As those of us who came of age in the 80s and 90s grow older, the culture that we were born into but otherwise rather exempt from has made its resurgence. In the past few years for the car community, this explosion of all things vintage has mirrored the muscle car boom of the early 2000s with what has affectionately been dubbed the ‘RAD’ era. With a revived love for the cars we saw on the roads as children, RADwood was born. This relatively new series of national shows has helped grow the increasing popularity of the cars we loved as kids, most recently adding Cleveland to the list of venues. Last weekend, we had the immense pleasure of joining up with RADwood for their showcase at BLDG17 for one helluva start to show season and a celebration of all things RAD. Join us this week for our first event coverage of the season at RADwood, Cleveland.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who experienced the 60s and 70s retro revival in the late 90s and early 2000s, now the 80s and 90s are receiving the same treatment. Forgotten cars from the malaise era to the JDM bubble era are exploding in value as those of us who remember seeing them new on the road in decades past are living their 80s and 90s dreams by jumping into these time capsules. Paired with the direction modern vehicle manufacturers have taken, and bolstered by the recent increase in car prices thanks to ongoing global events, cars that we remember in high school as being the cheap, entry-level, shitboxes we had as our first cars are now considered ‘investments.’ This is demonstrated extremely well by some of the absolute gems showcased at RADwood.

The love for the quirky, the experimental, the weird that came from the late 80s and early 90s is all the rage. Something about that time period where everything was still rather mechanical and ‘old school’ but featured some of the early introductions of tech we now find commonplace in our contemporary vehicles helped to create a unique time period in car culture. The designs became drastically different than old hand-built econoboxes that the 70s and early 80s gave us thanks to computer-assisted-design. Cars became more compact, more stylized, and designers were given chances to take risks with their final drafts. This combination of factors gave us some of the coolest, oddest, and most desirable cars ever built. 

Arguably, car designs peaked in the late 90s. The broad range of approaches that vehicle manufacturers took attest to that statement. Sure, there are plenty of examples of duds. Cars that were carried long past their relevance on the road as facelifted updates, new technology that relied on old mechanical systems to operate, and experiments that simply didn’t work (looking at you, HICAS all wheel steering) plagued the industry, but it was a time of change. A time of experimentation. Japan was flush with cash at the beginning of the 90s and intent on showing the world that they were a real powerhouse for automotive engineering. Germany was breaking into some of the technology developments that we now consider standard in vehicles. America was recovering from the hit they took with the death of the muscle car age and ready to prove that it was still a major player. All of this competition, this time in automotive history where so much converged to dramatically alter the trajectory of the car, gave us some truly unique and inspiring cars.

We’re not just talking about the BMW M3s, GTRs, and water cooled Porsches, either. The funky stuff you could find at your average consumer’s price point is evidence enough that manufacturers were excited to shake things up after the entirely bland and beige era that preceded the 80s and 90s. Cars like this immaculate Infiniti M30 or funky first-gen Neon sporting original 90s wave graphics demonstrate that universally, car companies were ready for fun in the dot com age. 

Yes, the 80s and 90s were truly peak automotive engineering when viewed through the perspective of a car enthusiast. We had the development of forced-induction engines, the horsepower arms race in Japan, the first CAD engineered cars from the ground up, and some of the most striking visual presences cars ever experienced before or since. Now, modern cars are filled to the brim with safety features, designed by committees, subscription services for what should be factory equipment, and extremely complex mechanical systems. These uniform amorphous blobs we see today in the form of crossover SUVs make the highways a bland place. The performance potential for non-commuter cars are all effectively the same, there isn’t an extreme difference between one make or another like we saw in the past.

Now, car enthusiasts are presented with the unique challenge of once again breaking the mold. Modern cars, regardless of what you have, all effectively take the same parts list for a ‘show build.’ Carbon fiber aero bits, coilovers, “stage 2” upgrades, software tuning, and flashy wheels. The scene has become somewhat stale and predictable. A return to the true mechanical age is somewhat similar, in a way, to the efforts of the naturalist art movement. A preference for the pastoral, simple, and rewarding lives lived by our ancestors appealed to these writers, poets, and painters. This drove them to ‘return to their roots’ in all aspects of their lives, which was reflected in their art. With cars, the same seems to be happening as we enthusiasts gravitate towards cars that were still very much reliant on their operators for input rather than a series of computers and AI software. 

We have the ability to bring some of these vintage cars into the present thanks to the wide availability of aftermarket parts that has long since been established with the internet. Style influence from modern culture and accessible information to anyone interested makes building these older RAD-era cars rewarding, achievable, and impressive once complete. The dedication needed to maintain something twenty-plus years old, the attraction to a simpler time in technology, and the preference of an analog experience behind the wheel have all drawn enthusiasts of a certain type to the cars their parents bought new. And thanks to shows like RADwood, we have a place just for us to enjoy these examples of automotive history.

No lineup of Focus STs and VA-chassis WRXs all sporting identical mods, no yellow-lipped MOPARs, no MK6 GTIs with crackle tunes, just an industrial venue and mechanical fuel injection to break up the uniformity of modern car culture. Seeing everything here was truly special. Every car present represents some facet of 80s or 90s culture. From the graphics to the funky compact designs and accessories, RADwood is effectively 90s cosplay for car enthusiasts. And we couldn’t have been happier to be a part of it. RADwood is more than a show, it is a celebration of what many, including us, consider to be peak car culture. Sure, modern performance cars bring horsepower figures to the table that would have been unthinkable even for the most extreme exotics of the 90s. Yes, modern economy commuters can generally out-perform most of the ‘performance’ cars of that age. But that isn’t the point. It isn’t about being the most or the fastest or the best. It’s about those automotive journalist no-no words; passion, soul, character, and spirit. When we say cars peaked in the late 90s, it’s these qualities in which they peaked. 

Sadly, we’re never going to have that foray into uncharted territory again that we had with car development in the 90s. Everything is homologous, cookie cutter, and dictated by incomprehensible amounts of consumer data. Nothing is designed these days with emotion in mind. Thanks to shows like RADwood, and the enthusiasts who value these qualities in their cars, we are able to cling to some of the best parts of yesterday. In fact, the car community as a whole depends on it. As we approach the electric car future, or are already living in it, and see the blandness of the crossover SUV world that capitalism has determined is optimized for vehicle sales, the enthusiasts who love these rad cars will be the arbiters of a culture long gone. For car culture to continue to exist as we know it, the novelty of loving these cars will become a necessity. As long as there are shows like RADwood helping us to carry the torch, we have a shot at preserving something special about cars, car culture, and the enthusiasts who make it happen. Hopefully, this isn’t just a passing phase and RADwood, the drivers who preserve these cars, and their children, are able to maintain this valuable segment of car culture in a time where the world sees cars as an appliance rather than an expression.