A sports car, or sportscar, is a small, usually two-seater automobile designed for spirited performance and nimble handling. The term "sports car" was used in The Times, London in 1919. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, USA's first known use of the term was in 1928. Sports cars started to become popular during the 1920s.
Sports cars may be spartan or luxurious, but high maneuverability and light weight are requisite. Sports cars are usually aerodynamically shaped (since the 1950s), and have a lower center of gravity than standard models. Steering and suspension are typically designed for precise control at high speeds. Traditionally sports cars were open roadsters, but closed coupés also started to become popular during the 1930s, and the distinction between a sports car and a grand tourer is not absolute.
Attributing the definition of 'sports car' to any particular model can be controversial or the subject of debate among enthusiasts. Authors and experts have often contributed their own ideas to capture a definition. The notion of a vehicle being designed for driving pleasure is a common attribute of sports cars. Insurance companies have also attempted to use mathematical formulae to categorise sports cars.
Although many cars nowadays tend to fit a sporty image in order to appeal to customers, there are many instances in which these cars are not actually considered sports car. Performance modifications of regular, production cars, such as sport compacts, sports sedans, muscle cars, pony cars and hot hatches, generally are not considered sports cars, yet share traits common to sports cars. Certain models can "appeal to both muscle car and sports car enthusiasts, two camps that rarely acknowledged each other's existences." Some models are called "sports cars" for marketing purposes to take advantage of greater marketplace acceptance and for promotional purposes. High-performance cars of various configurations are grouped as Sports and Grand tourer cars or, occasionally, just as performance cars.
The definition of a sports car is not precise, but from the earliest first automobiles "people have found ways to make them go faster, round corners better, and look more beautiful" than the ordinary models inspiring an "emotional relationship" with a car that is fun to drive and use for the sake of driving.
"A car primarily designed to give pleasure to the driver." MG T-type TC Midget
"A car which has participated in sports-car races." FIA Shelby AC Cobra
"A touring car and a racing car at one and the same time." Porsche 911 RSR
"A motor car designed primarily for the driver to enjoy driving fast." Ferrari F40
Engine and drivetrain layout
The location of the engine and driven wheels significantly influence the handling characteristics of a car and are therefore important in the design of a sports car. Traditionally, most sports cars have used rear-wheel drive with the engine either located at the front of the car (FR layout) or in the middle of the car (MR layout). Examples of FR layout sports cars are the Caterham 7, Mazda MX-5, and the Chevrolet Corvette. Examples of MR layout sports cars are the Ferrari 488, Ford GT and Toyota MR2. To avoid a front-heavy weight distribution, many FR layout sports cars are designed so that the engine is located further back in the engine bay, as close to the firewall as possible.
Since the 1990s, all-wheel drive has become more common in sports cars. All-wheel drive offers increased traction, although the downside is the added mass of the extra drivetrain components. Examples of all-wheel drive sports cars are the Lamborghini Huracan, Bugatti Veyron and Nissan GT-R.
Although front-wheel drive with the engine at the front (FF layout) is the most common layout for cars in general, it is not as common amongst sports cars. Nonetheless, the FF layout is often used by sport compacts and hot hatches. Examples of FF layout sports cars are the Volkswagen Golf GTi, Honda Integra Type R and Ford Fiesta ST.
Sports cars are not usually intended to regularly transport more than two adult occupants, so most modern sports cars are usually two-seat layout or 2+2 layout (two smaller rear seats for children or occasional adult use). Larger cars with more spacious rear-seat accomodation are usually considered sports sedans rather than sports cars.
The 1993-1998 McLaren F1 is notable for using a three-seat layout, where the front row consists of a centrally-located driver's seat.
The Edwardian or Brass era
The basis for the sports car is traced to the early 20th century touring cars and roadsters. These raced in early rallies, such as the Herkomer Cup, Prinz-Heinrich-Fahrt (Prince Henry Tour), and Monte Carlo.
