The 1990s is not remembered as a particularly stylish decade. The 90s may have launched Britney Spears’ pop career, as well producing two of the most enduring sitcoms of all time in Seinfeld and Friends, but it also saw some serious style mistakes in the shape of oversized jeans, platform shoes, chokers, overalls and lots and lots of plaid!
And it wasn’t just in the shopping mall where there were some questionable design features on show. The automotive industry also had more than its fair share of moments to forget during the 1990s. Too many old and out-of-date features persisted in many 90s cars, although this decade did at least see off some of the worst design hangovers from the 1970s and 1980s. The race to introduce new technologies into our cars also saw some auto manufacturers just miss the target when it came to features that would last the distance.
While we may feel nostalgic for long-forgotten car features like the pop-up headlight, manual windows, and wooden panels, the truth is that no motorist wants to go back and drive a 90s car – unless they have a passion for bland design. Drivers have some of the most innovative engineering at their fingertips in the 21st century, as well as some of the most impressive hi-tech features to make driving not only safer but also more enjoyable.
As if pop-up headlamps weren’t fancy enough, the 90s brought us perhaps one of the strangest auto features ever created – the headlamp wipers. No-one would deny the importance of windscreen wipers, both front, and rear, so perhaps some misguided designer came to the conclusion that they couldn’t fail to be a success, no matter where on the car he stuck them?
Given that headlamps work perfectly well in wet weather, there was no practical reason for this feature, and if it was an aesthetic choice, then it was certainly an odd one. Hardly surprising that these have disappeared from our cars.
While windscreen wipers for your headlamps now seem like a ludicrous idea, at least whoever was behind this next long-forgotten car feature only had our best interests at heart. While many states dragged their feet over introducing such laws, car manufacturers like Volkswagen and General Motors, started to build cars with seatbelts that would automatically fasten when drivers and passengers got into the front seat, reducing accident fatalities.
Automatic safety belts fell out of favor in the mid-90s, when the law in the US changed to make it mandatory for all new cars to have airbags, and a cultural change in attitudes to road safety means they have never enjoyed any kind of comeback.
Dual fuel tanks were an unusual feature, available in several US-made models during the 90s but which we are unlikely to see making a comeback. As the name suggests, cars with dual fuel tanks could literally carry double the gasoline of ordinary vehicles, with drivers able to flick a switch to move between gas tanks when they started to run out of fuel.
Ideal for those who drive long distances, but not exactly an environmentally-friendly option for 21st-century car makers, who are focused on developing new hybrid and electric vehicle technologies which could soon see gasoline become obsolete altogether.
It may seem quaint now, at a time when everyone seems to have a smartphone in their pocket, but once upon a time, the humble car phone was considered the height of hi-tech cool. First made popular by yuppies in the 1980s, it wasn’t long before ordinary drivers were also taken with the novelty of being able to make and receive calls from their car.
Of course, now we can not only make calls but search the internet, use our phones as navigation systems and even record and broadcast scenes from our journey. The humble car phone now seems like a relic of a bygone age.
Manual window handles are another relic of the early 1990s which are unlikely to make a comeback. Drivers and passengers are not far too used to being able to open and close their car windows at the touch of a button, or even to control the windows in the rear of the car from the front; much more convenient than having to pull over to roll them up yourself!
Power windows were invented in the 1940s when General Motors developed a hydraulic system that could control windows and convertible roofs, but they weren’t widely installed in vehicles until the 1980s.
Many cars in the 1990s had seats which were made of cloth, rather than the leather upholstery of most modern vehicles, along with thick carpets. Designed for comfort, this style certainly looks a little dated now and was far from impractical. Stains and odors would be much harder to get out of such thick material, and the plush carpets would trap dirt and dust, meaning that owners had to put in a lot more time when it came to keeping the interior of their car clean.
Hardly surprising that modern car designers have switched to leather or leatherette, or even thinner fabric for their seats.
Convertibles have always been popular, with both car manufacturers and drivers, and over the years there have been many variations on the same theme. One which was relatively common from the mid-1970s until the early years of the 21st century was the T-Top, which as the name suggests, was a convertible with a permanent pillar through the middle of the open roof, creating a T shape when viewed from above.
Perhaps the most popular T-Top car, however, was the 1968 Corvette, which was the inspiration for vehicles like the Pontiac Firebird, Chrysler Cordoba and Ford Thunderbird which followed a decade or so later.
Side mirrors have been around since the very early days of automotive engineering, although for many years, cars only had one on the drivers’ side of the car – simply because most lanes were only single carriageway, and therefore motorists had no need to see what was approaching them from behind on the passenger side. They remain an important safety feature on 21st-century cars, though they are predominantly placed at the corner of the windscreen, not on the car’s hood or fender, as was the case with some 1990s models.
They were particularly common on cars made in Japan, where side-mounted mirrors came in handy while negotiating the country’s often narrow city roads.
Over the decades, car manufacturers have managed to come up with some creative ways for us to get into our vehicles. From the iconic vertical lift doors you often see on sports cars, to the very unusual canopy doors, which require the vehicle’s whole roof to lift before the driver can get in, there have been many different designs over the years, including the rear-hinged back doors which were more prevalent in the 1990s.
