What is a Sports Car?

by David Lane

If you want to get into a discussion of "what is a sportscar," get in line with the pros. Even the magazine gurus don't agree.

It used to be simpler. A sports car was a small two seater with an open top. Sprites, MGs, Jags, Healeys, Alfas, etc. These cars were not as fast acceleration-wise to 60 as a typical large block (or in some cases small block) American V-8. What they offered was wind in your face fun, and a lot of tactile pleasure. Also, they were reasonably priced. Many could be bought new for 25-33% of a $12,000/year income. It also helped that these cars had good balance, and seemed suited both to drive during the week and to race on the weekend without too many modifications. The good old days, eh?

In addition to sports cars there were GT cars. These were meant for fast touring from point A to point B with maximum comfort and speed, without much consideration for things like luggage. Classic GT cars included some of the Italian marques and other cars like Aston Martins. The Volvo 1800 was sold as a budget priced GT. Generally, the hard top cars were considered GTs and the open cars "sports cars." An Alfa Gulietta spyder was considered a sports car. The same car in a closed body was considered a GT. The Ferrari GTO was, by name at least, a GT. ( The O stood for the Italian word for "homoligated;" meaning that enough were built to qualify the car as a production car for racing.) Thus, the loosest description of a GT car is a sports car with a built-on hard top--and usually a little more luxury.

Obviously, there were crossover cars like the Ferrari GTO and the early Porsches. When the BMW sedans and Minis started doing wonders at the track, it got even more confusing. Nevertheless, for those of us who have been around awhile, the notion of "sports car" is still a two seater, open car that meets the original criteria. Prices got out of hand, but Mazda, in a truly wise move, tried to get back to the basic notion of a "sports car" when it brought out the Miata. They did a terrific job of creating a "modern" sports car in its feel, balance, and suitability for club competition.

Adding more power to the Miata would have upset the apple cart because the balance factor would have been more expensive to duplicate. More power means bigger brakes, less gas mileage, sometimes more weight, fatter tires for control, bigger wheels for the tires and of course more cost. Besides, people who drove Sprites didn't care if its 0-60 time could be measured with an hour glass. It was just plain fun. Actually, adding power made little sense when the Miata came out. It would have probably lessened the number of sales because the potential market included a lot if image conscious people who really didn't give a damn about driving the car to its limits, and may have been put off with the strangeness of a rotary. Besides, those who wanted something more could easily step up in performance (and cost) to the second generation RX-7--even a convertible if they wanted. But the lure of a "traditional, British style sports car" was very strong, especially for the middle aged buyers who had either previously owned (or wish they had owned) one in their youth.

It could even be argued that the RX-7 has always fallen more into the GT category than the sports car category. Except for the 2-gen convertible (one of the least sporting of the RX-7s due to the open top and the luxo-cruiser approach) they have all had hard tops. And where do the sports sedans come into it? And what do we do with very powerful convertibles like some of the '60's muscle cars, and the sorta sporting cars like the "sporty cars" of the last few decades. Is a base Camaro a GT car? Does it turn into a sports car in Z-28 guise? Or is it just a faster GT car? The old definition gets very fuzzy indeed!

So, the sports car, as we know it today, is really a state of mind. It needn't be powerful. It needn't be a convertible. It is probably still a two-seater, and it should certainly contain balance in its handling and performance. If you think yours is faster than the other person's, you go to a track and race it. Sports cars, while fun to drag race, are really made with something else in mind. That's why, after decades of history, formal "battle of the imports" events which draw sports cars are only just getting going. And you will notice, very few competitors run stock engines at these things.

A sports car should provide maximum sensory pleasure in its mechanicals. Miatas do that. RX-7s do that. But most of all, every time you fire it up, it should whisper in your ear:

"Let's take the long way home."

Anything you say, dear.

written by: David Lane [dlane@peabody.jhu.edu]