27 Favorites: The Cars That Made Me Love American Cars – Part 1, 1990-2000

(first posted 5/10/2017)     Many of you, our loyal readers (and writers), are older than I am. Most of you grew up in North America. Your formative automotive experiences are more likely to have involved lusting after 1960s GTOs and Mustangs, and having a Nova or a Chevelle as your first ride. I was born in 1990. Some people would have you believe nothing interesting was built after 1990 (or 1969). And yet, there were quite a few cars that ignited my interest in American cars and kept it burning.

While I’ve briefly lived in the U.S. and will eventually live there again, I’ve spent most of my life thousands of miles away in Australia. My formative years occurred during a time of tremendous upheaval and unrest for the Detroit Big 3, a time when many American cars were roundly mocked for being underdone. It seems an odd time to gain an appreciation and a passion for American cars but, well, here we are.

You would never see a car with a shape like that of the Oldsmobile Aurora (#1) come from an Australian factory, or a German one. This 17-foot-long torpedo is far and away one of the most adventurously-styled American cars of the past three decades. To a young boy who knew little about the American auto industry, there was something rather incongruous about such a futuristic, exciting car wearing a dowdy nameplate like Oldsmobile.

When I was older, I learned about the Aurora’s Oldsmobile-exclusive, Northstar-derived V8. When I was older still, I learned about that engine’s so-so reputation for reliability. But nothing has dimmed my feelings for the Aurora, a car I believe is the second most beautiful Oldsmobile ever made (after the ’66 Toronado).

The Aurora looked very different to its predecessor, the Ninety-Eight (#2). Despite this, I liked the ’91 Ninety-Eight and I remember from a young age becoming very fond of the Oldsmobile marque, later being saddened when GM axed it. Chevrolets always seemed plain to me, Pontiacs garish and Buicks so, well, geriatric. And though many people prefer the look of the ’91 Park Avenue, which shared the Ninety-Eight’s platform, the Oldsmobile looked so much more exotic to me with its upright lines yet rounded corners. Not knowing the history of the brand and its glory days back in the 1970s, Oldsmobile was an enigma. What was it? Why were some of their cars so old-fashioned and some so radical? Evidently, I was just as confused as the market.

It was that confusion that sealed Oldsmobile’s fate. I recall being quite an angry tween when I read Oldsmobile was being shuttered, so soon after it launched the second-generation Aurora (#3). Sure, it didn’t look as exciting as its predecessor but it was handsome inside and out – a look that has aged well – and it was available with the new 3.5 “Shortstar” V6. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough.

Ford considered replacing the Aussie Falcon with the Taurus in the early 1990s. Am I glad Ford decided against it? You bet, and my later purchase of an ‘04 Falcon – a far, far superior car to the ’04 Taurus – is proof of that. And yet, Ford did end up bringing the radical ’96 Taurus (#4) here as a niche, fully-loaded offering. It was this ovoid Taurus that was the object of my automotive affection throughout my childhood and teenage years.

To this day, I still find these to be a ballsy and daring design. It helped, too, that the Taurus wasn’t actually a bad car. Aussie buyers stayed away in droves, of course, as it was priced smack-bang against the local Fairmont Ghia. However, once it became clear the Falcon was here to stay for another decade, automotive journalists were relatively complimentary of the American mid-sizer even if was less powerful and roomy than the Falcon. As it was one of just a handful of American cars sold here in the 1990s – a small assortment of mostly Mopar vehicles – the Taurus was one of the first American cars I was exposed to. And I wanted one, badly.

Ford wasn’t the only automaker putting out large, futuristic-looking sedans, as Chrysler had launched their LH cars in 1993. Their radical, cab-forward stance was a dramatic change from their predecessors’ boxy conservatism and the second-generation LH cars were even more futuristic. If you had told 7-year old me that Chrysler was the same company selling Dodge Dynasties just a few years before, I would have been incredulous. The mid-late 1990s were the height of Chrysler cool from the Neon to the Viper, Prowler and Ram. The most impressive of the second-generation LH cars was the Chrysler 300M (#5).

With shorter overhangs front and rear, the 300M was designed to be sold in European markets but sadly no RHD ones. These were more than just a pretty face. With the most powerful V6 in the segment – putting out the same power as the Aurora’s V8 – plus Chrysler’s AutoStick, these were pretty exciting for a big, FWD sedan and they swept the awards circuit. To a kid, these were just more proof Chrysler was an exciting company, at least for the time being.

