Sports Car History
Article by Mark Trotta
Along with a massive growth of America's middle class, history of the modern sports-car begins directly after WW2. European vehicles found new homes after the war, brought to the United States by returning soldiers. This brought a new-found interest in smaller, lighter cars that made for spirited driving, particularly on tight, winding roads. British auto manufacturers were quick to capitalize on America's growing interest in sports cars. During 1946 to 1952, a handful of small U.S. manufacturers also jumped on board.
Produced from 1945 through 1949, the MG-TC was basically the same as the pre-war MG-TB it replaced. A 1250cc engine produced around 50-horsepower, achieving top speeds of 80 mph. With skinny spoke wheels, freestanding headlamps, and an upright radiator, the topless MG-TC was one of the first British sports cars to become popular in America.
Before Jaguar introduced the XK-120 in 1948, only exotic race machines such as Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Duesenberg were running dual-overhead-cam engines. The twin-cam XK motor was a marvel of engineering, propelling the six-cylinder roadster to 120 miles-per-hour, making it the fastest production car of its day. The same DOHC engine that powered the Jaguar XK120 would see another two decades of use, including the XK140, XK150, and the Jaguar E-type.
The MG-TD, offered from 1949 through 1953, was a large improvement over the first three T-types. A new, larger chassis featured independent coil suspension, and a higher compression four-cylinder engine produced 54 horsepower. Unlike the MG-TC, both right-hand and left-hand drive models were offered. Total MG-TD production was 29,664 units.
From 1948 through 1950, American Sprint-car/Indy-car builder Frank Kurtis tried his hand at producing his own brand of sports cars (Kurtis Kraft). After selling less than 50 in two years, Kurtis sold the license to manufacture these cars to radio personality Earl Muntz in 1951, who renamed the car "Muntz Jet".
Powered by a flathead Lincoln engine, other sourced-out parts included the transmission and suspension components. Later cars were equipped with the "new" 317ci Lincoln OHV motor with a "dual range" Lincomatic transmission. The Muntz Jet was capable of 110+ mph, a significant achievement for a road car at that time.
Special features included aluminum body panels and a removable fiberglass top. In addition to the padded dashboard, Muntz designed a console between the front seats and placed a Motorola radio in it. Speakers were placed in the left and right kick panels. Also optional was a liquor bar built into the rear armrests. One of the armrests was an ice box.
Due to their high manufacturing cost, money was lost on every Muntz Jet built. This financial drain eventually caused the company to fold. Conflicting reports estimate the Muntz company sold about 200 to 400 cars during 1951-1954.
After making mini passenger cars and trucks for over decade, Crosley Motors tried their hand at a mini sports car. The Crosley HotShot was a tiny two-seater, with a fold-down windshield and bug-eye headlights. Under the hood was a 26-horsepower, 44-cubic-inch four-cylinder with a cast-iron block. The HotShot was produced from 1949 through 1952. It is considered by some to be the first post-WW2 American sports car, offered three years before the Chevrolet Corvette.
Fiberglass Kit Cars
In the early fifties, development of GRP (glass reinforced plastic) became more sophisticated, and started being used to develop prototypes by small sports car companies. The early postwar years saw dozens of hopeful entrepreneurs manufacturing sporty car bodies designed to slip over an existing chassis. Many of these were sold as kits only, leaving assembly to the owner.
The first significant fiberglass body was developed by Bill Tritt. It was called the Glasspar G-2, and was one of the first successful GRP sports kits. Tritt, along with Woody Woodill, would later develop the first production GRP vehicle, the Woodill Wildfire. Annual sales of fiberglass kit cars such as the Glasspar G2 and Woodill Woodfire were measured in the dozens.
While recounting classic sports car history, mention should be made of Briggs Cunningham. Although he primarily built competition sports cars, rules for Le Mans dictated that the company must also produce road cars, so Cunningham adapted some of his race cars for street use.
In 1952, the Cunningham Continental C3 was offered to the public. Starting with a 331ci Chrysler Hemi V-8 fitted to a Cunningham C2R racing chassis, the cars were shipped to Turin, Italy, where they were fitted with aluminum and steel bodies by coach builder Vignale. They were then returned back to the Florida plant for completion. Reportedly 25 Continental C3's were produced.
Among the popular early British sports cars were the Austin-Healey 100 and Triumph TR2, both introduced in 1953. Both of these sports cars were designed around existing components to keep costs down.
Donald Healey's first production sports car was a joint venture with Nash Motors, pairing his frame and aluminum bodies with Nash's 3.8-litre straight-six engines, gearboxes and rear axles. Debuting in 1951, the Nash-Healey was a fast and beautiful car, but a price tag of over $3,700 saw only 507 built in the four years produced.
The Kaiser Darrin DKF-161 was the first production fiberglass-bodied sports car in America, beating the Corvette to market by one month. With a body hand-crafted from fiberglass, the 1953/1954 Darrin weighed just 2,175 pounds and had the lowest center of gravity of any American production car at the time.
Named for its designer Howard 'Dutch' Darrin, the car's most unique feature was the patented pocket doors that slid forward into the front fenders. Another unique feature was a three-position Landau top. Dutch Darrin had previously designed several classic Packards
In 1952, Darrin enlisted the Glasspar Company to make a prototype of a design he built out of clay. The body was fitted onto the chassis of Kaiser's Henry J economy car, with power from a 161ci six-cylinder producing 90-horsepower. Transmission was a three-speed manual with overdrive.
By the end of 1954, the Darrin project was terminated, due in large part that the Kaiser company was suffering financially, as were other small American auto companies. In all, less than 500 Kaiser Darrins were built.
