Cowland on Cars

Why ’90s Machinery Is the Absolute Classic Car Sweet Spot

by Paul Cowland
6 February 2024 4 min read
Why ’90s Machinery Is the Absolute Classic Car Sweet Spot

The 1990s were a great time and brought us many wonderful things. Whether you yearn for the pocket pet that was the Tamagotchi, or the baggy apparel of Joe Bloggs, or you simply enjoyed the wonderful act of burning your own music CD with your favourite Spice Girls tracks, then you too will be missing this exciting time.

Sadly, I can’t really bring any of that back. I mean, when was the last time you even saw a laptop with a CD drawer? What I can do, however, is direct you to a wonderful world in the present day where you can own a car from the 1990s. And, seeing as I have been doing quite a lot of miles in machinery from that era myself, recently, I can vouch that it’s probably a great place to spend your hard-earned cash. Oh yeah, cash. We were all about that in the ‘90s. None of this contactless rubbish or bank transfer. If you went car shopping, you took a bundle of notes.

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The good news is, you shouldn’t need too many bundles today. In most cases. These pre-millennium masterpieces haven’t yet reached the heady heights of their ’80s counterparts, or been hit with too much ‘scene tax’, meaning that if your budget can only stretch to a grand or two, then you should still be bringing something pretty cool home. Don’t believe me? Well, my current winter squeeze is a slightly careworn and dented but low-mileage Volvo V70 that I picked up for the princely sum of £200, and parked next to that, as I type, is the ultimate rarity that is a 1998 Subaru Legacy 2.5 4 Cam saloon. Rare in its day, and down to double figures now, this low-owner, low-mileage and fully serviced gem emptied my account to the tune of £1850. If you want a reasonably sensible car from this time, the chances are, you can probably afford one.

Ford Mondeo
This guy gets it.

Cars of the 1990s are also incredibly simple to fix and maintain compared to modern motors. Except the BMW 850i, which has been known to equal the debt of a small country to repair and is, therefore, perhaps to be approached with trepidation. Whereas even the simplest of current machinery will probably have several ECUs, body control modules, CAN-BUS, integrated electronics, and all manner of electrical systems, cars of the late ’90s generally made do with one or two control units, a very simple traction control, and if you’re buying something mid-range or upwards, perhaps an airbag or two.

Enough to keep you out of mischief and protect you if it all goes wrong, but not the kind of complication that can see an otherwise sound car getting scrapped simply because a few boxes and wires decided they’d had enough. Many of my learned mechanical chums tell me the sweet spot is around 1997–98. Broadly speaking, cars built up until this time are pretty much ‘socket-set fixable’ in the case of most maladies. So, if you’re up for a spot of Sunday tinkering and bill saving, these are very much your jam.

Mercedes Benz 250d
W124 Mercedes, also acceptable. (Edwin Remsberg/Getty Images)

Because of these modern day touches, many cars from the mid-to-late-’90s make exceptional dailies in 2024. Think of cars like the W124 Mercedes, the aforementioned Volvo, and maybe even more mundane rarities like the Ford Mondeo. All of these brilliant cars can be easily pressed into service as daily drivers, meaning you can get your classic fix every morning and still get to work on time. All of them will live happily on the motorway, return reasonably sensible MPG, and best of all, not lose any money. A level, well-historied 1990s Mercedes is probably never going to be worth less than you paid for it today, even if you choose to drive it to the moon and back for the next 10 years. They’re simply that good.

It even stacks up when you go for the next service. Tyres are smaller – and cheaper. So are brakes, pads, filters, plugs. Everything is spectacularly inexpensive, particularly if you buy quality pattern parts, meaning you can affect a major service for just a few hundred pounds, and even less if you do it yourself. Which, as we’ve already established, is an entirely pleasant way to spend a driveway-bound Sunday morning.

Perhaps the best part of ’90s car ownership is the styling. It was a heady era for design, and even run-of-the-mill brands like Vauxhall were kicking out svelte coupes like the Calibra. Ford countered with the Cougar. Toyota fired back with the Celica, and before you knew it, everyone from Volvo to Rover had a coupe in the line-up. Or maybe you’d prefer a wacky looking SUV like the Frontera Sport or RAV4? Nope?

Maybe an executive barge like an LS Lexus or E38 Beemer is more your vibe. There’s nothing I’ve mentioned so far that you couldn’t get a fairly reasonable example of for under five grand, and if you can stretch a little higher, perhaps you might strive to own one of the very best of its kind. These cars really haven’t hit their stride yet, financially, but rest assured they will. And if the music stops and you’re sitting on one of those firm-but-comfortable Mercedes chairs when it all goes quiet, you’re definitely winning.

Nobody knows what the future holds for us motorists. Will we all be whizzing around like the Jetsons in our green-but-soulless EVs? Or will a Mad-Max resistance-style band of us have a few old ’90s gems stashed in the garage, looking for those last few fuel stations to sell us the remaining illicit litres of Super? Or – best of all – will we all have cracked the synthetic fuel conundrum and be razzing these cars around as the potential iceberg saviours they might possibly be? After all, if you can drive a car that is almost infinitely repairable, and it hardly emits anything from its tailpipe, then what could be more environmentally friendly than that?

