Thirty years is a long time in the motoring world.
It’s roughly the gap between the launch of the Ford Model T and the first Grand Prix cars capable of travelling at over 200mph, for example.
But the trends of 1991 seem familiar today. Japanese kei cars are no longer as relevant as they once were, but we can recognise a greater emphasis on aerodynamic body styles, increasingly safe Volvos and the fact that it was possible to buy a car called the Toyota Corolla.
Also, there’s something endearing about the fact that cars as different as the Suzuki Cappuccino and the Bentley Continental R could be introduced in the same year. Encouraged by that pleasant thought, let’s have a closer look.
By Audi’s current naming convention, an S4 would be a sporting version of the A4. When the name was first used in 1991, the S4 was based on the 100 four-door saloon, which would later be re-badged as the A6.
The original S4 had a 2.2-litre five-cylinder engine producing around 230bhp and driving all four wheels. A year after the model was launched, Audi brought out another version with a 276bhp V8 under the bonnet.
Bentley Continental R
The Continental R was based on a platform which had been used for the Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit of 1980, and its 6.75-litre V8 L-Series engine dated back to 1959.
Nevertheless this luxury coupe was the first Bentley in years with a body which was not shared with Rolls-Royce. The old (but updated) engine was turbocharged as part of a successful attempt to make Bentley once more the sportier of the two British luxury brands.
Bugatti EB 110
The EB 110 was the only model produced during the Romano Artioli era of Bugatti’s often turbulent history. It was a mid-engined two-door coupe with scissor doors and a 3.5-litre quad-turbocharged V12 engine producing 553bhp – or, in the case of the Super Sport derivative, 603bhp.
The car was unveiled on 15 September 1991, the 110th anniversary of Ettore Bugatti’s birth. The fact that future seven-times World F1 Champion Michael Schumacher bought a bright yellow Super Sport in 1994 did not prevent the company going bankrupt the following year.
The ZX marked Citroen’s return to the small family car sector which it had abandoned five years earlier by not replacing the ageing GSA. Launched more than two decades after that car, the ZX was bang up to date and a reasonable – if less popular - alternative in Europe to the Ford Escort, Vauxhall Astra and Volkswagen Golf.
The sporty versions were the Volcanes, one of which had a 2.0-litre petrol engine producing 165bhp. The Volcane 1.9 TD was sometimes touted as one of the earliest diesel hot hatches, but name aside, with just 90bhp it wasn’t really powerful enough to justify that title.
Strictly speaking, the Cinquecento is part of the long line of Fiat 500s (and the first front-wheel drive version), though non-Italian speakers who don’t know what its name means don’t always realise that.
The most basic engine was a 704cc two-cylinder sold only in Poland, where the car was built. The Cinquecento Sporting had a 1.1-litre FIRE engine which produced not much more than 50bhp. This was no bad thing, since the flimsy Cinquecento was not a car you’d want to have a crash in.
Ford Crown Victoria
The 1991 model was the first Ford to be known only by this name, though there had previously been Crown Victoria versions of the 1950s Fairlane and the 1980s LTD. The new car was Ford’s largest saloon, though it looked very similar to the significantly smaller Ford Taurus.
The Crown Victoria was powered by Ford’s recently introduced 4.6-litre Modular V8 engine. The Mercury Grand Marquis was technically identical but had a very different design. Both models were discontinued in late 1997.
The ninth of what are now fourteen generations of F-Series pickup still bore a resemblance to the seventh, which had been launched back in 1980, though in the interests of aerodynamics it was more round-edged than previous models.
There was an impressive choice of body styles, trim levels and engines, the latter ranging in capacity from 3.8 to 7.5 litres. The truck was discontinued in 1997; after that, the F-Series split into the F-150 and Super Duty ranges.
The second-generation Taurus shared no body panels with its predecessor apart from those on the doors, but the two cars looked so similar that it was easy to believe Ford had simply performed a mid-life facelift.
Mechanically, the new car was similar to the old except that the four-cylinder engine option had been abandoned and there was now only a choice of 3.0- or 3.8-litre petrol V6s. The formula clearly worked, since the Taurus was the top-selling car in the US (including fleet sales) until it was superseded in 1996.
GMC produced only 3000 examples of the Syclone, a high-performance version of its Sonoma pickup truck. Under the bonnet lay a turbocharged 4.3-litreGM V6 engine producing a reputed 280bhp. All four wheels were driven, with 65% of the available torque being sent to the rear.
