August 14, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Class of '88: The new Cruise classics

Assorted nerds, jocks and hotties are latest to reach historic status

Woodward Dream Cruises are like high school reunions. We go back to the alma mater every year to meet old friends, retell tall tales, and see if Mary Jo Meriweather is still as hot as she was three decades ago.

On Woodward this year, we honor the Class of 1988.

Now old enough to qualify for historic Michigan plates, the 26th anniversary class featured an assortment of nerds, athletes and timeless beauties. Which models will show up? Which ones should show up? Does that certain curvy creature still turn heads like she did then?

Your humble class auto critic has gone back through my tattered yearbook to sort the losers and leaders. Has anyone become a celebrity like Dodge Challenger (Class of ’71)? Will there be dorks-turned-cool like the Ford Model B street rod (Class of ’32)?

In 1988 Ronald Reagan was president, “Die Hard” was the No. 1 movie, and the Ford Escort was America’s best-selling car. The Ford what?

The auto landscape was almost completely unrecognizable compared to today. AMC was a car, not a TV channel; GM owned Lotus; and sedans still dominated auto sales. The Ford Taurus was the best-selling midsize car in America while the Ford Escape crossover hadn’t even been conceived. Heck, crossovers hadn’t been conceived. Today’s perennial sales king, the Toyota Camry, didn’t even make the Top Ten. Then, only three of the Top Ten sellers were Japanese. Now, only three American cars break the top tier.

So what endures? What I love about the Cruise is its democratic celebration of the good, the bad and the ugly. There are no white-glove, toffee-nosed judges handing out blue ribbons at the end. No wax-sealed invitation letters. No gatekeepers. Every vehicle is welcome.

We come. We see. We appreciate. But we do, um, appreciate some 1988 classmates more than others ...

Corvette, 35th anniversary edition

No Cruise class is complete without a Vette, and 1988 is no different. The C4 was the Big Man on Campus. Though an underpowered 250-horsepower by today’s standards, we coveted its sleek physique. It was Corvette’s 35th birthday — so GM blessed us with a limited, commemorative edition. Known as the “Triple White Corvette,” it’s painted white with white wheels and white interior (including seats & steering wheel). If only Elvis could have driven one in Vegas.

The Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme

The ’88 coupe was Olds’ first front-wheel drive Cutlass. Awkwaaaard. But this car was still special. The Cutlass was the first vehicle to feature a heads up display (HUD) — the hologram-like gauge that hovers in a driver’s line of sight. The nifty feature has since spread to Cadillac, Chevy, Hyundai, Lexus, etc.

Ford Mustang 5.0

Nearly shipped off to the glue factory in the early ’80s, the third generation pony car had evolved into a menacing, Top Ten Car & Driver pick by 1988. Shaped like the head on Thor’s hammer, it had a kick to match. While this bruiser won’t win any beauty prizes, its thumping 5-liter heart thrills enthusiasts.

Camaro IROC-Z

While the Z28 took a hiatus, Camaro produced its performance car under the IROC-Z badge from 1988-90. Short for International Race of Champions, the IROC package attempted to capitalize on the popular SCCA showroom stock series to boost flagging sales. “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” as the saying goes. The result was a weapon packing 350 cubic inches of heat. With IROC-Z emblazoned across its skirt, a snarling ’88 Camaro still awakens goose bumps.

Porsche 924S

The Porsche 924 was a rare Stuttgart belly-flop — an underpowered, affordable sports car that eventually yielded in 1983 to the brawnier Porsche 944. But ... for two years in 1987 and 1988, Porsche dressed the 944 platform in the slipperier, lighter 924 body. Pair a better drag coefficient with 160 horsepower and what do you get? A heckuva sleeper. The resulting 924S was not only cheaper than the 944 (at under $20K), but quicker. Considered one of the best handling sports cars of its generation, the balanced 924S is instantly distinguished from its weak sister 924 by its phone dial wheels. Only 17,000 S’s were made. I sense collector’s item.

Mazda RX7 convertible

Mazda’s rotary-powered Porsche 944 fighter got a facelift in 1986 to look sexier. In 1988, the RX-7 went topless as well. Anything for sales, I guess. For all of its imitation, the RX-7 was a wonderful actor in its own right with superb 50-50 weight balance and that unique Wankel power plant. Mazda racers of that era sounded like a chainsaw cutting through your head. Fortunately, production cars were muffled.

Pontiac Fiero GT

GM’s late performance division’s small sports car finally got its mojo with the Fiero GT, produced from 1986-88. While endowing the Fiero with dramatic mid-engine looks, Pontiac had starved the standard model with under 100 horsepower. The GT fixed that with a peppy, 140-horse V6. Distinguished by its deep front spoiler and rear wing, the peppy GT — alas — came too late to save the Fiero. It passed in 1988.

Audi 5000

While GM shoulders responsibility for its deadly ignition failures, the Audi 5000’s “sudden acceleration” scandal is a reminder that many safety recalls are the result of media and safety advocate sensationalism. The 5000 was framed by a rigged “60 Minutes” broadcast, resulting in a cratering of Audi sales in the U.S. The 5000 was subsequently discontinued in 1988 as the company embarked on the long road back to public acceptance. Absolved by federal regulators and feted by Car & Driver as a 10 Best pick, the 5000 endures as one of ’88’s best sedans.

Buick Reatta

While GM refashioned Buick as a family brand (the once-powerful Regal, for example, had been neutered of its V8 and recast with front-wheel drive), the powerful Reatta coupe paradoxically debuted as a halo performance car in 1988. A fish out of water in a conservative brand, the bland Reatta became a symbol of GM brand chaos. If not a classic, a classic tale of GM’s woes.

Honda CRX Si

This mighty mouse was part of a Honda juggernaut that took the U.S. by storm in the ’80s. From the Accord to the CRX, Honda established a reputation for affordable fun. Redesigned for 1988, the 2,000-pound Si was the terror of the autocross — the era’s favorite pocket rocket after the VW GTI. Equipped with a multi-link suspension, you could ring its neck at a weekend track event — then enjoy 50 mpg on weekday commutes.

There you have it. My short list.

I welcome your own favorites in the Comments section online. Looking back at the ’88ers it’s remarkable how much 1970s federal fuel economy regulations had reorganized the Big Three’s portfolio. We are in the midst of a second federal fuel economy crusade today that could equally transform the landscape a quarter century hence. A turbocharged, 6-cylinder Corvette anyone?

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

Corvette 35th Anniversary Edition