Anniversary Waltz 1990 – Rubbin’ is Racin’

High concept. Low expectations.

Cole Trickle aka Tom Cruise from 1990’s Days of Thunder. (c) Radio Times

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.

Fiat Tempra. Image: Motortudo

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.

Maybe try the horse? 1990 Escort. (c) Honestjohn

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.

1990 Ford Explorer. (c) Car and Driver

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 Primera: http://www.picautos.com

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.

Metro by Rover. (c) Auto-forever

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.

Image: Rover Group

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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

24 thoughts on “Anniversary Waltz 1990 – Rubbin’ is Racin’”

  1. Luckily, 1990 wasn’t all bland – the NSX was released that year, and so was the toyota Previa, BMW 8 series, and the mitsu 3000GT – all rather interesting cars i would say.
    Also, noteworthy bland cars include the first gen Elantra and Clio!

  2. Good morning Eóin. Another thoughtful and thought provoking retrospective, thank you.

    Your juxtaposition of the Escort MkV and Primera P10 is very striking. Nissan, so long a maker of reliable but dreary looking cars with indifferent handling, finally hit the target dead-centre (although it was not widely enough recognised and appreciated by the car buying public, at least initially). Ford, master of cheaply engineered and built but attractive looking cars that were at least ok to drive (with some being a great deal better) produced an absolute turkey that was, inexplicably, a great deal poorer dynamically and a spectacular miss in design terms.

    If the Primera revealed that Nissan was learning how to do better and capable of putting that knowledge into practice, then what did the Escort reveal about Ford? What happened in its development to make it significantly worse dynamically than its predecessor? Was it a result of cost-cutting? Even that wouldn’t explain its terrible styling, since an ugly car costs as much to build as a handsome one. Did nobody park a prototype next to the Mk4 model (itself a zero-gain facelift of the Mk3) and make a comparison? I would love to have access to the records within Ford concerning the MkV’s development to see how it was justified. Maybe that’s worth a DTW investigation?

    As to the Rover 400, it was a good car, like the 200, but it marked the start of a period of self-delusion about where Rover stood in the automotive pecking order, and we all know how that ended. Likewise, the ‘Metro by Rover’.

  3. I’ve driven this generation of Escort. That’s about as much I want to reveal here. I’ve also driven the Primera P10. My uncle had a 1.6 (SLX trim I believe) in red metallic with alloy wheels. It came with airconditioning as standard, which was quite a thing back then.

    I didn’t think much of it at first, but boy, was I wrong. One day my uncle and aunt went on holiday and I had to drive them to the airport and pick them back up in the Primera. What a total joy to drive that car was. The steering, the chassis, gearbox all wonderfully weighted, mechanical yet smooth. I think the Mondeo and 406 were seen as benchmarks those days. I’ve driven them both, but I preferred the Primera by a considerable margin. If only cars of today could feel like that instead of the numbness most of them seem to possess nowadays.

    1. I loved that Primera, probably it was less expensive than a VW Golf already.

    2. How does the Primera score against the 406, in particular? I drive a 406 1.8 manual and the car is a delight. There´s nothing seriously amiss in its execution and there´s a lot right in the ride, handling and general comfort. The biggest single niggle is the glove box lid is a bit heavy (that´s a niggle of tiny dimensions) and maybe the exterior detailing around the bumpers to body is not as refined as it should be. But other than that, it´s a really excellent set of well-judged compromises. It´s not that I don´t believe you, rather I am curious as to how to better the 406 without making some paremeter worse (mostly cost, I would assume).

  4. How nice to be reminded of the original Primera (was it really 30 years ago?). My father was one of the development engineers for that car and the standards of quality Nissan demanded of it were astonishing. Probably one of the best constructed mass-production cars ever made.

  5. The Escort V is comfortably the worst car I have ever driven. It nearly killed me too – taking a corner at moderately enthusiastic speed (no quicker than I would have done in my usual, and comparable wheels at the time, a base model Golf C), the Escort understeered horribly across the centre of the road and into the path of a car coming the other way. Fortunately, some very forceful wrenching of the wheel enabled me to drag it back on course before we collided.

    Truly, a horrid, cynical car.

