Everybody says domestic cars were bad in the 80s. My pappaw still has a 88 Ranger with 275k on the factory engine. I know plenty of people with cars still from the 80s. They must not have been that bad.
The 80's were not the best for domestic cars by any means. A lot of the Japanese cars were light years ahead of anything the big 3 made. We had numerous Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Fords from the 80's, and it seemed like all of them barely made it to 75,000 before they were totally worn out. We had a couple of entry level Toyotas that ran forever.
On the other hand, the big 3 have finally started making pretty good cars these days - cars that I'd actually consider. A lot of the Japanese brands are now sort of un-inspirational.
'You could literally see the welds'? Why would I care about that? The newer cars may have less microns between their bits of metal, but the older ones were heavier, many had full frames, and the engines were all cast iron. Thus, they were better - far more durable, better riding, safer. More complicated technology does not equal better technology.
It was a Mustang... no full frame. And yes I did care about it on a nice sports car. Had I purchased a Toyota Supra or something like that, you can bet the weld seams wouldn't have been showing through.
Also there is a major misconception that having a full frame means a safer vehicle. The designs of the later vehicles are much safer overall than any old full frame job... unless you like being impaled by the steering column or you don't mind your engine in your lap. Try doing a bit of research on the ratio of accidents to serious injuries and deaths in older cars vs. what is offered today. They didn't redesign every car for the fun of it!
Cars today are far and above better than most anything made in the 80's. Back then, EFI was still only available on some cars. Most cars still used carburetors. Due to the emission requirements of the day, those carbs had tons and tons of vacuum lines. If you've ever worked on an 80's carbureted vehicle, they are anything but simple. They're a nightmare. The fuel systems used today are far superior, and in many cases more simple. They are now using direct injection systems, which are even more simplistic. The result is better reliability, more power and better fuel efficiency.
Secondly, computers have revolutionized the way cars operate. All of those sensors ensure that fuel, air, ignition, temperature, acceleration, traction, emissions, and torque are all carefully managed. This helps engines run more efficiently and to run longer and more reliably. In the 80's, it was unheard of for a vehicle to make it to 200,000. Now it's a given and fully expected. Improvements in metallurgy, plastics, composites, welding, and overall engineering have also contributed to the vastly improved quality of cars across the board.
Body on frame cars are also not necessarily stronger. In a crash, you want to have structural rigidity throughout the entire vehicle. In older frame vehicles, that reliance was entirely on the frame, which meant that in many cases the frame would shear on impact. Engines and steering wheels were often pushed through the firewall and into the driver area. Side impacts were often deadly because there was no safety bars in the doors. With unibody construction, there is overall rigidity with built-in crumple zones that absorb impact. This is not dissimilar to how modern race cars work: the idea is to protect the driver in a cage while the area around the cage are sacrificial. Older cars lacked a lot of that in their designs.
Let me put it this way: I happen to own a '55 Ford. It's my weekend driver. It's a classic body on frame car. I've taken it apart and put it back together again. There is absolutely zero protection for the driver on the sides. The front of the car has almost no structural means to prevent the engine from being pushed into the front seat if I had a head-on collision. The frame has no crumple zones either. Given the choice, I'd choose a modern car hands-down over the '55 Ford if I were to choose which was safer in an accident.
I would not say it was unheard of for an '80s vehicle to reach 200,000 miles. I would agree that it was considered exceptional, though. I owned an '85 Dodge truck, an '84 Plymouth Reliant, and an '83 Chevy Cavalier that passed 200,000 miles. The Dodge truck was the best for passing 250,000 miles and the Cavalier was just a rattling bucket of junk, but it did it, nonetheless. That's true about the maze of vacuum lines, heat-controlled switches, and other crappy solid state circuits that were used for emission control being complicated. Once they got the electronics down pat, a modern computer is so much better at doing the things that used to be done by mechanical methods. If you go early '70s or before, you just have a carburetor with a couple of vacuum lines at most, but once you hit 1975 it got crazy under the hood. Now, of course, the user is not meant to service anything on a car, you just hope that it keeps working like any other appliance. "No User-Serviceable Parts Inside."
I'm the eighties fan disputed above. I'll stand by my position, as I've owned over a dozen of the old gems, every one has born out my belief that they're reliable and durable. Quite unlike my experience with the newer cars.
But the clincher is that back in the day of Detroit iron, Keynesian economics, and unionization, it took about 3 months wages to buy a new full sized sedan. It's now many times that. The old ways were better, and not just in terms of technology.
True - I had a friend that owned an '89 Dodge Caravan that had 300,000 miles, which was amazing. It burned through oil like crazy, but it worked. While I still don't think the technology was better back in the old days, the advantage was in simplicity. My '55 Ford has a very plain-jane 302 stuck under the hood with a plain 2 barrel carb and a single vacuum line. There is very little to repair. Any and all repairs take me under 30 minutes. Then again, there's always something to fiddle with. On the other hand, it took me 2 days to change the timing belt on my 99' Avalon.
I also had a friend who owned an 85 Honda Civic. The carb on that thing was a rat's nest of vacuum lines, and since half of them were dry rotted, it took forever to diagnose the problems. It was ridiculously complicated compared to simple fuel injection.
My Tacoma is now 15 years old. It still runs and drives like new. I almost wish it was falling apart, so I would have an excuse to buy something new. But I have a friend with one of these that has 400,000 miles, so I might hang onto it for another 10-15 years.