What Is A Sports Car And Why Would Anybody Want One?

According to Automotive News, sales of sports cars are down almost 10% this year. Even the iconic Chevrolet Corvette, with is super swoopy space age syling, is suffering a sales decline of nearly 14% so far this year. Mustang and Camaro sales are down. Sales of the iconic Porsche 911 are off by 7%. The awesome new Acura NSX is finding few takers.

CY Corvette sports car

It seems the whole world has gone made for SUVs and (in the American market) trucks. Sedans, wagons, and sports cars are getting shoved aside in favor of roomy all purpose vehicles with all wheel drive and enough cargo space to haul kids, strollers, kayaks, and bicycles. Part of the fascination with SUVs is their high stance that lets drivers and passengers look down upon lesser mortals in their Civics and Corollas. What I call the Mount Olympus syndrome has its limitations, however. Once everyone drives an SUV, the height advantage will cancel itself out.

Changes in perception also affect the demand for sports cars. The focus is on self driving cars, car sharing, hide hailing, and artificial intelligence. The idea of rowing up and down through the gearbox just doesn’t appeal to many people anymore. Many younger people report they aren’t that interested in owing an automobile at all. Our roads are more congested than ever. In order to truly enjoy a high performance car today, it is necessary to become a member of private motorsports park. Hooning around on public roads is frowned upon.

Every new car company feels compelled to create a supercar — a vehicle with such prodigious performance that it will knock the socks off anyone who drives it. The competition to create the fastest, most amazing car the world has ever seen has made the word “supercar” itself passé. Now the next level in performance is embodied in what are called hypercars — vehicles like the Rimac Concept One with more than a thousand horsepower on tap, just waiting to be unleashed by tromping on the go pedal. These cars are highly prized by the “more money than brains” crowd not because of their unmatched performance — which can never be used in real world driving — but because they convey some sort of “my car cost more than your car” status. For the kind of driving actual people do, such cars are a pointless exercise that borders on the absurd.

All of this causes me to ruminate on just exactly what a sports car is. Several years ago, I penned ( or rather typed) an article on this subject which I feel constrained to share with you. It is entitled, What Is A Sports Car?

America’s love affair with sports cars began with the end of World War II. Our soldiers stationed in England during the war discovered British cars like the Austin Healey, MG, Triumph and Jaguar. These cars were generally small and light, compared to their American cousins, and best of all, affordable. Instead of lumbering through turns like a wounded rhinoceros, they were agile and lithe. Which meant that they were fun to drive! Thousands of G.I.’s bought them and shipped them home, which is how America first came to know about sports cars.

Originally, a sports car was anything with four wheels, an engine, some brakes, and two seats. A top was optional. In fact, anything that did not make the car go faster was considered unnecessary. On many of the early British cars, a heater was an option. A second windshield wiper so the passenger could see was an option. Wind up windows? Forget it. Too heavy and cumbersome for a true sports car.

“At the time, most American automobiles weren’t that far ahead of the British sports cars in creature comforts, although a heater and two working windshield wipers were pretty much standard across the land. Things like automatic transmissions and V-8 engines were fairly rare. Air conditioning, power steering and power windows were still decades away from most American showrooms.

Some argue that the high point of the pure British sports car was the MGA. It was the first to use a full “envelope” body that enclosed all four wheels. Although it used exactly the same engine as its predecessor, the MG TD, it was 20 miles per hour faster in a straight line simply because its slippery shape moved through the air with much less resistance. But a heater and top were still optional!

As the American automobile market matured, drivers began to expect more power and more creature comforts. The British manufacturers had to scramble to meet the needs of the market place. Engine power increased and things like roll up windows, functional tops, automatic transmissions and air conditioning became available. Safety considerations made all cars heavier. The days of the rudimentary sporting vehicle were over when MG introduced their MGB in 1962. Boasting 100 horsepower (!), roll up windows, a radio and power brakes as standard equipment, the “B” became the new standard. It was a hot seller and today it is amazing how many folks owned an MGB at some time in their life.

Today, nearing the end of the first decade of the 21st Century, cars are immensely complicated and enormously costly. They feature massive horsepower while cosseting their occupants in interiors that are opulent by any measure. So what is a sports car today?

Quite simply, most cars today are transportation appliances. They get us to work and back, ferry our kids here and there and tow the boat to the lake. Their main function is to get us where we are going on time every time. They feature GPS systems that save us from ever being lost.

A sports car, though? Ahhhh, that is any vehicle that you use just so you can get away from the world for a little while. It’s the car you drive with the windows open so you can smell the aroma of fresh cut hay or the salty tang of the breeze off the ocean. It’s the car that begs you to take a road you have never been down before just to see where it goes. And, if you are lucky, you may just get lost, at least for a little while.”

Mazda Miata

In today’s world, owning a sports car doesn’t make a lot of sense. It can only carry two people. It’s an extravagant use of precious resources. At best, it is only good for use as a second or even a third car. My 1994 Miata is a third car. Right now it is sleeping under a car cover in the garage. But that doesn’t stop me from thinking about next spring when the cover comes off, the engine springs to life once again, and my Miata and I go in search of some serious curves. Can’t wait!

Photo credit: Carolyn Fortuna


Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.