Britain's best selling cars from the 80s

Ford Escort Mk3, 1981-2
Britain's best selling car for the 1980s was the Ford Escort

The 1980s were all about technology. Cars were built by robots. Cars were packed with gadgets. Some cars told you when to put your seatbelt on and when you were running out of fuel.

From the start of the 1980s cars were going to look different and distinctive. All the major manufacturers launched new models in 1980. BL launched the Metro, Ford launched a new Escort and Vauxhall the Astra. All three are on our best-selling list.

1979 was the first year when imported cars took more than 50% of the UK market. However, no foreign car made into the top ten for the decade.

The 1980s was Ford's decade. Ford cars took the top three places and the number seven and number nines slots as well.

The top seller was the Escort. It took the top spot in 1982, the year Ford replaced the Cortina with the Sierra. Perhaps people did not like the 'jelly mould' and traded down. Luckily for Ford they remained loyal to the brand.

There was a strong challenge from the Vauxhall Cavalier, which beat the Ford Sierra in 1984 and 1985. For a time the Cavalier was the car to have in the 1980s if you could not afford a BMW.

The 1980s was the last decade when Austin-Rover (as BL was now called) was still in contention. The Metro was the car that saved the company.

These are the top ten best-selling UK cars of the 80s.

Read more about Ford cars of the 1980s - UK

1. Ford Escort

Ford launched a new Escort, the Mk3, for the new decade in September 1980.

The new Escort had a hatchback body and a new range of engines. Unlike previous Escorts, it was front-wheel drive.

There were a range of engines: 1100, 1300 and 1600. Trim levels were L, GL and Ghia. There was also a high performance XR3 version.

Ford invested £135m in its Halewood plant in Merseyside to build the new Escort by robot. Ford encouraged its 13,000 employees to show an eighties' attitude. [1] They showed a seventies' attitude and were on strike by the end of the year.

The new Escort caused controversy. Ford executive Bill Hayden said it took 21 hours to make an Escort at Ford's German plant in Saarlouis, but 40 hours to make one in Merseyside. [2]

The Escort got a revamp in 1986 to become the Mk IV. It had a restyled nose. There was also a new 'lean burn' 1600cc engine which could run on lead-free petrol. There was also Ford's quick clear windscreen available as an option.

As with the Cortina in the 1970s, Ford had found the right formula for the new decade. They sold 1.6 million Escorts in the 1980s.

See also Ford cars from the 1970s

Ford Fiesta 1981-2
Ford Fiesta 1981-2

2. Ford Fiesta

The Fiesta was Ford's supermini. They launched it in 1976. It did not make it into the top ten cars of the 1970s. But it managed a number five slot in 1978.

The original Fiesta continued until 1983, when its squared off 70s' lines were reshaped for the 1980s.

Ford revised the Fiesta again in 1989. The look was still more rounded. At the same time, ride and interior space were improved. Sales kept rolling in.

Ford Sierra, 1985-6
Ford Sierra, 1985-6. Was the 'jelly mould' shape too advanced for 1980s Britain? Image by allenthepostman licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

3. Ford Sierra

The Sierra was Ford's replacement for the Cortina. The Cortina was Britain's number one. The Sierra had to be good.

For once Ford did not get it right. The design was based on advanced aerodynamics. The car was rounded instead of square and people called it the 'jelly mould'.

Ford told the public that the Sierra used less fuel than the Cortina, needed less servicing and had more space. The public was not impressed and hung onto their Cortinas as long as they could.

Aggressive discounting from Ford helped people get more used to the new shape. The Sierra sold well. But it never beat the Cortina's 1979 record of 193,000 units. Worse still, it was beaten by the Vauxhall Cavalier in 1984 and 1985.

Austin Metro Vanden Plas, 1988-9
Austin Metro Vanden Plas, 1988-9

4. Austin/MG Metro

The Austin Metro was launched in 1980 as a 'British car to beat the world'. It was a late entry super-mini for BL which relied on the venerable Mini from 1959 up until then. The Metro had good reviews and was a competent car.

There was a range of different trim levels and two sporty MG variants, one of which was turbo charged.

The range was topped by a lovely Austin Metro Vanden Plas, which had leather seats and wooden trim. It was packed with just about every imaginable extra, such as electric windows and a stereo cassette player.

Vauxhall Cavalier SRi, 1987-8
Vauxhall Cavalier SRi, 1987-8

5. Vauxhall Cavalier

Vauxhall launched the Cavalier way back in 1975. But the real story of the Cavalier began in 1981.

Vauxhall launched a new Cavalier in 1981. It was front-wheel drive, the old one had been rear-wheel drive. There were new engines, which were both quiet and powerful. The Cavalier set new standards for performance and economy in its class.

