Today’s new vehicles have impressive arrays of features and technology, and in many ways, the cars we drove as recently as the 1990s seem a world away from them.
So if you were taking the wheel for the first time back then, then these details will probably ring some bells.
Trunk-Mounted Multi-Disc CD Changers
The single-CD player certainly represented an advance in car audio, but you needed a Trapper Keeper full of CDs to enjoy a range of music. As they did for the home, multi-disc CD changers allowed audiophiles to cycle through six or more CDs. By the late 1990s, even a factory head unit had integrated controls for a CD changers, but in the early days, you had a remote control that would invariably get lost in that “cargatory” area between the seat and the console.
The other issue was that once you opened the trunklid, slid the door open, and ejected the CD magazine, those would probably be the last six CDs you ever put back there. You can only hear so much of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream.
For the aftermarket industry, it was “Peak Stereo.” Pretty quickly, the MP3 player and the smartphone surpassed even the most ambitious CD changers.
For the unwashed masses that didn’t have the scratch for a CD changer, or even a single CD player, you were stuck with the Discman Car Kit. It featured a portable Discman, a power adapter, and the second cousin of the cassette-into-8-track adapter, the digital signal-into-cassette adapter.
Early CD players were prone to skipping when jarred by the footsteps of a ballerina in the next apartment building. “Electronic Skip Protection” circa 1990 allowed for about three seconds worth of buffering, which was completely inadequate for car use. The example pictured has 10 seconds ESP, which dates this kit to the early 2000s, before “skip free” buffer length came along, just in time for fully digital music storage to replace the CD.
As a stopgap between three-second and skip-free buffering, some car kits came with a wobbly spring-loaded platform the Discman was supposed to ride on. It took up approximately half your dashboard and provided a .000374 percent improvement.
These days, you can’t let a kid over the age of 12 out of the house without a smartphone. In the 1990s, especially if your parents were paranoid and had money, you had a gigantic phone in a bag. Phones like the Motorola 2900 weighed about as much as a car battery and came in a vinyl bag about the size of the one Aunt Esther used to clock her brother-in-law upside the head.
Everything Was Teal
It seems like all cars now must be clad in one of three approved shades of silver, but in the 1990s, by order of the Federal Government, all cars had to be offered in a range of teal. Ford seemed to capitalize on the theme, offering the color in everything from the cheapskate Ford Aspire to the Aerostar minivan. It seemed like paint guns for 1990s two-wheel-drive Ford Rangers were all set to some shade of teal.
Neon Pulse Stripes
This single vehicle has three signs you learned to drive in the 1990s: It’s Teal. It’s a Geo. It features a Neon Pulse Stripe. It couldn’t be any more 1990s if it was Jennifer Aniston’s haircut.
You Were Excited For the New Beetle
By the close of the 2000s, we’d all seen what the New Beetle had to offer. It was an economy car for people who didn’t particularly want to be seen driving around in a Civic, but they were so common that the novelty had completely worn off.
$0.99 Per Gallon
Gas was relatively cheap for most of the 1990s, but for the week of May 15, 1999, it dipped below the magic number of $1 per gallon, nationally. It was the last time the price of gasoline dropped that low.
If you had to cart your friends somewhere, you could do it with the change in your ashtray. What’s also interesting is that it was the closest the nominal price of gasoline ever came to the inflation-adjusted price of fuel.
For example, in 1931, the price of gas might have only been a quarter, but adjusted for comparison to today’s dollar, that’s $2.65 per gallon, a real stretch for Depression-era America. The inflation adjusted price of gasoline in 1999, though, was just $1.48, making all the money you made on that dot-com stock feel even more substantial.
Pay Before Pumping
Pull up a chair, young folks, and we’ll tell you a wondrous tale of a time you had to make two trips inside the gas station to get the guy to turn the pumps on…
Yes, there was a time — not all that long ago — when you couldn’t buy gas at the pump. You had to walk inside the store, often in the pouring rain, and hand the guy at the counter cash or a credit card. He’d then turn the pumps on, and if your fill-up was less than the $20 bill you left with him, you had to go back inside and get your change.
The very idea of paying at the pump didn’t come along until 1986 when Mobil started offering the feature at its pumps. In 1994, on 13 percent of all filling stations in the United States had pay-at-the-pump technology. By 2002, that number rose to 80 percent. Today, only the states of New Jersey and Oregon mandate full-service pumps where an attendant makes the transaction.