This month, in line with Essential Magazine’s 25th anniversary, we’re looking in the rear-view mirror at some automotive icons all released in the same year: 1999. Let’s look back at a handful of cars that truly moved the needle at the apex of the century. You won’t believe some of these cars are already 25 years old…

Words Sam Hexter

This month, in line with Essential Magazine’s 25th anniversary, we’re looking in the rear-view mirror at some automotive icons all released in the same year: 1999. Let’s look back at a handful of cars that truly moved the needle at the apex of the century. You won’t believe some of these cars are already 25 years old…

Words Sam Hexter

Ferrari 360 Modena

In the automotive landscape of 1999, the launch of the Ferrari 360 Modena captured the attention of a worldwide audience, marking a pivotal moment in Ferrari’s illustrious history. The Modena represented a significant evolution for the Italian marque, succeeding the beloved Ferrari F355 and embodying a new era of performance and design.

At its core, the Ferrari 360 Modena boasted an array of technical marvels that put it ahead of the competition. Powering the Modena was a mid-mounted 3.6-liter V8 engine, delivering a symphony of sound and propelling the car from 0-100 km/h in a hair over four seconds. The smaller displacement V8 was mated to either a six-speed manual gearbox or Ferrari’s innovative F1 electrohydraulic transmission – not a gearbox that’s aged well but was certainly something new of the time.

The design of the Ferrari 360 Modena was a masterpiece of aerodynamic efficiency and aesthetic beauty. Penned by Pininfarina, the Modena features long flowing lines, sculpted curves, and trick aerodynamic elements that not only enhanced its performance but also made it a visual feast. Its sleek profile and unmistakeably Ferrari styling cues made it an instant hit, destined to turn heads wherever it went.

Upon its launch, the Ferrari 360 Modena garnered a warm welcome from automotive journalists and Ferrari aficionados alike. Its combination of breathtaking performance, stunning design, and unmatched driving dynamics cemented its place as one of the finest sports cars of the era. The Modena’s precision handling, keen motor, and race-inspired chassis makes it a joy to drive on both road and track even today and aided the 360 in setting a new benchmark for sports car performance.

What truly distinguishes the Ferrari 360 Modena is its ability to deliver an immersive driving experience. Every aspect of the car, from its responsive throttle to its spine-tingling exhaust note, is finely tuned to exhilarate the senses, and will no doubt continue to ignite the passions of car enthusiasts for generations to come.


This may not be the fastest car in this selection, but it paved the way for the luxury SUV market’s staggering rise to dominance. In 1999, BMW unveiled the game changing X5. This pioneering vehicle marked BMW’s foray into the SUV space, breaking away from their traditional lineup of sporty sedans and coupés. The introduction of the X5 was significant not only for BMW but also for the automotive industry, as a wole, as it redefined expectations of what a luxury SUV could offer.

The X5 boasted some seriously impressive specifications for the time, that set it leagues ahead from its competitors. A suite of powerful engines was available, including inline-six and V8 options, delivering exceptional performance. The X5 also incorporated BMW’s renowned xDrive all-wheel-drive system, providing superior traction and stability – yes, this luxury lump really could go off road – and yet BMW managed to retain its signature sporty driving dynamics.

At launch, the X5 was met with widespread acclaim from both critics and consumers alike. Its combination of luxury, performance, and practical versatility appealed to a broad audience, establishing it as a leader in the luxury SUV segment. And its arrival certainly put Land Rover on notice, presenting strong opposition to the previously unmatched Range Rover lineup. The X5’s sleek design, premium interior, and advanced technology features further contributed to its appeal, setting a new standard for luxury SUVs. And the aesthetics of the X5 have aged very well indeed, with even first-generation examples still being very easy on the eye, 25 years on.

The BMW X5 embodies the brand’s commitment to innovation and engineering excellence. With each subsequent generation, it has continued to evolve, incorporating cutting-edge technology and refining its performance capabilities.

The launch of the original X5 was a real watershed moment in the automotive industry, introducing a new standard for luxury performance SUVs, in turn, creating a whole new market that continues to dominate global car sales even today.

Pagani Zonda

Continuing the trend of ultra-fast, ultra-lavish supercars released in 1999, here enters the outlandish Pagani Zonda C12. Arguably the most notable release of the year, the Zonda is a remarkable exercise in exquisite craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology. The output is a masterclass in precision engineering. Conceived by Horacio Pagani, the Zonda epitomised the pinnacle of automotive artistry, blending breathtaking performance with unparalleled attention to detail.

The beating heart of the Pagani Zonda is a handcrafted jewel — a naturally aspirated AMG-sourced V12 engine, available in various iterations, each tuned to deliver other-worldly performance. With power outputs ranging from 400 to over 800 horsepower, the Zonda catapulted itself into automotive folklore with its blistering acceleration and ear-shattering exhaust note.

Beyond its awe-inspiring performance, the Zonda captivated the automotive world with its mesmerising design language. Every inch of the car is deliberate and considered. Every curve, every line, and every detail, meticulously sculpted to evoke a sense of awe and wonder. From its distinctive gull-wing doors to its aerodynamically optimised bodywork, the Zonda is a work of art.

Upon its debut, the Pagani Zonda garnered universal acclaim. Its combination of jaw-dropping performance, exquisite craftsmanship, and unparalleled exclusivity catapulted it into the upper echelons of motoring greatness. With a top speed exceeding 321 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of just over 3 seconds, the Zonda proved itself as one of the fastest and most exhilarating cars on the planet. And those performance figures haven’t aged a day!

