By on February 25, 2014


Courtesy of TTAC reader Bryan comes these photos from the 1989, 1990 and 1991 Chicago Auto Shows. A truly glorious era of cigarette advertising in motorsports, interesting concepts from Mitsubishis, plastic paneled import fighters and a body-on-frame small block sedan crowned as Car of the Year. Cars may get 5-stars in a crash test, 30 mpg on a highway and put down low 14 second quarter mile times for $25,000, but that doesn’t mean we can’t lament how much more soulful they used to be.

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64 Comments on “The Chicago Auto Show Wayback Machine...”

  • avatar

    The very early 90s was an interesting time for cars. There were older models from the 70s still around and newer models that would soldier on well into the 2000s.

  • avatar

    Those photos were amazing for two decades ago. I love the 10 grand price on the Subaru as well; that buys an A/C-less Versa today.

    • 0 avatar

      You must consider inflation, and that the minimum wage in 1990 was $4.25/hour.

      • 0 avatar

        And the fact that the Subaru probably didn’t have airbags, let alone the other safety equipment in today’s cars. I just love pictures of older cars back when they were brand new. Like, with dealer badging and all, and the old style dealerships (ex. Pictures of Bill Heard franchises when they were still open).

        That picture of the c. 2003 Mazda dealership Cameron posted today was beautiful. The MPV ES in the front should be mine.

  • avatar

    The 88 Thunderbird Turbo Coupe. My favorite. I will own a 5 speed one of these days. Never cared much for the MN-12 birds but I have a soft spot for the fox body aero birds.

    And I remember a three year old Subaru SVX on the showroom floor at my Subaru dealer being sold as new. I liked them, most did not.

    Also have a soft spot for the first gen Saturns. I had 2 new ones. They were solid but it has been some time since I have seen one that didn’t look like it was ferrying product fem a Meth dealer’s place. Cant remember when I last saw one of the 2 doors.

    What is that long 4 door. Looks like a Mazda…I see some of that generation RX-7 in it. Is this the stillborn Amati that was supposed to be Mazda’s Lexus?

  • avatar

    Mazda used to have the Serenia, Savanna, Millenia, Cosmo, Precidia, Mystere, Familia / Protege, Lantis, etc. Names mostly forgotten by now I guess (is the MX-5 still called a Miata here?).

    Old cars were more soulful partly because they had real names, not just some alphabet soup identifiers (those were usually reserved for concepts and supercars). They also weren’t just the same body shape in different sizes for any particular line-up.

    Ah the good old days when the world still had some money left. Just as I type this I’m listening to my 25 year old Sony ES Audio setup from the late 80’s. Just dripping high quality and honest designs with most things back then.

    • 0 avatar

      To be fair, it was the MX-3 Precidia, MX-5 Miata, MX-6 Mystere, 626 Cronos, 929 Serenia, and the RX-7 didn’t have a name, while the Protege had no code name post-323. I always found it kind of odd that Mazda used to give its cars both alphabet-soup and honest-to-goodness names.

      Regarding the Miata: when the current NC model was introduced, Mazda dropped the Miata monicker in attempts to butch up the car’s image along with its newfound more aggressive styling. A few years later they brought it back, and the car is now officially the MX-5 Miata in North America.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m surprised you’re still able to use the Sony ES. None of my Japanese integrated amplifiers lasted beyond 15 years. The amp section itself was fine, but it was the switches which got bad, with lots of intermittent static coming from the increasingly unreliable source/loudness/tone bypass switches. That sort of defeated the inherent goodness of a toroidal power supply. My component radio and first high end tape deck died much sooner. My 20 year old JVC tape deck was still going strong but I donated it last year since I don’t even own cassette music anymore.

      • 0 avatar

        I have a CDP-707ESD CD Player (remote control variable volume) going straight into a TA-N77ES Power Amp so I don’t have a pre-amp. Both manufactured in 1989 and still working perfectly fine. When I walk into a HiFi store these days (there’s one still around in Downtown Toronto called Bay-Bloor Radio), they sell these pricey components that are 4 digits in price but the construction just screams **cheap**. Kind of like cars these days where regardless of price, the design and build quality just ain’t the same as they used to be.

      • 0 avatar

        Got a Technics SU-7600 integrated amp that I bought in 1976, still going strong and gets used regularly.

      • 0 avatar

        You might have been able to revive it with some Deoxit cleaner. I’ve had pretty good luck reviving old electronics with a good cleaning and the occasional recap.