    However, even more ignominious was the Ford Explorer, which actually did kill people. Ford blamed Firestone for defective tyres that suffered tread separation at high speed. Firestone blamed Ford for recommending dangerously low tyre pressures, in a fateful attempt to compensate for the poor handling of their vehicle.

    At least Ford learned lessons from these debacles. They needed to.

    1. Jacomo: I had considered including a reference to the Explorer/ Firestone scandal but held back for two reasons. Firstly, it’s far too involved a subject to precis in just a few lines, and secondly, it didn’t seem to greatly affect the first generation model (which was the subject of this review) – most of the issues seemingly occurring to later generation models. Nevertheless, it was an episode which reflected very badly upon all concerned. No doubt about that.

    2. Hi Jacomo. I had a similar experience when a colleague and I rented an Escort Mk5 shortly after it was launched, at Edinburgh Airport for a Scottish business trip. It was so difficult to drive smoothly on twisting roads that my colleague thought my driving was at fault. It was only when we swapped seats that he realised how terrible it was.

  6. One can’t help but notice today the distinct lack of love for the Tempra. ; the picture gives it a look of a snooker player about to pot the yellow due to all the other colours being obscured. I genuinely have no recollection of seeing one in the metal. The escort and Nissan sold but as for this particular Fiat, did it? Ever?

  7. In the 90s there was an early Primera on the company fleet, but it was the eGT with 150 bhp. I was thrown the keys one day to taxi someone to the airport, a 120 mile round trip. At low speed you noticed the ergonomic shortcomings, and the fact that it shook the fillings out of your teeth. When you hit the highway ( there was nothing remotely like a motorway in them days ) you forgot everything except how wonderful the engine and chassis were. That was the highest speed I ever have or ever will drive.
    Years later I tried to buy a five-year-old cooking version that suited my budget, but the windows didn’t work and there was rust in nasty places so I moved-on.

    1. I do recall seeing Tempras in the wild in period,but it’s been a long time since the last sighting. Is that your own 406 visible in the background in the 2016 piece, Richard?

    2. it is indeed. It´s a poverty spec base model with manual transmission, no driver´s armrest, cloth seats (good) and steel wheels. There´s nothing essential missing though. In a perfect world it´d be bordeaux or almond metallic green or even light metallic blue. It even looks good in light metallic grey. The dark metallic black is very dreary.

    3. It’s a tribute to the completeness of the 406’s design that it looks good in both light and dark colours. Such a shame that 90%of all cars sold now are in one of forty shades of metallic grey or dark blue. Not that I can complain too much, as the three cars I have owned have been silver, black and navy. I did test drive a pearlescent white W204, but apart from the fact it proved the conventional wisdom about MB manual gearboxes to be correct, I decided it would fit better into Dubai than Dublin. So I’m as unimaginative as all the other buyers (sigh!)

  8. The Tempra gets a lot of oh-hum these days for looking bland, but I think it’s a case of not being photogenic. I still remember the excitement when I saw two pre-production Tempras dashing past on the motorway in my native Venezuela, the strong tropical sun dancing over the sharp, dramatic surfaces of both of them. This was early 1990s and I had only seen the Tempra in maybe a couple of small magazine pictures. This was also the time I was handed down my dad’s 1988 Fiat Regata 2000, so to me the Tempra was the modern version of my “new” car. A car by the way, also criticized for being bland. I never thought The Regata looked bland, maybe because in Venezuela it was sold with the rorty DOHC Lampredi engine (except for the auto version with had a 1.5 SOHC), first with 1600cc displacement and then as a proper two litre, a combination only sold in Venezuela and Argentina and not in Europe. To me the Regata always looked quite smart, especially the restyled version from 1986 on. Could it be one of the few times a Fiat restyling improved the original?

    Back to the Tempra, when it finally came out first as a 1.8i and then as a 2.0i top-kit version and I could study its design, I was convinced it was one of the coolest mid-size 4-doors sold in the admittedly small Venezuelan market. The pointy low front with the steeply raked windscreen and bonnet and that pert tail, so perfectly proportioned. With the standard low profile wheels (for the time) it looked quite rakish, at least to me, and definitely when compared with the way more popular yet way blander Toyota Corolla that was being sold there at the same time. The Toyota being much more popular though, on account of its legendary reliability, which poor Fiat could only hope to match back then. Although compared to my Regata, the Tempra felt much more solid, at least when slamming doors at the dealerships!

