1991: It Was a Very Good Year
Another in our occasional looks back upon particular years and what sorts of cars were being sold and driven on the highways and byways of this great country of ours. We've already had a look at 1962 with its long, low and sleek sedans (finally minus the fins) and the last of the classic '50s-era Corvettes; 1957 and its eponymous Chevy, a couple of Toyotas, and lots of well, low, long and decidedly un-sleek (IMO) big ol' American sedans (avec fins, of course); 1969 and the plethora of bad-ass muscle cars, locking steering columns, and a funny 2-seater from AMC; and we shan't forget poor, misunderstood 1974 whence came the double-nickel speed limit, Vegas and a new, smaller Mustang II, and the era of paint-on performance.
So where does 1991 fit in and why bother highlighting it? I like to think of the early 1990s as something of a pivot point in American culture, including the cars, and 1991 seems like a good place to start. . .not coincidentally because we are now 20 years hence and quite a few 20-year anniversaries are taking place. For a number of reasons, 1991 seems to me to have been the year when "The '90s" really started, although admittedly there are a couple of earlier events that I also think of as uniquely characterizing that decade; more on those later.
The cars seemed to be emerging from a somewhat lackluster 1980s when US manufacturers were only just beginning to find their footing vis a vis the Japanese. For a time in the 1980s it seemed as if the Japanese were going to take over the world let alone the automobile market -- their own bubble collapse largely took care of that -- and the Big Three were struggling to catch up in quality, reliability and performance nearly across the board. By the '90s (and even the late '80s to be honest), some new models had appeared that seemed to signal a new era for domestics. . .and truth be told even the Japanese started to change direction somewhat with some of their models. So maybe 1991 isn't all that great but hopefully I shall convince you that it was still a Very Good Year.
So what was going on 20 years ago? Well, Jeffery Dahmer was arrested for various heinous acts, Tim Berners-Lee announced the World Wide Web project, both Pan Am and Eastern Airlines folded, and the Soviet Union officially collapsed bringing an end to decades of Cold War and considerably diminishing the threat of nuclear annihilation. More importantly, the Buffalo Bills lost the second of three straight Super Bowls, Ötzi the Iceman was found eroding out of a glacier in the Alps, and both Nirvana and Pearl Jam released albums that shot "grunge" to a decade of dominance on the music charts and put Seattle, Starbucks, and flannel shirts into the mainstream of American culture. Perhaps coincidentally next to that last one, Twin Peaks was in its second season which may have primed the whole Northwest- flannel shirt- and coffee-pump a year earlier. Having moved out to Seattle in 1985 I usually credit myself with putting Seattle on the map, although I could have done without the constant "Where's your flannel shirt?" jokes whenever I went back home for a visit in those days.
What about the cars? Probably the biggest news for 1991 was that it was the first model year for Saturn, although the '91s had actually gone on sale in 1990. Saturn was GM's attempt to change the way making and selling cars was done and it did, in fact, inspire a near-cultish following. Saturn marketed itself as "a different kind of car company" and in fact operated fairly independently of the rest of GM for a time. However, since nearly everything about the car and company was "new" -- new plant, new dealers, etc. -- the startup costs were significant. The main innovations were their no-haggle pricing and plastic body panels. These latter were supposed to be more dent-resistant and would have allowed the company to change the appearance of the cars more readily; I always thought this was a great idea, although they didn't seem to take advantage of the feature very often. The pricing policy also appealed to me, since it's always baffled me that cars were one of the few items you were supposed to haggle over. I mean, it's not like you walk into Sears and start bargaining over the price of a refrigerator. But, as I say, the company sure did inspire loyalty with some -- I emphasize that for a reason -- customers. Frankly, when the Spousal Unit was car shopping in 1996 the only place I actually enjoyed going into was the Saturn dealer. So maybe Saturn didn't end up being the Next Big Thing, but at the time at least it was an interesting experiment.
