Dream cruisers, class of 1986

The automotive class of 1986 turns 26 this year.

That means those Detroit-produced sedans, coupes and muscle cars of the Reagan era are eligible for historical vehicle status in Michigan.

So, with the annual Woodward Dream Cruise set to roll Saturday, here’s a question worth asking: Is there anything remotely cruise-worthy still on the road from 1986? It’s all a matter of taste; after all, there are no rules for the Dream Cruise. It’s always been “run what you brung.”

“Oh my, 1986 was a boring time for cars,” says Ruth Johnson, Michigan’s Secretary of State, the agency that issues the historical designation license plates and who happens to be bit of a gearhead herself.

When it comes to automotive performance, 1986 was a dark time. It was in the middle of a vast dead zone left parched by the great muscle car kill-off of the 1970s oil embargos and emission regulations.

Chrysler had just stopped making K-cars. Ford introduced the Taurus, among the first of Detroit’s corner-turning efforts to compete with Japanese quality and durability. But we are talking about simple transportation. An American performance car in those days was mostly slick styling, snazzy decals and an engine with middling power.

“The 1980s are a problem because there’s just not much to say about them,” says Jill Booker, CEO of American Collectors Insurance, which specializes in protecting the most sought-after cars.

Honda’s Accord sold well in 1986 Booker noted, but it’s not very collectible.

“I don’t see any car from 1986 being a classic,” says Jeff Schecter, 60, of Farmington Hills, as he relaxed in a Woodward parking lot earlier next to his 1936 Plymouth business coupe equipped with an old 327-cubic-inch Chevrolet V-8.

Kelley Blue Book Collector Car Editor Phil Skinner agrees: “1986 was kind of a stinky year.”

Skinner, though, does find something noteworthy among the year’s unremarkable collection: Because many cars from that era carry rock-bottom resale value, 1986 provides several “poor man’s entries” to cruising.

It took some work, but I found a few Dream Cruise-worthy alums in the mix. Here they are:

Buick Grand National

Some of 1986’s most collectible cars were created for use on the then-increasingly popular NASCAR racing circuit.

Back then, racing stock cars were built from production-based bodies, and manufacturers had to sell a limited number for the street to qualify a model for competition. Buick’s Regal Grand National, with its powerful intercooled turbocharged 3.8-liter V-6 engines, had been around since 1982. By 1986, the power of the small and lightweight engines climbed to 235 horsepower — which could easily beat most of the period’s low-powered V-8s.

A well-kept Buick Grand National is probably the most desirable model of 1986, and can fetch more than $20,000.

Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS Aerocoupe / Pontiac Grand Prix 2+2

General Motors launched two aerodynamically slippery models built on the same platform as the Buick, also for use in NASCAR in 1986. Both featured tight grilles and fastback rear windows to improve airflow. All the Aerocoupes came in white and the 2+2s were silver.

That’s where the racing pedigree ended. The Chevy came with a 5-liter V-8 that produced a measly 180 horsepower. The 2+2 was even less powerful, with a 5-liter V-8 that generated just 165 horsepower.

“It isn’t much of a horsepower car. Didn’t even come with a positraction rear end, but it is unique. It still turns heads,” said Norm Gozalka of Lincoln Park, owner of one of only 200 Aerocoupes sold in 1986.

Pontiac sold more than a thousand 2+2s.

The regular notch-back 1986 Monte Carlo SS with the same 5-liter V-8 engine can be found in plentiful numbers — and purchased for as little as three digits. Fixed up, the V-8 engine still rumbles and you can pretend to be NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip out for a drive.

Chevrolet Corvette

Here’s a glaring example of the performance dilemma of 1986. The L98 V-8 engine in Chevrolet’s two-seat sports car got new aluminum cylinder heads to help boost horsepower – just to equal the output of the Buick Grand National’s turbocharged V-6.

What makes the 1986 Corvette unique is its convertible model — the first Corvette roadster since 1975. And every one of them technically came as a replica of the 1986 Indianapolis 500 pace car. Most were delivered with their pace car decals unattached. If you find one, make sure you ask if the stickers are still with the car.

Ford Mustang

Another sign of the politically correct push for lower displacement was the fact the 5-liter V-8-powered Mustang GT and turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder SVO models of the compact and lightweight Fox-bodied sports coupe offered identical 200-horsepower ratings in 1986.

The V-8 is, well, a V-8, and remains an inexpensive, popular option to turn a car into a hot rod. The suspension under the SVO was better tuned and the nose more aerodynamic with flush headlights. It was the final year of a three-year run for the powerful little SVO four-cylinder Mustangs.

ChevroletCamaro / Pontiac Firebird

And here’s one that went backward in 1986. The IROC package of the Z28 Camaro was introduced in 1985 as a Mustang-fighter with big 16-inch alloy wheels, wide tires, a sport-tuned suspension and a more powerful 215-horsepower 5-liter V-8. In 1986, the V-8’s rating was reduced to 190 horsepower. A 2.8-liter V-6 engine replaced the former 2.5-liter four-cylinder base engine. Z28 models got the same engines and they currently are selling for thousands less than IROC models.

The more aerodynamic Firebird faced the same engine degradations, but the Trans Am model got a desirable handling package. It also was the last season for KITT, the Trans Am that played David Hasselhoff’s crime solving, artificial intelligence driven sidekick on the television show “Knight Rider.”

Dodge Omni Shelby GLHS

The day is coming soon when you can feel confident cruising Woodward in a four-cylinder, turbocharged, front-wheel-drive car, but by 1986 Carroll Shelby’s beefed up Omni was as good as Chrysler had to offer. It had been 15 years since the discontinuation of Mopar’s famous Hemi V-8. It would be another 17 years before the powerplant was reintroduced.

In 1986, Shelby finished two years with the manufacturer creating a lightweight performer to compete with the Volkswagen Rabbit. Shelby bought the final 500 GLH models to create his own intercooled turbocharged 175-horsepower versions. They were ahead of their time when you consider what the Fiat 500 Abarth recently has done for Chrysler.

Pontiac Fiero GT

Remember Ferris Bueller’s sister Jeanie? Ferris was given a computer. Jeanie got a car. The rear-wheel-drive, mid-engined two-seater had been around for two years by 1986 when it got new styling, a five-speed manual transmission, a 130-horsepower V-6, and a big public relations boost from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

But the Fiero also took a fatal PR hit that year from a federal investigation of engine fires that led to recalls of every Fiero built.

It wasn’t until 1988 that Fiero got serious new suspension upgrades that would vastly improve the car, but the vehicle’s reputation was so badly damaged by then that GM canceled production for 1989. The plastic-bodied machine continues to have its fans, and kits can be purchased to install V-8 engines and modify or completely replace the body with imitation exotic sports car looks.

So you might see a Fiero at the Dream Cruise and never recognize it.

Doug Guthrie
Doug Guthrie is The Detroit News car critic. He covered motor sports before switching to news, where he wrote about crime, courts, government and politics. Now, he combines his experience as a reporter with his passion for cars to tell you about the latest creations.