This ’80s Boston Driving Video Will Make You Appreciate How Much Cars Have Changed

We talk about the malaise era as a horrible time for cars, but this clip from early 1980s Boston shows us how diverse it really was.

byMaddox Kay|
History photo

The holidays are a natural time for a nostalgia trip. Tis the season of ritual and romance, and … didn’t Grandma’s stuffing taste better last year? Of course it did. But if your nostalgia, like ours, extends to things with four wheels, pull up a chair by the fireplace and relax with GBH’s excellent video archives.

GBH, also known as WGBH is Boston’s local NPR station, but it also owns an amazing collection of archival footage containing everything from the infamous blizzard of 1978 that buried highways waist-deep to old clips of I-93’s Central Artery elevated highway before the “Big Dig” moved it underground. You may have seen these videos floating around online; the station regularly posts them to its archival Facebook page, and you can also find them on YouTube and Instagram.

The videos span from roughly the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, but most of the action is concentrated in the malaise era: the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Marked by the oil crisis and ensuing environmental regulations that sped up the adoption of catalytic converters and shrunk power outputs, this era was famous for big hair and low engine outputs. Let’s take a trip down Allston’s Harvard Avenue in 1983 to see what I mean.

The video opens outside a Tello’s department store on a late GM A-body, a Datsun 280ZX, and an Opel Manta. We continue down toward Star Cleaners with a double-parked Ford Econoline van and an unidentified wagon (possibly a Volkswagen Type 3.) On an adjacent street, we see a Chevy Monza 3-door wagon, and moving on we see more late-’70s General Motors iron including a G-Body Oldsmobile, no doubt with large-displacement V8s putting out barely 100 horsepower.

Fittingly, in front of these lumbering beasts sits an early-’80s Toyota Corolla liftback, emblematic of the endless wave of small, reliable Japanese cars that’s just begun. This video encapsulates the moment of transition that was the malaise era—when imports showed us that cars could get good gas mileage and last over 100,000 miles without major repair. It was a pivotal time, and this video captures it perfectly.

The footage continues down the block, with Volkswagen Rabbits and Honda Civics interspersed among Ford Country Squires and Jeep Wagoneers. Besides the cars, the streetscape strikes me as quaint. There are many small businesses and larger department stores that appear to be well-patronized. One thing hasn’t changed, and that’s the proclivity of Bostonians to park wherever they please.

The video ends at the corner of Commonwealth and Harvard Avenues, where I’m amused by a Budweiser truck traveling east, doubtlessly bringing beer to Boston’s student population and an early Volvo 245 heading west. There’s also a man in a tan coat waiting for the Green Line train to Downtown Boston.

We have a tendency to talk about the malaise era as a horrible time for cars, but it brought tremendous variety, helped make the air cleaner, and paved the way for the performance cars of the late ‘80s and ‘90s. More importantly, it forced automakers to innovate. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but I’m grateful for it.

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