8 Cars That Were Illegal … Until Now

General Motors

Source: General Motors

For those of you who don’t remember it the first time around, here’s what 1991 in America was like: While the Persian Gulf War happened, Whitney Houston sang the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV where the Giants beat the Bills by one point. Nirvana’s Nevermind drove the final stake into hair metal’s sleazy heart, the Rodney King beating kickstarted a national conversation on police brutality that would result in riots a year later, and the Twins won the World Series, beating the Braves in seven games. Mike Trout, Super Nintendo, the World Wide Web, and Comedy Central were born, and Miles Davis, Dr. Seuss, Freddy Mercury, and the Soviet Union died.

If you were born in ’91, congratulations, your insurance premiums are likely going down a bit, and it’ll be a lot easier for you to rent a car. But this year is a big one for everyone regardless of age, because cars built in 1991 are now 25 years old, which means forbidden fruit we couldn’t get our hands on back then is now legal to register and drive this year in the U.S., according to the NHTSA.

Back in The Year Punk Broke, these imports (or lack thereof) either couldn’t pass safety or emissions standards, or a combination of the two. Now they’re just a money transfer and a shipping container away from your garage. And while we had to reckon with Chevy Corsicas, Ford Tempos, and Plymouth Sundances on home soil back then, the rest of the world was up to some pretty interesting stuff. So while this is by no means an exhausting list, here are 10 cars we couldn’t have in 1991 that we’d love to take on a nice, long, legal drive in 2016. 

1. Nissan Figaro

nissan figaro

Source: Nissan

Japan caught retro fever long before the U.S. and Europe did, and arguably the best of the breed is the 1991 Figaro. Based on the Nissan March/Micra chassis, the Figaro had the early-’60s looks of the Datsun Fairlady with the convenience of three-point seat belts, a cassette deck, and a retractable top. Only available for one year, they proved to be so popular that buyers had to enter a lottery for their cars. Nissan built 20,000 of them, and while they were a JDM-only model, they’ve since become popular in the UK and Canada. It may not be fast, but we’d love to have a Figaro in our dream garage.

2. Honda Beat

Honda Beat

Source: Honda

We rejoiced back in 2000 when Honda gave us the S2000, a spiritual successor to the S600 roadster of the 1960s. But a closer descendent to that car was the 1991-’96 Beat, a tiny, Pininfarina-designed mid-engined roadster that makes the Miata look like a Cadillac Coupe de Ville in comparison. With its 660 cubic centimeter inline-three, it won’t win any drag races, but with its go-kart-like handling, it’ll carve corners like nobody’s business. Like the Figaro, JDM fans in Canada have had a 10-year head start on importing Beats, so there are already quite a few cars and resources on our continent.

3. TVR Griffith

TVR Griffith

Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images

An icon of the British cottage sports car industry, TVR is set to return in 2017, and while it hasn’t unveiled a final design yet, its entire 250-car first run is already sold out. TVR had already been off America’s radar for a while when the ’91-’02 Griffith came out, but its 240 horsepower Rover V8 made the one-ton car one of the quickest and best-handling cars in Europe. Gearheads of a certain age will likely remember the Griffith from Gran Turismo series. As of 2016, you now can put a first-year model in your brick and mortar garage, not just your virtual one.

4. Vauxhall Lotus Carlton

Vauxhall Lotus Carlton

Source: General Motors

There are cool ’90s cars, and then there’s the 1990-’92 Lotus Carlton. If it looks like a plain GM midsize sedan, that’s because it was (it was also sold in Europe as the Opel Lotus Omega). But inside its mundane Emerald Green wrapper was a twin-turbo straight six tuned by Lotus for 377 horsepower, a six-speed manual transmission from the Corvette ZR1, and a suspension tuned to handle all that power at speed. It spent the early ’90s as the fastest sedan in the world, and in 1994, it became the target of a country-wide manhunt in England when a gang in the West Midlands used a stolen Carlton on a series of high-speed raids, grabbing over £20,000 of goods with it and outrunning the cops every time. If you’re looking a low-key getaway car, the Carlton is the import for you.

5. Lancia Delta Integrale Evoluzione I

Lancia Delta Integrale Evoluzione I

Source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

Don’t let its hatchback body fool you, this Lancia is a 210 horsepower four-wheel drive rally monster. While Delta Integrales have been trickling into the U.S. for a couple of years now (its 25-year exemption ended in 2014), this year marks the first time we can get our hands on the Evoluzione I, the hottest of the breed, and arguably the last great Lancia.

6. Mazda Eunos Cosmo

Mazda

Source: Mazda

When Mazda introduced the Eunos Cosmo in 1990, Japan was on the crest of a major economic bubble. Mazda had launched a number of sub-brands like Autozam, Efini and Eunos, and was preparing to launch a Lexus/Acura/Infiniti rival called Amati in America. The Cosmo was to be Amati’s flagship, a cutting-edge grand tourer that was unlike anything to ever come from the brand. Unfortunately, the bubble burst, Mazda’s sub-brands disappeared, and we never got the car. And that’s a shame too; with an available twin-turbo triple-rotor engine putting out upwards of 320 horsepower, and an interior boasting a touch-screen interface with GPS in 1990, the Cosmo was unlike anything else in the world. While the car soldiered on in Japan until 1996, we now have our pick of first and second year cars.

7. Audi S2 Coupe

Audi S2 Coupe

Source: Audi

While the Ur-Quattro has its place in Audi lore, the truth of the matter is that the car probably soldiered on a little too long. Its replacement, the S2, is from the era when Audi was sales poison in the U.S. (due to unfounded safety concerns) and was never imported, making it all but unknown stateside. It may not be as iconic as its predecessor, but its good looks split the difference between the hard-edged ’80s and the rounded ’90s, and its turbocharged 2.2 liter inline-five made it quite a capable performer. It may not be an outright icon, but the S2 is a cool, important part of Audi’s past.

8. Volvo 480 Turbo

Volvo 480 Turbo

Source: Volvo

This one’s been available for a few years now, but we couldn’t resist adding it in, because the 480 could be the weirdest car to ever wear a Volvo badge. Originally designed for the American market (though it was never imported), the 480 sported a Lotus-tuned suspension, and in 1991 could be had with a new Renault-based turbocharged engine. It only put out 118 horsepower, but its light weight made it surprisingly tossable. It’s no sports car, but for Volvo fans out there, a 480 Turbo is a pretty damn rare sight in the U.S.

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