According to historian Richard Hough, "Any history of the sports car must begin with the 60 hp Mércèdes of 1903. In the 60 hp model, described at the time as a fast touring car, Wilhelm Maybach and Paul Daimler combined in remarkably successful form a number of features which were to be slavishly imitated, first in Europe and later in America, for almost forty years. These included a pressed-steel chassis, a 4-speed gate change, honeycomb radiator, push-rod-operated overhead inlet valves, low-tension magneto ignition and a remarkably successful suspension arrangement. They were integrated with success to provide a safe and well-balanced machine with a higher performance than any other contemporary production car. The 60 hp Mércèdes looked right from the start and caused a great impression wherever it appeared." When the specially built 90 hp racing car for the 1903 Gordon Bennett race was destroyed in a fire, a production 60 hp was famously substituted and driven to victory by Belgian Camille Jenatzy.
With a speed limit of 20 mph imposed on public roads in England, there was little incentive for the manufacture of fast production cars there until the advent of the Brooklands track in 1907. Brooklands helped to create a market among enthusiasts in Britain for high-efficiency production cars such as Sunbeam (notably the 12/16 designed by Louis Coatalen), Star, Talbot, Crossley and Straker-Squire.
Though the term sports car would not be coined until after World War One, the first sports cars are considered to be the 3 litre 1910 Prince Henry (Prinz Heinrich) Vauxhall 20 hp (tax rating), and the 27/80PS Austro-Daimler designed by Ferdinand Porsche. Porsche's active engineering career spanned the history of the sports car over the first half of the twentieth century, first coming to prominence as chief designer and technical director for the 1910 Prince Henry Austro-Daimler (then Austrian-Daimler). The Prince Henry Vauxhall was designed by L.H. Pomeroy and featured a 3-liter engine that gave 60 hp at 2800 rpm, high performance for the period with reliability, and "torpedo" flush-bonnet coachwork. The Prince Henry Vauxhalls were important to the growing popularity of fast motor cars in Britain. Like the 60 hp Mercedes the Prince Henry Austro-Daimler and Vauxhall were production fast touring cars. The Prince Henry Tours (which were similar to modern car rallies) were among the sporting events of the period, bringing renown to successful entrants. Porsche himself drove the Austro-Daimler to victory in the 1910 Prince Henry Tour. The Prince Henry Tours started the evolution of reasonably large and technically advanced production sports cars.
Hispano-Suiza's Alfonso XIII is also considered one of the earliest sports cars, developed between 1911 and 1914 from the successful Coupe de l'Auto voiturette-race winning Hispano, designed by engineer Marc Birkigt and originally known as the Type 15T or 15/45hp depending on the market. The model was renamed for Spain's King Alfonso XIII, Birkigt’s patron and an enthusiast for the marque, and around 500 were produced, impressive for the time. Another product of the French voiturette (or small car, up to 3-liter) races from 1906 to 1910, was the Bugatti Type 13 which found a small clientele before the Great War and gained prominence in the immediate post-war period.
1903 Mercedes 60hp (The "Sixty" Mercédès)
1911 Hispano-Suiza Tipo 15T "Alfonso XIII"
1914 Sunbeam Motor Car Company 12/16 "Sporting torpedo"
The Vintage era
After the Great War, Europe returned to manufacturing automobiles from around 1920, the following decade becoming known as the Vintage era and featuring rapid technical advances over the Edwardian traditions. The vintage decade witnessed the adoption of more modern and higher-speed engines; the abandonment of taxation on cylinder bore promoted the development of the higher-revolution short-stroke engine. The introduction of leaded fuel allowed for higher compression ratios, further increasing engine power.
It was after the first World War that the term 'Sports Car' began to appear in the motor catalogues, although the exact origin of the name is obscure. The demand for high performance motor cars was growing, and as racing cars were not yet exorbitant in price it was practical for some manufacturers, such as Bugatti and Sunbeam, to offer from one basic design this year's racing car and next year's sports car. Other designers, such as Cecil Kimber at Morris Garages exercised ingenuity in converting standard touring cars into acceptable sports cars.
In the middle of the 1920s the expense of producing competitive specialist racing cars, especially Grand Prix cars, began to escalate; more and more manufacturers turned their attention instead to production for the growing sports car market. In 1923 l'Automobile Club de l'Ouest organised the first Twenty-Four Hour Race on the Circuit de la Sarthé for sports cars, although technically, except for the smallest class, the regulations at the time were for four-seat fast touring cars—two-seat sports cars still being an evolving category. "This race, together with the Tourist Trophy Series of Races, organised after the first World War by the R.A.C., appealed to the public imagination and offered to the manufacturers of the more sporting cars an excellent opportunity for boosting sales of their products." The classic Italian road races—the Targa Florio, and the Mille Miglia (first held in 1927)—also captured the public's imagination.
