1994: WAS IT THE BEST YEAR EVER FOR CAR ENTHUSIASTS?
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.
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 Pininfarinadesigned 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 Alpesmaritimes. 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 and fabulous body control. And yes, it was roomy, comfortable, practical and well-equipped too.
On mountain roads, you could get into a fantastic groove with this car: the pedals are well-spaced for deft footwork, the brakes are dependable, and the obedience of its steering and front-end grip allow bends to be scribed with virtually no understeer. If you felt some scrabble coming on, just lift a little, and the back end would shift the car more tightly into the turn, and you were away. And without as much lift-slide-spin risk as the 205 GTI threatened.
You were away, particularly if you revved the Peugeot’s 1.9-litre 16-valve engine – its best work, by far, done beyond 5000rpm. That’s when it would mount a hard, unrelenting charge and sustain it almost to the 7200rpm redline – an experience simply unavailable in the 205. That’s why so many 405 Mi16s were gutted for their twin-cam engines, and so few survive today. Another reason is that, like plenty of French cars of that era, the 405 was not of especially robust construction, as the creaking, squeaking plastics of our otherwise pretty fit car confirm. That was one area where the Passat won. Easily.
A VW versus TVR fit and finish comparison, incidentally, would have descended to the laughable. But the Griffith is here as a celebration of effective crudity, and the pleasures of driving, and hearing a car that places you front and centre of a machine. The Griffith was the first modern-era TVR with look-twice styling. Voluptuous curves, doors whose forward edges tucked behind the front wings, a sexy mouth of a grille, smooth flanks uncluttered with door handles, a long bonnet and a pert, rising rump – suddenly, TVR was taking on the big boys.
Imaginative design continued inside: TVR milled levers, switches and buttons from aluminium rather than raiding the spares trays of the corporates (although they did bag some Vauxhall tail-lights) and had fun with the unexpected locations of door handles. The engine came from elsewhere, but the Rover V8 was beefed up to deliver appropriate power and a bellowing wall of eightcylinder sounds. TVR would offer 4.0, 4.3, 4.5 and 5.0-litre Griffiths during the car’s life, each slightly more excessive than the last given that this car weighs little more than a tonne, and all the more glorious for it. Best of all is probably the 4.3-litre, which does without the muting effects of a catalytic converter.
You’ll relish the TVR’S deep bass, staccato air shufflings even at idle – the swelling crescendo of its revving V8 firing excitement through spines. Surprisingly, this vertical confection of bones will not find itself crushed by the
ride, which is unexpectedly pliant, underlining how unyielding most moderns have become. Don’t expect languid behaviour from the steering, though – just two eager rotations take the front wheels from lock to lock, a rate likely to have you turning too keenly at first. It’s a measure of the Griffith’s grip, in the dry at least, that these razor reactions don’t dislodge the back tyres.
Rain and a little too much throttle will, though – this car being bereft of electronic safety systems. It’s also airbag-free, making corrective skills of your own all the more necessary. Which only adds to the sense that this car was a technical (and throwback) rebel, just as its maker was. It’s a reminder that even when a car is not always dynamically competent, this matters less when you’re directly connected to its activities – a pleasure that’s all the greater during the 21st-century dominance of the automotive algorithm.
Dynamic competence matters less when you’re directly connected to a car’s activities
Both the F355 and the 993 retain that power not only to thrill the driver but reassure too
To understand why we feel the way we do about these cars, it helps to understand where we stood at the time. Which, in 1994, was one step back from the edge of a precipice. The recession that had gripped the world since the start of decade was over. We were starting to feel good again.
And what better expressions of those feelings than these two, the 993-generation Porsche 911 and the Ferrari F355? Again, context is everything: look at them only in terms of what they are and you’ll see only two really impressive middecade sports cars. You have to look at where they came from too. The similarities are striking.
For a start, neither was a new car, each being a heavily revised version of a model introduced five years earlier. In the 911’s case, the 964-generation; for Ferrari, it was the 348tb.
