The Development of Sports Cars

The Development of Sports Cars

This site has classic sports cars history, pictures and collectibles, focusing on the 50’s 60’s and 70’s. This page gives their development from the earliest to the latest.

These cars are about enjoyment, good looks, style, and character. Some of the most successful ever in terms of numbers sold were based on family sedan mechanicals, uprated a bit and clothed in gorgeous bodies. Others were built from the ground up to be rubber-laying monsters, a race car for the road.

Whatever their origins sports cars are pure delight. Just looking at them makes you feel good. (And you can look at them on the sports car pictures page).

Early Days

Back in the early twentieth century cars were hardly out of the horseless carriage days. It was an achievement to get from A to B without breaking down, and styling or fun weren’t really a consideration. Things soon changed though. Cars became more reliable manufacturers did endurance runs with their cars to prove how good they were, and quite soon these developed into races.

Road racing started n the late 1890’s, and some names that are still famous 100 years later were making their mark. Among others Mercedes built a sports model that dominated the Nice Speed Week of 1901 and in 1902 Ferdinand Porsche won his class in a hill climb racing a hybrid petrol/electric car he had designed for Lohner.

The Sporting Roadsters

It was obvious that race cars would perform better if they were lighter, and the heavy touring bodies were soon replaced with light-weight racing bodies that were generally nothing more than a cover for the engine, bucket seats, a fuel tank and spare tyres. These roadsters were the fore-runners of the sports car.

The Mercedes 60PS built from 1902 was one of the earliest roadsters and it had many racing success including the Gordon Bennet race of 1903, giving Mercedes their first major win.

Roadsters flourished in America in the early years of the twentieth century. There were even steam powered versions, with the 1908 Stanley Gentleman’s Speedy Roadster capable of over 60 mph. But the best known American roadsters were the low and sporty Mercer Type 35 Raceabout produced in 1911 and Mercer’s greatest rival, the Stutz Bearcat.

In England the first purpose built sports car was Vauxhall’s 1911 Prince Henry.

By the 1920’s the American roadsters had evolved into a car with a sporty two seat body complete with doors, trunk and hood, a much more practical car than the early race car based models. Coupes were also available but at this stage they were upright two-door sedans with no sporting pretensions.

Hot-Rodding The Model T

Even the humble Model T, the car that put the world on wheels, was available as a sports car. Upright “Runabout” and coupe bodies were available for much of the production run though they weren’t very sporting. However many other manufacturers made sports bodies for the Ford T. The F.A. Ames Company sold an attractive two seat sports body by mail order and with after-market engine parts and light weight wire wheels the top speed was boosted from 45 mph to over 60 mph.

“Dykes Automobile and Gasoline Engine Encyclopedia”, the bible of early car maintenance from between the wars, tells the handyman all about “Remodeling Old Cars, Speeding Up Old Cars, Speeding Up a Ford”. It has sketches of changing the old tourer body to a speedster, there is advice on streamlining, pistons, con-rods, larger valves, better carburetion, better manifolds, after-market camshafts, lowering the car and much more. It shows one method of lowering the frame that could be done by any good blacksmith for about $15 and there’s a sketch of an exhaust system you could make to make your small engine sound like a racer.

As well as whole speedster bodies the Model T had a whole host of after-market parts for it, even a 16 valve conversion. As well as putting the world on wheels the Tin Lizzie gave the after-market industry an enormous boost and it gave the young guys a chance to own a sporty car that they otherwise may never have had.

Another great Ford contribution to the hot-rodding and sports car scene was the flathead V-8 introduced in 1932 with the Model B.

British Sports Cars

On the other side of the North Atlantic the British were inventing the simple and affordable production sports car. Tiny and humble family cars were used as the basis for sports models by putting attractive two seater bodies on them, usually soft-tops, and doing some mild tuning to the engine and suspension.

Jaguar was started in 1922 though it was first known as Swallow Sidecars. The elegant sidecars that Bill Walmsley and William Lyons made were seen on the side of such leading motorbikes as the imported Harley Davidson. The company moved into building more sporting bodies for the Austin Seven, then added other makes. No changes were made to the engine or suspensions, but the bodies were good looking and luxurious.

