If the 80s were colorful for the automotive industry, the 90s were simply powerful. It was a time when everything seemed possible – democracy won everywhere, the whole world seemed to live in peace, people became free not only in their passports but also in their hearts and minds, everyone was united by the all-powerful Internet, new electronic winds blew in the music sky, and the president of the United States played the saxophone before impressed audience. What could be better than the 90s?
It was definitely the best decade for the automotive industry as well. Currently, cars have become much faster, more technological, more expressive, safer, more comfortable and, of course, more beautiful.
More complex round shapes are becoming modern
“If in the 80s the angularity of cars was very fashionable, then in the 90s everything changed a lot – now softer lines have become the most fashionable.” The Audi, Opel and Ford companies were among the first to catch this trend, and in the late 1980s they released highly successful models with softer forms such as the Audi 80 B3 and B4, Audi 100 C3, Opel Vectra “, Opel Calibra, Ford Sierra and Ford Scorpio.
More complex car body designs have become easier to design with the introduction of CAD 3D modeling systems. One of the first cars designed using CAD software alone was the BMW 8 Series (E31). It has become easier for engineers to experiment with different body shapes and interior solutions, as well as to get visualizations of the future model.
Not only the corners of the car body details have been rounded, but the shape of the car itself has become softer and more aerodynamic. In addition, the cars became much wider and lower. The width of the car emphasized the sportiness of the car and provided more space for passengers.
The lower body height also provided more visual sportiness. At the same time, the lower body height does not necessarily take away the cabin space, because the engineers have learned to use the cabin height much more efficiently by installing the seats lower and reducing the height of the seat itself. In addition, the lower and wider body significantly increases the stability of the car in turns,” says Nerijus Paketūras, head of the reviews and ads site Autoasas.lt.
As the height of the cars decreased, the height of the windows also decreased, they became more inclined, improving the aerodynamic properties of the car. Car wheel arches have become larger to accommodate larger diameter rims. The headlights became narrow and elongated – the turn indicators should have been integrated into their design as beautifully as possible, the glass of the turn indicators should not have been yellow, but white.
The radiator grille has been much more accentuated than before and blended into the bonnet design. The rear lights have also become more elongated and narrow, the squareness of the 80s is gone. The front, taillights and preferably the bumpers had to maintain the continuity of the metal parts of the body.
Car bumpers used to be simply a physical protection for the car and often an inorganic part of the car’s design, now they had to be integrated into the car’s body design. This integration was to be emphasized by the fact that the bumpers started to be painted in the color of the body, their shape is combined with the lines of the body and the guards installed on the sides of the car – on the fenders and doors.
In the 10th decade of the last century, chrome “lost” its luster and was no longer used as widely as before. Although the chrome details have not completely disappeared, they have been placed against sportiness. Therefore, they are installed in larger prestigious cars, which have always been characterized by greater conservatism.
These trends are easily seen not only in sports cars, but also in regular hatchbacks and sedans. At that time, the most prominent design examples in the ranks of the most popular body sedans came from Japan. How attractive were the Honda Accord, Subaru Legacy, Mazda Xedos 6, Mitsubishi Galant sedans, as well as the non-Japanese Opel Vectra, Peugeot 405 or Renault Laguna.
Round lanterns are back in style, flip up still?
In the second half of the 90s, the round lights that lost their popularity in the 80s returned for a while. Like all fashions, it transforms a little, but always comes back. This time, four round lights in the front became fashionable. They necessarily had to be different in size or shape and integrated into the body design. Lexus GS, Lexus SC, Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Toyota Celica, Alfa Romeo GTV/Spider, Toyota Corolla, Honda Integra, Honda Del Sol and even Volkswagen Polo had them. The latter was like a modern counterpart to the extremely conservative Volkswagen Golf model.
The trend of folding lanterns, which gained momentum in the 80s, reached its apogee in the 90s. During this period, many sports cars were required to have folding headlights – almost all Ferrari and Lamborghini models, Honda NSX, Chevrolet Corvette, Toyota Celica, Toyota MR2, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Ford Probe, Nissan S13, Mazda MX-5, Mazda RX-7, Lotus Elan and other.
However, just as every fad that has reached its peak suddenly fades, so flip lanterns suddenly became not only impractical due to unreliable mechanisms, due to their constant use even in broad daylight, but also very old-fashioned. During this period, almost all manufacturers stopped producing cars with flip-up headlights. Some returned to more conservative solutions, others caught a new fashion called “ala ferrari” – when lights for sports cars are installed high on the hood under a glass dome. The best examples of this are the Fiat Coupe, Honda NSX, Nissan 300ZX, Mitsubishi 3000 GT, Toyota MR2 or Toyota Supra transformations.
The taillights also got a new design trend popularized by the Japanese, which are lights that extend across the entire width of the car. Such lights emphasized the car’s width and sportiness at the same time. Many Japanese sports cars could be proud of this unique design – Honda NSX, Nissan Silvia S14, Nissan 300ZX, Mazda RX-7, Mitsubishi 3000 GT, Subaru SVX and the German Porsche 911. Speaking of the 911… you remember in the 80s the Porsche company tried to change ” “outdated” style 911 to the innovative Porsche 928? Well, they didn’t experiment like that again in this decade.
