1981 Ford Escort hatchback coupe

“Built to take on the world.”

Ford’s biggest news for 1981 was the all-new Escort. Marketed as a “World Car,” the Escort replaced the unloved Pinto and represented a three billion dollar commitment from Ford. The new Escort was shorter, thinner, taller, and about 400 pounds lighter than the Pinto it supplanted.

The Escort’s standard powertrain was the Compound Valve Hemispherical (CVH) 65 bhp 1.6 liter/98 ci inline four with Holley-Weber 5740 2-barrel carburetor paired to a four-speed manual transmission (a three-speed automatic was a $344 option). Mileage with the standard powertrain was impressive: 28 city/43 highway by the standards of the day (about 23 city/31 highway by 2018 standards). Acceleration was less so: 0-60 came in about 14 seconds in the approximately 2,000-pound car. With a 10-gallon fuel tank, Escort drivers could expect a range of from 240 to 320 miles with a 10% fuel reserve.

Standard exterior and mechanical equipment on the $5,158 base Escort (about $15,300 in today’s dollars and close to what a 2018 Fiesta SE hatchback costs) included front wheel drive, rack-and-pinion steering, fully independent four-wheel suspension, halogen headlamps, and P155/80R13 tires (a size still available thanks to Kumho) on 13-inch steel wheels. Inside, high-back body-contoured front bucket seats, fold-down rear bench seat, and an AM radio were included.

As was often true with 1980s Fords, there were many trim levels. L added bright headlamp surrounds and a bright grill along with other brightwork. Moving up to the GL gave the purchaser reclining bucket seats and a four-spoke steering wheel. GLX added dual color-keyed remote sport mirrors, digital clock, locking glovebox, and P165/80R13 tires on styled steel wheels—but started at $6,476 (about $19,200 in 2018 dollars).

Fitting between the GL and the GLX in price, the somewhat sporty SS included black grill and headlamp housing, tape striping, and handling suspension ($37 for other Escorts).

Exterior and mechanical options included power brakes ($79) and power steering ($163). Inside, air conditioning ($530), fingertip speed control ($132), a floor console ($98), cloth/vinyl seat trim ($28), and an AM/FM stereo radio with cassette player ($187) were all available.

Escort page from the 1981 Ford brochure, linked from the Old Car Manual Project’s amazing brochures pages.

The first-year Escort and its platform-mate Mercury Lynx sold well: 193,000 Escort hatchback coupes, 128,000 Escort liftback sedans, 73,000 Lynx hatchback coupes, and 39,000 Lynx liftback sedans, making for a total of over 430,000. First-generation Escorts and Lynx’s were once so prevalent on American roads, but have virtually disappeared by now. You do occasionally see Escorts for sale in the Hemming’s Motor News classifieds and on eBay Motors, but there were none out there as I write this in June 2018.

1981: What Cars Are Collectible?

The question always arises: what cars are considered collectable? One way is to look at what Hagerty tracks with their valuation tools. For 1981 cars, the full list is below—I have added a few comments.

Alfa Romeo; GTV-6 hatchback coupe, Spyder convertible

Alpine; A310 coupe

Aston Martin; Lagonda sedan, V8 coupe and convertible

Avanti; Avanti II coupe

Bentley; Corniche convertible, Mulsanne sedan

Bitter; SC coupe

BMW; 320i coupe, 633CSi coupe, 733i sedan, M1 coupe

Bristol; 412 convertible

Buick; Regal coupe, Riviera coupe

Cadillac; DeVille coupe and sedan, Eldorado coupe, Fleetwood coupe and sedan, Seville sedan

Checker; Marathon sedan

Chevrolet; C10/K10 pickup truck, C10/K10 Blazer SUV, C10/K10 Suburban SUV, C20/K20 pickup truck, C20/K20 Suburban SUV, C30/K30 pickup truck, Camaro coupe, Corvette coupe, El Camino pickup truck

