Automotive history spans far and wide. More than a century of automotive manufacturing, research, and development brought us many, many cars that are as historically significant as they are admired by enthusiasts worldwide. Throughout this time also came several branches of car culture. From the hot rods of the 30s and 40s to the muscle cars of the 60s, land yachts of the 70s, and 80s Redwood gold, the 1990s were a particularly consequential period in this history of classic cars There are many reasons for this, including innovations in design, performance, technology, and safety.
From curvier silhouettes to diving deeper past the 200 mph barrier, to unfathomable features for the time period, the 90s gave gearheads a lot to be excited about. Plus, it could even be said that there was something during this time for every car nut. Here are some reasons why the 1990s, for gearheads, could be considered the golden era of cars.
The 1990s brought on the dawn of new automotive design. In lieu of the straight lines and sharp angles of the 1970s and 80s, automakers began molding their sheet metal into new forms, producing sleeker, more aerodynamic designs that captured many eyes.
Some notable examples include the Jaguar XJ220 supercar, which introduced a smoother, more rounded-off take on the wedge-shaped silhouette of the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Testarossa before it, as well as the EG Honda Civic, taking on a softer, more bulbous body than its boxy EF predecessor. Nowadays, these designs are often overlooked, if not even considered bland. However, such design language would have only been found in concept cars before these models took to the streets.
Advancements in Technology
With the advent of cell phones, laptops, and the internet, technology became an obsession in the 90s. This especially holds true among automakers. GPS navigation is a feature many of us now take for granted, being able to simply pull up a map on our smartphones. However, back then, it saved drivers the inconvenience of having to unfold a large paper map, always having to keep it at their side and constantly keep track of where they were in hopes of being correct. Initially, color screens could be found on many JDM-exclusive models, like the Mazda Eunos Cosmo (pictured). Soon enough, such systems began to pop up on the dashboards of many statement-making luxury cars, including the BMW 7-Series and Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Another technological feat, this time regarding safety, was the side airbag. Volvo, ever the pioneer of such innovations, staked their claim. In 1991, they introduced the optional Side Impact Protection System (SIPS). This feature soon brought awareness to an issue that had previously not been addressed by automakers, so much so that it took 12 years for the IIHS to begin side crash testing. For enthusiasts nowadays, the introduction of side airbags meant that, now, buying classic cars does not mean having to sacrifice safety should a side collision occur.
More Choices than Ever
Before the 1990s, the world of high performance was kept very exclusive. Affordable commuter cars like the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Golf maintained a degree of separation from models built with performance in mind, save for higher-output trim levels like the Civic Si or the Golf GTI, respectively. Soon, though, automotive engineers wondered what would happen if those cars could make figures akin to their sports car counterparts, especially after seeing luxury performance compacts like the E30 BMW M3. They figured that cars as practical as a Corolla could surely have the 0-60 time of a Supra. Thus came cars such as the Subaru Impreza WRX STi, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, and Honda Civic Type R, making performance figures once walled off by cars with higher price tags.
Along with this, more and more automakers were emerging with market entries in the performance realm. Honda defied what anyone could have expected of the Japanese manufacturer with the NSX supercar. Detroit came out with its entries, the front-engined Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 and Dodge Viper RT-10. All in all, it seemed that everyone wanted a hand in a game once only played by an elite few.
An Obsession with Speed
The 1980s saw two cars that broke the record for top speed almost back-to-back: the Porsche 959 and the Ferrari F40, with the latter being the first road car to be able to reach 200 miles per hour. What followed was a race between automakers to see who could come out with the next record breaker. Jaguar came out with the XJ220 in 1992, which was able to achieve 212 mph, beating out the F40. Soon after, however, McLaren beat the record even further with the F1, named aptly after the motorsport McLaren had become known for, able to achieve a whopping 240 mph. It was a record that was unable to be surpassed for the remainder of the decade until the introduction of the Bugatti Veyron in 2005.
Well Within Reach Today
Today, cars from the 1990s are not that hard to come by. Many cars of this vintage can be still found on the road, such as the occasional Camry or Accord from this time period, and the same could also be said for enthusiast-oriented models like the Nissan 300ZX or a higher-output SN95 Mustang. They are also modern enough to include features like airbags and direct injection, making them safer and easier to maintain than most older offerings.
In conclusion, then, the 1990s was the decade in automotive history that saw the most ambition, change, and innovation in the 20th century. From styling to tech, to safety, to speed, it truly was the golden era of cars.