Nicknamed suicide doors, as they were perceived to be less safe than the conventional front-hinged design, this is one design feature that hasn’t been seen on US roads for years.
The car tailfin had been around for years before the start of the 1990s, but this was the decade when this iconic feature finally disappeared from US-made cars. Most often seen on the large sedans which US auto companies made in the 1950s and 1960s, the tailfin feature on vehicles began to grow smaller and less ostentatious throughput the 1970s and 1980s, until by the time the last decade of the 20th century started, they were so subtle that many drivers didn’t even notice they were there.
The 1999 Cadillac Deville was perhaps one of the last cars to sport a set of flamboyant tailfins.
There is perhaps nothing more annoying than drivers who fail to turn down their full beam headlights in the face of oncoming traffic, blinding other drivers and putting all road users at risk. To be fair, many are probably trying to use their dimmer switch, but cannot get to the lever in time!
In 1927, the first car with a dimmer switch on the floor was introduced, allowing drivers to turn down their full beams much faster – although this also inadvertently created a hazard whereby motorists might accidentally hit the brake or accelerator! The 90s was the decade when, like the tailfin, floor-mounted dimmer switches all but vanished from our cars.
Few 21st-century cars come without air conditioning as standard, and it is a godsend for any motorists who live in hot climates. Auto companies have not always been so concerned about their customers’ comfort, however, and the widespread installation of air conditioning systems is a relatively recent phenomenon.
Before air con, travelers simply had to rely on open windows for fresh air, and the triangular-shaped wing windows or vent windows at the front and back of the car were particularly useful in creating a cooling flow of air through the vehicle – although it paled in comparison to a hi-tech air con system.
Wood panels are often, though not frequently, found on station wagons – a style of car which is itself something of a historical phenomenon now that motorists are turning to SUVs or luxury cars. This is certainly a design feature which instantly dates any car to before the millennium, and although wood panels were still a common sight on the roads in the 1990s, they are more associated with some of the other worst elements of automotive design from the 1970s.
If you yearn for the decades that style forgot, it is possible to get fake wood paneling for modern vehicles…
Power antennae and even car antennae, in general, is another feature which motorists left behind in the 1990s. Drivers whose cars had regular antennae would often find they had been snapped off or bent by some local vandal, which led the development on antennae which emerged only when required.
While many drivers listen to their own tunes or favorite podcasts through connected smartphones, many drivers still listen to local radio, mainly for the traffic reports and news. However, motorists are increasingly switching to digital radio, as the analog signals picked up by antennae are starting to disappear from the airwaves.
Bench seats in the front of cars are another design feature which began long before the 1990s, but which died out around the turn of the century, and which has now been almost entirely replaced by the more familiar model of two separate seats for driver and passenger.
Initially, bench seats were chosen because they were cheaper, but the influence of European car designs in the post-war years soon changed that, and there were also safety issues with bench seats following the introduction of airbags. Some pickups still have bench seats in their cab, though these models are few and far between.
Sunroofs were an almost ubiquitous feature on cars built in the 1980s and 1990s, providing both natural light and a little extra ventilation on those non-air-conditioned vehicles! Few modern cars now have a sunroof, as the 21st-century style is for panoramic windscreens, which not only offers natural light but also a better view of the road.
There have also been cases where sunroofs have exploded without any explanation, covering the occupants with glass. If you really miss your old sunroof, it is possible to get one installed into a newer car, although that too comes with its own added complications!
Lighting up has generally become less socially acceptable, and that includes in cars, where many manufacturers have ditched the old ashtray in favor of a more useful feature like a cup holder or a receptacle for loose change. The same goes for the lighter, which in recent models was more likely to be used to charge electronic devices, thanks to a special adapter.
Even that use has fallen out of fashion, however, as more and more cars are including USB ports as standard, allowing drivers and passengers to charge their cellphones and tablets directly, without needing to use the energy from a heated filament.
Hubcaps are one part of the car which has changed a lot over the last few years. Nowadays it seems that most drivers prefer barely-there designs, often made from expensive alloys which help to reduce the weight of the car, improving speed and performance. This is a relatively new innovation, however, and in the 1990s it was only the very rich who could afford such designer features.
Most ordinary motorists had to make do with heavier steel hubcaps which covered the whole of the center of the wheel and were definitely designed to be functional rather than aesthetically pleasing.
There are still a few drivers who remain devoted to their CD players when they want to listen to their own tunes rather than the radio, but most drivers of new cars have now gravitated to using in-car infotainment systems, which can connect tour smartphones and electronic devices, and play our own customized playlists.
Before the iPod, the only way to ensure you got to hear a wide variety of tunes was to install a CD changer in the trunk, which could hold several CDs at one time, and help to create a random but limited selection of top tunes.
Once upon a time, features like pop-up headlights were considered a sign of a high-end vehicle; although by the end of the 90s they appeared on so many budget cars with pretensions of grandeur that any cachet you got by popping your headlights as the light dimmed had long since disappeared.
While they may conjure up images of the 1990s and 1980s for many motoring aficionados, the history of the headlamp goes back a lot further – to the 1936 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900A Ferrari Berlinetta and the Cord 810 built in the same year. However, they haven’t been seen on a new car since 2004, when production on the Lotus Esprit came to an end.
Sources: Driving Line, Techwalla, Japan Times, Hub Nut, Car Keys