A sports car is designed to emphasise handling, performance or thrill of driving. Sports cars originated in Europe in the early 1900s and are currently produced by many manufacturers around the world.
Definitions of sports cars often relate to how the car design is optimised for dynamic performance (car handling), without any specific minimum requirements; both a Triumph Spitfire and Ferrari 488 Pista can be considered sports cars, despite vastly different levels of performance. Broader definitions of sports cars include cars "in which performance takes precedence over carrying capacity", or that emphasise the "thrill of driving" or are "marketed "using the excitement of speed and the glamour of the (race)track" However, other people have more specific definitions, such as "must be a two-seater or a 2+2 seater" or a car with two seats only.
In the United Kingdom, an early recorded usage of the "sports car" was in The Times newspaper in 1919. The first known use of the term in the United States was in 1928. Sports cars started to become popular during the 1920s. The term was originally used for two-seat roadsters (cars without a fixed roof), however since the 1970s the term has also been used for cars with a fixed roof (which were previously considered grand tourers).
Attributing the definition of 'sports car' to any particular model can be controversial or the subject of debate among enthusiasts. Authors and experts have often contributed their own ideas to capture a definition. Insurance companies have also attempted to use mathematical formulae to categorise sports cars.
There is no fixed distinction between sports cars and other categories of performance cars, such as muscle cars and grand tourers, with some cars being members of several categories.
Sports cars are not usually intended to regularly transport more than two adult occupants, so most modern sports cars are usually two-seat layout or 2+2 layout (two smaller rear seats for children or occasional adult use). Larger cars with more spacious rear-seat accommodation are usually considered sports sedans rather than sports cars.
The 1993-1998 McLaren F1 is notable for using a three-seat layout, where the front row consists of a centrally-located driver's seat.
Engine and drivetrain layout
The location of the engine and driven wheels significantly influence the handling characteristics of a car and are therefore important in the design of a sports car. Traditionally, most sports cars have used rear-wheel drive with the engine either located at the front of the car (FR layout) or in the middle of the car (MR layout). Examples of FR layout sports cars are the Caterham 7, Mazda MX-5, and the Chevrolet Corvette. Examples of MR layout sports cars are the Ferrari 488, Ford GT and Toyota MR2. To avoid a front-heavy weight distribution, many FR layout sports cars are designed so that the engine is located further back in the engine bay, as close to the firewall as possible.
Since the 1990s, all-wheel drive has become more common in sports cars. All-wheel drive offers increased traction, although the downside is the added mass of the extra drivetrain components. Examples of all-wheel drive sports cars are the Lamborghini Huracan, Bugatti Veyron and Nissan GT-R.
Although front-wheel drive with the engine at the front (FF layout) is the most common layout for cars in general, it is not as common amongst sports cars. Nonetheless, the FF layout is often used by sport compacts and hot hatches. Examples of FF layout sports cars are Fiat Barchetta, Saab Sonett, Opel Tigra and Berkeley cars.
1895–1915: Brass Era cars
A car considered to be "a sports-car years ahead of its time" is the 1903 Mercedes Simplex 60 hp, described at the time as a fast touring car and designed by Wilhelm Maybach and Paul Daimler. The Mercedes included pioneering features such as a pressed-steel chassis, a gated 4-speed transmission, pushrod-actuated overhead inlet valves, a honeycomb radiator, low-tension magneto ignition, a long wheelbase, a low centre of mass and a very effective suspension system. The overall result was a "safe and well-balanced machine" with a higher performance than any other contemporary production car. At the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup, a production Simplex 60 hp was entered only due to a specially-built 90 hp racing car being destroyed in a fire; the 60 hp famously went on to win the race.
