Our love affair with the automobile is particularly apparent when it comes to sports cars. Although far from practical, who hasn’t wished to take one of these two-seaters out on the open road? After all, they look fast, even while standing still, and they definitely have that “cool factor.” However, despite their popularity, the American sports car has had its ups and downs over the years. Here are some of the highlights — what succeeded, what didn’t, and what could have been.
Sporty Cars Before 1950
From the early days of automobiles, American car companies have produced two-seaters, but only to a limited degree. These cars, with their powerful (for the time) engines and short wheel base, were called Speedsters, and they were particularly attractive to the consumer who felt the need to go a little faster. Even Henry Ford built one, based on the venerable Model T platform. But, the model that is perhaps the more recognized of the early two-seaters is the Auburn Boattail Speedster. It’s hard to imagine how these stunning, supercharged 8 cylinder convertibles of the 1930s would have evolved had the Auburn Car Company not gone out of business shortly after their introduction.
With the approach of the Second World War, two-seaters in the States disappeared. So, for a decade, it was rare to see sports cars on American roads, but that would change.
American Sport Cars of the Early 1950s
Following the Second World War, European automakers, like Jaguar, MG, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, Delahaye, and Ferrari, were all turning out small two-seaters. In the early ’50s, American car companies began taking notice of these open-air sports cars, and the opportunity they offered to reach a new group of consumers.
In 1951, Nash became the first American manufacturer to enter into this market by offering the Nash-Healey. This hybrid had a Nash power train, but its chassis modifications and body design were by Healey, a British company. One year later, the body was redesigned by Pininfarina, an Italian manufacturer. The car remained in production through 1954, but because of the Nash-Healey’s hefty price and the declining fortunes of Nash, the parent company, production ended.
During this same time period, GM and Kaiser Motors were developing their own sports cars — the Corvette, which started production in 1953 and Kaiser-Darrin, which was manufactured in 1954. Both cars had fiberglass bodies, but the Kaiser-Darrin had the distinction of having a unique “pocket” door design. Also, a limited number had the option of V8-power. However, sales were weak, and the parent company, Kaiser Motors, who itself was struggling, ended production after only one year.
The Race for the Best Sports Car Heats Up in the Mid-1950s
In 1955, Ford entered the race, with its sports car, the Thunderbird (T-Bird). This little two-seater, later known as the Baby Bird, was a runaway success, significantly outpacing the Corvette in sales. For the next two years, Thunderbird continued to widen its sales lead. And then, in 1958, Ford decided to add a backseat to the T-Bird, making it a 4-seater. What today seems to have been a wrong move, at the time, was actually a good marketing decision, because sales increased even more that year. However, because of Ford’s change from two to four seats, the Thunderbird was not considered to be a true sports car, and therefore, it was no longer in direct competition with the Corvette. This was good news for GM, who had seriously considered dropping the Corvette from its lineup. In fact, had it not been for a special 1956 Corvette, “The Real McCoy,” which won the 1956 Sebring Sports Car 12 Hours of Endurance race, it is widely believed production would have stopped that year. Instead, the Sebring win launched Corvette’s reputation as a performance car, boosted their less-than-stellar sales, and saved the brand.
Also, in the mid-1950s, two of GM’s other divisions built sports car concepts, the Pontiac Bonneville Special and the Oldsmobile F88. Both cars were upscale versions of the Corvette, not only in style and features, but also in performance. It’s unfortunate that neither car made it into production, because who knows how they would have influenced today’s sports cars.
As testimony to Chrysler’s interest in the sports car market, they tested the waters with several concept cars, one of them being the 1955 Falcon. This great-looking two-seater, with a name Chrysler later gave to Ford, was powered by the first generation Hemi engine. It was probably good news to GM that the Falcon never went into production, but it was definitely a loss to the classic car world.
Sports Cars, 1960 – 1980
During the ’60s, there were several significant changes to the Corvette’s styling. In addition, it became considerably more powerful, reaching its peak, with the L88 model toward the end of the decade. But, the L88 wasn’t without a competitor.
Its challenger, the Shelby Cobra, which was produced from 1962 to 1967, was powered by Ford, its body was produced in England, and final assembly was done at Carroll Shelby’s Speed Shop. Its six year run left us with some of the most sought-after classic cars in existence and a body style that continues to be one of the most cloned cars of all time.
Pontiac jumped into the sports car market from 1984 to 1988, with the first American-produced mid-engine design, the Fiero. Although it was popular in the beginning, declining sales ended its five-year run.
Modern American Sports Cars
In 2014, the newly designed 7th Generation Corvette received multiple “Car of the Year” awards, further proof that this longest-running American sports car isn’t going anywhere. It has become a halo car for GM, and there’s little doubt it will be one of Bow Tie’s elite models for years to come.
At Ford, the two-seater has been absent in their lineup in later years, except for the reintroduction of the retro Baby Bird from 2002 to 2005, and the limited run of the special Ford GTs supercar in 2005 and 2006.
In 1992, Chrysler entered the sports car market big time with the V10 Viper. This high performance two-seater remains in production today.
For more photos of these and other American Sports cars, see: eClassicAutos’ slideshow.
Historical Information about “The Real McCoy,” the Oldsmobile F88, and the Kaiser-Darrin were provided by:
Wild About Cars
Automotive History Preservation Society