1989 was one of the most momentous years in recent world history. The Berlin Wall came down. The Tienanmen Square massacre occurred. Tim Berners-Lee laid out his proposal for the world wide web. And George H.W. Bush was sworn in as President of the United States.
Elsewhere, Eurosport was launched,
Seinfeld premiered, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade topped the box office, Ride On Time by Black Box was the biggest-selling single in the UK and Taylor Swift was born.
1989 was also a pretty momentous year in the motoring world, too. We count 29 cars that were launched onto the UK market that year. Some barely registered on anyone’s radar. Some have become solid-gold classics. One or two even saved the company that made them.
Here’s the gen on all of them.
1989-1999 BMW 8-Series (30,621 produced) The big GT was hyper-advanced for ’89, with an aero-honed body, sophisticated rear suspension and electronically-controlled damping. Power came from a V12 or V8, which increased in size and output over the years. A big, heavy car, so never all that fast and very thirsty. At least the handling was on-point. In all, it was a wonderful, deeply cool thing that somehow never quite hit the spot. Perhaps BMW should’ve built a Mercedes SL rival instead. Neglect, rust and crashes have killed many. Those that remain are undervalued, so a good one could be a smart buy.
1989-2000 Citroen XM (333,405 produced) Replaced the CX and picked up exactly where that car left off. Big, roomy, handsome and very comfortable thanks to hydropneumatic suspension. Frugal, powerful diesels and a cavernous estate added to its appeal. Named European Car of The Year for 1990, but its complexity and doubts about reliability always held sales back. Even so, many racked up massive mileages. As ever, neglect and scrappage schemes consigned many to an early grave. Good ones still a magnificent way to travel.
1989-1997 Daihatsu Applause – An odd one this, an Escort-size family car that looked like a saloon but was, in fact, a hatchback. Utterly conventional and unremarkable in every other way. Well equipped, keenly priced and very reliable, but thin dealer network meant it was never a big seller. According to HowManyLeft.co.uk, just 5 remain on UK roads.
1989-1995 Ferrari 348 (7,125 produced) Replacement for the long-lived 308/328 line of mid-engined V8 sportscars brought an all-new chassis, Testarossa-alike styling and 320bhp. Sounds promising, but many would argue this was Ferrari at its laziest. The ride was hard, the on-limit handling was snappy and the interior was full of Fiat bits. Often beaten by the Honda NSX in group tests. Ferrari turned it around pretty quickly, developing the 348 into the searingly brilliant F355, which launched in 1994.
1989-1995 Ford Fiesta (1,697,000+ produced) Third generation of the best-selling Fiesta featured a brand new platform that gave a more spacious interior and it was finally available with five doors. Massive range meant there was something for everyone and, inevitably, it stayed near the top of the sales charts for all of its 6-year life. It’s just a shame the sporty versions were rubbish. Galloping rust and its throw-away nature mean few are left of the hundreds of thousands sold.
1989-1993 Honda Accord (1,717,208 produced) Fourth generation Accord was all-new, but since its predecessor was already quite advanced, didn’t really move on that far. Regardless, it came with strong engines, was well equipped, handled capably and had plenty of space – especially the Aerodeck estate. It was a best-seller in the USA but a niche choice in the UK, the limited range not helping all-important fleet sales. As ever rust and neglect have claimed most.
1989-1994 Honda Concerto (198,500+ produced) A mid-size family hatch/saloon filling the gap between Civic and Accord, developed in co-operation with Rover. Indeed, in all but minor details, it was identical to the Rover 200 we’ll come to later. Powered by Honda’s own engines, including a 1.6 twin-cam with 130bhp. But this was never a sporting car. Never really caught on with patriotic Brits nor anyone else for that matter. Slightly surprisingly, over 100 are left.
1989-1994 Hyundai Pony – The third generation Pony was essentially a heavily revised version of the previous car. Typified the “worthy but dull” tag with a plasticy interior and boring driving experience. Yet keen pricing, generous equipment levels and an expanding dealer network meant the Pony did much of the groundwork for Hyundai’s success in the 21st Century. The high-spec GSi sold pretty well in the UK but the Pony has all but vanished now.
1989-1996 Hyundai S Coupe – Based on the same platform as the Pony seen above, and used the same Mitsubishi-sourced drivetrains. Not the most stylish of coupes, always underpowered – even in turbo form – and hardly a thrill to drive. But it was reliable. Never stood a chance against the Calibra, Celica and Corrado. Few sold and only 15 left.
1989-1993 Hyundai Sonata (576,833 produced) Sized between the Sierra and Granada and powered by ageing Mitsubishi engines, the Sonata was always going to be a tough sell in the UK. Spacious and well-equipped, but no better than average in every other respect. It did help to establish Hyundai in the States though, explaining how more than half a million were built.