The 1910 Austro-Daimler 27/80 is another early sports car which had success in motor racing. The 27/80 was designed by Ferdinand Porsche, who drove the car to victory in the 1910 Prince Henry Tour motor race. The Vauxhall and Austro-Daimler— like the Mercedes Simplex 60 hp— were production fast touring cars. The 1912 Hispano-Suiza Alfonso XIII is also considered one of the earliest sports cars, as it was a "purpose built, high performance, two-seater production automobile". The model was named after King Alfonso XIII of Spain, a patron of the car's chief designer and an enthusiast for the marque. Other early sports cars include the 1905 Isotta Fraschini Tipo D, the 1906 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, the 1908 Delage, the 1910 Bugatti Type 13 and the 1912 DFP 12/15.
Early motor racing events included the 1903 Paris–Madrid race, the 1905-1907 Herkomer Trophy, the 1908-1911 Prince Henry Tour and the 1911-present Monte Carlo Rally. The Prince Henry Tours (which were similar to modern car rallies) were among the sporting events of the period, bringing renown to successful entrants. The Prince Henry Tours started the evolution of reasonably large and technically advanced production sports cars.
In England, development of sporting cars was inhibited by the Motor Car Act 1903, which imposed a speed limit of 20 mph (32 km/h) on all public roads. This led to the 1907 opening of the Brooklands motor circuit, which inspired the development of performance cars such as the 1910 Vauxhall Prince Henry, 1910 Sunbeam 12/16, 1910 Talbot 25 hp, 1910 Straker-Squire 15 hp and 1913 Star 15.9 hp.
1919-1929: Vintage Era cars
Following the halt in sports car production caused by World War I, Europe returned to manufacturing automobiles from around 1920. It was around this time that the term 'Sports Car' began to appear in the motor catalogues, although the exact origin of the name is not known. The decade which followed became known as the vintage era and featured rapid technical advances over the preceding Brass Era cars. Engine performance benefited from the abandonment of "tax horsepower" (where vehicles were taxed based on bore and number of cylinders, rather than actual power output) and the introduction of leaded fuel, which increased power by allowing for higher compression ratios.
In the early 1920s, the cost to produce a racing car was not significantly higher than a road car, therefore several manufacturers used the design from the current year's racing car for the next year's sports car. For example, the 1921 Ballot 2LS based on the racing car that finished third at the 1921 French Grand Prix. The Benz 28/95PS was also a successful racing car, with victories including the 1921 Coppa Florio. Another approach— such as used by Morris Garages— was to convert touring cars into sports cars.
The first 24 Hours of Le Mans race for sports cars was held in 1923, although the two-seat sports cars only competed in the smallest class, with the majority of cars entered being four-seat fast touring cars. "This race, together with the Tourist Trophy Series of Races, organised after the first World War by the R.A.C., appealed to the public imagination and offered to the manufacturers of the more sporting cars an excellent opportunity for boosting sales of their products." The classic Italian road races— the Targa Florio, and the Mille Miglia (first held in 1927)— also captured the public's imagination.
By 1925, the higher profits available for four-seater cars resulted in production of two-seat sports cars being limited to smaller manufacturers such as Aston-Martin (350 Astons built from 1921-1939) and Frazer-Nash (323 cars built from 1924–1939). Then by the late 1920s, the cost of producing racing cars (especially Grand Prix cars) escalated, causing more manufacturers to produce cars for the growing sports car market instead.
Significant manufacturers of sports cars in the late 1920s were AC Cars, Alfa Romeo, Alvis, Amilcar, Bignan and Samson, Chenard-Walcker, Delage, Hispano-Suiza, Hotchkiss, Mercedes-Benz and Nazzaro. Two cars from the Vintage Era that would influence sports cars for many years were the Austin Seven and MG M-type "Midget". Successful sports cars from Bentley during this era were the Bentley 3 Litre (1921-1929) and the Bentley Speed Six (1928-1930), with the former famously described by Bugatti's founder as "the fastest lorry in the world".
