Like many other Americans with functioning metabolisms and internet connections, I found myself completely sucked in by the ‘80s sci-fi throwback Netflix series Stranger Things, binge-viewing the whole damn thing while getting up only to void regular urine, fear-urine, and excitement-urine. Plus, my trained auto-journalist eye cunningly noticed something: there are many wonderful cars in the series, and most of them are wildly appropriate for the characters who drive them.
Warning: this post contains some spoilers.
The series is set in 1983, a glorious time in American history when Joe Piscopo didn’t quite as much resemble the Hulk’s slightly uglier brother and when phones were ridiculous, camera-less things anchored to walls with thin, curly wires.
Being set in 1983 means that the cars used in the series needed to be carefully selected; one Prius scooting by in the background and everything would be ruined for everyone, forever. In general, I think the car-casters on the series did a pretty good job.
To get the right set of cars, it’s not just the year that had to be considered, but the location (fictional Hawkins, Indiana) and the socio-economic status of the characters. It’s interesting to note that most of the cars in the series are domestics, with just a smattering of imports, usually owned by the more well-off characters. I am sort of surprised by the lack of Honda Civics and other Japanese cars, but Midwestern states like Indiana were known strongholds of domestic cars, so that may explain it.
Anyway, let’s take a look at some of the most important cars in the series:
Chief Jim Hopper’s 1980 Chevrolet K5 Blazer
This is probably the closest thing to a hero car that the series has: a 1980 Chevy K5 Blazer owned by the Hawkins Police Department and driven by Chief Jim Hopper. You can tell the 1980 ones because they were the only year Blazer to feature single rectangular headlights. Before that, they were round, and once GM felt that two rectangular lights wouldn’t cause mass rioting, they went for four of the things in 1981.
This is a very rational choice for a town’s more rugged police vehicle. These things were plenty common in the ‘80s, and that basic platform was probably shared by many municipal trucks and Suburbans, so maintenance would be easy.
Joyce Byers’ 1976 Ford Pinto
This is one of the best-cast cars in the series, I think. The character who owns it is Joyce Byers, a single mom with a pretty low-level job. The series shows her as a caring if overworked and somewhat distracted parent of two boys, and an aging but pretty well-maintained Pinto seems a very appropriate choice.
It’s one of the cheapest cars that would have available, and maybe even cheaper since one of the biggest cases in the exploding-Pinto-gas tank scandal was State of Indiana v. Ford Motor Company. Perhaps that was big enough news in that state to drive Pinto prices down, even after the 1978 recall? That might have made it a real bargain for Joyce.
If this show took place outside of the Midwest, I could see this character in a Honda Civic or even a VW Beetle. But the Pinto works. Oh, and I can tell this is a ‘76 because of that one-year grille-and-indicator setup.
Jonathan Byers’ 1971 or 1972 Ford LTD
It looks like the Byers family is a Ford family, because one of Joyce’s sons, Jonathan, drives this beater LTD. The car looks a bit rough for only being around 11 or 12 years old, but cars of that era were certainly capable of looking like shit in that period of time.
The LTD, which was ubiquitous in its time, seems like a plausible hand-me-down car; a worn family sedan that no 16 or 17 year old would likely select on their own, but would be completely happy to have, regardless since it’s, you know, a car.
I can’t quite tell if this is a ‘71 or ‘72, but I’m leaning to ‘71.
Steve Harrington’s 1981 (?) BMW 733i
This is likely the fanciest car seen on the entire series, and it’s driven by the jerkass rich kid, Steve Harrington. Even if he does manage to (spoiler alert, but, come on, if you’re bothering to read this you’ve likely seen it) redeem himself, it wouldn’t be an ‘80s-inspired show or movie full of teens without a rich kid jerk villain in there. See also The Goonies, The Karate Kid, Pretty In Pink, and literally countless others. Normally, these rich ‘80s-movie jerks end up falling into pools, but here this one just gets his face pounded into custard.
