For those of us who’ve been writing about cars and their background for most of a lifetime, the products of 1990 still somehow seem both comfortingly recent and familiar.

Yet, as we all know, time flies when you’re having fun – and 2020’s arrival means any survivors of cars launched back then are passing a particularly historic landmark.

On reaching 30 years of age, that august body FIVA, the International Federation of Historic Vehicles, officially designates all types of vehicles as classics. 

Though defining exactly whatreally makes a classic car would fill a doctoral thesis or two, 1990 was a vintage year in Europe with the launch of at least five obvious classic contenders – and unusually, three came from Japan.

Mazda’s MX5 was lauded on first appearance as latter-day traditional, open top sporty motoring personified, being a keen driver’s nimble delight – despite a relatively modest 1.6 litre 114 horsepower engine. For those with £55,000 to spend – and time to wait – UK orders opened for Honda’s new two seat, Ferrari-challenging NS-X, powered by a smooth, mid-mounted 271 BHP V6

This was stylish, sophisticated and rapid, well sorted motoring redefined, complete with comfortable cabin and comprehensive equipment. With roadgoing development masterminded by Ayrton Senna, the NS-X set new supercar standards in civilised handling and easy driveability – with chassis dynamics aligned to its joyful 150mph plus performance.

Around £48,000 would put a new Vauxhall Lotus Carlton on the road on its 1990 announcement, the remarkable, barnstorming performance of this Lotus-modified, carefully upgraded, four-door saloon putting even the NS-X in the shade. 377 horsepower came from a much-modified 3.6 litre twin-turbo version of the straight-six petrol engine found in the lesser Carlton GSi, alongside peak torque of 568 Nm at 4,200 rpm, over 80% of it available from 2,000 rpm. The result was a claimed 177mph top speed, and 0-60 mph acceleration in 5.2 seconds… 

A far more technically demanding machine than the Honda, the Lotus Carlton and its European Opel twin didn’t sell quite as well as GM anticipated. Production ceased late in 1992 with around 950 examples built, ensuring this unique and always rare giant-killing saloon would qualify as a future classic. The other three classic-qualifying 1990 supercars were the V12 mid-engined Lamborghini Diablo, the Aston Martin Virage, and the twin turbo Nissan 300ZX Targa.

Launched in May 1990, Ford’s Fiesta RS Turbo joined a widening cabal of affordable performance Fords, headed in the 1989-launched Fiesta mark III lineup until then by the XR2i. With 132 horsepower from a modified version of Ford’s CVH-series 1.6-litre engine closely related to that in the concurrent Escort RS Turbo, this quickest Fiesta improved significantly on the XR2i’s performance, with a claimed top speed around 130 mph, and 0-60 in 7.7 seconds. 

Despite this, the Fiesta Turbo didn’t enjoy a good press. Like all hot hatches of its day it became a continual target for “joyriding” thieves, bringing high insurance premiums, and contemporary reports cited various issues ranging from dead steering to torque steer. With major legislative changes requiring mandatory exhaust catalysts from August 1992, Ford’s CVH engines gave way to new Zetec units, after just two years, the Fiesta Turbo was discontinued, replaced by a now equally rare “RS1800” version, using a 1.8 litre 130 horsepower Zetec engine – without a turbocharger. Performance and rarity values have surely ensured both versions already qualify as classics. 

Naturally 1990 also brought various new mainstream models, which under FIVA’s definition – on age, but not necessarily rarity or performance – now share classic status with supercars. New arrivals ranged from the 5 door version of the still-new Land Rover Discovery  to Toyota’s spacious, easy going Previa people carrier. A new VW Transporter continued an established series already 40 years old, from which numerous variations of van, minibus, caravette, pick up truck and specially adapted chassis were enjoying active service over extended lifetimes. However the new T4 consolidated the range’s 1980’s water-cooled engine innovation with another culture shock – it was the first front engined, front wheel drive Transporter.

Renault also opened a new chapter… slowly. The company’s familiar and originally trendsetting 5 had gracefully matured into an old timer by 1990, but despite this, not even the fanfare accompanying the Paris Motor Show launch of the new Clio, its erstwhile replacement, could interrupt the public’s love affair with the 5. Lower spec versions remained in production until 1996, many of them, badged “Campus,” being sold in Britain.

Whether any remaining original example of the new-for-1990 Nissan Primera range could be regarded as a “real” classic is debatable – unlike the background story then in progress to replace the ageing Bluebird line.

The launch coincided with acrimonious  infighting between Octav Botnar, then holder of the UK Datsun/Nissan concession, and Nissan Japan. Botnar, stripped of the franchise in 1991 while being pursued by HM Inland Revenue for £250m of allegedly unpaid taxes, hastily chose exile in Switzerland. Nissan duly took over, but UK sales, which peaked in 1989 at 138,437 cars and 6% market share, were almost 50% down by 1992, and while Primera generations came and went for 15 years afterwards, the marque’s sales never really recovered.

Also in 1990 the Fiat Tempra entered the then-current epoch of forgettable Fiats, which began in 1986 with the Regata and continued after the Tempra’s 1996 demise with the Marea, Bravo, Brava and Stilo. The Tempra was closely related to the Alfa Romeo 155 and the Dedra, the last Lancia model sold in Britain, but unlike those cars, saloons and spacious estate models were available, with 1.6 and 2.0 litre engines – but minimal charisma… and lukewarm public response duly followed. Though Europe saw a 4×4 version, and Brazil got a locally built 2 door 160 horsepower Tempra Turbo, no specialist versions reached the UK, so classic status will probably come through extreme rarity, condition, and unusually low mileage. 

Ideas welcome on which cars of 2020 might be regarded as classics in 2050…


This feature was compiled using numeric vehicle sales data from official SMMT monthly sales statistics 1989-2015, and vehicle technical data, prices and sale dates from back issues of Glass’s monthly guide to car values, or Glass’s Guide Car Checkbooks from the 1990 to 2000 period.

Additional information provided by FIVA –

FIVA is the Fédération Internationale des Véhicules Anciens, a worldwide organisation dedicated to the preservation, protection and promotion of historic vehicles and related culture, as well as their safe use. It is a non-governmental partner of UNESCO.

A brief obituary of Octav Botnar

Dave Moss
Dave Moss

Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.

Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…

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