Most important, though, is that both earlier cars were among the poorest of their kind their manufacturers had ever produced. The 964 was meant to be a modern 911 but contrived merely to trade much of its forebears’ charm for the ugliest styling to visit the world’s greatest sports car. It was still tricky on the limit so they introduced an all-wheel-drive version, which just made it understeer. Everywhere. By contrast, the Ferrari 348 wasn’t ugly at all, but those gorgeous lines concealed a dark secret: get it wrong and you were off. A mate was once driven around Fiorano by Ferrari test driving legend Dario Benuzzi and literally didn’t make it out of the first corner. And if he couldn’t hang onto it, what hope for mere mortals. Did I mention it had a horrid gearbox too?
And then came 1994 and the 993. Its looks were improved, but it was the driving experience that was transformed. About a decade later than it should have, Porsche introduced a rear suspension that could properly control the back of the car. Out went trailing arms, in came a multitude of links and at once here was a rear-engined car you could hoof around on the throttle yet would stay stable when you had to have a big lift on a wet road. It brought the most precious commodity any fast car can provide its driver: confidence. Confidence to drive this 911 the way you’d always wanted to drive a 911.
But it was better even than that, because it was also quieter and more comfortable than the 964, so playing to that other eternal 911 strength: its day-to-day usability. Which is why, today, 993s are far more desirable not only than the 964s than came before but the 996s than came thereafter.
If anything, the F355 was an even bigger step forward over its predecessor. Ferrari, recognising the threat posed by the Honda NSX, realised it could sit on its laurels no longer and reacted. The F355 looked quite like the 348, but everything was different: it had more power, a slick six-speed gearbox, lovely steering and suspension that made it as indulgent and rewarding to drive as the 348 was, well, bloody terrifying at times.
I remember as if it were yesterday the sense of trepidation I felt as I
headed to the hills above Maranello in a yellow F355 to do the obligatory oversteer shot required for the cover of the mag. My fear stemmed from an exercise we’d conducted with the 348 that we’d taken to a big safe test track to see if it could be made to behave. It could not: beyond a certain modest slip angle, the back would go and stay gone. But the F355 would have skidded contently all day, or at least until its tyres were down to the canvas. Its engine, with its 8500rpm redline, was fabulous and even all the old Fiat bits had gone from its interior.
It was wonderful to become reacquainted with two of my favourite cars not just from the mid-1990s but the 30 years I’ve been doing this job. And while neither feels remotely modern any more, both retain that power not only to thrill the driver but reassure too. And I love their clean looks, modest dimensions, superb visibility, naturally aspirated engines and manual gearboxes.
These cars serve to provide further evidence, as if it were needed, that while there has been immense progress in the near quarter-century that’s passed since their introduction, not all of it has been uniformly in the right direction.
In 1994, Porsche was in the middle of a recovery plan that would save it from going under and that would result in the creation of the Boxster. Meanwhile, at the sales counter, Porsche was depending on the ageing 928, the new 993 and the 968, which had been launched in 1992. The latter was a simple development of the 944, a good car with great handling but not really special – still the poor relation to the 911.
And then, in 1993, Porsche invited journalists to come and drive a version of the 968 that it called the Clubsport; a name previously used on a special version of the 911 produced in small numbers from 1987. It was a low-key launch without the fanfare and anticipation that surrounds the arrival of a new Porsche GT model today.
The 968 Clubsport was a strippedout machine aimed at the track. The rear seats were removed, door cards from the 944 were used with windup windows, a radio was optional, and because there was less electrical equipment (the rear wiper was gone too), the wiring loom was made simpler and therefore lighter and the standard battery was replaced with a smaller unit. The suspension was lowered by 20mm and wider wheel rims were fitted. The 3.0-litre four-cylinder was untouched and produced the standard car’s 237bhp. Its plastic covers were removed, however, to save weight. A proper Porsche approach to slimming, then, with a resultant 100kg weight saving over the standard 968.
