If you see a faded sign at the side of the road…
Formed in Athens Georgia in 1976, the US alt-surf-rock band The B52s had existed relatively contentedly on the peripheries of the contemporary music scene for a good decade and a half before a single taken from their 1989 album, Cosmic Thing propelled them into mainstream international chart success, and an element of immortality.
Written partly to recall their early years as impecunious art-loving musicians, and to honour their guitarist Ricky Wilson who had died in 1986 from a HIV-related illness, Love Shack was not so much the B52s shifting their retro-futurist sound and aesthetic to meet a wider audience, more the public attuning to a band being unapologetically themselves. By the close of 1989, the track was everywhere.
Elsewhere too, the music scene was shifting, with a growing and vibrant dance/ rave club culture taking root across the UK, and these developments arising alongside the mounting influence of Hip Hop which was crossing into the mainstream from the US, would increasingly dominate both music and popular culture.
Geopolitically, walls were tumbling, most notably one bisecting the divided German city of Berlin, underlining the epochal collapse of the Soviet Union. Elsewhere too, dominos were falling. Tokyo’s stock market crashed, which would have lasting repercussions for Japan’s motor industry. Yugo’s US arm collapsed and Ford, in an act of uncharacteristic corporate hardball, and with the connivance of the UK government mounted a hostile takeover of Jaguar.
Ford had previously attempted to gain control of Alfa Romeo, but with Fiat Auto now firmly in control, Arese announced the 75 saloon-based, limited production SZ – although upon first viewing, some wished they hadn’t. Dubbed the monster by the Latin press, its uncompromisingly styled composite body, chosen over rival proposals from the Italian carrozzieri and allegedly created at centro stile by Antonio Castellana under the supervision of Robert Opron. The short-wheelbase, transaxle rwd driveline mated to Ing. Busso’s fabled V6 equalled vivid performance and polished road manners. Something of a cult car as much then as now, the SZ may not have been pretty but it was good.
Like Milan’s Biscione, Britain’s Aston Martin had become synonymous with financial calamity over the preceding decades. But an intervention by Uncle Henry brought not only financial stability, but the funding to develop the first all-new Aston Martin model in a generation. The Virage was very much created to a tried and trusted Newport Pagnell recipe – rear wheel drive and a hand-built multi-valve V8 of their own design. The Ford parts bin was plundered both beneath the surface and in the cabin. The Virage was in characteristic Aston fashion a bit of a brute, which neither lacked charm nor visual impact, but subtlety and finesse were perhaps other matters.
Also lacking a certain restraint was BMW’s E31 8-series, a car which bore the stamp of its creative lynchpin and cheerleader in chief, Wolfgang Reizle. Also akin to the Aston, the E31 was seen as overwrought, overthought and most tellingly, not what the market had hoped for. But more decisively, the timing wasn’t brilliant. The ’80s boom would soon run itself out, which wouldn’t auger well for indulgent, ultra-expensive luxury vehicles, especially those which were not immediate sales successes. It was therefore, by Petuelring standards at least, a comparative flop – if an one which has aged with some considerable grace nonetheless.
If Ferrari’s end of decade mid-engined offering was not entirely a failure, it certainly remains a car which has never quite ignited the enthusiasm of aficionados like either its immediate 328 predecessor – or successor for that matter. The first 2-seater Berlinetta to receive the innovative transverse-mounted gearbox as previously fitted to the previous year’s Mondial T (and some of the Scuderia’s Grand Prix machines), the 348 had a more projectile-like appearance, (courtesy of Pininfarina) and was more user-friendly than any mid-engined Maranello steed yet, but the advent of Honda’s NSX the same year had (snob value apart) definitively altered the conversation.
Despite the soon to implode Japanese economy, Nissan’s upmarket nameplate launched in the US under the Infiniti nameplate. Unlike Toyota’s purpose-designed Lexus LS, the debut Infiniti Q45 made use of a good deal of JDM carry-over. A more driver-focused vehicle than the LS400, the Infiniti was an impressive car, but one which was deemed to have looked a little odd, was poorly marketed and would forever live in big Lex’s shadow. Still does.
By 1989 there really wasn’t anything the Japanese carmakers couldn’t successfully put their hand to. Having previously demonstrated an ability to recreate the past so successfully as to be demonstrably superior to it, Mazda announced the MX5 roadster, a shameless facsimile of the classic 2-seater British sportster – part MG, part Lotus Elan, but without the requisite grinding of teeth. Mazda engineers allegedly went to painstaking lengths to recreate the quintessence of the genre, even engineering a slight resistance in the gear linkage – akin to a producer digitally adding tape hiss to a modern music recording. But instead of pastiche, Hiroshima created a timeless classic – a rare case of the cover bettering the original – well, perhaps.
Park an Opel Calibra next to an Aston Virage and the untrained eye could momentarily be fooled. And if this was to the credit of Wayne Cherry’s GM Europe studio, it probably was deemed less so at the offices of the Heffernan / Greenley design consultancy to whom Newport Pagnell had turned. A clean, aero-influenced shape in the contemporary Opel studio idiom, it tended a little towards blandness, but in a market so long devoid of relatively affordable coupés, it arrived with a good deal of latent goodwill. Sadly however, a whole less than the sum of its parts, largely by consequence of its uncouth Vectra/ Cavalier chassis. Ultimately then, the Calibra was to all intents and purposes Russelsheim’s Capri.
Peugeot’s 605 has perhaps already received sufficient comment upon these pages to require more here, but while Sochaux’s turn of the decade flagship was an entirely creditable and credible effort, it suffered from the fact that its cheaper, visually similar (Pininfarina again) and more frangible 405 sibling arrived to market beforehand, undermining the 605’s impact to a limiting degree. Certainly, a more determined effort to visually differentiate the pair might have aided matters. The car itself was rather good, although what it did that Citroen’s XM couldn’t remains as unclear today as it did thirty years ago.
The mood music of 1989 was broadly euphoric, signalling a new, post-history epoch, so the fact that it too would shortly become yet another faded sign at the side of the road remains one of life’s more poignant reversals. But for a time at least, as we headed down the Atlanta highway in a Chrysler as big as a whale, the possibilities (and the choice) appeared almost limitless.
The class of 1989 we did write about.
1989 outliers: Daihatsu Applause, Ford Fiesta, Maserati Shamal, Nissan 240 SX / Pao / S-Cargo, Porsche 964, Subaru Legacy.
Editor’s note: DTW will return to the Honda NSX and Mercedes R129 in due course.