In 1921, Ballot premiered its 2LS, with a 75 hp (56 kW) DOHC two liter, designed by Ernest Henry (formerly of Peugeot's Grand Prix program), capable of 150 km/h (93 mph); at most, one hundred were built in four years. This was followed by the SOHC 2LT and 2LTS. The same year, Benz built a supercharged 28/95PS four for the Coppa Florio; Max Sailer won.
Simson in 1924 offered a Paul Henze-designed 60 hp (45 kW) DOHC 2 liter four, the Simson Supra Type S, in a long-wheelbase 120 km/h (75 mph) tourer and 115 km/h (71 mph) twin-carburettor sporter; only thirty were sold, against around three hundred of the SOHC model and 750 of the pushrod-six Type R. Duerkopp's Zoller-blown two liter in 1924, as well.
There was a clear cleavage by 1925. As four-seaters were more profitable, two-seaters increasingly turned over to specialist manufacturers, led by Alvis, Aston-Martin, and Frazer-Nash, with shoestring budgets, fanatic followers, and limited sales (today exemplified by Aston and Morgan): between 1921 and 1939, 350 Astons were built; 323 Frazer-Nashes in the period 1924–39.
By the end of the 1920s, AC produced a 2-liter six, the 3.5 liter Nazzaro had a three-valve OHC (until 1922), while French makers Amilcar, Bignan and Samson, and Franco-Spanish Hispano-Suiza, had the typical small four-cylinder sporters and Delage, Hotchkiss, and Chenard-Walcker the large tourers. Benz introduced the powerful Ferdinand Porsche-designed SS and SSK, and Alfa Romeo, the Vittorio Jano-designed 6C.
Two companies would offer really reliable sports cars: Austin with the Seven and Morris Garages (MG) with the Midget. The Seven would quickly be "rodded" by numerous companies (as the Type 1 would be a generation later), including Bassett and Dingle (Hammersmith, London); in 1928, a Cozette blower was fitted to the Seven Super Sports, while Cecil Kimber fitted an 847 cc Minor engine, and sold more Midgets in the first year than MG's entire previous production.
1920 Bugatti Type 13 Brescia
1921 Vauxhall 30-98 E-Type Velox
1925 Bentley 3 Litre Open Tourer
1929 Alfa Romeo 6C 1750 Gran Sport Zagato
1930 MG M-type Midget
The Pre-war era
Sandwiched between the Great Depression and the Second World War, the 1930s were a period of decline in importance for sports car manufacturers, although the period was not devoid of advances, for example streamlining. Cheap, light-weight family saloons with independent front suspension by firms such as BMW, Citroen and Fiat challenged the standards of road-holding and comfort available from much more expensive sports cars. Powerful, reliable and economical (although softly suspended) American saloons began to be imported to Europe in significant numbers. In turn, inexpensive small sports cars, based on popular touring car chassis and suspension (for example Austin and Wolseley) increased ownership of sports cars while not necessarily advancing limitations in engine output and road-holding inherited from their mass-produced components.
The most successful sports car firm, commercially, in the 1930s was Morris Garages, who manufactured more sports cars than any other. Cecil Kimber's MG "Midget" evolved from the late-1920s M-Type, through the J-Type and P-Type to the definitive 1936 T-Type which was produced until 1955. The T-Type featured a modern for the period 1292 c.c. push-rod overhead-valve engine with improved performance and less mechanical noise, improved chassis and powerful hydraulic brakes. The competition C-Type was also popular. A six-cylinder range included, in chronological order, the F-Type Magna, K-Type Magnette, L-Type Magna, and N-Type Magnette. From the K-Type the immensely fast K3 competition versions were developed, capable of 110 mph in supercharged form, and performing extremely well in the Mille Miglia, Tourist Trophy and 24 Hours of Le Mans. MG's competition department closed due to business concerns in 1935.
