Amazingly, some of these crazy cars made it to production.
Aside from the mullets and mustaches, the 1980s was not exactly known as the best decade for automotive design. Production vehicles continued to be quite boxy, generally speaking, and GM was in the midst of its badge engineering era. Point being, little creativity. However, auto designers are always dreaming up interesting and sometimes wild styling ideas, which are transferred to paper and, sometimes, a concept. The 80s was also a time when SUVs began their mainstream appeal, shifting away from the Spartan off-roaders with no creature comforts of the past. Soccer mom minivan drivers were the target as they are today.
And so designers wanted this new generation of SUVs to look good and their ideas often times actually came to fruition. But the bottom line is that all of these 80s SUVs concepts you’re about to see previewed a new era that’s still in full force today.
Small and quirky Japanese SUV concepts were in abundance in the 1980s. And the Mazda TD-R, first shown at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show, was one of the best and the gullwinged SUV still looks nuts today.
Powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter four cylinder with 140 hp, it also came with a height-adjustable suspension with a 10 cm range, and AWD. Although the TD-R never made production, some of its styling traits could be found on another Mazda that has since become an icon, the original 1989 Miata MX-5. Think of the TD-R as the Miata SUV that never was.
It was at the 1989 Tokyo Motor Show when Toyota first showed the world its idea of a small SUV. That SUV was the RAV Four concept, but it wasn’t until 1994 that a (toned-down) production version arrived, renamed the RAV4. With its beach life inspired styling, this concept was brightly colored, had medium ride height and ground clearance, but had a car-like body. Turns out Toyota had been toying with this concept idea as far back as 1986 and following its positive response on the auto show circuit, it was given the production green light. The rest is history.
Poor Pontiac. It was a great brand once John DeLorean figured out how to market it with cool cars like the GTO and Firebird, but GM soon let its so-called ‘excitement division’ go straight down the toilet over the following decades before killing it off entirely in 2010. Damn shame.
Pontiac built at least one interesting SUV-ish concept in the 80s, and it was called the Stinger. It premiered in 1989 and it was a “lifestyle vehicle” aimed at “active people.” Honestly, it looks like Pontiac’s version of the old Suzuki Samurai. We dig its T-top, too.
Obviously, Pontiac wanted to attract younger buyers, none of whom were interested in a rebadged Buick LeSabre/Oldsmobile Eight-Eight/Cadillac Seville with extra body cladding called the Bonneville. Pontiac also fitted the Stinger with a number of interesting gadgets for the time, such as cell phones, a CD player, and a detachable AM/FM stereo. Power came courtesy of a 3.0-liter four-cylinder with 170 hp and paired to a three-speed automatic. The Stinger was an interesting idea, but, let’s face it, Toyota’s RAV Four concept was far more realistic.
Welcome to the ‘What the hell is that thing but I want it anyway’ time of your day. The Ford Mustang RSX rally concept was without question one of the coolest concepts Ford built in the 1980s. It premiered in 1979 (close enough to 1980) and was built by Ghia, the legendary Italian coachbuilder. Ford commissioned the build and a then-new Fox-bodied Mustang was shipped to Italy. In this case, RSX stood for Rallye Sport Experimental and it had its official debut at the ’79 Chicago Auto Show. Power came from a stock turbo 2.3-liter four-cylinder paired to a four-speed manual. It even had a stock suspension. However, its wheelbase was shortened by 5.6 inches and the rear seats were removed.
The new liftback body was lightweight and, as typical of the time, wedge-shaped influenced. The doors were styled to look like they were completely made of glass, but they were really just black Plexiglas. The Mustang RSX was the dream Mustang for many thanks to its Italian styling and Group B rally influences.
We miss Suzuki. The semi-quirky Japanese automaker that brought us today’s ridiculously awesome all-new Jimny has a long history of – you guessed it – quirky and small SUVs. Suzuki is also not afraid to experiment with design and concept vehicles always allow for this. Remember the RT-1 concept? Of course, you probably don’t. That’s because it premiered in 1987 at the Tokyo Motor Show. This oddly cool two-seater featured a retractable roof, high ground clearance (unlike the RAV Four concept) and all-wheel drive.
And just to make this thing even weirder, its engine was located behind the passengers. A rear-engined, two-seater SUV with a retractable hardtop? Gotta love Suzuki. Its engine, by the way, was a longitudinally-mounted 1.6-liter four-cylinder. And yes, if you take a close look at the RT-1, you’ll notice a few styling traits, notably the front wheel arches, that ended up on the original Vitara, which premiered the following year.
Suzuki wasn’t the only Japanese carmaker to bring out its funk for the 1987 Tokyo Motor Show. Nissan did the same with its Judo concept. About the same size as a second-generation VW Golf, the Judo concept was a two-seater with a semi-rugged design featuring large fog lamps up front, a hidden winch in the rear bumper, and a full-size spare tire integrated into the rear fascia. Even the entire top could slide backwards by a few inches, revealing a T-top roof. And to prove its off-road credentials, the Judo featured six-lug alloy wheels wrapped in beefy Bridgestone rubber. Its interior was simple and straightforward and there was a tiny rear bench that could supposedly fit human beings.
Power came from a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with an impressive 210 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, and was paired to a five-speed manual that directed power to all four wheels. Nissan outfitted the Judo with its Advanced Total Traction Engineering System for All-Terrain (ATTESA) AWD system. Although the Judo never received the production green light, Nissan never abandoned quirky styling. Just look at the Juke.
Welcome back to America. The Chevrolet Blazer XT-1 concept debuted in 1987 and featured tons of high-tech electronics, exotic components, wild futuristic styling, and even four-wheel steering. Yes, the XT-1 heavily previewed GM’s early 90s minivan lineup, consisting of the Chevy Lumina APV, Pontiac Trans Sport, and Oldsmobile Silhouette.
The XT-1 was powered by a 4.3-liter V6 with 202 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque. Power was sent to all four wheels through a four-speed slushbox. It also had a fully independent suspension and an interior that consisted of more buttons than desktop computer at the time. While the Blazer XT-1 itself never made production (unlike the Blazer SUV), much of its interior and exterior styling, and mechanicals ultimately did.