Chrysler; Imperial coupe

Clenet; SII convertible

Datsun; 280ZX hatchback coupe

Delorean; DMC-12 coupe

DeTomaso; Deauville sedan, Pantera coupe

Dodge; Ramcharger SUV

Excalibur; Series IV convertible

Ferrari; 308 GTBi/GTSi coupe, 400i coupe, 512 BB coupe, Mondial coupe

Fiat; 2000 convertible, X1/9 coupe

Ford; Bronco SUV, F-100 pickup truck, F-150 pickup truck, F-250 pickup truck, F-350 pickup truck, GT40 coupe and convertible, Mustang coupe and hatchback coupe, Thunderbird coupe

GMC; C1500/K1500 pickup truck, C2500/K2500 pickup truck, C3500/K3500 pickup truck, Caballero pickup truck

Jaguar; XJ-6 sedan, XJ-S coupe

Jeep; Cherokee SUV, CJ-5 SUV, CJ-7 SUV, CJ-8 Scrambler pickup truck, Wagoneer SUV

Lamborghini; Countach coupe

Lancia; Beta coupe, convertible, sedan, and station wagon, Gamma coupe and sedan, Scorpion coupe

Lincoln; Continental coupe and sedan, Continental Mark VI coupe and sedan

Lotus; Esprit coupe

Maserati; Kyalami coupe, Merak coupe, Quattroporte III sedan

Matra; Murena coupe

Mazda; RX-7 hatchback coupe

Mercedes-Benz; 240D sedan, 280CE coupe, 280E sedan, 300CD coupe, 300D sedan, 300SD sedan, 300TD station wagon, 380SEL sedan, 380SL convertible, 380SLC coupe

Morgan; 4/4 convertible, Plus 8 convertible

Panther; DeVille convertible and sedan, J72 convertible, Kallista convertible

Peugeot; 504 convertible

Plymouth; Trail Duster SUV

Pontiac; Firebird coupe

Porsche; 911 coupe, 924 hatchback coupe, 928 hatchback coupe

Puma; GT coupe, GTC coupe and convertible

Replicar; sedan and convertible

Rolls-Royce; Camargue coupe, Corniche I convertible, Phantom VI sedan, Silver Spirit sedan, Silver Spur sedan

Saab; 99 coupe

Stutz; Bearcat convertible, Blackhawk coupe, Iv-Porte sedan, Royale sedan

Toyota; Celica hatchback coupe, Land Cruiser SUV

Triumph; TR7 convertible, TR8 coupe and convertible

Volvo; 262C coupe

Hagerty casts a wide net, except when they don’t (why does the Toronado go away in 1981 if it was around in 1980?). Speaking of going away, AMC, International, and Subaru all get no love when it comes to 1981 models.

Coupes are dominant—37% of 128 models listed with an additional 5% being hatchback coupes. Unsurprisingly, the rarest body style is a station wagon, at 2%.

1981 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Sport Coupe

It was a beautiful weekend in the Philadelphia area. Lots of people had their old cars out—one that caught my eye was an eighties Monte Carlo. However, it wasn’t the relatively glamorous SS of the mid-eighties; just a “normal” coupe.

“A matter of personal pride.”

For the 1981 model, the Monte Carlo that had been downsized in 1978 was significantly restyled, both to improve aerodynamics and modernize its looks. Much of the sculpting on the sides (which the middle-school aged me found appealing) was flattened, the hood was lowered, and the trunk slightly raised.

The standard engine continued to be an LC3 110 bhp 3.8 liter/229 cubic inch V6 with a Rochester 2ME 2-barrel carburetor. Optional power included a $750 (!) Buick-built LC8 170 bhp 3.8 liter/231 cubic inch V6 with a turbocharger and a Rochester E4ME 4-barrel carburetor and a $50 L39 115 bhp 4.4 liter/267 cubic inch V8 with a Rochester 2ME 2-barrel carburetor. California got an LG4 150 bhp 5.0 liter/305 cubic inch V8 with a Rochester 4ME 4-barrel carburetor as an option replacing the 4.4 liter V8. All engines were paired with a Turbo Hydra-Matic three-speed automatic transmission.