      • 0 avatar

        The oldest component in my home audio system is a Fisher FM-100S tuner that I got from my late Uncle Floyd, who bought it in the early 1960s. Other than a sticky power switch, it still works fine and I live in a neighborhood that is a radio and tv antenna farm with massive amounts of radio frequency interference (so much so that all the car companies and their vendors test electronic gear around here). The rest of my stuff dates to the 1980s and 1990s and works fine: an Adcom amp, an MSB DAC, a Nak cassette deck that hasn’t been used in years, a Reference Line “preamp” (it’s a passive device) and some homebrew speakers using Focal, Dynaudio and Morel drivers with a crossover by Madisound. The last piece of equipment that I had to replace was a beloved Rotel CD player that stopped reliably loading discs. I replaced it with a Panasonic dvd player that sounds fine.

        Old stuff can still sound fine, though those cheap “tripath” amps are very impressive for the price. I may get one to use as a headphone amp for my Stax electrets that need to run off the speaker terminals (I’m already using all the amp outputs for biwiring the speakers).

  • avatar

    What is that long, low, silver 4drsedan?

    Damn, it’s a Fisker from 25 years ago.

  • avatar

    The last car is a Subaru RX 2 door 4WD coupe! I think about 2600 were imported over ’88-89. I used to own a black and gold ’89 version for a year in 1998.

  • avatar

    Nice attention to detail on the wheels for that ford concept. If there was any reason to logically explain that, it’s pretty stupid anyway.

  • avatar

    Having always considered the Caprices of that era ugly, and the BMW 7 series the most masculinely handsome sedans ever, I can’t believe I thought I was looking at a 7 before clicking on the pics.
    I loved those years. While I never cared for the Testarossa (it would take a much better design to succeed the Boxer Berlinetta), the NSX made up for it. 270 hp never bothered me.
    The colors were pretty intense. The Countach is so red, it looks like a Chinese knockoff.

  • avatar

    “Lamborghini – A Chrysler Company.” Wow, now there’s a flashback. How many of us could have imagined back then that the shoe would later be on the other foot in the sense that an Italian car maker would own a formerly bankrupt Chrysler? Or, for that matter, that both Chrysler and Lamborghini would both have some measure of the life sucked out of them under German ownership?

  • avatar

    I am missing the “more soulful” part.

    I’ll bet that if you took selects from the last three years of Chicago, you would end up with a set at least as good. We have the Corvette, Nismo GT-R, Challenger, new Mustang, Ferraris, McLarens, SLS Black, and more. They may not have all debuted at Chicago, but in 20 years, people won’t care, and they will likely be more impressed by them.

    As far as concepts, the Cadillac Elmiraj, the Toyota iRoad, and the Honda FCEV concept are at least as interesting as any of the concepts in the photos – and that’s just from 2014.

  • avatar

    The only Chicago auto show that means anything to me is the one and only one I went to, 198-something, that featured a green and yellow Lotus Esprit that they actually let the kids play in (no velvet ropes). To this day my favorite “exotic” and I’m a lifelong potential customer because of it.

  • avatar

    ~ 1990 – Lake Forest Sports Cars is showing Ferrari at the auto show.
    2014 – LFSC (Rick Mancuso) still showing Ferrari’s at the show.


  • avatar

    Is the Nissan Z-Car the one currently owned by Adam Carolla?

  • avatar

    MT Car of the Year was domestic only for a few decades. So, such “luminous” designs like 1997 Malibu and 1983 Alliance won.

  • avatar

    Wow, quite a flashback. I was at at least one or two of these shows — not sure exactly which years I was there.

    To save everyone else the searching, the maroon car with the wheel skirts is the 1989 Cadillac Solitaire coupe, a coupe follow-on to the Voyage sedan the year before. Quite striking, and the Voyage really seems to have set a lot of Cadillac styling trends for the ’90s (for better or worse).

  • avatar

    I don’t know what’s worse- that LeSabre or the lady in the picture with it.

    Caprice was Car of the Year? I’ll be damned. Half a million “cabbies” can’t be wrong.

    I drove a burgudy Caprice Classic just like that, with that same (very 90’s, might I add) burgundy/maroon interior. Always a good time driving the smokey burn-out machine.

    When Saturn first came out, although I was a child, I was always intrigued by them. They were quirky/unique vehicles. Kind of like an American version of Saab. The SL2 and SC2, I believe if memory serves correctly. The infamous “Twin Cam” in bold letters on the rear taillight panel. Just different and cool for the time.

    Great snapshots… but.. no pictures of the GMC Cyclone or Typhoon? Did I miss something?

  • avatar

    That Chrysler concept is stunning. They could’ve beaten Mercedes to the 4-door coupe punch by more than a decade. The interior was a total disaster though, as you would’ve expected from Chrysler then. With the round grill, it almost looks like somebody took Audi’s Rosemeyer concept and left it out in the sun to melt.

  • avatar

    Fun! Thanks for the pictures. I recall some of those at the Denver Auto Show I went to back then.