1989-1994 Lancia Dedra (418,084 produced) A perfectly good car in many ways, based on the excellent Fiat Tipo platform. Decent to drive, lively engines and quite well equipped. But it was also built like a Lancia – dreadfully. Lancia already had a bad reputation in the UK for appalling build quality and premature rusting which the Dedra did nothing to counter. Lancia left the UK in ’94. Only a small handful sold and apparently only 8 left.
1989-1998 Land Rover Discovery (392,443 produced) After 19 years of Range Rover production, Land Rover finally got around to launching a car that filled the gap between the luxurious Rangey and agricultural Defender. The Discovery was based on the same chassis, drivetrain and running gear as the RR but carried a more utilitarian body and interior – the latter designed by Terence Conran. It was virtually unstoppable off-road, reasonably refined on-road and massively spacious. Vast numbers sold but the usual litany of rust, neglect and scrappage mean it’s now a rare sight.
1989-1994 Lexus LS400 – Toyota’s effort to build a luxury car as good as any from Europe went straight for the jugular with the LS, a big saloon in the S-Class mould. Exacting engineering and millimetre-precise build quality produced a lavishly-equipped, fine-driving, fast and near-silent machine. It proved just about unbreakable too, some racking up 7-figure mileages. But it had no discernible character. Still, it did the job of establishing Lexus as a serious player, especially in the States. A loyal band of followers developed in the UK and the LS sold reasonably well. Curiously, the LS’s V8 engine is highly sough after by the tuning crowd which has led to many being broken up. With another engine shoved in, the ultra-strong bodyshell has proven to be highly effective in banger racing.
1989-1994 Lotus Elan (4,555 produced) Few sports cars have been as controversial as this, the follow up to one of the greatest of all time, the ’62 Elan. The controversy centred around the FWD platform, but the doubters needn’t have worried as trick front suspension produced amazingly precise handling. 1.6 4-cyl engines, with or without a turbo, came from fellow GM subsidiary Isuzu. The Turbo proved most popular thanks to its considerable turn of speed. But a high price, iffy quality and high maintenance demands limited the Elan’s appeal.
1989-1994 Mazda 323 – Sixth-generation 323 – known elsewhere as Familia – was totally conventional in its makeup, sweet engines and safe handling producing a pleasant if unremarkable driving experience. Three-door hatchback, saloon and estate versions were available alongside the notably handsome five-door 323F. The latter proved to be by far the best seller in the UK and helped establish Mazda as a mainstream brand. As ever, only a small handful are left.
1989-1998 Mazda MX-5 (approx. 400,000 produced) Small sports cars had all but died off during the ’80s thanks to the onslaught of hot hatches. Mazda single-handedly revived the entire concept with the MX-5. It was an unashamed rip-off of the Lotus Elan, but designed and built in the best Japanese tradition. Revvy twin-cam engines and pin-point handling made it a serious performer. It was an instant hit, quickly becoming the best-selling sports car in history. Over a million have been sold over 4 generations. The original is now a copper-bottomed classic and plenty are still around. Despite its world-class ability to rust into oblivion.
1989-2001 Mercedes SL (204,094 produced) Replacing the long-lived R107 SL was a tall order, but Mercedes pulled it off in some style. This R129-generation was a techno-fest with multi-link rear suspension, advanced engines, electronically controlled damping and a pop-up roll bar. It was also the first Mercedes to be fitted with the all-new, buttery smooth 6.0 V12 engine. More of a two-seater GT than a proper sports car, though AMG versions were genuine muscle cars. Like its predecessor it became a classic in its own lifetime, which has ensured good survival rates. Some models are still undervalued but prices are rapidly increasing.
1989-1993 Nissan 200SX (196,225 produced) Nissan expanded its range of sports cars with this handsome hatchback coupe. Conventional in layout and suspension, though the 1.8 4-cyl turbo engine was a peach and it handled accurately. Didn’t actually sell that well at the time, but a flood of ‘grey’ imports came in from Japan during the late ’90s and early ’00s when it was established the engine could be tuned to massive outputs and the chassis lent itself to the emerging sport of drfting. Finding an original, unmolested UK car is all but impossible now.
1989-1996 Nissan 300ZX (164,170 produced) Another handsome hatchback coupe from Nissan, but where the 200SX was pretty conventional, this was a tech showcase. Came with advanced 3.0 24v twin-cam twin-turbo V6, computer-controlled suspension and all-wheel-steering. A heavy car but it was fast and handled well. A rare sight in the UK at the time, though very popular in the USA. Like the 200SX, became highly sought after on the ‘grey’ import market as the 21st Century dawned, as the engine was easily tuned to massive outputs.
1989-1994 Nissan Skyline GT-R – Nissan launched a lot of sports coupes in ’89. The R32-gen Skyline was the most advanced and has become the most iconic. The tech onslaught started with the engine, a 2.6 24v twin-cam twin-turbo ‘6’ pumping out an official 276bhp – more like 320 at least – and continued with computer-controlled four-wheel-steering and four-wheel-drive. Intended to contest Group A touring car racing, it was so successful it effectively killed the category. The tunability of the engine and massive capability of the chassis have become the stuff of legend, and it launched a line of GT-R models that continues to this day.