Supercars of the 90s
If the supercars of the 80s, such as the Lamborghini Countach and the Ferrari Testarossa, were the true embodiment of sexiness, then the supercars of the 90s became the embodiment of brute power. Bugatti EB110, Lamborghini Diablo, McLaren F1, Dodge Viper, Nissan Skyline GT-R – subtlety is not for these cars. These are real incarnations of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dwayne “Rock” Johnson in metal.
Sports cars had to have the most powerful engines with the largest working capacity or be equipped with turbines, emissions that were not very environmentally friendly, they had to be low, wide, with large-diameter wide wheels, spoilers and diffusers that provide real benefits at the back, large air intakes for brakes, engine or intercooler cooling functions. The sporty style had to be primarily functional and serve not aesthetics, but speed.
It should be noted that not all sports car manufacturers were successful in reorienting themselves to the new style winds. Let’s say Aston Martin, Ferrari or Maserati still operated the style of the 80s and looked very conservative at the time.
Forerunners of the design lesson
“The pioneers of car design in the 90s are of course the Japanese – this is their golden age. And indeed – what absolutely fantastic cars came from the land of the rising sun! Mazda RX-7, Honda NSX, Toyota Supra, Nissan Skyline, Nissan 300ZX, Mitsubishi 3000 GT and others. All of them are somewhat similar and at the same time very different – similar in their samurai spirit, but different in their design language.
Sharp competition and the increased popularity of Japanese culture around the world forced Japanese manufacturers to look for their own unique style, and they were very successful.
For example, the Honda company created elegant and sharper forms of cars close to the ground, Mazda compact with extremely gentle forms, Toyota round with expressive forms, Nissan large and strict forms, Mitsubishi expressively designed cars. Everyone was charming in their own way,” says Nerijus.
The BMW brand continued to be among the most conservative manufacturers in terms of design in this decade. Timidly “tucking” the outdated round headlights under solid glass, BMW was late to round out and give their cars a solid look, which they didn’t do until the late 90s.
However, what you can’t take away from the designers of this company is the perfect sense of car proportions and the embodiment of sportiness even in family sedans. This is what makes these cars so beautiful today – their conservative design details and perfect proportions.
The Audi company realized that it would not compete with BMW in terms of sportiness, but with Mercedes-Benz in the areas of luxury. Therefore, Audi has created its own – functional prestige. It was Audi that reconciled previously incompatible things – for example, it gave sportiness to practical station wagons, gave Porsche genes to family cars, began to associate safety not with a resistant body, but with all-wheel drive or a lighter aluminum body.
This is how the unique Audi RS2 model was born, and soon after it appeared the fantastically rated extremely powerful and subtly stylish Audi RS4, Audi RS6, Audi TT models. Suddenly station wagons became fashionable, and the Audi company finally became a recognized member of the big three.
French manufacturers can also be praised, especially the Peugeot company. It not only discovered its own unique style and perfectly integrated it into all the models of its extended range, but thanks to the victories in the arenas of rally and circuit competitions, it perfectly shaped the image of the sports car manufacturer.
Unfortunately, some companies like Citroën that carried the freak flag in the car design parade finally broke through and became mainstream players this decade. The Citroën CX, BX models, the true gems of the 80s design, have been transformed into the moderately styled Citroën XM and Xantia models.
Only the best can dictate fashion, everyone else can adapt to it. However, there were those who didn’t do that, such as the Italian manufacturers. They still produced angular old-style cars such as the Lancia Delta, Lancia Thema, Alfa-Romeo 155 and Alfa-Romeo 164. None of these models achieved real commercial success. Neither the enormous achievements of Italian sports cars in the 80s nor the memorable Alfa-Romeo 155 sedans on the circuit did not help. Of course, the Italians had a hard time not only because of conservative car design, but the parallels here are obvious.
In this parade of designers, not only the Italians, but also the Americans took the last step – they have been creating technically incorrect and ugly cars for the second decade. The “tarnishing” of the name Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro alone is worth it – it’s no wonder that these models disappeared from the radar of buyers for a good decade.
But if the Americans at least tried, there were those who didn’t even do that – the biggest losers in car design in the 90s were, of course, the British. Their car design was simply stuck in the 70s. Jaguar XJ, XJS, Bentley, Rolls-Royce cars not only looked stylistically hopelessly outdated, but also technologically outdated.
Now let’s remember which ten cars were the most iconic or most influential in the history of motoring in the 90s. According to Nerijaus Paketurus, these cars left the most visible mark in the decade of the powerful:
Mitsubishi Lancer Evo and Subaru WRX Sti – for the duel of the decade in rally arenas and computer gaming screens
Mazda MX-5 – for making automotive sportiness accessible to everyone
Honda NSX – for realizing that from now on Japanese manufacturers can do anything
Nissan GTR – for the legend of Godzilla
Audi A4 – for forcing the developers of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class to stretch
BMW E39 5 Series – for taking over the gold standard in the luxury car market from the Mercedes-Benz W124
Mercedes-Benz S-Class – for reminding everyone who’s the boss here
Dodge Viper – for upholding the true American automotive spirit
Land Rover Discovery – for making off-roading fashionable
Toyota RAV4 – for a new approach to SUVs