Anyway, there’s not a great shot of the front, and these 7 Series sedans were all really similar looking from 1977-1984, but I’m going to say this one is relatively new and call it a 1981 model. I suspect it’s Steve’s unseen dad’s car, because even for rich people, who was buying their kid the top-of-the-line BMW sedan in the ‘80s? That was a very expensive car in its day.
Barb’s 1988 Volkswagen Cabrio
Woah woah woah. This show takes place in 1983, right? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON? Okay, relax. What I think we’re dealing with here isn’t some sort of time-travel sub-plot, but just a simple error. Let’s talk through this.
They wanted to cast Barb, an upper-middle class girl, with an appropriate car. A Rabbit convertible of that era certainly would have been a good choice—it was a desirable car for upper middle class girls across America. The only problem is that the one they found is actually a Volkswagen Cabriolet, what they later re-named the Rabbit convertible in 1985. You can tell this one is a 1988 because that was the first year of the plastic-covered bumpers and the smaller inner headlights.
This must be parked in the Volkswagen district, because there’s a nice old Beetle back there, too, probably a ‘65 or ‘66.
The Deadbeat Dad’s 1972 Oldsmobile 442
This is the only car in the series that’s actually really called out or acknowledged in any significant way by any character. The character here is Lonny Byers, deadbeat dad, and it’s implied that the car is a symptom of his self-centered nature.
It’s a shame the car is tied to such a lout of a character, and used to highlight personal failings, because it is a lovely car. The gold-and-black scheme is perfect 1970s-muscle-cool, and it’s in much better shape than almost anyone else’s car in the whole series.
Also, there’s no missing kids in its trunk, which I know was a huge plus for cars of the ‘70s.
1974 MGB, ‘60s Beetle, ‘73-’83 Chevy C/K Truck, other trucks
The junkyard scenes offer a few more cars in the series; mostly old pickup trucks like that likely mid-’70s Chevrolet C/K truck there, but also a couple of imports, including a very stripped Beetle (looks like a ‘65 or so, based on the thinner window pillars) and the only British iron seen in the show, a very sad rubber-bumper MGB.
That MG really doesn’t seem like it should be old enough to be in that miserable a state in 1983, but, you know, British build quality of the era and all that. Those Indiana winters are pretty harsh, too. Maybe the owner garaged their car in a pond?
1981-1982 Ford LTD Crown Victoria
The staple of cops, cabbies, old people, and G-men for years, the ‘80s-era Cown Vic makes an appearance here as the fleet car for the Bad Government Men. It’s been the Goon’s Choice for decades!
These look to be cop-spec, based on the black steelies and plain hubcaps.
1981-1983 Chevy Vans
The secretive Department of Energy bad guys have a fleet of Chevy Vans that they do their nefarious things in, in Hawkins repair van livery. Based on the grille design, they all seem to be fairly recent (for the setting), which makes sense, as it’s likely the secret government facility would be willing to spend the money on new vans for their fleet, even if they do get flung around a bit.
What’s with the orange bike headlights?
I grew up in the ‘80s. My bike had one of these cheapie generator-powered bike headlights. Lots of kids’ bikes had them. I never remember them being orange like this. In the night scenes, they just cast the usual yellowish-white light you’d expect. So why are they so orange-looking here? Rusty reflectors inside? I’m confused.
A 1974 AMC Gremlin and 1977 Mazda Rotary Pickup
Neither of these are major cars in the series, but it’s the only AMC I noticed and the only Japanese car of any kind I noticed, which, as I mentioned, I think is a bit of an oversight.
Still, what a Japanese car to include! I love these little Mazda Rotary trucks. I was able to ID it because of the interesting grille-within-a-grille inset on the front there, with the inner set of headlights in their own bezel.
I think this covers most of the important cars in the series, but if there’s anything significant I missed, please, post it in the comments! It’s wildly important, as you can expect.
Also, if anyone knows what that faceless monster from the Upside-Down drives, let me know. My guess is some manner of alternate-dimension Mustang II King Cobra, but I’m open to other ideas.