The decade saw production of some truly remarkable models from Bugatti, culminating in the Grande Routière-styled T57 Atlantics, designed by Ettore Bugatti's son Jean, and now among the most valuable cars in the world. Bugatti produced the eight-cylinder T57, which replaced all previous road-going models, in a variety of bodystyles from formal four-door sedans to sporty roadsters and the striking two-door coupés, which were based on the prototype 'Aerolithe' shown at the 1935 Paris Motor Show, and said to have been constructed from 'Electron' magnesium alloy (debated by some historians). The T57 was also remarkably successful in sports car races, famously including a version with advanced aerodynamics winning Le Mans in 1937, the first time for a French car in over a decade and 1939 (the final 24 Hours of Le Mans before the second World War). Jean Bugatti, forbidden by his father from racing, was tragically killed in a crash while road testing the Le Mans winning T57 at more than 200 km/h, after the race in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of war. Ettore Bugatti was forced by the occupying Nazi regime to sell his company in 1940, and he died of an illness in 1947 leaving over a thousand patents ranging from bicycles to aircraft.
1934 Wolseley Hornet
1934 Aston Martin Ulster
1934 -1935 Riley Nine "Imp"
1936 - 1940 SS Jaguar 100
1936 Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic
1938 BMW 328
The Post-war era
The decade following the Second World War saw an "immense growth of interest in the sports car, but also the most important and diverse technical developments [and] very rapid and genuine improvement in the qualities of every modern production car; assisted by new design and manufacturing techniques a consistently higher level of handling properties has been achieved."
In Italy, where by far the majority of everyday touring models were provided by Fiat, a small but wealthy market segment allowed for the manufacture of a limited number of high-performance models directly allied to contemporary Grand Prix machines. Enzo Ferrari's 1948 166 S was the subject of simple coachwork by Carlo Anderloni of Carrozzeria Touring, called "Barchetta" or "Little Boat". In 2017 a 1950 166MM barchetta was reported to be up for auction at an expected price of USD $10.4 million. A new concept altogether was the modern Gran Turismo class from Italy, which was in effect unknown before the war: sustained high speed motoring from relatively modest engine size and compact closed or berlinetta coachwork.
In Germany the motor industry was devastated by the war, however a small number of manufacturers brought it to prominence once more. In 1948-9 the first Porsche appeared under the aegis of Dr. Ferry Porsche, son of Ferdinand Porsche. In 1957, author John Stanford wrote that the original Porsche 356 was "an 1100-c.c. version of the Volkswagen, itself a [pre-war] Porsche design, differing only in the most elegant, light and low-drag coachwork which has since become familiar. Since then numerous design changes have taken place and except for general layout the car has little in common with its parent. All models except the sports-racing "Carerra" and "Spyder" have had an opposed four-cylinder air-cooled engine set behind and driving the rear axle, a four-speed gearbox with Porsche's own excellent synchromesh, and laminated torsion bar suspension to all wheels. The short stroke of the engines has meant exceptionally long life and hard-wearing qualities, and the beautifully profiled coachwork has led to exceptionally refined high performance in view of their modest engine size. This has been progressively increased to the current 1488-c.c. and 1582-c.c. sizes, and the cars are geared to sustain cruising speeds comfortably near their top speed, which varies between 90 and 110 mph; the most popular of the series weighs only 16 cwt. As much as any current production car the Porsche represents to the smallest detail the very definite ideas of its designers as to what constitutes agreeable fast motoring. Future historians must see them as among the most important of mid-century production cars." Stanford thought the contemporary German Mercedes 300SL just as remarkable, and it is covered in the accompanying grand tourer article.
1948-1953 Ferrari 166 S "Barchetta"
1950 Ferrari 195 S "Berlinetta"
1953 Jaguar XK120 Roadster
1953-1963 AC Ace
1956 Jaguar XK140 Coupé
The 1960s and 1970s
The 1960s saw launched of a new generation of sports cars, as the market sector continued to grow. The Jaguar XK 120 made way for the Jaguar E-Type (a two-seater roadster or 2+2 hardtop coupe) in 1961; this car remained in production for 14 years and earned plaudits for its styling and performance. A second generation Mercedes-Benz SL was launched in 1963, which saw the iconic "gullwing" doors discontinued. Porsche replaced the 356 with the 911 in 1964; the design has been gradually upgraded ever since with several different generation of the 2+2 coupe and 2+2 or two-seater soft top models. A host of less powerful and less expensive sports cars also arrived during this decade, including the Alfa Romeo Spider, Fiat Dino, MG B, Sunbeam Tiger and Triumph Spitfire.
