6 great 1980s and ’90s alternatives to high-priced muscle cars

As a child of the 1980s, I’ve noticed the cars that were new when I was a kid are getting popular once again. And why not? Enthusiasts are known to buy things that made an imprint in their formative years. There’s even a reproduction parts scene for some once underappreciated models, like the Monte Carlo SS.

If you’re like me, cars from the muscle car era have a special allure. Now that the values of even more pedestrian muscle cars (383 Road Runners, 400/350 GTOs, etc.) have followed on the coattails of their more powerful brethren, perhaps it’s time to take a look at cars from the ’80s and ’90s, which are coming into their own as collectibles. Here are 5 options that offer plenty of muscle and offering modern drivability. 

Big Money: 1971–72 Chevelle SS

Big Hair: 1987 Monte Carlo Aerocoupe

1971 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 454 LS5
1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe

For 1971 Chevrolet changed the formula of the Super Sport to incorporate small-block 350s, including a lowly two-barrel version. Despite the low compression, both the 350 and the 402 enjoy popularity thanks to the combination of classic Chevy style and solid parts support. The big-block averages $34,900 but, for a more sane price point (plus a bit of NASCAR gravitas), consider a 1987 Monte Carlo Aerocoupe at half the cost. Not only would make you King of the High School Reunion Parking Lot, but its SBC allows for endless mods at your discretion.

Big Money: 1970–72 Camaro SS 350

Big Hair: 1996–97 Camaro SS

1970 Chevrolet Camaro SS Coupe
1996 Chevrolet Camaro SS

For all the praise about how perfect a design the 1970-1/2 Camaro was, it’s been ultimately outshined by the first-generation Camaro. (Even with the original Bill Mitchell design influencing subsequent Camaro designs for two more generations.) Funny how that works, right? The SS 350 is the most affordable of the bunch, even in high-compression 1970 1/2 form; but have you priced a 1990s Camaro SS lately? Find a 1996–97 Camaro SS and you’ll get the same cubic inches plus the addition of air induction, much quicker ETs, and the ability to play with computer chips.

Big Money: 1971–73 Mustang Mach I

Big Hair: 1987–92 Mustang GT

1971 Ford Mustang Mach 1
1987 Ford Mustang GT

The last of the “true” Mustangs arrived in 1971 with a bang (429 Cobra Jet, Boss 351) and left in 1973 with a whimper (264 net horsepower, tops). They offer racy muscle car style in spades, but a high-compression 1971 Mach I with the 285-horsepower 351 averages $28,500 (with the low-compression versions from 1972–73 a little bit less). A classic Fox-bodied 5.0 Mustang GT—the Tri-Five Chevy of the immediate post-Malaise period—offers more bang for your buck. For an average of $5900–$6700, you get solid 14-second ETs (something the 351 Cobra Jet could never dream of), 1980s-inspired boxy styling, and a parts supply that would make a Chevy envious.

Big Money: 1971–72 Buick GS Stage 1

Big Hair: 1986–87 Buick T-Type

1971 Buick GS Stage 1
1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe

Buick revamped the Gran Sport series to include three engines for one model, with a 350, 455, and Stage 1 all for one model. The standard GS with the 350 is affordable, but why not go big with the GS Stage 1? An average 1971 example will run you $36,100, and a little less for the similar 1972. Of course, the Grand National is THE hot car from the 1980s, but smart turbo V-6 fiends know there’s love to give to its Q-ship brothers like the Turbo Regal, T-Type, Regal WH1, Regal WE4, and Turbo Limited. All were rarer than the Grand National, and they run cheaper as well.

Big Money: 1972–74 Dodge Charger Rallye

Big Hair: 1992–93 Dodge Daytona IROC R/T

1973 Dodge Charger Rallye
1992 Dodge Daytona IROC R/T

The 1972 Charger Rallye was the replacement for the Charger R/T. By 1973, it came standard with a 318, although a 400, 340 (360 in 1974), and 440 were available. The 1972 440 Rallye leads in value, getting close to 30 grand on average, with 1973–74 trailing off. In 1992–93, the Dodge Daytona was available with a 224-horsepower Turbo III for the IROC R/T model. Its 2.2-liter four with a DOHC 16-valve cylinder head was designed by Lotus. You should be able to find one for 12 grand, which is nice for a car numbering under 553 units for the two years.

Big Money: 1971–72 Pontiac Firebird Formula 400

Big Hair: 1987–92 Firebird Formula 350

1971 Pontiac Firebird Formula
1989 Pontiac Firebird Formula 350

Like the Camaro above, the second-generation Firebird makes design-inclined folks swoon. Starting in 1971, the Formula was promoted as the Formula 350, Formula 400, and Formula 455, with the latter two being true muscle cars. The 1971 Formula 400 averages at a reasonable $23,600, but the 1987–92 Formula 350 at half that price or less can give the 400 a run for its money. Although only available with an automatic, it offers reliable, consistent performance and has classic 1980s style without the need for a mullet—unlike the Trans Am.