Mileage for the standard engine was 19 city/26 highway by the standards of the day (16/22 by today’s standards). With an 18.1-gallon fuel tank, a Monte Carlo driver could reasonably expect 310 to 365 miles of range with a 10% fuel reserve. Performance wasn’t exactly sparkling: 0-60 mph came in about 14.5 seconds with the standard V6 and 14 seconds for the 4.4 liter V8. The rare (about 2% of 1981 sales) turbo V6 was much faster—about 9 seconds for the 0-60 mph dash.

Standard exterior and mechanical equipment on the $7,299 Sport Coupe (approximately $21,300 in today’s dollars or about what a base 2017 Chevrolet Malibu costs—the Monte Carlo disappeared after the 2007 model year) included Computer Command Control, Delco Freedom II battery, power steering, power front disc/rear drum brakes, and P195/75R14 steel-belted radial tires. Inside a split cloth front bench seat, cut pile carpeting, and an electric clock were standard.

Exterior and mechanical options for the Sport Coupe (there was also a higher-content Landau Coupe) included halogen high beam headlamps ($27), removable glass roof panels ($695), F41 Sport Suspension ($43), limited slip differential ($67), Rally wheels ($49), and attractive new aluminum wheels ($319). Inside, there were many options: air conditioning ($585), automatic speed control ($132), Comfortilt steering wheel ($81), power windows ($140), power door locks ($93), bucket seats ($118), gauge package ($55), and an AM/FM stereo radio with cassette tape ($264) were all available.

Back cover of the 1981 Monte Carlo brochure, linked from the Old Car Manual Project’s amazing brochures pages.

1981 Monte Carlo sales were astounding by modern standards for auto sales—Chevrolet sold 149,659 Sport Coupes along with another 38,191 Landau Coupes. For context, the combined Monte Carlo numbers would be enough to make it the 12th most popular car in 2016; and Chevrolet had four model lines that sold better in 1981 (Chevette, Citation, Malibu, and Impala/Caprice). Chevrolet was probably happy with the increased sales over 1980, but this would not last—1981 turned out to be the eighties high water mark for Chevrolet’s mid-size coupe.

Third-generation Monte Carlos have a following, though most of the interest is in the aforementioned SS, which is the only eighties Monte rated in Hagerty’s valuation tools. A 1986 maroon Chevrolet Monte Carlo coupe with a maroon interior and cloth bucket seats, an LG4 150 bhp 5.0 liter/305 cubic inch V8 with a 4-barrel carburetor, an automatic, and 60,000 miles sold for $9,000 at Barrett-Jackson’s 2016 Las Vegas auction.

These Monte Carlos do show up for sale in the Hemmings Motor News classifieds and on eBay Motors. As I write this, Hemmings is listing a 1985 Monte Carlo with a light brown metallic exterior, saddle cloth seats, an LG4 5.0 liter/305 cubic inch V8 with a 4-barrel carburetor, an automatic, and 68,000 miles for $8,250.

Make mine Green Light Jade Metallic, please. A rare choice when new, those GM light greens from the early eighties have aged very well.

Other rear-wheel drive G-platform (designated A-platform before 1982) cars I have written about include the 1984 Buick Regal Grand National, the 1983 Chevrolet Malibu Sedan, the 1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and the 1980 Pontiac Grand Am.

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1981 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am coupe

Soul Survivor

1981 was the last year for the second-generation Firebird and thus also the last year for the second-generation Trans Am. With the third-generation cars on the way, Pontiac’s eleven-year-old F-car got only minor changes. The “screaming chicken” decal on the hood was now two colors, compared to the four color decal from 1979 and 1980. Not much could be done about the general lack of space efficiency (the EPA rated the Firebird as a subcompact car), the relatively high weight (about 3,300 pounds when the Mustang weighed about 2,800), and the fairly primitive technology.

The standard Trans Am powertrain was the L37 150 bhp 4.9 liter/301 ci V8 with four-barrel carburetor matched with an automatic. The only choice for Trans Am purchasers who wanted a manual transmission was the Chevrolet-built LG4 145 bhp 5.0 liter/305 ci V8 with four-barrel carburetor, but you did get a $147 credit.

