The Best Definition of the Term ‘Sports Car’? And the First American Sports Car

1906 Stanley Model H “The Gentleman’s Speedy Roadster”

Yesterday’s post on the 1987 Camaro IROC and subsequent discussion about whether the term ‘sports car’ applied to it had me reaching for one of my older books on my shelf: “A History of Sports Cars” by G.N. Georgano (1970). It’s a fairly seminal tract on the subject, and starts with the following words:

More words have been written on the definition of a sports car than on any other kind of vehicle

And then he goes on to distill what is undoubtedly the most appropriate definition:

“Practically every car has been entered for sporting competition of some kind or another, but the definition must surely rest not on how cars were actually used, but on the makers’ intentions. Here one can hardly find a better definition than that of Cyril Posthumus who said that a sports car is one in which performance takes precedence over carrying capacity ”  (emphasis added)

Note: “capacity” might best be interpreted also as “comfort” in the modern sense. Meaning, performance has taken precedence over those qualities that would have likely impeded it, such as passenger capacity and creature comforts.

So the origin of the term “sports” obviously has to do with road cars being used in sporting events, with a further narrowing to those that were specifically designed to enhance its performance and competitiveness, even if not necessarily used in competition.

But clearly the ability to readily be competitive in motors sports was an essential part of the definition of a sports car for a very long time, and was especially true during the Great American Sports Car Boom, which really got going in the immediate post war era and lasted into the 60s. In that time, participating in various sporting events like rallies, road races, gymkhanas, etc. was a key aspect to sports car ownership, and it was during this time that the term ‘sports car” really became a common one in the US, and one that was closely associated with sporting events.  And one that was initially associated mostly with British roadsters, and a few other European brands and models.

Of course, there were sports cars going back long before the Sports Car Boom. And the book I have quoted does an excellent job at tracing the origins and evolution of the sports cars, which is very much not limited strictly to two-seaters, as there were a number of key four-passenger cars that very much fell into the definition and had success in sporting events.

Just to make things a bit less clear-cut, Georgano also uses the term ‘sporting car’ interchangeably with ‘sports car’. It really was about specific abilities, and not limited to any particular size or the number of possible passengers.

For that matter, some early sporting events required four passengers/observers to be seated during the even even, such as the famous Prince Heinrich Trials, which Ferdinand Porsche won (at the wheel) so convincingly in 1910 with his very advanced Austro Daimler, one of the most important early (and very genuine) sports cars in Europe.

So what was the first American sports car? Undoubtedly the 1906 Model H Stanley Steamer, ‘The Gentleman’s Speedy Roadster’, which could readily exceed 60 mph, and even top 70 or 80 according to some. Those were unheard of speeds at the time. Yet it was perfectly tractable.

Within a few more years, there were of course a number of American cars that fit the description too, like the 1912 Mercer Runabout.

Although American sports cars tended to be larger and heavier than European ones, it certainly doesn’t mean they didn’t fit the description or inclusion in the book, like this 1935 Duesenberg SSJ.

But that’s not to mean American sports cars were limited to large, expensive machines. The Ford Model T unleashed a substantial industry that offered every conceivable part to turn a T into a true high-performance sports car, as well as genuine racing cars if so desired. They may have been called Speedsters, but they were also sports cars, even if the term wasn’t in use in the US at the time.

And that continued for some time. We tend to think of hot rods as being all about drag racing, but in reality, most of the pre-war and much of the early post-war hot rod movement was about all-round performance, not just in a straight line. Improvements in handling, braking and all-round dynamics was a common goal.

And the appearance of expensive European sports cars like the Jaguar XK-120 in 1948 unleashed the great home-built fiberglass sports car boom, when so many body shells were being offered to make an old Ford frame and chassis (or other make) look like something very expensive from Europe.

Although the Corvette may have been not very competitive in its first couple of years, it was clearly a sports car from the beginning, according to the definition, what with its its triple side-draft carbs and spartan accommodations. And starting in 1956, it became competitive; very much so.

Given that the 1964 Pontiac GTO and all of its copy-cats made no sacrifices in terms of “carrying capacity” (or any other comforts), it certainly was never a sports car.

And since the Mustang and other pony cars were commonly sold in very modest performance versions, the definition doesn’t apply either. Although it’s also hard to argue that some versions, like the Shelby GT350, weren’t genuine sports cars, given that it gave up its back seat and other amenities to the quest for more performance.

Frankly, the term “sports car” has become largely anachronistic. As technology advances, there’s little or no need to give up passenger capacity, comfort and amenities for performance. A Tesla S is the fastest accelerating production car in the world to 60 (in 2.28 seconds), beating the most expensive “sports cars” in the world, and it seats up to seven. And it’s a well know fact that popular sports cars like the Miata are not exactly built to be faster than quick sport sedans or be specifically more competitive in racing/sporting events, but designed more to offer a specific driving experience.

Like so many others, the definition of “sports car” arrived from a specific source: to be more competitive in sporting events. But nowadays, the most important sporting event is in creating a user experience and public image. And for those purposes, “sports car” has a pretty broad application. But one could also argue that it’s a mostly anachronistic term that just won’t die fast enough. Like so many labels that have largely outlived their original meaning, it’s mostly in the eye of the person using it. The phrase, that is.