Production began and ended in 1991. During that year, the Syclone was pitted in a quarter-mile drag race against a Ferrari 348, and won. This was rather unfair on the Ferrari, which was only rear-wheel drive and had a much higher top speed, but it was a good story.
Since 1949, cars in the Japanese kei class have been limited in overall size and engine capacity. In return, owners have benefitted from several tax advantages, though these were reduced in 2014.
Several manufacturers have built kei sports cars. An early example was the Honda Beat, introduced one year after the engine capacity limit was raised from 550cc to 660cc in 1990. The Beat’s turbocharged 656cc three-cylinder produced the maximum permissible 63bhp. The car remained in production until 1996.
The fifth-generation Civic was the first available from the start with Honda’s VTEC engine technology (its predecessor having received this halfway through its life cycle). Radical for its time, the VTEC system allowed for the use of at least two different camshaft profiles, improving both performance and fuel economy.
The new model was named Car of the Year Japan for 1991-1992 and remained in production for four years, which was bang on the average for Civics during that period.
The second Isuzu Trooper was a very different proposition from the original model launched ten years earlier in 1981, with powerful engines (none of them under 3.0 litres), a larger body and considerably more refinement.
It remained in production until 2002, and was sold around the world not only as an Isuzu but also with Acura, Chevrolet, Holden, Honda, Opel, SsangYong, Subaru and Vauxhall badges.
Much less famous than the MX-5 launched two years earlier, the MX-3 was a small four-seat coupe which was sold around the world, including in North America and Oceania, until 1998.
The most common engines were 1.5- and 1.6-litre four-cylinder units, but Mazda also fitted a version of its K-Series V6 with the astonishingly low capacity (for an engine of that layout) of 1.8 litres.
Mercedes-Benz S-Class (W140)
The W140 was the third generation of Mercedes luxury models known informally as S-Class, and took on that name officially after a change of policy in 1993. It had been introduced two years before as a saloon, a coupe body style being added to the range the following year.
From the W140’s 1991 launch to its 1998 replacement, Mercedes fitted it with impressive technologies including CAN bus electronics, ESP, a voice-operated control system, xenon headlights with automatic range adjustment and a formidable 6.0-litre V12 engine. The W140 was therefore only the second post-war V12 car built by a German manufacturer, the first being the slightly earlier BMW 7-Series.
The 1991 Pajero was a greatly revised version of the first-generation SUV launched nine years before. It was a serious off-roader, with a robust four-wheel drive transmission, four body styles and two wheelbase lengths.
The Pajero was sold as Shogun in the UK, as Montero in the US and under many different names in China. A rebadged but otherwise almost identical version called the Hyundai Galloper was built in South Korea.
Nissan’s first Serena was criticised in the UK for its unadventurous styling and, particularly in diesel form, remarkably poor acceleration.
All of this missed the main point, which was that the Serena was a large and practical MPV, ideal for people who needed lots of room and didn’t care much about looks or performance. A replacement model (which did, in fairness, look a bit smarter) came along in 1999.
The Achieva was Oldsmobile’s version of the second-generation front-wheel drive GM N body cars, and was therefore a close relative of the contemporary Buick Skylark and Pontiac Grand Am. All three had styling which could be described as “adventurous”, and was toned down considerably for the models which replaced them.
Available in saloon and coupe forms, the Achieva also offered a choice of four-cylinder and V6 engines ranging in size from 2.3 to 3.3 litres. Both this car and the slightly larger Cutlass were replaced in 1999 by the Alero, the last model Oldsmobile ever built.
The pretty little 106 was Peugeot’s entry-level car all the way from 1991 to 2003. It was revised in 2006, and was based on the same platform as the Citroen Saxo introduced in that year.
Most versions were intended for everyday transport, but the 1.3-litre Rallye Phase 1 and the 1.6-litre 16-valve GTi and Rallye Phase 2 were quite sporty. There was also an electric version, which arrived about two decades too early to attract much attention.
Porsche’s attempt to market a front-engined car alongside the fabled 911 began in 1976 with the introduction of the 924. The 968, which arrived 15 years later, was the last of that line, notable for an engine with remarkably few cylinders (four) for its 3.0-litre capacity. The stripped-down, no-frills Club Sport was considerably lighter than the regular 968, and therefore faster.