1989-1999 Peugeot 605 (254,350 produced) Granada-size saloon with handsome looks, fine-handling chassis, soothing ride quality and tough, refined engines. Diesels in particular were remarkably smooth and quiet for the time and capable of racking up massive mileage. 200bhp 24v 3.0 V6 version was an excellent GT, too. But it never really chimed with buyers, least of all in the UK. Those that were sold here often found their way into the taxi trade before being thrown away. Just 35 are left.
1989-1996 Proton (484,600+ produced) The Malaysian marque arrived in the UK offering this reheated early ’80s Mitsubishi Lancer. Mediocre in every way, but it was very cheap and much better made than bargain basement rivals like the Lada Samara and FSO Polonez. Proved to be pretty tough, making it popular with taxi drivers – particularly near the importer’s base in East Yorkshire – and latterly with banger racers. Sold pretty well in the UK but only a very small handful still exist.
1989-1993 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit II (2,810 produced) A comprehensive round of updates turned the Silver Spirit – launched in ’80 – into Silver Spirit II. More power was released from the engine (c.240bhp), ABS and adaptive damping was added, along with a raft of updates to exterior and interior trim. Much better handling than you’d expect but not exactly fast and build quality could be patchy. Much less expensive rivals like the S-Class, 7-Series and LS400 were far superior in every way, but they simply didn’t feel as special.
1989-1995 Rover 200 (708,003 produced) Developed in conjunction with Honda (see Concerto) this was a very big deal for Rover. Available as 3- or 5-door hatch, convertible, coupe, saloon or estate – the latter two badged 400. Huge choice of Rover and Honda petrol engines and ultra-frugal Peugeot diesels. 220 Turbo was immensely fast, even if the chassis couldn’t really cope with the power. Huge choice of trim specs, too, running from spartan to luxurious. Handled neatly, the interior was spacious and it was very refined. Sold extremely well but rust and banger racing has claimed most. This writer actually had one as my first car in 2004 – a ’94 214 SEi 16v 5-door in Nightfire Red. I loved it and I’d have another, if only I could find one.
1989-1994 Subaru Legacy (476,980 produced) Subarus had previously been idiosyncratic farmers’ cars but the Legacy took Subaru into the mainstream. Elegant styling and up-to-date tech combined with traditional four-wheel-drive and boxer-4 engine. 197bhp Turbo version set Subaru on the path to WRC domination. Most often seen in estate form and, in the UK at least, it remained very popular with farmers. Most worked into the ground and they rust as vociferously as every other Japanese car of the time, so now a very rare sight.
1989-1993 Toyota Celica (425,628 produced) Fifth generation Celica retained much of its predecessor’s underpinnings and wrapped them in a love-it-or-loathe-body. Most were sold with a zingy 157bhp 2.0 16v twin-cam engine. Turbo’d GT-Four version topped the range and dominated the WRC through the early years of the ’90s. Never sold that well in the UK and not many left.
1989-1997 Toyota Land Cruiser – With this 80 Series generation, Toyota moved the Land Cruiser away from its utilitarian roots into Range Rover territory. It could hold its own against the Brit, too. Physically vast with space for up to 8 passengers, big 6-cyl petrol and diesel engines gave strong performance and the on-road handling was excellent too. Off-road, it was at least as capable as the Rangey and – crucially – it was totally reliable. Sold in massive numbers to Australian outback farmers, Middle Eastern oil barons, Texan off-roading enthusiasts, London fashionistas, insurgent armies and the UN alike.
1989-1999 Toyota MR2 – All-new second generation MR2 came with more modern looks, greater practicality, less spiky handling and a bigger turn of speed than the original. The Turbo version was never available in the UK but 2.0 16v twin-cam engines gave enthusiastic performance. Some reviewers though it too soft but that didn’t put off legions of buyers. Though high price meant it was a relatively slow seller in the UK. As ever bad mods, trackdays and rust have killed most of them.
1989-1996 Volvo 440/460 (609,815 produced) Based on the same platform as the earlier 480 coupe and using the same Renault engines, the 440 hatch and later 460 saloon took the idea of a smaller, FWD Volvo into the mainstream. No better than average in the mid-size repmobile class, nevertheless it was spacious and well equipped. But it was very ugly and the Dutch factory never built it properly. Electrical issues and rampaging rust consigned most to an early grave.
I1989-1992 Yugo Sana – As with its previous cars, Yugo took a box of excellent Fiat bits and ruined them. The Sana used the chassis, engines and suspension of the Fiat Tipo and dressed them in a rather smart body penned by Giugiaro. But the build quality was terrible, the handling was wobbly and the ride was harsh. The ugly Yugoslavian civil war closed the factory and consigned the Sana to obscurity. Sold in tiny numbers in the UK and it seems to be extinct on the road – 6 are on SORN, apparently.
Check out our gallery of All The Cars of 1976
Images via Favcars.com; statistics for UK survivors via Howmanyleft.co.uk
By Graham King