If you were a 90's kid, be proud – the cars of your youth were the best cars recorded by history and it has all gone downhill since.
The names read like a greatest hits album, an all star roll call. From sea to shining sea and coast to coast, down the highways and byways of the world rolled the living legends from a time when Gods drove upon the Earth. It was a time of reflection, this renaissance of motoring excellence, a time when the cocaine-fueled innovation of the 1980's collided with the unstoppable determination of the 1990's and saw the perfection of concepts both bold and outstanding manifest unfettered by middling interventionists. The 90's was the best decade for automotive achievement and you will never convince me otherwise.
Another monumental moment in motoring history happened in the 90's – I became a licensed, legal driver. The 90's were in decline as I took to the roads for the first time but the world of driving was unfolding for me as an automotive paradise for it was a period where performance and price met in the perfect storm of accessibility. Anything was achievable, everything was possible.
If history has taught us anything it is that everything was better when we were young, regardless of our age at the realization of it.
Never again will the sheer vague bureaucratic stupidity of that decade be so flawlessly and imperfectly applied to regulating the use and development of cars as transportation. Never again will an airbag be added as an afterthought and bodily emblazoned mid-steering wheel as though, "Yes, I'm here to protect you from me." They mocked our materials use calling it tin and plastic but never realizing the amazing lightness of it, instead always obsessing over the implied fatality – the, it-will-kill-you-not-help-you reactionaries. This was a time when designers penned their designs with few restrictions; is three spokes per wheel too few? The heady hedonistic days of my youth, of the 1990's, were the best.
The Acura/Honda NSX was the best car ever and Jesus helped God form it out of pure ambrosia when he called himself Senna. Allah decreed that his people drive German cars with ten or twelve but not less than eight cylinders in wrote and in blood. Gangster rap was in its prime, gold wire-wheels were elevated to celebrity status even under a Saab or a Volvo. Gone were the false mustachioed men in cowboy hats playing at the game of fast cars in malaise-doomed hoopties, replaced instead with squared jawed Aussies canning thousand horsepower go-carts on the global playboy circuit.
We had balls, we had cajoles. We stared down the end of the millennia, we stared down Y2K and said, "Fuck it, we're gonna party like it's 1999" and we lived an entire decade that way, with wreckless abandon. We played with toys capable of chopping off fingers and ate candy carved of neutron stars. We wanted our driving to have the same fear inducing reminder that yes, life is precious and no, the safety net won't always catch you.
Two years before white men were told they can't jump Lexus debuted the LS400. Two years later it was being popularized by rappers from both coasts and featured in music videos. Lowered, boasting big, gold, wire-rimmed wheels and tinted to within an inch of an actual black hole, these ghetto hoopties were the domain of the crack-slanging elite. Everyone saw one, everyone wanted one. The Wall had come down only a year before the dawn of the LS400 and by the time Tupac got shot the Japanese had taken a serious bite out of the Germans, long standing champions of the luxury-sport sedan game. It may not chose to carve a canyon or to nimbly dance tippy toe through chicanes but it packed a V8 under the hood and a respectable amount of power to boot. It was the luxury flagship of its generation spawning generations of bloated, fat, overweight children and grandchildren.
Weight didn't weigh as heavy on our minds in those days. The air was lighter and a pound not as heavy. Kurt Cobain was on the rise with no sign of Elvis-like fattening. You could have a heavy car, you could have a sluggish half wit but, in much the same way you could chose to listen to the Spice Girls or you could chose to listen to Perl Jam, everyone was entitled to their own choice, everyone was entitled to chose light or chose wrong. Every era, every generation has its unsavory side and we had ours in the form of front-wheel drive, continentally heavy Cadillac's and other American atrocities and while, admittedly, we did less than we could have to prevent the rise and dominance of Minivan and SUV, we did not go softly into that dark night, we Raged Against The Machine in plastic fiberglass death speeders.
Mid-engine sports cars weren't a rarity; they were obligatory and even commonplace. Uninteresting America, mired in a cesspool of dated, numb rear-wheel drive barges floating disconnected from interstate to interstate, took a stab in the dark with the Pontiac Fiero while the Japanese continued to offer a no-nonsense mid-engine thoroughbred in the MR2 from Toyota. Neither would hold up in a crash, neither cared if you survived because neither was built to be crashed and that expectation of driver diligence was the defining element of what made the 90's so great. We had the technology to build them better, stronger, faster but we undertook of the endeavor with a very different mindset; one that depended on the intelligence of the user and operator.
Pop-up headlights were popping up everywhere but, as we traded away noble expectation in favor of lowest common denominator thinking, they soon began to disappear. That simple and simply striking element became a thing of a glorious past, a past which recognized and embraced personal and civic responsibility, replaced by moon faced front clips more friendly for pedestrian pushing. Imagine the elegant yet aggressive lines of a Nissan 240SX without those hide-away head lamps; imagine how much character it would lose without them. Supercars and sportscars alike once tucked their beams behind low slung noses in the name of speed, or the illusion there-of. Pop-up headlights, the Sneaker Pimps of automotive design, found and exploited a niche and were summarily punished for it.
Engines were ingenious machines not mechanical calculators endlessly tabulating miles per gallon and horsepower versus displacement. These things were less important than the voyage of discovery. Reliability was never guaranteed but then, when is it ever? Loopholes like planned obsolescence were but shadows of the monsters they would become and we embraced the unknown. Such was the breadth of our human empathy that we were on the verge of realizing the Starbucks psychology: give the uninterested bland and boring and overcharge them for it but also offer the enthusiast something specialty brewed. You could have your Ford from 1975 dressed up as something modern or, for the buy-curious, a Japanese sports car inspired by English roadsters and as powerful as an American muscle car with two twinned turbos and all wheel drive. If you wanted a 'V' with the number '12' after it, you could have it. If you wanted six cylinders in a row, you could have that as well. The options were and endless lake of dead dinosaurs bones.
We were smarter but rapidly becoming dumber. We couldn't just turn to Google or search a forum because our internet was a wild, wild west of endless loading times and badly built web pages. It was the end of days for the great minutia warehouses, living libraries more automotive anthology than man or mechanic as it was the end of days for the magazine hoarder, the obsessive collector. These tomes of wisdom, once housed in the minds of bearded, knotty knuckled old men with grizzled demeanor and deportment, would soon reside in the electronic haze of the 21st century stealing something of the charm of the 90's. These were the death throes of the desert junk yard explorer and teenage seeker adventuring from one shop to the next, garage to garage, mechanic after mechanic in search of the answer to his OBD query. The 90's was uncertainty; it was not knowing but endlessly trying. Sadly, the lessons learned by the 90's repeated failures would be forgotten by the next decade beneath a layer of fat and disinterest.
The deep impact of the 90's is still affecting the evolution of the car to this very day. The bleak truth is, however; the lasting and reaching affects of the 90's have been those traits most negatively ascribed to the decade – the interfering bureaucracy both government and private, the low-com-denom thinking, the focus on safety and on removing the driver from the act. These are the elements we, the progeny of the 90's, have chosen to accept, endorsing them with our indifference but there is a scent in the air and it smells like spring. The horses are returning, long out to pasture, and they are coming in their numbers. Instead of pushing manure, the automotive community is harvesting it to fertilize the fields. The focus on safety is still there and the dumbing-down continues unabated, but the spring foals'n'fillies show promise not seen since a decade past.
There is a prophecy which foretells the coming of the ones who will restore the balance…