The top engine was the $437 LU8 200 bhp 4.9 liter/301 ci V8 with four-barrel carburetor and turbocharger, which included a new hood-mounted boost gauge. A Turbo Trans Am would accelerate from 0-60 in a little over eight seconds. Fuel mileage was predictably bad—14 mpg by the standards of the day for the combination of the turbo engine and the automatic. With a 21-gallon fuel tank, Trans Am owners could expect to travel about 260 miles before refueling.

Standard exterior and mechanical equipment included in the $8,322 base price of the Trans Am (about $24,300 in today’s dollars) included black accent grille and headlamp bezels, dual rectangular headlamps, wheel opening air deflectors, side-split tailpipe extensions, shaker hood, power brakes, and P225/70R15 blackwall tires on Rally II wheels. Inside, power steering, air conditioning, console, bright engine-turned dash plate, and rally gauges with tachometer were standard.

The Trans Am Special Edition package cost $735 additional—$1,430 bundled with t-tops. There was also a special edition of the Special Edition—the NASCAR Daytona 500 Pace Car, resplendent in oyster white with a black and red interior. It included the LU8 turbocharged engine, the WS6 special performance package, four wheel power disc brakes, and limited slip differential. Inside, the most notable upgrade from other Trans Ams was Recaro seats—among the best available from any manufacturer in 1981. All this extra content was a good thing, because the NASCAR Daytona 500 Pace Car listed for $12,257; about $35,700 in 2017 dollars.

Options available for included WS6 special performance package, limited slip differential, tungsten quartz halogen headlamps, white-lettered tires, cast aluminum wheels, four wheel power disc brakes, power antenna, electric rear window defroster, and custom bucket seats.

Firebird pages of the 1981 Pontiac brochure, linked for the Old Car Manual Project’s amazing brochures pages.

Long neglected by the collector market and with most now used up, late second-generation Trans Ams in good or great shape are starting to get interesting numbers at auctions. A black and gold 1981 Trans Am went for $19,000 at Mecum’s May 2017 auction in Indianapolis. According to Hagerty’s valuation tools, all the money for a 1981 Trans Am in #1 condition is $38,200. A more normal #3 condition version is valued at $13,600.

Make mine the black and gold Special Edition, of course. The NASCAR Daytona 500 Pace Car is tempting, if only for those Recaro seats.

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1981 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme

 “America’s favorite Cutlass for flair, value and price”

For 1981, the exterior of Oldsmobile’s Cutlass Supreme was substantially revised, with a lowered front, a slightly higher decklid, and quad headlamps. With the new styling, aerodynamic drag dropped by about 15%.

The standard engine remained the 110 bhp 3.8 liter V6 with two-barrel Rochester carburetor. The optional engines, a 4.3 liter gasoline V8 ($50) and a 5.7 liter diesel V8 ($695!), both had (this makes no sense) five less horsepower than the V6. A three-speed automatic transmission was the only transmission available. Mileage with the V6 was 21 city/30 highway by the standards of the day.

Standard equipment on the $7,484 Cutlass Supreme (about $21,500 in today’s dollars) included power steering, power front disc brakes, bench seats with a choice of vinyl or cloth, and P195/75R14 radial tires (a size last seen on nineties Volkswagen vans).

Optional exterior and mechanical equipment included cast aluminum wheels, tungsten halogen high-beam headlamps, engine block heater, limited slip differential, power antenna, dual sport mirrors, electric rear window defogger, and removable glass roof panels ($695). Inside, you could add either Four-Season or Tempmatic air conditioning, Tilt-Away steering wheel, cruise control, power windows, power door locks, bucket seats, digital or regular electric clock, and a series of radios.

Page from the 1981 mid-size Oldsmobile brochure, linked from the Old Car Manual Project’s amazing brochures section.

The Cutlass Supreme sure was popular—Oldsmobile sold almost 189,000 of them in the 1981 model year along with another 94,000 Cutlass Supreme Brougham coupes for a total of over a quarter of a million.