    And to think, a big, American rear wheel drive was car of the year.

  • avatar

    Like the black jacket, it has to be pleather.

  • avatar

    Ah, the famous Mitsubishi built Indy Pace car that never was. As I recall, people objected and Chrysler ended up making the Stealth the “Official Car” but transferred the Pace Car duties to the then new Viper.

  • avatar

    There are K-KARS on the show floor. I repeat, K-KARS on…

  • avatar

    I don’t know about the production cars being more soulful, but the concept cars of the 90’s were infinitely better and more numerous. The 90’s really seemed to be the decade of the concept car where every manufacturer would trot out several at the big auto shows.

    Disappointment always ensued when the production versions turned out to be severely modified and watered down.

    • 0 avatar

      The 1980s were good as well. When I was making a cardstock model of the 1982 Ford Probe IV; I had pictures of it up on my computer screen. My older son walked in and thought it was a modern concept; he could not believe it when I told him it came out over 30 years ago.

  • avatar

    Ewww, what soul? They all are plastic craptastic. When plastics were still brittle and not a very good substitute for alloys. Combine with those transverse GM V6 engines and grenading steering racks, it’s all bad memories for me. Plus, that smell of jeans, $100 leather jackets from your local mall and hair products. No, thanks.

  • avatar

    Anybody know what that red roadster is with the license plate “PYTHON”?

    Also, I just KNOW I have more of these. The Miata, the Vector, the Viper, the Geo Storm GSi…. All the pictures are somewhere.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I guess I’ll be That Guy and point out that there was no real interest in Ford sending that Saguaro to production since they didn’t even bother to have the hub caps point in the same direction.

    • 0 avatar

      It was fine in Europe, but something went wrong during the trip over the pond L0L

    • 0 avatar

      They look just like the plastic hubcaps on my Taurus, except the holes are not cut out and they have opposite sets; the ones on my Taurus are all the same.

      It is also missing the Taurus wheel covers. Methinks the hubs caps fell off or were removed at some point, and someone did not pay attention to what they were doing when they put them back on.

  • avatar

    Especially enjoyed the NSX display!

  • avatar

    God, I loved the Pontiac Stinger. Over a decade ahead of its time on the outdoor/active-lifestyle CUV niche… it really gave me hope that GM was finally getting serious about new, modern ideas for the 90s (despite the Iron Duke and 3AT on the concept)

    When the Aztek debuted, I felt like there was a slight bit of Stinger DNA in its appearance, but it was clearly just more of the same from GM. I’m not one of those people who pin the Aztek as the Worst Car Ever, just that it really could have been something far better if indeed the Stinger was part of the equation to begin with.

    14 years after the Stinger, Honda sort of ran with the idea of a neoprene-and-rubber AWD modular utility box with the Element, but unfortunately they phased out both the neoprene and the rubber towards the end of production (plus, as far as I can tell, Elements are only popular here in the NW, everyone else seems to hate them with Aztek-grade hate).

    About the same time as the Stinger, Nissan threw out a similarly cute/quirky little pickup concept called the “Gobi” (not to be confused with SNL’s “Adobe”). It was less about pickup machismo and more a study in simple utility mixed with 1989 kandy kolors. It was a big hit at the shows from what I recall, and I hoped it signaled an coming modernization of the compact pickup. Nope.

    It was a great era for concept cars…

  • avatar

    That base model Saturn SL1 sedan? I still wonder the logic of letting Saturn rot for most of the late 90’s early 2000’s.

    • 0 avatar

      AFAIK there is not a single reason for doing so but there were several contributing factors:

      -Saturn was the brainchild of Roger Smith who left in 1990 just as the brand came online.
      -Saturn was never accepted by most on the GM board at the time.
      -Saturn was seen as a threat by the more established GM brands.
      -Saturn drew resources away from other GM brands and budgets in order to develop its own unique models.
      -Saturn body panels were very expensive and complicated to produce.
      -GM lost money on every Z-body Saturn from what I have read.
      -The cars gained a reputation for burning oil early on.
      -The cars had very cheap interiors, perhaps too cheap given the competition.
      -Most of the competition in the 90s were building truly excellent small cars, not merely “acceptable” ones.
      -Gen 2 cars were notorious for problems with power windows and locks.
      -GM failed to properly capitalize on the real love of the uniqueness of the brand, and instead began selling copies from other GM brands as early as summer 1999.

      I’m sorry I don’t have more citations for these points, its more stuff I have picked up over the years about Saturn.

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks 28 , So it wasn’t my imagination that my 1987 Accord LXI was superior interior wise to my GF’s 1994? Saturn (even though it had leather interior) that was about 10 years ago.

  • avatar

    I love the white wheel covers on the sub $10K AWD Subaru.

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