Whenever we talk about classic muscle, it’s almost always centered around the start of the muscle car era during the Tri-Five years. There’s also a lot of love poured out to some of the game-changing cars that paved the way for high-performance tuning and street racing during the 1960s and 1970s. What we don’t often talk about is what prompted a lot of gearheads and muscle car enthusiasts to hit up their local Ford, Chrysler, and Chevy dealer locations during the 1980s. It makes sense coming off a lot of the emission regulations and performance caps that came during the late 1970s and escalated during the 1980s.
However, it is worth noting that despite the stricter regulations and stiff competition from economic class production vehicles, there were still a few noteworthy entries throughout the 1980s that were still fondly looked upon as bucking trends and maintaining a cool factor throughout their production run. This article will look at some of the top-performance Chevys that came out during that time and what made those cars so cool. But without further ado, here are the Top 5 Performance Chevys from the 1980s You Probably Forgot About.
#5. The 1981 Chevy Corvette
A controversial selection, no doubt, because most people would expect the newer C4 generation of Corvettes from 1984 onward to be on this list. But let’s be honest, the C4 will make every list of classic Corvettes from that era, and with good reason. However, not much love has been given to the 1981 Chevy Corvette, which retained many of the stylings from the C3 era of Corvettes, sporting those wildly eye-catching lines across that wavy silhouette.
The 1981 Chevy Corvette was the penultimate model year for the final C3 line of Corvettes. The highlight here, however, was that it retained the manual transmission for gearheads who love to engage the clutch and control the revs, and it still featured a 5.7-liter V8 engine, something that was missing from select states in the 1980 outing due to emission standards. Now, the L81 of old is no comparison to the newer beasts that followed, but for its era, in the 1980s, the C3 1981 Chevy Corvette still managed to output up to 190 hp at 280 lb-ft of torque. It wasn’t groundbreaking by any means, but it was a nice combination of some of the newer tech filtering in from the 1980s while retaining some of the edge from the 1970s, truly marking the end of an era.
#4. The 1982 Chevy C10
Not every vehicle on this list is a car because not every vehicle that Chevy produced during the 1980s that had some impressive performance capabilities were limited to just cars. The Chevy C10, part of the C/K line of trucks before it was converted into the Silverado and Colorado, was quite popular for not only being a reliable full-size truck of the light and heavy-duty variety but also one for performance enthusiasts, too. The truck was regularly featured as not only being great for the off-road but also fantastic for making use of its powerful V8 options.
The 1982 Chevy C10 was introduced with the big ‘ole 379 cu-in 6.2-liter V8 diesel engine. This torquey powertrain had a high compression output and managed 130 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque. It was not only a beefy truck but one that was popular with lifting and off-road traversal. It had masculine lines and made it an easy pick for those visiting a Chevy dealer looking to get their hands on something aggressive, functional, and performance-heavy. There was also plenty of room to scale the power with improved exhaust and headers. Out of the gate, the 1982 Chevy C10 is just a big ‘ole, reliable full-size pickup truck with some grunt under its hood. It was a great midway point between those who needed a dependable truck and those who wanted a performance truck.
#3: The 1982 Chevy El Camino
Is there any nameplate more polarizing from the 1970s and 1980s than the El Camino? While it captured its now iconic look from an overhaul in the 1950s, it was the steady transition into the “What exactly am I looking at?” territory that occurred in the 1970s. That’s where the El Camino lost its fender flares from the 50s, the truck-like appearance from the 60s, and completely embraced its “not-quite-one-way-or-the-other” design in the 1970s. The 70s was also when it gained more of its muscle-car persona, with the party in the front and business in the back mentality that carried over into the 1980s.
In fact, in the 80s, it kept getting longer, but not in the areas where you expected. The rear continued to shrink, looking less like a truck bed and more like a station wagon without a roof. What’s interesting, though, is that the El Camino during the 1960s and 1970s favored the shorter rear and longer front by making good use of its engine bay with a wide variety of powerful V8 engines, including a massive big block 454 cu-in 7.4-liter V8.
Unfortunately, the 1982 El Camino was not rocking such a massive big block beast. However, before it was completely neutered due to restrictions and regulations, the 1982 outing did come packed with a capable 350 cu-in 5.7-liter V8 diesel engine. This helped give the El Camino during the early 80s a nice performance boost before it was completely cut off at the knees in terms of performance during the 1980s. The look of the El Camino during the 1980s also was a lot less sporty than its 1970s counterpart, but it was still trippy enough to catch the attention of performance enthusiasts.
#2. The 1985 Monte Carlo SS
Not to be confused with the popular and highly regarded big, bad, black 1987 Buick GNX, the 1985 Monte Carlo SS (Sport Coupe) was of a similar design. It was a two-door, squared-away notchback coupe with an almost identical profile to its Buick sibling. The major difference was that the Monte Carlo SS faded into obscurity while the Buick GNX lives on in infamy as one of the most notable muscle cars of the 1980s. However, the 1983 Monte Carlo SS was no slouch.
While it may have lacked the turbocharged capabilities of the GNX, the naturally aspirated 305 cu-in 5.0-liter V8 tucked under the hood could make up to 180 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque. This gave the Monte Carlo quite the performance edge on the road, especially since the SS came with performance tires, an awesome race-car-like design, and a rear spoiler. The 1985 edition featured a few improvements over the earlier model year outings from the 1980s, too, including optional T-tops, better fuel economy, and improved horsepower.
It was an all-around updated iteration of the Monte Carlo. However, with the Buick Regal being the bigger seller of the two, it wasn’t like any Chevy dealer could do anything to help buffer the popularity of the Monte Carlo SS at the time. Even still, if you were looking for a rare performance sedan from Chevy from the era, the 1985 Monte Carlo SS is worth looking into.
#1. The 1985 Camaro Z28 IROC-Z
There is no way this list could be complete without the 1985 Camaro Z28 IROC-Z. This was the car to own if you wanted a performance Chevy from the 1980s. Not only that, it was a cool-looking car for the era and is an easy favorite of mine alongside the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. The difference was that the Trans Am felt like a leftover muscle car from the 1970s that managed to break away and become a smash hit in the 1980s, whereas the Camaro Z28 IROC-Z felt like it was adopting what the 1980s were all about, representing the era of excess to a T.
The Camaro Z28, in particular, received the IROC-Z performance package in 1985. The performance package came with a 5.0-liter-tuned port-injected small block V8 engine that produced 215 hp and 275 lb-ft of torque. Performance-tuned suspension, performance tires, and performance handling all came with the IROC-Z and its beefy V8. It was a true sports car of the era and had just enough menace to feel less like something old trying to be new and more like something new and hip for the young gearheads of the era.
There’s no doubt that every 16-year-old at the time probably wanted to ride this off the lot of any Chevy dealer the minute they could save up enough from a part-time summer job to afford a new car. It captured the sportiness of the Corvette without being too luxury-oriented, and it was just rebellious enough to feel like it wasn’t just another Sunday-driving coupe. It was the perfect epitome of a performance pony car for the 1980s and a great reminder that it wasn’t all station wagons and family sedans that occupied one of the greatest eras in history.