Until then, and while fuel is a mere £1.35 a litre at my local fuel station, let’s enjoy these wonderful old cars for what they are. Be they unexceptionally ordinary, or radically different for their time, (there are shows for that) they each epitomise the period perfectly. And ask yourself the question… Would you rather spend £300 on a lease car that you’ll never own? Or the same amount fettling, improving and upgrading a ’90s car that you can keep forever, and might even make a few quid on when the sun sets? You know my answer, and I’ve already booked the 4 Cam in for a seeping cam cover gasket next Tuesday with the money I’ve saved.

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  • Richie Hamilton says:

    Just took my sentiments 100% and described how I feel about this. My pride and joy is a 2004 V70 – yes it’s an early 00s granted but the S80 on which is shares pretty much everything appeared in 1998 and the concept Volvo ECC appeared in 1992 which went largely unaltered and became the S80 (minus the gas turbine and peach interior colour scheme!) I’ve had so many 90s cars – Focus, Puma, Mondeo, 206, Xsara Coupe, Laguna, Clio 2, Hyundai Coupe mk1, V70 P80 like yours.. all brilliant in their own way. My first car was a Nova and preceded a few 740s too.
    I can’t stand all this blatant greenwashing of EVs and being sold an absolute lie and old cars made to look like the criminal. Sustainability and minimal environmental impact are the key and EVs are 100% NOT. I mean, my V70 is a 2.4 petrol automatic and ULEZ compliant… go figure. I’m with all my fellow petrol heads who love and will not give up our ‘old’ cars!!

  • Peter Cole says:

    This article smells just like my e36 318i. Bought new by a doctor in November 1997 for £19888 and delivered in March 1998, according to the original sales invoice. The car was then passed down to his neice in 2016. I drove past it in 2021, down a little country lane in East Sussex with a ‘for sale’ sign in the window, sat growing moss on her driveway, where it had been stood for 6 months. £300 and 192 miles later I was back home with every invoice, tax disc and mot certificate in a great big folder. It’s been my daily commuter since and just ticked over 104,000 miles, 17,000 of those in my ownership. Good car.

  • Peter ALLAM says:

    ’15 02 24, Consider myself fortunate after reading this. Have a run-out 13 plate Suzuki SX4 Auto’ bought with 600 miles on the clock during 2014. First ones appeared circa 2005 – everything is do-able. Original Iridium spark plugs still good at 75000 miles & showing OK on OBD device, Air filter can be vacuumed ‘clean’ again, engine oil & filter changes £25 or less via ‘net purchases. Ave 43 mpg to date after 10 years ‘low profile’ motoing, Rear tyres approaching 40000 miles. Ogriginal Exhaust system remains OK too. EVs will become futute Edsels ! Would appreciate an Article on Best Headlamp Bulbs . . .ý

  • Chris says:

    I have a 2001 MGF Trophy and a 2919 Jag XF. Whilst the Jag is a lovely car, I know which one I love driving the most. The MG has low tech, simple controls, does not keep flashing messages up and beeping at me when I drive. Pure driving pleasure. Cheap to fix any problems as well. Now my 1970’s MGB is even easier !!

  • Alan says:

    Imported my 1991 Nissan terrano 1 from Japan in 2002. Still going strong. The odo broke about 9 years ago on 380,000. Bullet proof 2.7 d with a gear driven camshaft (no belt or chain) same engine as the last black cabs and all those cabstar trucks. Infinitely weldable body on frame chassis (which is the only work she’s had apart from service consumables)
    The only electronics are transistors, the radio and the voltage regulator.
    But my Terrano is technology laden compared to my mk3 Hilux, where even the voltage regulator is mechanical.
    Plus, of course, pre mid 90’s diesels, especially all the commercial based 4x4s have mechanical injector pumps with prechamber engines – none of this common rail direct injection stuff – so run unmodified on veg oil. The fossil fuel apocalypse may be coming but I’ve not seen, even on the horizon, a ban on fry ups…..

  • jonathan smith says:

    I had a 1999 volvo V70 2.5 tdi with 80k miles on the clock which I sold to a colleague and within 3 months he had crashed it, I had I for 5 years but is now sitting waiting for repair, so sad.

  • Gillian Courage says:

    My daily driver this winter is a 1990 XR4X4. Bought in the summer with less than 70,000 miles it’s cosmetically lovely. A new clutch and a thorough service later, I’m having a great time with it. Modern enough to be comfy through the frost and rain but no audible reminders of seat belts etc. It’s big enough to be very practical but small enough to exit in a supermarket parking space. I think there’s a profit in it but I won’t be finding out for a long time yet.

  • Chris Boll says:

    I have thought that 90s cars were the best for a long time, they had everything you need, nothing you don’t.
    Such as simple fuel injection, power steering, on a larger car, Airconditioning, central locking using a simple key.
    ABS sometimes, always a proper spare wheel, and a CD or tape player.
    And a simple bumper not a plastic eggshell full of sensors on the front.

    But no fancy exhaust cleaning and sensors to go wrong, maddening warning bleeps, tyre pressure monitors and crazy touch screen controls.

  • Jeffrey Izzo says:

    Great article that I couldn’t agree more with! The 90s were surely a sweet spot — still classic and with essentially mechanical components, with a minimum of electronic aids, and just enough safety kit for peace of mind. And they were built with structural integrity! A modern MB for instance is tinny feeling, with hard plastics and super light power steering. Nothing like a W124!

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