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

Autocar - - THIS WEEK - PHOTOGR APHY LUC LACEY

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

PORSCHE 968CS

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

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