Porsche built a turbocharged version of the 968 called the Turbo S. Frankel remembers it as being not that good. I remember huge torque and high-speed slides at Donington at its launch. Only 16 were made.
Colin Goodwin thinks 1994, when all these fine-looking specimens were in their pomp (the cars, we mean), was the high point in automotive history. We put that theory to the test
It’s 1994. John Major is in Number 10, Michael Schumacher is embarking on his dominance of Formula 1 and Oasis and Blur are fighting for supremacy of the airwaves.
It is also the greatest year in the history of the car. The best year of the car? What is this nonsense? How can you pick one year from more than a century of car production as the best ever?
I’m perfectly serious and here’s why. Throughout the history of the car, there have been some great machines. In the year of my birth, 1962, a couple of real crackers made their debuts: the AC Cobra and the Lotus Elan: one a stunning sports car of the old school in style and engineering but with tremendous firepower from a new generation of lightweight American V8, and the other totally new in thinking with a fibreglass body, spine chassis and suspension from one of the greatest geniuses in automotive engineering. Both cars were fantastic road cars and winners on the race track.
As I was growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, other great cars came along – several of which, when I was old enough to drive, I actually owned. I got to drive some of the older stuff too, including Elans and Cobras. Brilliant cars. The latter was brutally fast and the former delicate with exceptional handling. Incredible to drive but a nightmare to own: part-time electrics, a chassis prone to rust, doors with gaps wide enough to let rodents in and a heater that was barely effective. I nearly bought an Elan. I went to test drive it with the then Mrs Goodwin.
After about five miles, the bonnet popped open, tore itself off and sailed away over the top of the car. We weren’t going to be buying an Elan, I was told. Instead, we bought a Datsun 240Z: a great-looking car but not particularly sporty, and it was rusting away in front of our eyes. In the late 1980s, I started as a motoring journalist and began driving the new cars of the day. It was a great era. One of the first cars that I tested was the then new Lancia Delta Integrale. I couldn’t believe how quick it was and how sure-footed it felt in the rain. I also remember my first drive in a Lotus Esprit Turbo.
It was an SE and was the first car that we had tested that managed to dip under 5.0sec in the then more relevant 0-60mph test. The Esprit handled in true Lotus fashion but the brakes weren’t up to the job and, also in Lotus tradition, a lot of things didn’t quite work. The air conditioning and electric windows, for example.
But cars were improving all the time. Panel gaps were tightening, brakes were stopping cars better with the added back-up of ABS, reliability was improving and protection against corrosion was taken much more seriously. The cars were getting safer too. By 1994, most of the really irritating flaws in the motor car had been ironed out. Development of the car didn’t stop there as more and more systems and technologies have been developed.
Here we come to the rather more controversial side of my argument: it’s not just that 1994 saw the maturity of the car and the removal or curing of most flaws, but it marks a point in time when cars were simpler, less cluttered with technology and, most importantly, had realistic performance, before matters started to get out of hand. The ‘E34′- generation (1989-1995) BMW M5’s straight-six engine produced 315bhp. Today, that power output is exceeded by several hot hatches. It weighed 1650kg and was 1750mm wide. The current M5 has 591bhp, weighs 1855kg and is 1903mm wide.
For me, this isn’t progress.
Am I a luddite peering through rose-tinted spectacles? To find out, we’ve gathered two other old-timers who, like me, drove 1994’s cars when they were new. You know Andrew Frankel and Richard Bremner well. Each of us has chosen two cars from 1994 (that were available in that year, not necessarily launched in it) as our favourites from that period which perfectly illustrate the points I’ve made above. These six cars will also be driven by Autocar’s current road testers, several of whom were in nappies when the cars were built. It will be interesting.
Will the youngsters be appalled that these cars will be unable to give them directions to the nearest curry house? That their phones won’t sync or, more crucially, that they just feel slow and old-fashioned? Or will they fall in love with their simplicity? Let’s see.
Richard Bremner: Peugeot 405 Mi16 & TVR Griffith:
You might wonder what a French fleet car is doing among all this high-performance machinery but, believe me, this was one of the most polished driver’s cars you could buy at the time. The 405 was born into Peugeot’s golden period – if you value driving satisfaction over freedom from squeaks – and the Pininfarina- designed three-box saloon handled like a bigger 205. So why not pick the 205? Because the 405 had the better ride: its controlled fluency over mid-bend troughs and crests were sometimes breathtaking and as satisfying to experience as its balance, grip and throttle-adjustability.
This I discovered during a comparison test among the Alpes-Maritimes. The 405’s combatant was the third-generation Volkswagen Passat B3, the one that did without a grille and whose innards were based on the Golf’s. The Peugeot had the VW licked within a few kilometres with its feedback, enthusiasm …read more