The 80s car imports were dominated by Japanese made cars. Compared to American cars which were perceived as of lower quality with large engines that were not economical with gasoline, cars that were produced by Toyota, Datsun, and Honda, were well-built and came with engines that were fuel-efficient.
Also, they came at a lower price. No wonder that one out of every four cars sold in 1980 were imports. With the oil crisis triggered by OPEC's decision to curtail production in 1979, the price of crude went up. Whereas prior to the oil crisis American loved big cars, now the focus of American buyers went to fuel economy .
Several other countries vied for the American market: Korea, France, Sweden, Germany, and last but not least, Yugoslavia with its Yugo, not only the worst 1980s imported cars but of all time.
Japanese 80s Car Imports and their European Competitors
Having established themselves as makers of reliable cars and light trucks in the '70s and in most of the '80s, Toyota and Nissan debuted their luxury lines, Lexus and Infiniti in the late 1980s. By then, the German carmakers BMW and Mercedes-Benz had well established luxury cars. Initially skeptical of the Lexuses and Infinitis, the Japanese cars through the years had won over many American buyers.
By 2005, Lexus had surpassed BMW in total sales. These 1980s foreign autos had been ingrained so much in the American's psyche that they're almost everyone's dream cars in addition to the Mercedes-Benz's cars.
1989 Lexus LS400
Introduced in 1989, this Infiniti M30 started selling in the US in the following year.
1989 BMW 635 CSi Highline
1980 Mercedes SL
Korean 80s Car Imports
Korean manufacturer Hyundai sold the Hyundai Excel which had a reputation for being underpowered and poorly made. Hyundai manufactured the Excel from 1989 to 1986 and that first Excel was deemed as awful. But that 1.5-liter engine, four-cylinder engine car with a front-drive was comparatively cheap: they were priced at just below $5,000.
In 1986 alone, Hyundai sold a lot of them - more than 166,000 units. Hyundai learned a lot from that first car which set the company up for the success that it enjoys today.
1988-1989 Hyundai Excel
German 80s Car Imports
German-built cars gained a reputation for fuel efficiency. Volkswagen's design, for one, as well as their functionality won Americans over Volk's being fun to drive. Volkswagen's executives also decided to put their engines on the front, rather than on the back due to safety problem concerns.
1980s VW Scirroco
The 80s Car Imports Got Into the American Competition
Swedish 80s Car Imports
Saab, a Swedish aerospace manufacturer, also has had limited success in American markets. Saab, while gaining a following in Europe with its generally considered high-performance cars, hasn't acquired the confidence on American buyers that German and Japanese imported cars had. Meanwhile, Volvo, another Swedish import, had earned American buyers trust because of the company's focus on safety.
1986-1990 Volvo 780
Yugoslavian 80s Car Imports
Even Yugoslavia went for the American consumers. Yugos, reputedly one of the 80s worst car came to America. Malcolm Bricklin, an American entrepreneur, was responsible for the Yugo's introduction to American buyers. After several modifications, the Yugo GV, one of the first five models, was introduced for the basic entry-level sub $4,000. The GV (Great Value) came with a glass sunroof, with the GVX coming with 1300 cc engine, give-speed manual transmission plus additional standard options.
Reagan and 80s Car Imports
With nearly two million Japanese cars and trucks sold in the U.S. in 1980, President Ronald Reagan wanted a level playing field in the American car market by demanding that Japan reduce its car exports to the US by 25% for at least the next few years. It was an unfavorable demand because the Americans receive one-half of Japan's car exports. With the threat of protectionist legislation to protect the Big Three, Japan relented. This in turn helped to revive Detroit. By early 1981, the American automakers were showing profits again.
Learning from its mistakes and being helped by Reagan, the Big Three instituted investments like they never did before. Spending twice as much money, the early years of the 80s decade saw Detroit able to improve their cars. The gas guzzlers that rolled off were now more fuel-efficient. They were built with quality in mind. By the end of the decade, both Detroit and Japan were doing very well, with Japan still taking a market share of more or less about the same percentage as it had beginning the decade of the '80s.
GM and the 80s Car Imports
To deal with the loss of market share, GM's CEO focused on automation at a cost of $40 to 45 billion, an astounding figure since that was 14 times Ford's annual pretax earnings at the time.
Roger Smith's decision elevated him to the status of press darling in the first half of the 1980s. He gained accolades from the press and awards from several publications and institutions. Described as an "innovator", a "futurist", and a "visionary", the ambitious attempt to surpass the Japanese at their own game backfired: according to automotive research undertook by the UCLA's Lieberman and Dhawan, each GM employee produced just 11.7 cars, while the same metric at Ford was 16.1 and as high as 57.7 at Toyota. GM also earned 38% less than Ford and 26% less than Toyota on each vehicle they made.
With GM's spending calculated at $34.7 billion over the period from 1986 through 1989, with that amount, GM could have purchased Toyota and Nissan. This would almost double GM's world market share, increasing its penetration over 40% of the entire free world. Doing so could have easily hurt 80s car imports to the US.
With Smith's miscalculations and faith that robotics is the Holy Grail of auto building, it just shows that attention to detail and the ever-present realities of the automobile landscape matter in business as much as the best-laid business plan.