1930-1939: Pre-war Era cars
Sandwiched between the Great Depression and the World War II, the pre-war era was a period of decline in importance for sports car manufacturers, although the period was not devoid of advances, for example streamlining. Cheap, light-weight family sedans with independent front suspension— such as the BMW 303, Citroën Traction Avant and Fiat 508— offered similar handling and comfort to the more expensive sports cars. Powerful, reliable and economical (although softly suspended) American saloons began to be imported to Europe in significant numbers. Sports car ownership was increased through models such as the Austin 7 and Wolseley Hornet six, however many of these sports cars did not offer any performance upgrades over the mass-produced cars upon which they were based.
The highest selling sports car company of the 1930s was Morris Garages, who produced 'MG Midget' models of the M-Type, J-Type, P-Type and T-Type. The K3 version of the K-Type Magnette was a successful racing car, achieving success in the Mille Miglia, Tourist Trophy and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Bugatti Type 57 (1934-1940) was another significant sports car of the pre-war era and is now among the most valuable cars in the world. The T57 was successful in sports car races, including winning the 1937 24 Hours of Le Mans and 1939 24 Hours of Le Mans. Another successful Bugatti sports car was the Bugatti Type 55 (1932-1935), which was based on the Type 51 Grand Prix racing car.
1939-1959: Expansion following World War II
The decade following the Second World War saw an "immense growth of interest in the sports car, but also the most important and diverse technical developments [and] very rapid and genuine improvement in the qualities of every modern production car; assisted by new design and manufacturing techniques a consistently higher level of handling properties has been achieved."
In Italy, a small but wealthy market segment allowed for the manufacture of a limited number of high-performance models directly allied to contemporary Grand Prix machines, such as the 1948 Ferrari 166 S. A new concept altogether was the modern Gran Turismo class from Italy, which was in effect unknown before the war: sustained high speed motoring from relatively modest engine size and compact closed or berlinetta coachwork. The 1947 Maserati A6 1500 two-seat berlinetta was the first production model from Maserati.
In Germany the motor industry was devastated by the war, however a small number of manufacturers brought it to prominence once more. In 1948, the Porsche 356 was released as the debut model from Porsche. The significance of the Porsche 356 and its successors was described in 1957 as "future historians must see them as among the most important of mid-century production cars". The 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL is another significant car from this era.
1960-1979: Lightweight roadsters, mid-engined supercars
The 1961 Jaguar E-Type is an iconic sports car of the early 1960s, due to its attractive styling and claimed top speed of 241 km/h (150 mph). The E-type was produced for 14 years and was initially powered by a six-cylinder engine, followed by a V12 engine for the final generation.
In 1962, the MG B introduced a new era of affordable lightweight four-cylinder roadsters. The MG B used a unibody construction and was produced until 1980. Other successful lightweight roadsters include the Triumph Spitfire (1962-1980) and the Alfa Romeo Spider (1966-1993). The Fiat X1/9 (1972-1989) was unusual for its use of a mid-engine design in an affordable roadster model. A late entrant to the affordable roadster market was the 1975 Triumph TR7, however by the late 1970s the demand for this style of car was in decline, resulting in production ceasing in 1982.
The original Lotus Elan (1962-1975) two-seat coupe and roadster models are an early commercial success for the philosophy of achieving performance through minimising weight, as has been rated as one of the top 10 sports cars of the 1960s. The Elan featured fibreglass bodies, a backbone chassis, and overhead camshaft engines.
A very different style of roadster was the AC Cobra, released in 1962, which was fitted with V8 engines up to 7.0 L (427 cu in) in size.
The Porsche 911 was released in 1964 and has remained in production since. The 911 is notable for its use of the uncommon rear-engine design and the use of a flat-six engine. Another successful rear-engine sports car was the original Alpine A110 (1961-1977), which was a successful rally car during the Group 4 era.
The Lamborghini Miura (1966) and Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale (1967) mid-engined high performance cars are often cited as the first supercars. Other significant European models of the 1960s and 1970s which might be considered supercars today are the Ferrari 250 GTO (1962-1964), Ferrari 250 GT Lusso (1963-1964), Ferrari 275 GTB/4 (1966-1968), Maserati Ghibli (1967-1973), Ferrari Daytona (1968-1973), Dino 246 (1969-1974), De Tomaso Pantera (1971-1993), Ferrari 308 GTB (1975-1980) and BMW M1 (1978-1981).
