Sports Cars - A Look Back; by Geoff Wheatley

Sports Cars - A Look Back by Geoff Wheatley
Geoff Wheatley looks at the history of sports cars
Published by: All Car Central Publishing
Date published: 05/13/2015

MGJ2 1933


Sports Cars - A Look Back

At a recent car gathering I was asked who made the first Sports Car. Most people think it had to be some European manufacturer as most of the sports cars that we tend to remember come from Europe, (that includes the United Kingdom of course).

However America certainly was part of the early development of the Sports Car, a term that in many ways is somewhat vague as many early cars looked like a sports car behaved like one and raced in what can only be described as Sports Events in such locations as the Brick Yard at Indianapolis, before the First World War. Across the Atlantic such cars were setting new records at England's Brooklands Race Track, the first fully banked course in the world.

Thomas Flyer Model 35 New York-to-Paris Racecar 1907

 Thomas Flyer

As early as 1905 a six cylinder American "Thomas Flyer" driven by two chains located each side of the vehicle driving the rear wheels competed in several events with success. The price for this gem was a cool $6,000 that's 1905 dollars of course. In 1906 the Packard Motor Company offered a so-called sports runabout. Within the same time frame there was a the Packard "Grey Wolf" a specially built race car that amongst other achievements did the mile run on Daytona Beach in 47 seconds. 1907 produced two contenders for the sports car title. First the "American Speedster" priced at $5,000.

Apperson Jack Rabbit 1913

 Apperson Jack Rabbit 1913

Also the "Apperson Jack Rabbit" that featured a four cylinder fifty horse power engine, as with the Thomas Flyer the drive was through two chains located each side of the car. In 1908 the car was placed second in the 254 mile Savannah Cup Race. Several cars were produced and competed in many of the speed events of the day. In 1908 two cars could be considered. The Allan Kingston with a four cylinder engine rated at 44 Horse Power selling for $3,500. As it featured four seats rather than two the term Sports Car may be stretching the truth although it did win a few speed events.

Stutz Series B Bearcat 1913

 Stutz Series B Bearcat 1913

Next the "Dragon", manufactured in Philadelphia and presented as one of the fastest speedster's of its time. In reality it never won any awards despite the fact that it was advertised as a competition vehicle priced at $1,750. Engine rated at 35 Horse Power produced through four cylinders. 1908 was a bumper year for American sports cars with the "Simplex" setting records where ever it was entered. A Simplex won the 1913 Phoenix race of 517 miles with another Simplex coming in forth. The price when introduced was $4,500 but after winning a few events the price increased to $5,000.

Lancia Lambda 1930

 Lancia Lambda 1930

Foreign Sports cars were also being imported like the Lancia that showed a clean pair of rear wheels to most competitors in company with the Renault who offered two sports cars both with four cylinder engines imported from France and popular with the speed crowd who tended to race them at speed events then drive them as a two seated sports car at weekends. Priced to sell at just under $2,000 they were the popular speedster of the day.

As I have indicated you would not be wrong to assume that these cars were not true sports cars in the current meaning of the word but until the start mid 1930's most so called sports cars were competition vehicles rather than weekend fun machines. They competed at club events such as hill climbing, or speed trials especially in Europe and South America. Very few of these cars ever found their way to the American events the early 1940's but of course by 1950 they were almost everywhere with a minimum amount of competition from any home grown vehicle.

America had to wait until the Corvette and the Mustang appeared before any serious sports vehicle was available. May I end with the original question, "Who made the first Sports car?" To be honest no one is quite sure, further more what is the dividing line between a fast speedster and a spots vehicle, or better still a fast production car such as a Jaguar or a Mercedes that can reach three or more figures on the speedometer while carrying four passengers and luggage. At one time we associated speed with the term Sports, but I think that time has passed. What do you think?
Geoff Wheatley

Corvette Prototype 1953


Ford Thunderbird 1955
Rick Feibusch Photo

 Ford Thunderbird 1955 click here