By 1931 Swallow had a chassis specially modified for them and in 1935 they brought out probably their most famous model, the SS 100. After the War the company’s name was changed to Jaguar, as SS had become synonymous with Hitler’s secret police.

Cecil Kimber started Morris Garages in 1924, using the Morris Oxford as a basis for the M.G. Super Sports. The engine was up-rated to give more power, the handling was improved and it received an attractive aluminium body. A whole series of Morris based M.G. sports cars followed, and the marque had a lot of racing success.

Other manufacturers also made little sports cars that closely resembled the M.G.s, among them Riley, and Singer, which was famous for its sewing machines.

The M.G.s and its look-were the cars that American servicemen in Britain fell in love with during the war and took back to America afterwards

Back in America

Back in America some exotic sports cars were made during the Twenties and Thirties. Packard had its Gentleman’s Roadster, an absolutely beautiful example of the type. Pierce-Arrow, which had built a 829 cu in monster of an engine in 1912, also made a fabulous roadster in the late 1920’s. Cadillac made a 7.4 liter V-16 built in a variety of bodies including a sporty roadster from 1931-38. And of course there were the more affordable roadsters made by companies like Chrysler.

The Depression put paid to the exotics, with the number of auto manufacturers in North America more than halving. After World War II Britain was in an export or die mode, and many sports cars made by the likes of Jaguar and MG went to the States. Cars from the new auto manufacturing businesses of Porsche and Ferrari were also seen.

Some independent North American manufacturers tried their hands at sports cars with mixed results, such as Kaiser Darren who produced some very attractive cars between 1952 and 1955. American sports cars started to take off in the mid fifties when the big manufacturers got involved.

The American Sports Car

One of the most famous sports cars in the world came from General Motors least expensive brand-name, the Chevrolet Corvette. The Corvette started life as a styling exercise, a show-car for people to drool over. It was so popular that it went into production, using fairly standard sedan suspension, an up-rated six-cylinder sedan engine, a two speed auto and a body to die for made out of fibreglass.

Sales were dismal at first because apart from the looks it was a very basic car at a high price. But Chevrolet persisted and with a V-8 engine, better transmission, and better handling sales slowly improved. The Corvette became an ultra-desirable sports car and a muscle car in its own right, and a highly successful race car. Best of all, Chevrolet has stuck to the sports car formula and for over 50 years now the Corvette has been a great looker, a great performer, and the American Sports car.

The Ford Thunderbird

Ford’s answer to the Corvette and the European imports came in 1955 with the Ford Thunderbird, a more sophisticated car than the Corvette. It was more a sporty car than a sports car, but it was still a two seater, with an attractive sports body and a 200 bhp V-8 as standard. Like the Corvette it had many standard sedan parts under the skin, a practise that at least makes for an affordable sports car.

Unlike the Corvette the Thunderbird quickly lost its sportiness and good looks. In 1958 it became a four seater and degenerated into just another Ford sedan, a real shame!

The Pony Cars

Lee Iacocca, head of Ford, had many requests for another two seat sports car. The company looked into the market and in 1964 brought out a four seater sports car that was a massive hit and that spawned a whole group of similar cars. The car was of course the Ford Mustang,one of the fastest selling cars of all time. It was available in three body styles and any number of performance options with a wide variety of engine, transmissions and other parts available. It was the “car you designed yourself” and with careful selection of options you drive away from the dealer with what was really a road going race car.

Other manufacturers were quick to bring out their own pony cars,, among others the Chevrolets Camaro came out in 1966, Mercury’s more up-market Cougar in 1967 and the Dodge Challenger in 1970, The pony cars were popular with the young and young at heart, they could be optioned from mild to wild, and they gave Americans their own sports cars in the 1960’s.

Muscle Cars

A uniquely American type of car appeared towards the late 1960’s – the muscle car. Cubic inches and power were everything! Some sports cars were muscle cars – The more powerful Mustangs like the Shelby GT350 and the Boss 302 or the AC Cobra where the Carroll Shelby stuffed Ford V-8s into the British AC Ace chassis were legendary sports cars. Others were more like special versions of the family car with less sporting pretensions but lots of muscle power.

The muscle car boom died when the fuel crisis of the early seventies hit.

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