The Sunbeam Tiger was discontinued in 1967, with the Rootes Group (later Chrysler UK) deciding instead to guide buyers of sportier models to its Sunbeam Rapier four-seater coupe. BMC/British Leyland, which built the MG and Triumph sports cars, launched the Triumph TR7 in 1975, but the falling demand for affordable sports cars saw the demise of both the MG and Triumph sports cars by 1982. Fiat launched the Fiat X1/9, a mid engined two-seater sports car, in 1972 and continued producing it until the end of the 1980s. Ford declined to develop an out-and-out sports car and instead decided to launch a four-seater "sports saloon", the Capri, which was designed and priced to compete with ordinary family saloon cars from its launch in 1969, and remained in production until 1986, with two facelifts during the 1970s. General Motors, which built Vauxhall cars in Britain and Opel cars in West Germany, took a similar approach and instead launched coupe models of cars like the Vauxhall Cavalier and Opel Kadett, also producing a four-seater coupe - the Opel Manta - to rival the MG B and Ford Capri.
Porsche expanded its range of sports cars during the 1970s with the entry-level 924 (a four-cylinder hatchback coupe) in 1976 and the 928 a year later. The 928 was intended to eventually replace the 911, but such was the popularity of the 911 that Porsche decided to keep it in production and update it, although the 928 continued into the 1990s. The 924 lasted until 1987, by which time it had been joined by the more powerful 944 - which featured the same basic design. This in turn became the 968 with a restyle in 1991. The company had joined forces in 1969 with Volkswagen to develop a two-seater sports model (available as a coupe or soft top) which was known as the VW-Porsche 914; however, the venture was not successful and the car was discontinued in 1976.
The 1980s and 1990s
Despite the demise of sports cars from the likes of MG and Triumph at the beginning of the 1980s, a number of carmakers decided to continue producing cars for this sector of the market. Audi launched the front-wheel drive four-seater Coupe and the four-wheel drive version - the Audi Quattro - in 1980. The Coupe was replaced by a refreshed model in 1988, while the Quattro was replaced two years later. Production of the second generation Coupe/Quattro models ceased in 1995, but Audi returned to the sports car market in 1998 when it unveiled the TT coupe and roadster.
BMW made a comeback into the sports car sector in 1986 when it was launched the Z1 roadster, but this car was not a strong seller and was discontinued after five years. Its successor, the BMW Z3, unveiled in 1995, was far more successful. Jaguar had replaced the E-Type with the Jaguar XJS in 1975; this model lasted for 21 years in coupe and later soft top form before being replaced by the XK8 in 1996.
Ford withdrew from the sports car market at the end of 1986 when the Capri was discontinued after a production run of nearly two decades. There was no direct successor, as Ford Europe was concentrating on higher performance versions of its hatchback and saloon models at the time, but in 1994 Ford made a comeback to this market sector with the American-built Probe. However, the Probe was not a strong seller, and was withdrawn from Europe after just three years, having fallen well short of sales targets. In 1997, Ford launched the Puma, a compact 2+2 coupe. Despite selling well, it was withdrawn from production five years later without a replacement. The Probe's replacement, the Cougar (also American-built), was launched in 1998 but withdrawn from Europe after just two years on sale.
Lotus built on its successes of the 1960s and 1970s by replacing the Eclat with the Excel in 1983, while the Esprit was drastically restyled in 1987. In 1989, it revived the Elan nameplate after an 18-year hiatus on a new two-seater front-wheel drive roadster. However, sales slumped shortly after its much-anticipated launch as a result of the recession and a lack of interest from American buyers, and it was withdrawn from production after just three years; although production was briefly revived soon afterwards under Bugatti ownership. The Elan's successor, the Elise, was launched in 1996 and was more successful.
Despite the demise of the MG B in 1980, the MG brand survived throughout the decade on higher performance versions of Austin Rover hatchbacks and saloons, but re-appeared in 1992 on the MG RV8 - a restyled version of the MG B. The marque enjoyed a more significant rebirth in 1995 when the MG F - a two-seater mid-engined roadster - was launched, and proved extremely popular. It was updated in 2002 to become the MG TF, and despite the collapse of MG Rover in 2005, it enjoyed a brief revival from 2008 under Chinese ownership.
