Engine Sound: Greatest Hits of the 1990s

Electrification is well-underway and poised to fundamentally change the automotive experience in a myriad of ways, including sound. For many enthusiasts, the noise made by cars is as important as the acceleration or handling. To some gearheads, it’s actually more important. Here are a few sonic gems from the 1990s that exemplified the term “engine music.”

The Ferrari F355 was a rolling symphony

Ferrari F355s at the factory in Maranello, Italy, in February 1995
Ferrari F355s at the factory in Maranello, Italy, in February 1995 | Alain Benainous/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Ferrari tends to place an emphasis on sound, but certain models just tower above the rest. The F355 of the mid-’90s is definitely a superstar. The 3.5-liter flat-plane V8 lives to hit the high notes, and there’s a distinct musical quality to its sound. With a redline of 8500 RPM, there’s also plenty of range to work with. Power was impressive for a small displacement V8, with 375 hp and a specific output of 107 hp per liter.

The Ferrari F129 engine used architecture similar to previous V8s from Maranello, dating back to the Dino 308 GT4 of the 1970s. Unlike its predecessors, however, the F355 variant had five valves per cylinder instead of the usual four. The improved breathing resulted in more power and one of the sweetest sounds in the automotive world to this day.

The C4 ZR-1 made a glorious V8 noise

1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1
1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 | National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images

While standard C4 Corvettes were pushrod-powered, Chevrolet departed radically with the ZR1 in its quest to build a world-class sports car. GM enlisted help from engineering wizards at Lotus, who designed a new 5.7-liter aluminum-block V8 with four valves per cylinder. Mercury Marine was chosen as the manufacturer, because of its experience working with alloy engine blocks.

The resulting DOHC LT-5 could rev past 7000 RPM with the snarl of a cammed racing motor. It was still rumbly and pleasant at lower RPMs, but screamed with far more authority and range than the standard L98 ever could. Despite the successful power improvements, GM chose not to further develop the DOHC engine. That said, some of the LT-5’s less radical design elements did appear later, in the pushrod LS-series.

The furious sound of Godzilla

1999 Nissan Skyline GT-R R34
1999 Nissan Skyline GT-R R34 | National Motor Museum/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Japan was cranking out impressive machines left and right in the 1990s, but none had a sound quite like Godzilla. Nissan’s inline-six career peaked with the R34 Skyline GT-R. The final variants of the RB26 could hold a sonorous note at higher RPMs than ever before, and retained the familiar turbo noises to boot.

As with any GT-R, aftermarket exhausts were common modifications on these cars. Each can impart a slightly different twist on the RB26 experience. But the inherent goodness remains with any of them, and it’s spectacular. The Skyline range has long since moved to a V6 configuration, but the inline RB series is still beloved by Nissan fans, and for good reason.

The BMW E34 M5 was a highway star

In the 1990s, BMW was making some of the best naturally-aspirated six-cylinder engines in the world. You can find one of those under the hood of an E34-chassis M5 sedan: the legendary 3.6-liter (and later 3.8-liter) S38. A large inline-six that can rev to 7000 RPM is rare these days, and it was uncommon then as well.

The engine derived from the M88 series, which was first seen in the BMW M1 supercar from the late ’70s. Though compression was lowered for the US market, dual overhead cams offered plenty of breathing room to make power and sound at high revs. With tall gearing that left ample time between shifts, the last six-cylinder M5’s soundtrack was pure joy on the highway.

The auto industry has changed drastically since these vehicles were released, and technological advancement will only accelerate from here. Performance cars from the 1990s are gaining in popularity with enthusiasts, and that’s no coincidence. While these particular vehicles were standouts for their sonic excellence, the decade was full of amazing cars that can still be enjoyed today.

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