What truly set the Pagani Zonda apart was its bespoke nature. With each car meticulously handcrafted to the exact specifications of its discerning owner, ensuring a level of bespoke customisation and personalisation that was unmatched. From the finest leather upholstery to the most intricate carbon-fibre accents, no detail was too small to escape the attention of Pagani’s skilled artisans.

The Pagani Zonda C12 stands as a testament to the limitless ambition and boundless creativity of its creator, Horacio Pagani. With its spellbinding design, and unparalleled craftsmanship, the Zonda continues to captivate the hearts and minds of automotive fanatics around the globe, solidifying its status as a true icon of automotive excellence.

Lamborghini Diablo GT

The introduction of the Lamborghini Diablo GT in 1999 heralded the pinnacle of Lamborghini’s engineering prowess, representing the epitome of Italian supercar brilliance. Forged from the legacy of the iconic Diablo series, the Diablo GT emerged as a limited-production, track-eating variant that pushed the boundaries of performance and design to epic new heights. And even in ‘standard’ guise, the Diablo was hardly a lacklustre proposition to begin with.

Underneath its aggressive exterior, the Lamborghini Diablo GT housed a formidable powertrain that exemplified raw, unbridled performance. Nestled behind the driver was a 6.0-liter V12 engine, producing a thunderous 570 horsepower. This potent powerplant was coupled with a six-speed manual transmission, delivering an adrenaline-inducing driving experience that still sets pulses racing, even by today’s standards. With a top speed exceeding 338 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of just over 3.5 seconds, the Diablo GT was truly a fire breathing force to be reckoned with. Add to the mix the sheer rarity of the Diablo GT, with only 80 production cars ever being sold, and you’ve got an instant classic.

The Lamborghini Diablo GT was a study and showcase in aerodynamic efficiency. Its wide, angular bodywork and trick aerodynamic elements not only enhanced downforce and stability at high speeds but also made it a bold and unmistakable visual statement on the road. From its menacing front splitter to its towering rear wing, every aspect of the Diablo GT’s design was purposefully crafted to command attention and dominate the track.

The Lamborghini Diablo GT was made in an uncompromising commitment to go fast. And every fine-tuned characteristic of this meticulously overengineered machine delivers unparalleled thrills behind the wheel, to this day. Whether carving through mountain roads or tearing up the racetrack, the Diablo GT offers a visceral and unforgettable driving experience that few other cars, now or then, could ever hope to match.

Porsche 996 GT3

Rounding out our best-in-class list of ’99, is the Porsche 996 GT3. It represented the ultimate expression of Porsche’s dedication to motorsport-inspired performance. As part of the iconic 911 lineup, the GT3 variant pushed the boundaries of what was achievable in a road-legal car with numberplates, offering a visceral and utterly unparalleled experience from behind the wheel.

At the heart of the Porsche 996 GT3 lay a naturally aspirated 3.6-liter flat-six engine derived from the legendary Porsche 911 GT1 race car. With an output of around 360 horsepower, coupled with a six-speed manual gearbox, the GT3 delivered some serious performance and a very keen, responsive throttle. Its focus on lightweight design and a plethora of race-derived suspension parts ensured superb handling and agility, allowing drivers to exploit its capabilities to the fullest.

In terms of design, the Porsche 996 GT3 retained the timeless silhouette of the 911, albeit with several aerodynamic enhancements inspired by its racing pedigree. From its distinctive rear wing to its aggressive front splitter, every element of the GT3’s design was carefully rendered to optimise airflow and enhance downforce, resulting in improved stability and cornering performance.

Its combination of track-focused performance and everyday usability – if you didn’t opt for the Club Sport roll cage – made it a favourite among prospective owners who demanded the ultimate in driving dynamics without sacrificing comfort or practicality. With a top speed of over 305 km/h and a 0-100 km/h time of just over four seconds, the GT3 showcased Porsche’s relentless pursuit of excellence.

What truly set the Porsche 996 GT3 apart was its ability to deliver a visceral driving experience that few other cars could match. Whether attacking twisty tarmac on public roads or lapping a racetrack, the GT3 offered feedback and precision to a level that’s leagues above many rivals in its class; allowing drivers to feel truly connected to the road and the car.

The Porsche 996 GT3 remains a revered icon in the world of high-performance sports cars, embodying Porsche’s racing heritage and engineering prowess. With its exhilarating performance, timeless design, and unparalleled driving dynamics, the GT3 continues to captivate petrolheads worldwide and has cemented its status as a benchmark for performance-oriented 911 variants across every subsequent generation.

Lotus Esprit Sport 350

The Lotus Esprit Sport 350, introduced in 1999, was the gold standard of British engineering and ingenuity, embodying the ethos of Colin Chapman’s ‘simplify, then add lightness’. As a high-performance variant of the iconic Esprit, the Sport 350 represented Lotus’s commitment to lightweight construction, agile handling, and exhilarating driving dynamics.

Powering the Lotus Esprit Sport 350 was a potent 3.5-liter turbocharged V8 engine, producing 350 horsepower — hence its name — and delivering blistering acceleration and impressive top speeds. This engine was mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, allowing drivers to fully engage with the car’s performance capabilities and maximum enjoyment.

In terms of design, the Lotus Esprit Sport 350 retained the aerodynamic wedge-like silhouette that made the Esprit so well loved, but with several enhancements aimed at improving performance and efficient air management – the bolt-on rear spoiler and rather ‘90’s side skirts to point out the obvious.

The Lotus Esprit Sport 350 quickly earned applause from both anorak-wielding enthusiasts and the motoring press. Its combination of lightweight construction – a staple of the marque – and precision handling made it a formidable contender in the supercar arena. With a 0-100 km/h time of around 4.3 seconds and a top speed of over 281 km/h, the Sport 350 showcased Lotus’s dedication to delivering the purest driving pleasure.