High concept. Low expectations.
There is believed to be a document secreted in a vault somewhere in the Hollywood hills that states the actual reason why it’s impossible to make a wholly credible motion picture about motor racing. Clearly, this parchment has never come to light. This of course has not prevented certain ambitious producers from making the attempt, and indeed some efforts have been rather better than others – not however, today’s featured celluloid gem.
Days of Thunder was created by the same executive producer and directing team (Don Simpson/ Jerry Brookheimer/ Tony Scott) that had brought Top Gun to the silver screens in 1986, reimagining both storyline and exposition to an earthbound version of a broadly similar vehicle; this time substituting Nicole Kidman as the requisite, initially aloof love interest, who Mr. Cruise must win over as he battles his doubts and demons. It even came with its own signature power ballad, Show Me Heaven (a worldwide chart smash).
As a box ticking exercise, Days of Thunder was as note-perfect as the estimable Ms McKee on vocal duties, Empire magazine describing it as “a film so thought out, so measured in its shallowness, that it is totally incapable of surprising anyone“. One imagines that it probably bore as close a resemblance to actual stock car racing as Top Gun did to flying fighter jets, but reality doesn’t butter many people’s popcorn.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised, since 1990 was hardly a vintage year in any sense, especially when one considers that the top selling album was that recording artist beloved of many actual racing drivers – Phil Collins’ But Seriously LP. Which links us somewhat clumsily to the announcement that year of Nigel Mansell’s retirement from motorsport; the British Ferrari ace electing to ‘spend more time with his family’. However, having led the press corps a merry dance (for which he was never quite forgiven), he promptly signed a contract that autumn to drive with Williams the following year.
The close of the year would also witness a dramatic act of political defenestration, something Britain’s ruling Conservative Party was rather adept at. The Tories, whose survival instincts habitually over-ride much by way of residual loyalty, ousted longstanding leader and three-time Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher that November, casting a shadow over British politics which shows little sign of abating some thirty years on.
Meanwhile there were cars to review, although 1990 wasn’t all that much to shout about in automotive terms either. Fiat’s only new offering for the beginning of the decade being the booted Tempra, a tre volumi Tipo. Replacing the equally nondescript and equally unmourned Regata, the Instituto I.D.E.A bodied Tempra was pretty much what could be expected given the ingredients. Broadly competent, bland and somewhat soulless, the Tempra not only ticked every box and looked it, but left little that was memorable in its wake.
Ford of Europe’s 1990 contender was no better – indeed it was a good deal worse. The Mark V Escort/ Orion was perhaps the most cynically conceived car ever created by Ford’s Merkenich offshoot. Another box ticking exercise, albeit even less satisfying, both to behold and to drive, the 1990 Escort did immeasurable harm to Ford’s reputation and led to a very hasty re-engineering programme which encompassed an emergency facelift. The ‘Scort V therefore marked a watershed – no more rubbish Euro-Fords. The germ of the Focus programme began here.
Matters were somewhat more measured on the other side of the Atlantic, with the 1990 announcement of the Ford Explorer SUV. Introduced as a replacement to the long running Bronco II model, the Explorer carried over a good deal of the former’s running gear and underpinnings, dressed in a sober, airy, clean-lined three or five door body, both longer and wider than its predecessor. With either rear or four wheel drive and a stump-pulling 4.0 litre version of the Cologne V6 engine, the Explorer was everything a GM and JEEP fighter needed to be at this price point.
Nissan was another carmaker traditionally synonymous with the concept of by-the-numbers car design. Certainly, its European Bluebird midliner, remained a stubborn stranger to the concept of dynamic prowess, being a particularly inert exponent of the breed. 1990’s Primera marked a change in direction, being an all new design, pitched to relative perfection against the European midline mainstream.
There was really nowhere to hide, the Primera, available in four door saloon or five door hatchback looked neat, (if a little characterless to some eyes), drove beautifully and was built to an exactitude that gave the likes of Fiat, PSA and Renault palpitations. Not that Ford, Opel nor VW had much of an answer either. It might not have been the outright class leader in sales terms that it perhaps deserved to be, but in 1990 the Primera was nonetheless a class act.
By the late ’80s Austin Rover’s Metro, already somewhat dated at its introduction was really showing its age against newer, better honed rivals. Lacking the money to complete development of a larger ground-up replacement, the only recourse the troubled carmaker had was to heavily revise what they had. Employing the all-new K-Series engine as debuted in the previous year’s Rover 200, the Metro by Rover also gained a fully interconnected version of Dr. Moulton’s Hydragas suspension system which the Metro ought to have had from day one.
These technical changes, alongside a heavily revised front end, and a new cabin transformed the Metro from also-ran to contender. It also marked a subtle shift upmarket, the new Metro trading on refinement and specification. Build as well, since Rover Group products were notably better wrought by this point. Nevertheless, it could only have ever acted as a stop-gap, so the fact that it ran on for another seven years before dying ignominiously was something of an indictment to successive Rover management.
The same year, Rover Group introduced the 400-series – essentially a booted, three volume version of the well regarded 200 model. By then managed by Graham Day and being groomed for a sell off, Rover was over-run by marketers, who envisaged the 400 as a 3-Series competitor. And while the 416i acquitted itself reasonably well (Car Magazine at one point stating it was the better car), it was rather overpriced for what it was. Still, it ticked at least three boxes and for a time at least, these cars successfully laid a few ghosts to rest.
“This is not a real film, it is an automaton, a pod-movie, and, thankfully, proved the death nail [sic] for such high-concept filmmaking, ” was the damning latterday assessment from Empire of Simpson/ Bruckheimer’s 1990 NASCAR romp. Whether it did or not remains open to debate – it certainly wasn’t all that Far and Away from the eponymous (and equally risible) Cruise/ Kidman vehicle which reached cinemas two years later.
Nor indeed did it deter Mr. Brookheimer (Simpson expired in a cloud of white powder) from his torrent of blockbuster multiplex-fillers. Indeed, one could trace the rise of the whole Fast and Furious franchise upon celluloid hokum of this ilk. Because, as we know only too well from the perspective of 2021, not only viruses mutate.
Continue reading about the class of 1990 here.