highway, when the car is burnt up from a discarded cigarette or when they crash through the side of a motel to name a few. It is confirmed to be a Chrysler Town and Country, but it was custom painted including the woodgrain sides and had a D hood ornament and the owner’s manual for a Dodge 600 in the glove compartment.
15. Sonny Crockett’s Ferraris from Miami Vice (1984-1989) – Everything that Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) did on the show was trend-setting and considered cool with his cars certainly not an exception. For the first two seasons, he drove a black Ferrari Daytona and during season three he switched to a white Ferrari Testarossa.
14. Yellow 1948 Ford Super DeLuxe from The Karate Kid (1984) – Daniel-san begins his karate lessons by washing and waxing several of Mr. Miyagi’s cars including this one with the iconic “Wax on, wax off” mantra. Then he receives it as a birthday gift and goes to show it off to Ali at Golf N Stuff while the song “Young Hearts” played. One of the producers gave this car to Ralph Macchio after filming was completed.
13. Colt Seavers’ GMC Sierra pick-up from The Fall Guy (1981-1986) – I always liked this show and truck as a kid. The truck featured a big chrome roll bar with off-road lights mounted on it. There was a big eagle on the hood and a secret compartment in the bed. And looked even better when Heather Thomas was in or anywhere near it.
12. EM-50 Urban Assault Vehicle from Stripes (1981) – Bored by just guarding this top secret weapon, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis decide nobody would notice if they borrowed it to go pick up their girlfriends in West Germany. It looks like a normal motor home or RV, but can quickly deploy bullet-proof armor as well as missile launchers, machine guns and even a flame thrower.
11. Cousin Eddie’s RV from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) –
Clark: So, when did you get the tenement on wheels?
Eddie: Oh, that uh, that there’s an RV. Yeah, yeah, I borrowed it off a buddy of mine. He took my house, I took the RV. It’s a good looking vehicle, ain’t it?
Clark: Yeah, it looks so nice parked in the driveway.
Eddie: Yeah, it sure does. But, don’t you go falling in love with it now, because, we’re taking it with us when we leave here next month.
10. Lane’s black 1967 Chevy Camaro from Better Off Dead (1985) – It “has darkened our driveway for six months” during the first part of the film, but helps build his confidence as John Cusack and Diane Franklin fix it up bringing the two romantically closer. He not only wins the big K-12 ski race, but even gets final revenge dusting the drag racing Asian brothers as well. A guy actually hunted down and restored the original Camaro from the film, so there is a chance you could see it in person at a car show or convention.
9. “The Bluesmobile” from The Blues Brothers (1980) – It is a 1974 Dodge Monaco police car and, according to Elwood, “It’s got a cop motor, a 440-cubic-inch plant. It’s got cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters so it’ll run good on regular gas.” They strap a giant speaker on the top to help publicize their upcoming show at the Palace Hotel Ballroom. It helps them escape in a great chase scene driving through an actual shopping mall and even accomplishes a backwards flip in midair, a jump over an open drawbridge as well as flying over an incomplete bridge under construction. They were on a “mission from God” after all.
8. Wagon Queen Family Truckster from National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983) – What better way to travel cross-country from Illinois to California? Can’t you hear Lindsey Buckingham singing “Holiday Road” now? This car was designed by none other than George Barris whose previous work included the Batmobile from the original ’60s series as well as the family vehicles for The Munsters and The Beverly Hillbillies among others. It was based on a Ford LTD Country Squire station wagon which was deliberately modified in bad taste highlighted overdone woodgrain paneling among other unfortunate features. It is also worth mentioning the red Ferrari 308 GTS driven by the tempting Christie Brinkley.
7. “Ecto-1” from Ghostbusters (1984) – It was a 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor ambulance converted by Universal Studios to become the iconic ghost busting vehicle. Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stantz character paid $4800 for it (which was a lot especially back then for a car in such disrepair) excitedly telling everybody, “Everybody can relax, I found the car. Needs some suspension work and shocks. Brakes, brake pads, lining, steering box, transmission, rear-end…”
6. Cameron’s Dad’s 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – As Ferris says, “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.” It is not just the car, but what the car represents. Cameron says, “Ferris, my father loves this car more than life itself.” To which Ferris responds, “A man with priorities so far out of whack doesn’t deserve such a fine automobile.” When the car is wrecked it forces Cameron to confront his father and deal with his feelings. “If you had access to a car like this, would you take it back right away? Neither would I.”
5. The A-Team’s GMC Vandura from The A-Team (1983-1987) – There aren’t many guys who grew up in the ’80s that didn’t love The A-Team. The iconic van was black and metallic gray with the red stripe, red mag wheels and rooftop spoiler. And it was driven by B.A. Baracus (Mr. T), so it didn’t get much cooler than that. It is also worth mentioning Face’s white Corvette C4 with the red stripe which was pretty cool itself.
4. The Batmobile from Batman (1989) – Tim Burton launched the Batman franchise again and with it came a new version on the Batmobile. It continued to evolve in future film versions; and there aren’t too many vehicles more iconic than the Batmobile. I always loved the Batmobile from the ’60s TV series, but the new version was even sleeker and much more technologically advanced.
3. The DeLorean from Back to the Future (1985) – “Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?” Thanks to the Flux Capacitor and some plutonium (or later Mr. Fusion), Doc Brown was able to create the first time machine out of the unique-looking DeLorean DMC-12 which had ceased its limited production in 1982. The car did have a futuristic look to it especially with its distinctive gullwing doors. It went on to be featured in all three parts of the Back to the Future trilogy and is an immediately recognizable pop culture icon from the ’80s. “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” An added shout out to Marty’s 1985 Toyota 4×4 Xtra Cab Pick-Up that he plans to throw a couple sleeping bags in the back and take Jennifer up to the lake.
2. “General Lee” from The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985) – As discussed in my interview with the show’s creator Gy Waldron, “General Lee” became a character on the show almost as (or more) important and popular as any of the human characters. It was a 1969 Dodge Charger painted orange with a Confederate flag on the roof and the number 01 on the door. The doors were welded shut requiring Bo and Luke to climb in and out through the windows which seemed cool. The horn played the melody from the first line of the song “Dixie” (which coincidentally was the name of Daisy’s jeep) and was usually followed by the boys yelling out a “Yee Haw!” Several years ago, I had the pleasure to see an original ‘General Lee” myself on display at the Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, South Dakota.
1. “KITT” from Knight Rider (1982-1986) – KITT stands for Knight Industries Two Thousand and was a customized 1982 Pontiac Trans-Am sports model. KITT was an actual character with artificial intelligence and the ability to think, learn, interact and even vocally communicate. With his voice provided by an uncredited William Daniels, KITT even had a sense of humor and dry wit. KITT had countless cool gadgets and features as well as the distinctive red light scan bar on its front. If I could have any car from the ’80s, the iconic KITT would probably be it (if it had the same AI).
There’s my list. As usual, these are based on my personal preferences and the order could very well change a little depending on my mood or nostalgia on a given day. Are there any cars or trucks from ’80s movies or TV that you feel I have overlooked? If so or if you’d rank any differently, please leave them in the comments section. Most of these films or shows wouldn’t be the same without these memorable and often iconic vehicles. As you can see from this list, cars are not always just props or modes of transportation in television and film. They can tell us a lot about a character or even become a character itself. And whether they made us want to drive them, just watch them or run away from them, the ’80s gave us some pretty cool rides that sure fed our passion and imaginations.