Both the 968 and the 928 (also front-engined) were discontinued in 1995. Porsche would not try selling a car whose engine sat ahead of the driver until the launch of the Cayenne SUV eight years later.
This was the first Seat developed after the Spanish brand became part of the Volkswagen Group. The VW influence was very strong: the Toledo was based on the same platform used for the Golf Mk2 and was fitted with Volkswagen four-cylinder petrol and diesel engines ranging in size from 1.6 to 2.0 litres.
The Toledo looked like a saloon but was really a five-door hatchback. Luggage space - between 550 and 1360 litres depending on whether not the rear seats were folded – was nearly as generous as the 590 / 1580 litres offered by today’s famously roomy, and also Golf-based, Skoda Octavia.
Styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro of ItalDesign, the SVX coupe appeared as a concept at the 1989 Tokyo Auto Show and went into production two years later. Its 3.3-litre flat-six engine was the largest Subaru had ever used in a road car, and would not lose that title until the 3.6-litre Tribeca SUV was launched in 2008.
Like its smaller predecessor, the XT, the SVX was known in its home market as the Alcyone. This is the name of the brightest star in the Pleiades cluster, which is depicted in Subaru’s logo.
Along with the Isuzu Piazza Turbo, the Suzuki Cappuccino is one of the very few cars to have had three ‘u’s in its name. It was also one of the early 1990s Japanese kei sports cars, and perhaps the most famous rival to the Honda Beat mentioned previously.
Unusually for a kei car, the Cappuccino was adapted to suit European regulations at the suggestion of Suzuki GB. Over a thousand converted models were sold in the UK, starting in 1993.
By 1991, the Toyota Camry sold in Japan was quite different from the Toyota Camry sold everywhere else. Export models were larger and had more powerful engines – a 134bhp 2.2-litre four-cylinder and a 185bhp 3.0-litre V6.
To begin with, the only body style was a saloon, but an estate was added to the range in 1992. This was the first Toyota manufactured exclusively in the US, at the company’s factory in Georgetown, Kentucky, and the only US-built Toyota built both in left-hand drive for the home market and right-hand drive for export.
Toyota moved the Corolla into new territory in its seventh generation. The 1991 model was larger than any of its predecessors, and the sharp-edged styling of the 1980s had given way to a more rounded look. The bodyshell was now 90% galvanised steel, double the proportion used in the sixth-generation car.
Petrol and diesel engines ranged in size from 1.3 to 2.2 litres, and there were saloon, hatchback, liftback, coupe and estate body styles. The model remained on the market until 1998.
Named after US dealer Jack Griffith (1926-2017), who had suggested putting a large Ford V8 engine into a TVR in the 1960s, the 1991 model was a two-seat roadster powered by modified Rover V8 engines with capacities of between 4.0 and (in the Griffith 500 model only) 5.0 litres.
The TVR Chimaera, launched a year later, was mechanically identical to the Griffith but had slightly different styling and was intended more for long-distance cruising than more vigorous driving.
This was the third mid-sized family car sold as an Astra by Vauxhall, the third by Holden (whose two previous versions were rebadged Nissans) and the first by Opel (which had until 1991 used the name Kadett).
It was sold as a saloon, estate, hatchback, convertible and van. The hot hatch version was the 2.0-litre 16-valve GSi, which did not immediately go to market the way Opel’s chassis department wanted it to and was thoroughly revised three years later, to its great benefit.
Best remembered as a hatchback, the third-generation Golf was the first to have an estate in the line-up and the second to include a convertible. Saloon versions wore the Vento badge. The GTi hot hatch had a 2.0-litre 16-valve engine, as hot hatches tended to in those days, but the 2.8-litre VR6 motor was more powerful and sounded nicer.
The Ecomatic diesel was one of a few 1990s cars with clutchless manual transmission (also used briefly by Renault and Saab), and had an early form of start/stop which worked even when the car was still moving.
Similar in concept to large Volvos of the past, the 850 had many new features, including transversely mounted five-cylinder engines, Delta-link rear suspension (which provided a small amount of rear steering), self-adjusting front seatbelts and the earliest version of Volvo’s Side Impact Protection System (SIPS).
The most famous 850s were surely the estate cars built to compete in the 1994 British Touring Car Championship. They were only moderately successful, but although Volvo later competed in the BTCC with 850 and S40 saloons, those cars are less fondly remembered than the estates.