There were some neat things happening at Ford also. The Mustang had had a fairly significant redesign in 1987, and 1991 was about at the midpoint for that generation (1987-1993), really one of the most popular generations of Mustang ever. The 5.0L HO engine made from about 1989-93 has been extremely popular in the aftermarket performance industry and one can still buy remanufactured '89-'93s to put in whatever you want. It wasn't majorly different from the previous years' engines, but it did introduce the Mass Airflow fuel injection system that allowed for a bunch of other performance-related add-ons. At Mustang shows, the '89-'93 models are probably second only in number to the classic 1960s versions, although the most recent iteration has a very strong presence these days as well.
Ford also was in the last year of its first-generation Taurus, one of the most successful cars of the all time. It's a little difficult now to recall how innovative the Taurus was, but it really was something of a bombshell when it was first introduced in 1986. Its aerodynamic shape was much ballyhooed, and it was arguably the first really successful front-drive sedan by an American manufacturer, far closer to European sport sedans than pretty much anything made domestically at the time. Ford also took a page from the Mustang's origins and gave it a long list of options so that buyers could customize it to their heart's content. Perhaps more importantly, they made the SHO out of it. It was made by the same team that produced the Mustang SVO, and was powered by a modified 3.0L V6 that, together with a -- *gasp!* -- 5-speed manual transmission (made by Mazda), was good for 6.6 second 0-60 times. The SHO has a devoted following today and is one of the first of the modern "sleeper" sedans.
Elsewhere, the Mazda Miata was in its second year of production, and was the first year it was advertised widely with the now-classic commercial welcoming in the new(ish) decade as well as the car. As with the Taurus, we may have some difficulty recalling how revolutionary the Miata was: a classic 2-seat roadster in the British mold mould, but one that could be seen on the road more often than it was sitting in the shop awaiting yet another new part. It was quick, handled like a roller skate, and was. . . .well, I was going to say it was styled nicely, but even I don't believe that (just my opinion, of course). Still and all, it opened up new territory in the market and nowadays there are gobs of fun-to-drive (and reliable) roadsters to choose from.
Mitsubishi and Chrysler were making a fairly decent set of so-called "Diamond Star Turbos" that included the AWD Talon TSi AWD and Eclipse GSX. They were competent cars and were a great value for the money. . .plus they looked great. Honda's Civic was in the last year of what I think of as the Classic 1980s Japanese design. The Civic and other 1980s Hondas were spectacular cars that cemented Honda's rep in that decade as a premier auto maker rather than just a provider of "pregnant roller skates" and by 1991 were making cars that developed healthy lusts of their own. 1992 saw a redesign of the Civic in the direction of something that, as I wrote elsewhere, I found to be the most attractive in the Civic line, but I think overall they may have lost some of the performance magic shortly after 1991.
Nissan had also gotten back on track with their Z-cars. The previous generation had been hailed as, well, kind of a dud by the Z-crowd, even though in comparison with other cars of the time it wasn't a bad performer; just not quite what the Z-cars had been previously. The Z-32 generation came back with a whallop, earning acclaim for its power and handling -- but mostly its power. The naturally aspirated version put out a respectable 222 hp, but Nissan put in twin turbos to give it a far more respectable 300 hp. Superb handling + gobs of power = one great car. Lookswise, it still holds up today, I think, and remains one of the most successful sports cars of all time.
There's a lot more that could be said about this year -- the BMW 3-series was still in its perhaps most classic form, the Pontiac Grand Am was actually something of a BMW-contender, and the Caprice was still a comfortable cruiser -- but I'll leave it for commenters to hash out. We still weren't quite in what is probably the third golden age of automobiles (now) but there were indications back in 1991 of what was to come.
Credits: The JR Ewing photo comes from PalZoo Celebrity Database. The Saturn photo is off of a site called, not coincidentally, 1991 Saturn, and the Taurus SHO is from Wikimedia. The Miata is from NetCarShow.com, which I neglected to mention in my original post.The top photo I leave as a mystery for readers to ponder, but it comes from IMCDB.org.