There are a few folks collecting these cars, but they aren’t common at shows. You do see Cutlass Supremes for sale in the Hemming’s Motor News classifieds and on eBay Motors: as I write this in June 2015, there’s a brown/beige two-tone Cutlass Supreme with a beige interior and 28,000 miles listed on Hemming’s for $13,000.

Make mine Dark Blue Metallic, please.

1981 Toyota Celica Sport Coupe

We do requests on Eighties Cars, whether or not they are definitive ones. A friend of mine mentioned his 1981 Celica in one of the forums I frequent and that was enough inspiration for me.

 “The Ultimate Toyota.”

1981 was the final year for the second-generation Toyota Celica which had debuted in 1978. Despite this, there were some significant changes, including a new engine.

celicas
1981 Celica and Celica Supra poster, courtesy of Flickr user Alden Jewell.

The Celica’s new engine for 1981 was the 2.4 liter 97 bhp 22R two-barrel carburated inline four cylinder. Paired with a five speed manual transmission, fuel economy was an impressive 25 city/37 highway by the standards of the day (22/34 by today’s standards). Choosing the optional four speed automatic transmission dropped economy slightly to 25 city/35 highway (22/32 by 2014 standards).

The Celica Sport Coupe was available in ST and GT trim levels. Standard equipment on the Celica ST ($6,699 or about $17,500 in today’s dollars)  included electronic ignition, an FM radio, reclining front bucket seats, “cut pile wall-to-wall carpeting”, power front disc brakes and rear drum brakes, and styled steel wheels with 185/70R14 tires.

Moving up to the GT ($7,429 or about $19,400 in today’s dollars) added features such as tungsten halogen high beams, dual outside mirrors, a dressed up instrument panel and console, and a locking gas cap.

Optional equipment included air conditioning, sunroof, and power steering. Aluminum alloy wheels, rear window defogger, and cruise control were GT only options.

1981 Plymouth Reliant

I don’t know if he was serious, but one of the folks on Corvette Guru asked me when I was going to do a write-up on the K cars. So, here’s the Plymouth version.

“right for the times we drive in”

The 1981 Plymouth Reliant (along with its sibling the Dodge Aries) are the K-body cars often (and reasonably) credited with saving Chrysler in the early 1980s.

The first K cars were basic transportation, famously (like the GM X cars a year before) with no roll-down rear windows and just barely mid-size by the EPA’s classification. For $5,880 (about $16,900 in 2015 dollars), you got a Reliant coupe with rack and pinion steering and a front vinyl bench seat. Base tires were P175/75R13—a size that basically doesn’t exist any more. The upmarket tire was a P165/75R14—a size that fit the mid-90s Plymouth Neon compact just fine.

Spending another $500 or so moved you up to Custom trim, which added halogen headlights, a cloth front bench seat, a cigarette lighter, a color-keyed steering wheel, a digital clock, and an AM radio. Custom wagons also got power brakes.

The top-of the line Special Edition (SE) Reliants added power steering, power brakes, dual horns, deluxe wheel covers, and a snazzier steering wheel. An option only available to the SE was cloth bucket seats.

1981PlymouthReliant
1981 Plymouth Reliant two door coupe, scan courtesy of Alden Jewell

All levels of trim were sold as four door sedans and two door coupes, but station wagons were only available in Custom and SE trims. In 1981, the 151,000 buyers split almost evenly between the three trim levels.

Options included air conditioning (which required tinted glass and power brakes—things were tightly engineered in the early 1980s), cruise control, power door locks, power front seats (said to be quite rare), along with a variety of radios.

Standard engine was a 84 bhp 2.2 liter inline 4 with two-barrel carburetor—a Mitsubishi built 92 bhp 2.6 liter inline 4 was optional. The standard transmission was a four speed manual, with a three speed automatic optional. Gas mileage with the standard combination was rated at 29 city/41 highway by the standards of the day.

Motor Trend managed to get a 2.2 liter with the automatic to do 0-60 in 12.5 seconds—they tried with another Reliant running the same combination and it took 14.0 (oog) seconds. Top speed (if you could call it that) ranged from 88 to 96 mph.

Thanks to the crazy folks at Allpar for much of the source material for this post.