The late Len Frank sat on Playboy’s automotive expert poll panel for several years during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Here’s his view on the state of the automobile in 1990.
1.HOTTEST UNDER 20K
I like the Corrado because it’s not made in Japan and the Swift GTi because Suzuki (and Porsche, who did the suspension) got it nearly right. Great fun, great gas mileage, and embarrassingly good performance. Kind of a born-again Mini Cooper.
The Swift is one of the great bargains an undiscovered car of our age—you can actually buy two of them for twenty grand from one of Suzuki’s sniveling franchisees, provided you can find one still in business.
The Corrado has that slight element of difference that can only come from being conceived in a vacuum like Wolfsburg. I like the way it looks, I like the harsh suspension, the tight (for me) seats. The engine still needs help, so does the quality control. Sticker against sticker, the Corrado, compared with the Diamond Star coupes or the 240SX 16V, for example, makes not much sense.
2. HOTTEST OVER 20K
How can you even ask. Hands down, the NSX. There isn’t even a second place. The Dodge/Mitsu is what I’ve come to expect from the Japanese—a nicely assembled collection of features but somewhat short of a car, certainly the pride of the Gadget of the Month Club .
If someone, twenty years ago—hell, ten years ago—had told me that in 1990 Porsche would be making replicas of their own 1963 design, that Lotus would be building the world’s most expensive ten thousand dollar car, and that Honda would be kicking ass in Formula One and building the car that Ferrari, Porsche, et al, should be building, I might have decided that I was in the presence of someone truly deranged. So much for my abilities as a seer.
3. MOST FUN TO DRIVE
The G20 is a nice-handling no-torque wonder; the Quattro suffers from that same lack of torque but at least isn’t a family sedan.
The 318 is what all BMWs (except the M-Cars) have been since the 320—cars for profilers, the followers, the one-step-behind the trendy, still with trailing-throttle oversteer and moderate performance and interior space. The Alfa 164 is a very nice car with almost nothing that I would go to an Alfa for—if people bought cars objectively (may it never happen), no one would ever buy one of these.
The Porsche 911 Turbo, is, as I said above, a bad taste, hi-tech replica of the old 901. One would have thought that with the best design team in the world Porsche might have been able to do something a bit more adventurous. The MR2, though certainly a nice enough car, still suffers from the same confusion of thinking, the same lack of focus, that has affected them for years. Rumor was that the final suspension tuning was done by their legal department. Which leaves the NSX (again).
4. BEST CAR FOR YOUR GIRLFRIEND
I don’t know about your girlfriend, but my girlfriend bought a Miata. The Capri is a sedan with the top cut off (nice top and boot though), the MR2 is OK but smacks too much of Fiero and Dino 246 and what I think of replicas should be clear by now. I haven’t driven the Saturn yet but my lady friend would call it “boring.”
The Celica is nice too, civilized enough, middle class. The Isuzu is merely new. There hasn’t been an Isuzu sold in this country since the Bellet that was in the least interesting. The Reatta is very nice—a step up from OK. It’s what all of those blue-haired ladies in Beverly Hills that bought 450SLs probably should have bought—except that Buick didn’t build it then.
5. HIGH END WHEELS
I had to actually bite my fingernails over this one. I finally decided that the only solution would be to own a MBz 500E and an NSX. I, mean, there are times when one needs a back seat or the local constabulary are looking for the little car—four door Benzes, are, after all, invisible in soCal.
6. BEST CAR TO TAKE TO YOUR HIGH SCHOOL REUNION
I have never been to a high school reunion but all of the cars that you have in your list are for an arriviste. I, on the other hand, have made not arriving nearly a religion. So if I owned an NSX or a 500E I wouldn’t bring it. Since I’m from Youngstown, Ohio, current home of the Avanti, I thought that maybe a clapped out ’63 Studebaker Avanti might be appropriate. Or maybe the `56 Porsche coupe that I used to flee to California all those years ago…
7.MOST LIKELY FUTURE CLASSIC
The NSX again. It is my fervent hope that people will tire of just owning cars and want to start driving them again. It’s what cars were meant for. It’s nice to go places in them.
