The Sports Car

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Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII
The The King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, drove one of these cars 250 miles from San Sebastian to Madrid, and was so delighted with its performance that he allowed it to be named after him...

Vauxhall 30/98
An "Accidental Sports Car", the Vauxhall 30/98...

BMW 328
All modern day sports cars owe much to the BMW 328...

Most classic car enthusiasts will know the feeling of freedom and exhiliration on offer when driving a open-top sports car. So popular has the "topless" genre of automobile become these days that nearly all manufacturers have a convertible or two in their model lineup. But many of these, sadly, represent little of the glorious past ancestory to which they aspire. So lets take a moment to look back on the development of the sports car over the years.

Firstly, it is important to understand that sports cars are not racing cars, but the formula is very close. A good sports car, in fact a true sports car, should offer at the very least a well-balanced chassis, a light engine with high gears, accurate steering and steady braking.

Only then should the comforts of a sedan be added, and then only sparingly. Few today follow this creed, certainly Lotus and Mazda, with their brilliant NC MX-5, come anywhere close.

The true ancestor to the modern day sports car was the German 1901 Mercedes, which featured a 5.9 liter engine, the largest used on a production car up to that time. It also set standards of chassis design, which would to be followed for the next 30 years.

From 1904 Daimler led the field in fast motoring in England. These big 4-cylinder, chain-driven machines proved both fast and reliable. By 1906, special 10-liter Daimlers could reach 65 mph. Other important early cars were the Darracq, Napier, Lancia and Fiat.

Even when cars became more specialised, it was not always easy to tell the difference between sports cars and racing cars. A light runabout car with a top speed of 20 mph might be considered a racing car. But, by the First World War, the true sports car as we know it emerged.

It appealed to men of a certain temperament who wanted comfort with speed. From that time racing cars, speed machines with only the essentials, developed in one direction, and sports cars in another.

One of the most coveted sports cars of its day was the 1912 Austro-Daimler. Its long-stroke overhead camshaft engine set a new fashion. It was the first to be designed expressly as a sports car.

Among the smaller cars, the four-cylinder Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII from Spain was perhaps the most famous. Despite its simple engine, this two-seater could top 72 mph. The King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, drove one of these cars 250 miles from San Sebastian to Madrid, and was so delighted with its performance that he allowed it to be named after him.

The most famous of early sports cars came into existence by accident. Known as the Vauxhall 30/98, it was developed from the already popular "Prince Henry" model. In 1914 it was entered in a Hill Climb organised by the Lancashire Car Club to see how it would fare. It gained top honours. Six more were made for private owners, but it was never planned to make large quantities.

The makers were surprised when people wanted them, so in 1920 the famous 30/98 went into production. With its compact body and round-fronted radiator, it set the pattern for the "vintage" sports car. Its cost? £1,665 - a small fortune in those days.

For the rich man also, famous car designer Ettore Bugatti created the Brescia Type 23. Each model was finished individually in the toolroom, and it became the sensational small sports car of the day. It weighed only 12 cwt. and could do more than 85 mph. Although noisy, it was a delight to drive because of its good steering and excellent roadholding.

The only cars to compare with Bugatti in the late 1920's were produced by Alfa Romeo. These handsome Italian vehicles had remarkably smooth engines and a top speed able to match it with the Bugatti.

As the Brescia faded from the sports car scene at the close of the 1920's, an English car took the limelight, the MG Midget. Small, reliable and capable of 60 mph., it was, unlike the Brescia, a cheap car. Sales soared and the familiar low chassis was seen all over Britain. It was years ahead of its time.

Sports cars also suffered the changeover from skilled craftsmanship to mass-production in the early thirties. When some of the technical advances that improved saloon cars were tried in the sports car, all sorts of problems arose. For instance, the six-cylinder engine used too much fuel for sports cars. Its weight led to poor steering and roadholding. Many sports models became burdened with the heavy trimmings of the saloon car, European manufacturers always keen to ensure their new models would find favour in the US marketplace.

But there were advantages, too. Manufacturers did evolve a really cheap sports car based on a mass-produced chassis. In appearance it looked the part; in performance it slumped. Eventually these technical problems were mastered and men began producing cars that could match the already popular MG Midget.

An advanced design was the eight-cylinder Alfa Romeo which, being fitted with not one but two superchargers, gave the car a blistering top speed of 130 mph. But all that power came at a price, the 1937 sticker price being £2,000 British pounds. That put the Alfa in the same price category as the legendary 3 liter Bentley, one of the most pleasant and durable cars ever produced.

In the late 1930's BMW presented a revolutionary design which hardly altered for 20 years. The "BMW 328" model had a remarkably powerful 2 liter engine set in a light tubular frame. The designer, Dr. Fiedler, departed from the usual tall radiator and introduced a low, sloping front. Not only did this car look different. On long stretches it could do almost 100 mph. To many, the "328" was the sports car of the decade.

After World War 2 other designers copied Dr. Fiedler's ideas, so that today practically all "true" sports cars have low front areas and light, high-speed engines. The 3.2 liter BMW 507 was designed by the same Dr. Fiedler. Its hard top could be removed when the weather was fine. The 507 featured a five speed gearbox, and could top 135 miles per hour.

Meanwhile in the UK the MG concern continued to flourish, as did Triumph with their wonderful TR3. No doubt its popularity was due to its impressive performance, reliability and its cheap running costs. Ferrari would develop the Farina, and Alfa Romeo the wonderful Guiletta models.

For those less well heeled, there was the Austin Healey and Austin Healey Sprite's. Each offered good looks (although the Bug Eye was a little take it or leave it). Although modest in capacity, the engineers used twin carburetors and strong valve springs to help give the Healey's solid performance, and a top speed of nearly 120 mph.

But without doubt, the honour of the most prestigous sports car of our time goes to the Mercedes Benz 300SL Roadster. Beautifully designed, and without the encumberances of the all too awkward "Gull Wing" doors of the coupe model, the 300SL was and, in many respects remains, without peer. Obviously the 300SL was the some of many ingenious parts, be it the tubular frame or re-worked 3 liter engine. But for the enthusiast, it was the petrol injection system that ranked the highest.

Also see:
A Brief History Of The Automobile
A Brief History Of The Four Wheel Drive
Founding Fathers Of The Automotive Industry
The Automotive Industry, Pre World War 1
The Automotive Industry, Between The Wars
The Automotive Industry, Post War
Unique Cars and Parts USA - The Ultimate Classic Car Resource