The Ford Capri is a 2+2 coupe that was produced from 1968-1986 and intended to be a smaller European equivalent of the Ford Mustag. A main rival to the Capri was Opel Manta, which was produced from 1970-1988.
The 1973-1978 Lancia Stratos was a mid-engined two-seat coupe that was powered by a Ferrari V6 engine. This was an unusual arrangement for a car used to compete in rallying, nonetheless it was very successful and won the World Rally Championship in 1974, 1975 and 1976.
The Lancia_Montecarlo was produced from 1975 to 1981 and is part of the Beta range, being a two-seater, available as a coupe or a spider. Known as Lancia Scorpion in the USA.
Ferrari 250 GTO
Lotus Elan Sprint (1970-1973)
1980-1999: Turbocharging and all-wheel drive emerge
Turbocharging became increasingly popular in the 1980s, from relatively affordable coupes such as the 1980-1986 Renault Fuego and 1992-1996 Rover 220 Coupé Turbo, to expensive supercars such as the 1984-1987 Ferrari 288 GTO and 1987-1992 Ferrari F40.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, several manufacturers developed supercars which competed for production car top speed records. These cars included the 1986-1993 Porsche 959, 1991-1995 Bugatti EB 110, 1992-1994 Jaguar XJ220 and 1993-1998 McLaren F1.
The 1980-1995 Audi Quattro was a pioneering all-wheel drive sports car. The 1995 Porsche 911 Turbo (993) say the 911 Turbo model switch to all-wheel drive, a drivetrain layout that the model uses to this day.
The BMW M3 was released in 1986 and has been produced for every generation since. The 1993-1996 Mercedes-Benz W124 E36 AMG was the mass-produced AMG model. Audi's equivalent division, called "RS", was launched in 1994 with the Audi RS 2 Avant.
Ford Europe withdrew from the sports car market at the end of 1986 when the Capri was discontinued after a production run of nearly two decades. There was no direct successor, as Ford was concentrating on higher performance versions of its hatchback and saloon models at the time.
In 1989, a new generation of Lotus Elan roadster was released which used a front-wheel drive layout, a controversial choice for a "purist" sports car. The Elan sold poorly and is was discontinued after three years. The 1996 Lotus Elise, a mid-engined, rear-wheel drive roadster, was much more successful and remains in production to this day.
Roadsters enjoyed a resurgence in the late 1980s and early-mid 1990s, including the 1989-Present Mazda MX-5 Miata, the 1995-2002 BMW Z3 (succeeded by the 2002-2016 BMW Z4), the mid-engined 1995-2002 MG F (succeeded by the 2002-2005 MG TF) and the 1998-present Audi TT (also available as a coupe). In 1996, the Porsche Boxster mid-engined roadster was released by Porsche as an entry level model to sit below the rear-engined Porsche 911 models. The Mazda MX5 and Porsche Boxster (and related Porsche Cayman coupe models) remain in production to this day.
2000-present: Turbos become dominant, hybrids emerge
The 2000-present Lotus Exige was introduced as a coupe version of Elise. Similarly, Porsche Cayman (987) was introduced in 2006 as the coupe equivalent to the Porsche Boxster roadster. Lotus also expanded their model range with the 2009-present Lotus Evora, a larger four-seat coupe.
Audi's first mid-engined supercar is the 2006-present Audi R8. Other sports cars of the 2000s were the 2005-2010 Alfa Romeo Brera/Spider, 2009-2015 Peugeot RCZ and the 2008-2017 reintroduction of the Volkswagen Scirocco (a coupe based on the VW Golf platform).
