90s Classics To Buy Now
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
The 1990s. Britpop. The dying embers of the rave scene. Princess Diana. The Internet.
The decade has much to be grateful for, particularly if you love cars. It was the last stand for simplicity over technological wizardry and design freedom over safety priorities. Now, of course, safer, better cars are undeniably A Good Thing. Or at least that's true if you're buying new cars, backed as they are with cast-iron warranties and dealer servicing packages.
It's less good for second hand or classic cars. They're not covered by the warranties and they're worth less, so it's pointless spending a fortune fixing them. And all that technology gets expensive when it inevitably wears out.
Cars of the 1990s are more reliable than the ones that preceded them but simpler than the ones that followed. Here are our 10 favourites.
1. Fiat Coupe
During the 1990s Fiat didn't so much drop the ball as kick it into a neighbour's garden and forget about it. So we got the Croma, the woeful Brava/Bravo duo and the Tipo. And then, from seemingly out of nowhere, came the Fiat Coupe.
Designed by Chris Bangle, before he went all flame-surfacey over at BMW, the Fiat looks like nothing before it and yet is so achingly right. Every part of it works, even the bits that shouldn't like the slashed wheelarches. Then there's the inside and that simple but inspired drizzle of body colour across the dashboard.
The Coupe's Achilles heel was that it was based on the Tipo platform, Fiat's early foray into platform sharing across many, many models. It wasn't great but then the turbocharged 20v engine was. And with that spooled up, frankly you didn't really care that it didn't quite go round corners sharply enough.
2. Ford Focus ST170
Ok, we know that the ST170 wasn't launched until 2002 but in its heart and its soul it's a 90s car (the Focus was launched in 1998), so we think it just edges this list. Plus it's very, very good.
Until the Focus, Fords had never been that much cop to drive. Sure, the Mk1 Escort was fun and so was the Capri, but that was mainly because they were simply engineered and rear wheel drive. It was hard to go wrong.
The Focus was the first medium sized Ford deliberately designed to be brilliant to drive. For that we have to thank Richard Parry-Jones, Ford's chassis engineer at the time. He was helicoptered in late in the development of the Mondeo to stop the new car becoming as dull and lacklustre as the Mk4 Escort, a car that Ford had belatedly realised was utter pants.
Having fiddled his magic on the Mondeo, Ford set him loose on the Focus. He persuaded them to spend an extra £50 per car on trick rear suspension, a decision that transformed the Focus into a class-leading car. And the original ST170 was the best of the lot. Just quick enough to exploit the brilliant chassis, the ST170 also looked great - gone were the shouty go-faster arches and spoilers of the XR3, in came subtlety. Giving the sporty version a new name and dialling down the shouting was, Ford said, all in the name of making the car less attractive to thieves. An argument that presumably doesn't factor in thieves' ability to read car reviews.
The ST170 was better than the contemporary Golf GTI by a country mile and is criminally overlooked now. But all fast Fords eventually command big money, and as one of Henry's best efforts, the Focus will surely do the same.
3. Alfa Romeo GTV V6
Ok, so underneath it's got the same Tipo chassis as the Fiat Coupe. Shoot us. But the Alfa is a very different car thanks to extensive engineering tweaks by Alfa, including active rear steering. And that glorious V6 Busso engine.
This was the one of the last uses of the classic Busso engine in a totally new Alfa Romeo. And it is genuinely brilliant, its power delivery something that really does have to be experienced. It's smooth, instantly powerful and has a glorious soundtrack.
For all those reasons we think the V6 Alfa will be lauded in years to come. Sure, the build quality is terrible, the interior detailing woeful and it doesn't go round corners very well, but just look at it.
4. Peugeot 306 GTI
The 205 GTI grabs all the headlines, but really that's a 1980s car. And, if enthusiasts were honest with themselves, the 306 GTI is better. Where the 205 buzz box excites and tires in equal measure, the 206 delivers a far more grown up experience. And as a result, it lingers longer.
The 306 was, until recently, the last good looking Peugeot, a distinctive but un-showy design that suited the era. What makes the GTI so good is that the 306's fundamentals were right - a great chassis that blended relaxed cruising with B-road theatrics. Sharp steering, willing engines and just enough performance to have fun make the 306 a sure-fire classic. Only the long shadow left by the 205 and the GTI's few styling tweaks over humdrum 306s explain why it continues to be overlooked.