The Cavalier had a modern, but conservatively styled body. It lured buyers away from the old-style Cortina in 1981 and in 1982 from the new style Sierra.

Vauxhall had got it right with the Cavalier, whereas Ford had done less well with the Sierra. It was probably fleet sales that kept the Sierra ahead.

Vauxhall Astra GTE, 1989-90
Vauxhall Astra GTE, 1989-90

6. Vauxhall Astra

Vauxhall announced the Astra in November 1979, but it did not go on sale in Britain until March 1980.

The Astra was the UK version of the Opal Kadett D which went on sale in Germany in August 1979. So you can look on the Astra as GM's last car of the 1970s and Vauxhall's first car of the 1980s.

The Astra was a challenger for the Ford Escort. It was just a bit bigger than the superminis, but a bit smaller than the mid-range saloons, such as the Vauxhall Cavalier and Ford Cortina. The Astra was roomy enough for four, but not too big for two.

At launch the range comprised three and five-door hatchbacks and an estate. Trim levels were L and GL. But there was just one engine size, 1300cc.

In looks the car was just chunky and a bit boring.

In 1984 Vauxhall launched a new Astra. Like the Sierra, aerodynamics played big part in the design. The new shape had a drag co-efficient (Cd) of 0.30 for the range-topping GTE compared to 0.39 for the old Astra.

Unlike the Sierra, the public liked the new shape. Sales steadily increased throughout the 1980s. By the end of the decade it was Britain's fourth best-selling car.

Ford Cortina Crusader, 1982
Ford Cortina Crusader, 1982 Image by Kieran White licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped)

7. Ford Cortina

It was all over for the Cortina in 1982. However, it says something for how well-loved the Cortina was that it was bagged the number seven spot with just two and a half years' worth of sales.

The final swansong was the Cortina Crusader. It was packed with extras and meant Ford could charge a premium for the outgoing model. Just as well, as they had to discount the Sierra to find enough buyers.

Austin Maestro 1.3 1984/5
Austin Maestro 1.3 1984/5Image by Charles licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped)

8. Austin/MG Maestro

BL had ensured its survival with the Metro. The Maestro was just as important. BL invested £210m in developing new robotic plant to make the Maestro .

The Maestro was targeted slightly above the Escort/Astra sized car, but below the Sierra/Cavalier end of the market.

At its launch in 1983 the Maestro range had two engine sizes, 1300cc and 1600cc. Trim levels ranged from basic to a luxurious Vanden Plas version. There was also a high performance MG Maestro.

The Maestro was all about technology. There was a digital speedometer. Both the Vanden Plas and the MG had voice synthesisers that told you if you had forgotten to fasten your seatbelt. These features were not to everyone's taste and were soon dropped.

The Maestro did well to start with. Sales peaked in 1984, but they declined after that.

Ford Orion Ghia, 1985-6
Ford Orion Ghia, 1985-6 Image by Lee Bristol licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

9. Ford Orion

Hatchbacks were the direction of travel in the 1980s. Nevertheless, there was still a market for traditional saloons with a boot. One explanation was greater security of the luggage compartment. Although it was probably down to personal choice.

Ford had lost out on this market when the Escort went hatchback in 1980. The Orion was based on the Escort, but had a new body and more rear legroom.

It was also pitched more upmarket. Engine sizes were 1.3 litre and 1.6 litre.

Vauxhall Nova 1.2 Merit, 1988
Vauxhall Nova 1.2 Merit, 1988 Image by Charles licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped)

10. Vauxhall Nova

Vauxhall launched the Nova in 1983. It effectively replaced the Chevette range as Vauxhall's supermini.

Unions at Vauxhall's Luton Plant tried to block the new model, because it was made in Spain and not in the UK.

As with the Astra, the Nova was very similar to an Opal stablemate. In this case the German-made Opal Corsa. The Nova in the UK became the Vauxhall Corsa in 1993.

Like the Astra, the styling was a bit chunky. But hatchback version looked well balanced. The Nova was a competent, but not exciting car. Unlike the Astra Vauxhall, it launched with a range of different engine sizes: 1.0 litre, 1.2 litre and l.3 litre. There were also hatchback and saloon options, and a sporty Nova SR.


The ranking are derived from sales figures provided by

[1] 'Ford launches new Escort with the promise of £135m robot modernisation at Halewood', published in The Guardian 3 September 1980, page 2

[2] 'Ford myth is bunk' by Hugh Herbert, published in The Guardian 25 November 1981, page 15

By Steven Braggs, July 2020

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