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.