I can’t remember the geographical details of the car’s launch (it was in England somewhere), nor what month in 1993 it took place. What I do remember is my, and the other journalists’, reaction to the car at the bar after we’d been driving it for a day. We hadn’t seen this coming, a four-cylinder Porsche that was one of the finest-handling sports cars that any of us had driven. Perfectly balanced, easy to slide and recover (the term drifting hadn’t been coined back then). The engine was rather agricultural but the car’s stunning handling made up for it. And here’s a fact that someone only familiar with Porsche’s recent history will find almost beyond belief: the 968 Clubsport, with all its attention to detail and low-volume allure, was the cheapest 968 model that you could buy. Today, when Porsche takes bits out, you pay more.
The Honda NSX could not be more different to the 968 Clubsport. Totally different technically, but as much so in philosophy. The Clubsport was lean, aimed at hardcore enthusiasts who would probably head to a circuit as soon as their car was run in or even take it racing. The NSX was designed to be the everyday sports car: as reliable as a Civic and as easy to own. Not quite as easy to fix if you bent it, as every pranged NSX had to go to Belgium to be fixed. And
here’s a thing: many were put into the scenery. Trouble was, it was easy to be overconfident in the NSX. It had lovely handling and a great chassis, but it was a Honda so it wouldn’t hurt you. I managed to not crash an NSX but luck was involved on several occasions. A number of colleagues were not so fortunate.
Gordon Murray and John Cooper both owned NSXS and that summed up the car for me. Ayrton Senna had a hand in its development and that meant something too. Sadly, nothing Honda could have done would have got over the problem of the NSX wearing the ‘H’ badge. The interior looked horrendously plasticky next to a Ferrari F355’s. The 3.0-litre V-TEC V6 produced a modest 270bhp that even at the time felt a bit measly. But it sounded good and was matched to a five-speed manual gearbox with a lovely action. Honda made an automatic version that was unspeakably poor and that also had the world’s first electric power assisted steering, which also spoilt the car.
I got the NSX. I liked the fact that being seen in one implied that you were not obsessed with badges and brands. But more than that, I loved the view out over the bonnet, the flattopped wings that made the narrow car easy to place and that made me think I was driving a Can-am car or a ’70s Chevron sports racer.
I thought at the time, and think it still, that Honda should have been far bolder with the NSX’S mechanical specification. This was the company that put a motorcycle into production that had an engine featuring oval pistons. A company that had made racing engines that revved to more than 20,000rpm in the early 1960s. The NSX should have had an engine that no other car manufacturer could have produced.
When I fired up this yellow 968 Clubsport, I was taken aback by the engine’s harshness. It’s been a long time since I’ve driven one. What will the youngsters think of this, I wonder? Wind-up windows and no radio. When they drive it, I’m pretty sure they’ll feel the same way about it as I do.
Their take on the Honda NSX is harder to predict. It split opinions when new – I suspect it will now.
The two cars could not be more different. Totally different technically, but as much so in philosophy
FERRARI F355 HONDA NSX TVR GRIFFITH PEUGEOT 405 Mi16 (right) in the good old days Goodwin (centre) and Frankel
Griffith commands engagement in a way seldom seen today If it started (these beasts could be fractious), a 4.0-litre Griff was a good 4.7sec bellow to 60mph and mildly terrifying 157mph.
The 405 Mi16 may have looked slightly absurd with its boot wing and sill skirts, but it could clear 62mph in 9.8sec and reach 133mph.
405 blends in performance elements
Our TVR carried a 5.0-litre Rover V8
The 993 generation of 911 was the last direct descendant of the original and, as the last air-cooled 911, will always have a special place in the hearts of Porsche cognoscenti.
The F355 engine was so advanced, it remains one of very few mainstream production motors to feature five valves per cylinder, resulting in a specific output of 107bhp per litre.
Its composure at speed is a hallmark of the Porsche 993
Squeezing into the F355’s driver’s seat brings great rewards
About as charming as a gearknob gets
Our 993 certainly rose to the occasion
Our younger tester preferred the 968’s quirks to the NSX’S 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.
968CS was among the best-handling cars of its time
968 is unmistakably a child of the ’90s
NSX’S V6 delivers a modest 270bhp