    1. César: I think you make several valid points. Taken in isolation, the Tempra looked pretty cohesive for a hatch to saloon conversion. It was only when looked at in comparison to some of its European rivals that this impression faded somewhat. It was up against some pretty formidable opposition, and it isn’t necessarily revisionism to say that it came up somewhat short.

      I would also agree that the facelifted Regata was an improvement. Normally larger, squarer section bumpers lend an often unsavoury heaviness to a design, but here they give the Fiat midliner an added gravitas. Quite an expensive makeover as well, given that new door skins came as part of the package, but yes, bucking the Fiat charter to some extent.

  9. Tony Scott’s work typically left me underwhelmed, so Days of Thunder proved a rule, rather than being an exception to me. His ‘artsy’ debut, The Hunger, set the tone insofar as its unbearably self-indulgent with its beautiful, yet meaningless visuals. Future Younger Scott pictures kept the sleep appearance, but traded in pretentious pseudo-thoughtfulness for fast, loud action.

    With regards to ’90s action movie character names, Cole Trickle gives Kit Latura and Ray Quick (both played by Silvester Stallone) quite a run for their money.

  10. Another chewy mix of cars to reconsider, thanks. I think I have said before that I was/ am a fan of IDEA’s Tipo and so am not averse to the Tempra, although there were so many better saloons at that time, I can’t imagine ever thinking of buying one.

    Rover Group got too clever-clever for their own good by ‘Roverising’ the very intelligently upgraded Metro and trying to convince people that the R8-400 was a BMW-level premium car, nice enough car though it was in isolation. Funny how Car’s editorial team at the time allowed itself to be convinced, as they also were about the 600, which I remember they also raved about at launch (and it was also a clever restyle of it’s donor European-spec Accord), overlooking the limited range of engines, body styles and overall differentiation from the cheaper Accord.

    I recall someone writing how, at its death, they were amazed/ appalled by the (large) size of MGR’s marketing department given the obvious state of everything else about the company that had been ravaged by the ‘Phoenix’ management team – MGR’s senior team obviously hoped that the heft in marketing could overcome all other areas of weakness, but they forgot that ‘Product’ is perhaps the most fundamental of ‘P’s’ to a car making/ selling business.

    1. I quite liked the Tipo, too, after having one for a week while my company Cavalier had it’s boot straightened out following an attack by a Renault 5 Turbo. Was that really 30 years ago? And I note that Inspector Montalbano’s Tipo seems to keep going forever…
      Dead right about MG Rover.

    2. Hi S.V. That’s true about Car Magazine getting swept along in the hype surrounding Rover in the 90’s. The Accord on which the 600 was based was at least as nice looking:

      If I were to be critical, it could without that vertical panel gap beneath the rear light clusters, but it would probably increase the cost of the rear quarter panel pressing significantly. In any event, it was a nice enough design for Jaguar to copy it for the XF Mk2!

  11. I agree that generation of Accord was a nicely resolved car, but I do think the reskin to make the 600 deserved the acclaim (sorry!) lavished on it – it really did manage to look a cut above most of its class rivals. Somehow Rover never quite managed to apply the formula quite so successfully anywhere else.
    The great pity with the 600 was the lack of follow-up: there was little, other than the 2.0l turbo, to maintain interest in the range as it aged. I read somewhere that the Honda licensing agreement restricted development. I almost hope that is true, as otherwise the lack of coupé and estate bodyshells is inexcusable. Surely those would have generated a lot more sales for a lot less cost than than squeezing a rwd floorpan and a V8 into the 75 did a few years and owners later?

  12. Thanks Eóin. I guess what I like the most about the Tempra is that fourth window just before the back pillar and how its lower edge rises dramatically to meet the tall boot, its height being further reduced visually by the rear lights being perfectly shaped and positioned. The dark grey trim on the body and straight, geometric features keep the Tempra solidly in the era before organic design, which I prefer too.

    As for the Regata restyling, I wonder why Fiat went to all that effort and cost for such a comparatively low volume model, especially when they were still in the tail end of their horrible dark grey plastic restyling era (remember the poor Autobianchi A112 ?). I mean, you mentioned the door skins, but the restyling also brought bespoke door handles (I believe) and rather nicely shaped rain gutters. Someone high up in Fiat must have liked the Regata even more than me!

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