I understand that when Ferrari prices started to fall dozens of orders for 348s were cancelled. It seems that they were only ordered for resale. The Lambo (Countach) only went up in price because of the shortage of Ferraris and an excess of bad taste. The Elan is a joke. An original Elite, certainly, but a plastic Isuzu…
I think Range Rovers are neat. Maybe it’s Spence King (the original chief engineer) who is neat but it’s the only one of the whole sort-of-macho 4wd group that is good to drive, good to ride in. And even at forty grand it’s less overpriced than a converted pickup truck at twenty-five.
The AWD car would have to be either an Audi V8 or an MBz 4-matic.
9. NIFTIEST NEW FEATURE
We’ve been messing about with automatic gearboxes since the 1940 Olds but the Tiptronic is the first one that doesn’t trade the virtues of a manual for pure sloth and an atrophied left leg.
10. MOST IMPROVED
Wait a minute: aren’t the Buick, the BMW, the Caprice, new, new, all-new cars? The Porsche actually is, so is the 348 (sort of). What about the Mustang? Quietly, inch by American inch, the Mustang 5.0 has been transformed from the most lackluster, lowest-common-denominator, Fairmont-based, Iacocca-blessed “sporty car” of the late ‘seventies into a real car. Not sophisticated but great for the buck, great for satiating torque hunger.
11. 4 DOOR UNDER TWENTY
I haven’t driven the Saturn, but, just a little chauvinism, a little jingoism… The Escort, the Protege, the Legacy, all very nice but, the Saturn is from by-God Tennessee. The Legacy (Japanese 4-cam 16V) if we leave out the red-white-and-blue.
A toss-up between the Geo Metro Convert and the Reatta. The Geo is actually a little shitbox but I enjoyed it anyway. It’s a better highway car than I expected it to be, doesn’t handle well in the same way a Sprite didn’t handle well. Nimble, cheap, a throwaway but more fun than I had expected.
The Reatta is much more a real car. It’s not good enough for all the bucks but it’s still pretty nice. What I’d really like is a cream-colored `48 Roadmaster (pre-Rainman) or a 57 Century. Never mind.
13. BEST OFFICE
I’m not sure why anyone would like to roll an office but I’d have to choose the Chrysler T&C on the basis of internal volume and the improved interiors. Not too bad to drive and there’s room for the fax and a copier. Or how about a Synchro Vanagon with a 3.9 liter Oettinger flat six in it?
14. BEST AMERICAN
I really like the Chevy/GMC full-sized pickup. Handling and ride are un-truck-like, you can see where you’re going, and what could possibly be more American?
Make mine a Fleetside long cab in a non-metallic color with a 5.7 Corvette engine, a 4L80E tranny, and decent tires. I don’t care if they don’t build them that way—they will for me.
15. BEST SEDAN
The 500E has everything that I want in a sedan except for its Becker radio. I wonder if the one from the NSX would cause the Bosch electrics to hemorrhage.
Top image: 1990 Acura NSX (photo courtesy of the Honda Motor Company)
The late Len Frank was the legendary co-host of “The Car Show”—the first and longest-running automotive broadcast program on the airwaves. Len was also a highly regarded journalist, having served in editorial roles with Motor Trend, Sports Car Graphic, Popular Mechanics, and a number of other publications. LA Car is proud to once again host “Look Down the Road – The Writings of Len Frank” within its pages. Special thanks to another long-time automotive journalist, Matt Stone, who has been serving as the curator of Len Frank’s archives since his passing in 1996 at the age of 60. During the next few months, we will be re-posting the entire collection of “Look Down the Road”, and you’ll be able to view them all in one location under the simple search term “Len Frank”. – Roy Nakano