Reflecting overall car industry trends, the mid 2010s saw naturally aspirated engines being replaced by turbocharged engines. Ferrari's first regular production turbocharged engine was used in the 2014-2017 Ferrari California T, followed by the 2015-2019 Ferrari 488. Similarly, in 2016, the Porsche 911 (991.2) began to use turbocharging on all models and the Porsche 982 Cayman/Boxster downsized from a six-cylinder engine to a turbocharged four-cylinder engine.
Also in the 2010s, dual-clutch transmissions became more widespread, causing manual transmissions to decline in sales and no longer be offered on some models.
Hybrid-electric sports cars began to appear in the 2010s— notably the 2013-2016 LaFerrari, 2013-2015 McLaren P1, 2013-2015 Porsche 918 Spyder "hypercars". The 2014-present BMW i8 was also an early plug-in hybrid sports car.
McLaren began permanent car manufacturing operations with the 2011-2014 McLaren 12C.
In 2013, the Jaguar F-Type saw the brand return to two-seat sports car market, with the four-seat grand tourer Jaguar XK discontinued the following year.
The 2013-present Alfa Romeo 4C two-seat coupe and roadster used a carbon-fibre body and became Alfa's mid-engine sports car since the 1967-1969 Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale.
In 2017, Renault revived the Alpine brand for the 2017-present Alpine A110 mid-engine coupe.
During the 1910s and 1920s, American manufacturers of smaller sports cars included Apperson, Kissel, Marion, Midland, National, Overland, Stoddard-Dayton and Thomas; manufacturers of larger sports cars included Chadwick, Mercer, Stutz Motor Company, and Simplex.
Since the 1960s, American performance cars have often been designed as muscle cars rather than sports cars. However, several American two-seat sports cars have also been produced, such as the 1953-present Chevrolet Corvette, 1962-1967 Shelby Cobra, 1983-1988 Pontiac Fiero and 2005-2006 Ford GT.
Stutz Bearcat Speedster
Mercer Type 35 Raceabout
Chevrolet Corvette (C1)
The first Japanese sports car was the 1959-1960 Datsun 211, a two-seat roadster built on the chassis of a compact pickup truck and powered by a 1.0 L (60 cu in) engine. Only 20 cars were built, and the 1963-1965 Datsun SP310— based on the chassis of a passenger sedan instead of a pickup truck— is often considered Datsun's first mass-production sports car.
Honda's first sports car was the 1963-1964 Honda S500, a two-seat roadster with independent suspension for all wheels and a 0.5 L (32 cu in) DOHC engine. In 1965, Toyota joined the two-seat roadster market with the Toyota Sports 800.
Mazda is noted for its use of rotary engines, beginning in 1967 with the Mazda Cosmo. The Cosmo was a two-seat coupe with a 0.9 L (55 cu in) rotary engine producing up to 97 kW (130 bhp). Mazda continued to produce sports cars with rotary engines (sometimes turbocharged) until the Mazda RX-8 ended production in 2012.
The Toyota 2000GT, produced from 1967-1970, was an expensive two-seat coupe that greatly changed overseas perceptions of the Japanese automotive industry. The 2000GT demonstrated that Japan was capable of producing high-end sports cars to rival the traditional European brands.
1969-1977: Mass-production begins
In 1969, Nissan introduced the Nissan Fairlady Z / Datsun 240Z two-seat coupe, powered by a 2.4 L (146 cu in) six-cylinder engine and described as providing similar performance to the Jaguar E-Type at a more affordable price. The 240Z began the lineage of Nissan "Z cars" which continues through to today's Nissan 370Z. In 1974, Nissan expanded their coupe range with the Nissan Silvia 2+2 coupe, which was powered by a four-cylinder engine and produced until 2002.
Also in 1969, Mitsubishi's first performance car was introduced, in the form of the Mitsubishi Colt 11-F Super Sports coupe. The 11-F Super Sports was followed by the 1970-1977 Mitsubishi Galant GTO and 1971-1975 Mitsubishi Galant FTO, both based on a platform shared with the Galant sedan.