Growing up in a land of four-door sedans, the concept of a personal luxury coupe seemed to me like another extravagant American excess. Aussie automakers had produced only one, the 1973-76 Ford Landau. No American personal luxury coupe of the 1990s seemed more extravagant to me than the Lincoln Mark VIII (#6). Here was a two-door coupe longer than even the longest of Aussie sedans, with a 4.6 V8 engine, air suspension, a sumptuous and futuristic cabin and rounded, sculpted styling. I knew then and I know now that these are a classic and something I’d like to own someday.

The MN-12 Ford Thunderbird and Mercury Cougar (#7) that spawned the Mark VIII were almost as impressive. It was commendable that Ford sought to make a home-grown RWD rival of sorts to German luxury coupes – complete with all-independent suspension and an optional supercharged V6 – and yet sell it for roughly the same price as more plebeian FWD rivals.

One of my earliest video game memories and my first exposure to Cadillacs involved racing through San Francisco in a Cadillac Eldorado ETC in Midtown Madness 2. The 1992 Cadillac Eldorado and Seville (#8) were, to my eyes, beautiful luxury cars both inside and out. The Seville, in particular, looked more modern than its German rivals and more athletic than its Japanese ones. The FWD layout was a handicap in the luxury sector but these cars – particularly in STS and ETC trim – comported themselves quite well dynamically and were propelled rapidly by the new Northstar V8.

Seeing a car in a video game is hardly comparable to seeing one in person, as I was able to with the next-generation of Seville (#9). RHD Japanese-market Seville STSs wound up in Australia and when I was older I contemplated buying one, even if parts were going to be expensive. The first V8-powered car I ever drove was an ’03 STS that I took for a test drive. Although my drive was brief, I was impressed by the smoothness, power and refinement. The interior quality wasn’t great and these were surprisingly cramped for such large cars, but I was still tempted.

What we consider a full-size in Australia generally equates to a mid-size in the US. So, traditional full-size American cars like the Chevrolet Caprice and Impala SS (#10) seemed inordinately large. In the 1990s, you couldn’t watch a single American TV show without seeing a Caprice taxi or police car but that still didn’t prepare me for how large they actually appear in person, particularly the wagon. And the ’77 B-bodies were downsized large cars? Then again, we are talking about a country where, up until recently, most police cars, taxis and delivery vans had a V8 under the hood. Thanks to TV, the Caprice became a familiar sight and I daydreamt of pursuing criminals in a Caprice in the old bright blue NYPD livery.

If I had been born 10 years earlier, I might not have had as much interest in American cars. I would probably have read about K-Cars and GM’s cookie-cutter boxcars of the 1980s and been thoroughly unenthused. But instead, I was born in 1990 and some of the first American cars I saw pictures of were the first-generation GM W-Bodies (#11). As a child, I loved collecting “normal” Matchbox cars and reading reviews on regular family sedans—no Ferraris or race cars for me. So, I pored over photos of these humble mid-sizers and liked what I saw and the variety offered.

GM had actually bothered to differentiate each of the four W-Body lines, both visually and, to some extent, mechanically. Again, it was the Oldsmobile I was drawn to, particularly the gorgeous – yes, I said gorgeous – pre-facelift Cutlass Supreme coupe. Consider as well that the concept of GM having so many brands was so radical to a young Australia. Here, GM and Ford had one brand each. And over there was GM of North America, fielding four separate mid-size cars that all looked different from each other. There’s also something bizarrely appealing about the Lumina Z34, with its sporty aspirations and body kit and yet old-school interior design and recognizable Chevy design cues.

No, it wasn’t big-block V8s and pony cars that opened my eyes to the world of American cars. Instead, it was an assortment of mostly front-wheel-drive sedans. Over time, I’ve come to learn a lot more about these vehicles and yet they are still cars I’d happily have in my garage today—even a W-Body, properly specified of course.

So, to those of you from a different generation, was I a crazy kid for liking these? And for those of you my age, what American cars got you interested in the Big 3?

Related Reading:

CC Capsule: 1996-97 Ford Thunderbird LX – Counterpoint

Curbside Classic: 1991 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight – A Sad End To The Oldest Oldsmobile

Curbside Classic: 1998-04 Cadillac Seville – The FWD Sport Sedan’s Last Stand

Curbside Classic: 1992-97 Cadillac Seville – A Forgotten Contender