Porsche continued to develop the iconic 911 during the 1990s, while the 968 (which could be traced back to the 924 of 1976) and 928 were both discontinued halfway through the decade. Porsche then filled in the gap at the bottom of its range with the Boxster - a two-seater roadster which featured similar styling to the 911 but was less powerful and less expensive. The range expanded in 1999 with the launch of the more powerful Boxster S.
The 21st century
The Alfa Romeo GTV coupe had been discontinued in 1987. In 1995 Alfa Romeo revived a two-seater sports car, which was mechanically identical to the 2+2 GTV coupe.
The Audi TT was launched in 1998, and replaced by an all-new model in 2005. BMW's Z3, launched in 1995, was joined with a coupe model in 1998. Its successor, the Z4, was produced from 2002 until 2016.
Lotus launched a new version of the Elise in 2001, with an all-new model in 2011. The Esprit continued until 2005. It was effectively replaced the following year by the Europa S and it was discontinued in four years.
Having acquired Qvale of Italy in 2001, MG Rover set about developing its own supercar on the Qvale Mangusta floorpan. The result was the MG XPower SV, a high performance two-door coupe. A total of 82 examples were reportedly produced and in two years, MG Rover went into liquidation.
In the U.S., where the type was variously called roadster, speedster, runabout, or raceabout, there was Apperson, Kissel, Marion, Midland, National, Overland, Stoddard-Dayton, and Thomas among small models, while Chadwick, Mercer, Stutz, and Simplex were among large models.
1912 Stutz Bearcat Speedster
Honda had launched the Prelude 2+2 coupe in the late 1970s, and after a slow start for the first generation model, sales increased rapidly following the launch of the second generation model in 1982. In 1990, Honda moved into the supercar market with the NSX, a two-seater mid engined coupe to rival the supercars from the likes of Ferrari.
Mazda patented the rotary engine on a succession of cars during the 1970s and 1980s, and most notably succeeded in this format with the Mazda RX-7, a high performance sports car available as a coupe or convertible. The first generation model debuted in 1978, but it was the third generation model - launched in 1991 - which was the most successful and highly acclaimed. However, declining popularity meant that it was only sold in its native Japan in the years leading up to its demise in 2002. Mazda had more success globally with the Mazda MX-5 (Miata/Eunos), a small two-seater roadster which was launched in 1989 and has been updated several times since. Two 2+2 coupes, the Mazda MX-3 and Mazda MX-6, were launched in 1991, but were not strong sellers and were both discontinued within a few years.
Mitsubishi launched its Starion 2+2 coupe in 1982, pitching it against the likes of the Audi Quattro and Porsche 944, and it sold well until it was replaced by the Mitsubishi 3000GT in 1990. Other Mitsubishi sports models, including the Eclipse, were mainly sold only in Japan and the States.
Nissan persisted with its range of high performance "Z Cars" during the 1980s, with the original 300ZX in 1983, replacing it in 1989 with a second generation model featuring four-wheel steering. This model lasted until 1996, mainly being sold only in Japan after 1994, and with its demise the Nissan Z-Car line was temporarily put on hold. A smaller, less powerful and less expensive coupe, the Silvia, debuted in 1984 and was replaced at the end of the decade by two different models - the new Silvia and the 200SX, with different markets getting one model and others getting the other. The two designs were replaced by a single model in 1993.
Toyota, having already enjoyed success with its Celica 2+2 coupe, expanded further into the sports car market during the 1980s. The Celica had been developed into a higher performance model - the Celica Supra - which became a separate range in its own right when a new model was launched in 1986, and the company moved into the market for two-seater sports cars in 1984 with its MR2, a mid-engined targa-top coupe which proved hugely successful. It was replaced by an all-new model in 1989, which was in production for 11 years until it made way for a new two-seater roadster of the same name at the turn of the year 2000. The Celica continued until 2006, and the MR2 was discontinued a year later; neither model was directly replaced. The Supra lasted until 2002, also without a direct successor, having largely been sold only in its native Japan during its final years.
Honda discontinued the Prelude in 2000 after more than 20 years and five generations. The NSX remained in production for 15 years until its demise in 2005.
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