Toyota's mass-production 2+2 coupes of the 1970s consisted of the Celica, Supra, Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno. The Celica was introduced in 1971 and remained in production until 2006. From 1979-1986, the Supra name was used for six-cylinder versions of the Celica, until the Supra moved to a separate platform from 1986-2002. The Corolla Levin / Sprinter Trueno were based on the Toyota Corolla hatchback platform and produced from 1972-2000.
The Nissan Skyline GT-R was initially produced as a sedan for two years, before a coupe model was introduced in 1971. This first generation Skyline GT-R had rear-wheel drive, a 2.0 L (122 cu in) six-cylinder engine and was produced until 1972.
1978-1988: Front-wheel drive introduced
The Honda Prelude front-wheel drive 2+2 coupe was launched in 1978 and remained in production until 2001. The 1985-2006 Honda Integra was also a front-wheel drive 2+2 coupe produced by Honda. Other 2+2 models included the 1982-1989 Mitsubishi Starion (turbocharged and rear-wheel drive) and the 1985-1991 Subaru XT (available with a turbocharger and all-wheel drive). Subaru have produced few sports cars in their history, instead focussing on rally-influenced sedans/hatchbacks for their performance models, such as the Liberty RS and Imprezza WRX/STi models.
The first Korean coupe model was the 1988 Hyundai Scoupe, which used front-wheel drive and was based on Excel hatchback. The Scoupe was followed by 1996-2008 Hyundai Tiburon and 2011-present Hyundai Veloster.
1989-2011: All-wheel drive, first supercars
Inspired by the 1950s and 1960s two-seat roadsters from Italy and Britain, the Mazda MX-5 (sold as the 'Mazda Miata' in the United States) was introduced in 1989. The MX-5 is the highest selling sports car and remains in production to this day.
The Nissan Skyline GT-R was reintroduced in 1989-2002 (R32, R33 and R34 generations) which became famous for their use of turbocharging and all-wheel drive, which provided performance comparable with many more expensive sports cars. The latest generation (R35) was named the Nissan GT-R has been produced since 2007.
The 1990-2005 Honda NSX is considered Japan's first supercar. The NSX was praised for being more reliable and user-friendly than contemporary European supercars. Aside from the NSX, the other Japanese supercar is the 2010-2012 Lexus LFA, a two-seat mid-engine coupe powered by a 4.8 L (293 cu in) V10 engine.
The Mitsubishi GTO coupe/convertible was introduced in 1990. The base models used rear-wheel drive and a naturally aspirated V6 engine, however all-wheel drive and a turbocharged V6 engine were also available. To sit below the GTO in the model range, the Mitsubishi FTO front-wheel drive coupe was introduced in 1994. Both the GTO and FTO were discontinued in 2000.
2012-present: Declining popularity of coupes
The Toyota 86 / Subaru BRZ is a 2+2 coupe that was introduced in 2012 and currently remains in production. The 86/BRZ is a rare modern example of a relatively affordable rear-wheel drive sports car.
The 2016-present Honda NSX (2nd generation) supercar marked a change in approach for Honda, by using all-wheel drive, a hybrid drivetrain, turbocharging and a dual-clutch transmission.
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Today Mazda announced a new milestone for the popular MX-5 roadster, with the 900,000th unit rolling off the production line. In doing so, it is also recognized by Guinness World Records as the best selling sports car.
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The ancestor of all high-performance cars had its origin in Germany. The 28-h.p. Cannstatt-Daimler racing car of 1899 was without a doubt the first attempt to give real performance to a road car. Many of its features, such as a honeycomb radiator and gate gear change, were continued on the much improved version which Paul Daimler designed in 1899-1900. This was of course the famous Mercedes. It also laid down standards of chassis design which were to be followed, almost unthinkingly, for the next thirty years. Several variants of the car appeared during the next year or two, all conforming to the same basic design and earning for themselves a reputation second to none for fast and reliable travel. The 60-h.p. cars were announced late in 1902. The cars were possessed of a very real performance superior to anything else which could be bought at the time... and the model achieved an almost invincible position among the fast cars of its day.
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