5. Aston Martin DB7
It may be a Jaguar XJS in a party frock and the dogs dinner of an interior might have more Ford Fiesta switches, perplexingly, than a Ford Fiesta, but just look at it. The DB7 was available as a straight six or V12 and it finally returned the firm to the building of beautiful, desirable GT cars after more than a decade of ugly be-spoilered and clunky half-arsed models.
Finally, here was an Aston worthy of James Bond. Except Bond never drove a DB7 because it was launch during that late-90s hiatus when Aston decided they didn't need him.
The DB7 can lay reasonable claim to being one of the most beautiful Aston Martins ever made. Unlike later models it used tried and tested proprietary parts - all those bits borrowed from the XJS/ And it was created under the watchful eye of Ford - hence all those Fiesta bits. So it was engineered and nail together pretty well. For an Aston.
6. BMW M5 E3
Before flame-surfacing and ever-increasing kidney grilles there was the E39 M5, a car so perfect it's tempting to wish BMW had simply stopped there and called in the receivers. There had been M5s before, but the E39 was the first one that felt as if it had been specifically designed to be the best and fastest saloon car in the world, rather than a warmed up version of more humble versions.
And it was. Devastatingly quick, light and nimble, it was the last outpost for driving engagement and skill before technology took over. It was also still just fast enough for a human being to master without all that nannying tech. That it looked great too, in that understated way BMWs used to have, also helped a lot. Delete the M5 badges and nobody would know.
7. Volvo T5
In the 1980s Volvos were big, boxy and solid. There was a GLT version. which was sporting in the way that Giant Haystacks was a sportsman. Not very.
In the 1990s Volvos were still big, boxy and solid. There was a GLT version. which was sporting in the way that Giant Haystacks was a sportsman. Not very.
The T5 succeeded not just because it was quick and a hoot to drive, but every owner imagined they were rocketing round Donnington in the British Touring Car Championships. Because the BTCC transformed how we looked at everyday saloon cars and in particular Volvo, which chose to compete with a 850 T5 estate. Those sly Swedes.
Volvos have never been the same since the T5. Good news for car enthusiasts, less so for antique shop owners.
8. Audi TT
The 1990s were the last outpost of the coupe, a stylish two seat take on usually saloon car mechanicals. The TT, launched in 1998, was Audi's late foray into this lucative market segment.
By many criteria it wasn't actually very good. The 4WD 'Quattro' technology couldn't disguise the fact that underneath all the lovely metalwork lay a VW Golf Mk4. Or Audi A3. Or Skoda Octavia. The steering was dead, the standard cars only had 150 bhp and for press-on drivers it lacked engagement. And then there was the small problem of the back end giving way at high speed.
None of which mattered much then and it doesn't now (Audi fixed that wayward back end with a retro-fitted spoiler). The TT looked absolutely brilliant. And the 225 bhp and V6 versions went pretty well too. Inside it was all Audi style and quality. The TT was a great place to be and it still is.
9. Mazda MX5
Yes, it was a child of the 1980s - launched in May 1989 - but the MX5 came of age in the 1990s. It did what Japanese firms had been doing for decades - took an existing idea and made it better, much better. Where its 1960s inspiration, the Elan, was fragile and expensive, the MX5 was robust and cheap.
The MX5 may not have been a new idea but it was a fresh idea in 1989. Since those swinging Sixties, which gave us the Alfa Spider, MGB and Lotus Elan, motorists had lacked a small, inexpensive convertible. And here was a very, very good one.
Mazda may not have been the first name on anyone's lips when wishing for a new Elan or MGB but they did a brilliant job. The MX5 looked good, it was light and well built and it was extremely easy to own owing to Mazda reliability. It spawned a plethora of rivals, from the MGF to the Honda S2000. Some were quite good, others brilliant but none managed the MX5's mix of low price and carefree fun. Lots of it.
10. Jaguar XJ220
No list of 1990s cars would be complete without at least one you could stick on your bedroom wall. It would be a stretch to call the XJ220 a good car, because in many ways it wasn't - it wasn't particularly quick, it was impractical to drive anywhere, it couldn't actually do 220 mph and the McLaren F1 that followed it was, in every way, better.
But none of those pesky niggles really matters. Because here was a brand new Jaguar that took the fight to Ferrari and Mercedes. It looked good too. It breathed new life into a car maker that seemed to have settled into making creaky old barges brim full of wood and timber for pot-bellied captains of industry.
After the XJ220 Jaguar changed. Along came the supercharged XJR and XKR, super-quick cars that began to blow away the fusty old cobwebs surrounding the marque. Now look at it.
Graham Eason, Great Driving Days, 01527 893733