Corvette vs Thunderbird
In 1953, the new Chevrolet Corvette combined traditional British roadster with American "dream car". The Corvette cost as much as a Jaguar XK, but lacked its performance and handling. Purists scoffed, and limited availability hurt initial sales.
Had rival Ford not introduced the two-seat Thunderbird, the Corvette would have likely been discontinued after 1955. By adding a few creature comforts and a lot of horsepower, the Corvette soon became successful. So was born the American sports car!
Powered by the 1991cc four-cylinder engine found in the TR3, the TR3A was upgraded with better seats and outside door handles. A mildly restyled exterior featured a full-length 'wide-mouth' front grille. Triumph TR3A production ran from 1958 to 1962. In that time, 58,236 cars were sold.
Sports cars like the diminutive Austin-Healey Sprite, the mid-engine Lotus Europa, and the rear-engine Fiat 850 Spider serve as reminders that horsepower is not the only factor to winning races.
Read: Lotus Europa History
Mini Cooper and Mini Cooper S
Shortly after the Mini was introduced in 1959, race car builder John Cooper realized the potential of the little car in competition. The 848cc engine from the Morris Mini-Minor was given a longer stroke, a pair of SU carburetors, and a few other tweaks, increasing output to 55 horsepower. Rounding out the performance package, a close-ratio gearbox and front disc brakes were added. To meet homologation rules for Group 2 rally racing, one thousand units of the original Mini Cooper were produced.
Read: Classic Mini 1959-2000
Produced from 1959 to late 1967, the Austin-Healey 3000 was the third in a line of Austin-Healey models commonly referred to as the "big Healey" models. It was one of several two-door soft-top roadsters offered to the American public.
Read: Austin-Healey 3000
Lotus Elan (1962-1971)
Introduced in 1962 as a roadster, the two-seat Lotus Elan was available with an optional hardtop in 1963 and a coupe version was offered in 1965. At 1,600 pounds, the Elan embodied Lotus founder Colin Chapman's minimum weight design philosophy ("simplify, then add lightness"). It the first Lotus road car to use a steel backbone chassis with a fiberglass body.
Introduced by the BMC (British Motor Corporation) in September 1962, the MGB was larger and more comfortable than the MGA it replaced. The MGB offered both good performance (top speed of 100 mph) and good gas mileage (28 mpg average) at an affordable price.
The rear-engine, air-cooled Porsche 911 first appeared in 1965. Weighing just 2,300 pounds, it displayed brisk handling, great braking, and was capable of speeds over 130 mph. The Porsche 911 model continued for decades with yearly improvements, making it the greatest of all classic sports cars in the hearts and minds of many.
As beautiful today as when it was introduced in 1961, the Jaguar E-type was designed by aerodynamics engineer Malcolm Sayer. Standard equipment included all-wheel independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and a triple-carburetor DOHC motor. A huge sales success, the majority of cars were shipped to America, where they were sold as the Jaguar XKE.
Read: Investing In Classic Cars
While most British sports cars were designed with sleek, curved lines, the Triumph TR6 was squared off at both ends. The six-cylinder roadster's combination of style and power helped make it one of the most popular and recognizable cars in Triumph's stable. The TR6 was produced from 1969 to 1975, with most models being sold in the U.S.
Datsun 240Z 260Z 280Z
With performance close to the Porsche 911 at about half the price, the 1970 Datsun 240Z became a popular choice with budget-minded sports car enthusiasts. In 1974, the 240Z engine was enlarged from 2.4 to 2.6 litres, giving the us the 260Z. The latter sold in the United States for the 1974 model year only, but was available in other countries until 1978.
Read: Datsun 240Z 260Z History
By increasing displacement again, the 260Z became the 280Z. The 280Z was fitted with the Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection system, which helped driveabilty whole complying with U.S. emission laws.
The first Mazda RX-7 appeared in 1978 as a 1979 model, with a 1146cc twin-rotor Wankel rotary engine and a front-midship, rear-wheel drive layout. The compact and lightweight engine is situated slightly behind the front axle, a configuration marketed by Mazda as "front mid-engine".
Read: Mazda RX-7 History
Perhaps the most notorious sports car of the eighties was the gull-winged DeLorean featured in the movie, "Back to the Future." Based largely on the Lotus Esprit, the DeLorean featured stainless-steel body panels and four-wheel independent suspension. The only model offered was the DMC-12. Approximately 8,500 to 9,000 cars produced in 1981 and 1982.
Read: Delorean DMC-12 History
Porsche 928 (1978-1995)
Throughout it's eight-year production span, exterior design on the Porsche 928 did not change much, but it did keep getting faster. First-year 928 engines displaced 4.5 litres and had a power output of 219 horsepower. With a weight of 3,411 pounds, top speed was 138 mph, with 0-60 mph times at seven seconds. By 1992, the 928 GTS engine was 5.4 litres and produced 345 horsepower, now capable of 170+ mph with low five-second 0-60 times.
The first generation Miata NA was produced from 1989-2001. A second-generation Miata (the NB, no pop-up headlamps), appeared in 1998. In 2000, the Mazda Miata was recognized by Guinness World Records as the world's best-selling convertible two-seater sports car.
Read: Mazda Miata History
In 1984, Honda began developing the HP-X model, a mid-engine, rear-wheel drive prototype that would evolve into the NSX sports car. Their goal was a lofty one; to rival Porsche and Ferrari with a lower-priced exotic sports car with greater reliability.
Read:Honda/Acura NSX (1990-2005)