Popular culture in the 1980s was filled with memorable vehicles. On TV and in movies, these rides were integral to the storylines, turned heads because of how cool they were, and, in some cases, even terrified us. But which was the greatest?
In this battle of the 1980s rides, we match two vehicles against each other and had our experts decide which one represented the decade the best. It’s a fun, speculative game. We asked Robert Thompson, Syracuse University professor of TV, radio and film, and Benjamin Hunting, a Montreal-based writer and host of the “Unnamed Automotive Podcast,” to argue for their favourite vehicles from the 1980s.
MATCH NO. 1
The Ferrari 308 GTS on “Magnum P.I.” vs. the 1979 Dodge Power Wagon on “Simon & Simon”
Aired back-to-back for most of the 1980s, detective shows “Magnum P.I.” and “Simon & Simon” had distinctly different approaches when it came to the treatment of their vehicles. While Thomas Magnum roamed Hawaii in a Ferrari 308 GTS, Rick and A.J. Simon travelled from crime to crime in a 1979 Dodge Power Wagon.
“You have to give it to the Power Wagon,” said Hunting. “Rick and A.J. Simon clearly really didn't care what happened to that truck. It did everything. It smashed into crowds. It rolled into stuff. Whereas that Ferrari, it didn’t even belong to Magnum. It was kind of a baby he had to look after (for his boss), and he couldn't be too hard on it.
“I think Magnum is just a little too worried about scratching the paint.”
MATCH NO. 2
The GMC Vandura on “The A-Team” vs. the Dodge Charger on “Dukes of Hazzard”
Two popular shows of the 1980s, action-packed “The A-Team” and “Dukes of Hazzard” featured vehicles that were more like characters than just modes of transport. But, Thompson said, neither vehicle has aged well.
“This is one where I think both are compromised,” said Thompson. “’The A-Team’ vehicle is a van, so it carries with it the idea that either it's going to be filled with hippies, like the van on ‘Scooby-Doo,’ or it's going to be used to pick people up for soccer practice. So, it's already got a couple of notches against, even though it was a very cool van that did cool things.”
Thompson said the Dodge Charger on the “Dukes of Hazzard” – called the General Lee – could probably out race “The A-Team” van, but the car has an insurmountable mark against it.
“The General Lee has a Confederate flag plastered all over it, and it wasn't as though we are retroactively judging that in 2022. That was inappropriate in 1978 when that show came out. By that time, the Confederate flag already had decades of being used in pro-segregation protests and all that kind of stuff. The Confederate flag had really been established to mean something and it should have seemed very strange that it was (used on) ‘Dukes of Hazzard.’ And, not just by today's standards.
“In this one, I give it to the van whose stigma is less bad than the General Lee,” Thompson said.
MATCH NO. 3
The semi-truck with a Green Goblin face from “Maximum Overdrive” vs. the Transcon Medi-Vac from “The Cannonball Run”
These movies – one a comedy-horror directed by Stephen King and the other an action-comedy starring Burt Reynolds and his comedic sidekick, Dom DeLuise – both feature interesting vehicles. “Maximum Overdrive” introduced viewers to a homicidal Western Star 4800 semi-truck with a large grinning Green Goblin mask on the front of it, while “The Cannonball Run” included a souped-up ambulance built for speed and taking part in a cross-country car race. Hunting said this match is “an interesting face off.”
“I’m going to give it to the sentient murder truck. There's no way DeLuise escapes that. He’s too goofy. He’s going to be distracted by something. There’s going to be a plate of food nearby, or someone's going make a terrible joke, or Burt Reynolds is going to need help,” he said. “That truck was out for blood, and it was in control of a lot of other trucks. So, the murder truck definitely wins.”
MATCH NO. 4
Optimus Prime from “Transformers” vs. Ecto-1 from “Ghostbusters”
At first glance, Hunting admits this battle is lopsided. “It’s not really fair,” he said, “considering one is a giant robot with a laser gun.” It would seem obvious that the transforming robot that turned into a semi truck from the original 1980s cartoon would reign supreme against a refurbished 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Sentinel used to help bust ghosts, but it boils down to killer instincts.
“No one ever died in the in the original ‘Transformers,’” Hunting said. “They were either stunned or knocked out or they jumped out of the way at the last minute. So, it’s really hard to assess just how lethal Optimus Prime would be.”
When it comes to the Ecto-1, Hunting said a feature seen in the recent “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” film and included in the 1980s cartoon series does change things for him — a gunner seat that slides out of the side of the vehicle.
“I feel like that leveled the playing field between these two opponents,” Hunting said. “I'm going to give it to Ecto-1 because clearly the ‘Ghostbusters’ characters did kill things – even if they were already dead. So, in my mind, that gives it the advantage in this competition.”
MATCH NO. 5
The Ferrari Testarossa from “Miami Vice” vs. all other 1980s cars
“If I had to choose the ultimate winner of the 1980s car battle,” said Thompson, “it would be the Ferrari Testarossa from ‘Miami Vice.’” The highly stylized drama starred Don Johnson as police detective James (Sonny) Crockett.
“I can think of very few things that represent American popular culture in the 1980s more than Miami Vice. That was about as ’80s as it gets,” said Thompson. “If Optimus Prime goes against the ‘Miami Vice’ Ferrari, it’s going to be able to crush it and fold it into pieces. If you're trying to escape federal agents, probably ‘The A-Team’ van can do it better. But if you simply want to look cool, you can't do better than that Ferrari.
“In TV we know they’re going to escape. We know it is all going work out no matter what car you're driving. In the end, it's all about the surface, and that car had one cool surface.”