A common misconception heard today is that the Corvette was the first American sports car. The Corvette is not even the first post-WWII sports car. And the genre goes back much farther than that. The American sports car had matured quite a bit by the time Corvette came along. But there is no mistaking the fact that the sports car concept was born of a love for speed.
The first high performance cars were European, but America was not far behind. Performance-focused cars began to appear in the U.S. in the early 1900s, while the term, sports car, was not coined until the late 1920s.
At first, there seemed to be no defining characteristic concerning overall vehicle size for a sports car. Some were relatively small (for the era) like the Stoddard-Dayton, Kissel, Overland, and National. Others were noticeably bigger, like the Chadwick, Simplex, Mercer Raceabout, and probably the most famous of this early era, the Stutz Bearcat. The Bearcat was first produced in 1912 and sporadically into the 1930s.
Perhaps two defining characteristics separate the American sports car from its European cousins, the first being vehicle size. Europeans much more quickly separated larger cars from their smaller sports cars. To be sure, there were some massive European performance cars, such as those made by Hispano-Suiza and Isotta Fraschini, but they were not seen as sports cars so much as luxury cars. In America, the notion of very large “sports cars” lived on for much longer, and still resonates with echoes that probably hark back to the muscle car era.
The muscle car is also probably part of the reason for the other major difference from the European image: Sheer power as a focus instead of a more balanced approach to performance including handling, braking, cornering, weight distribution, etc. America has always had a preference for thumping power output in our performance cars, whether they were sports cars, muscle cars, personal cars, or even sedans.
American automakers seemed almost schizoid in their indecision to go large or small with their sports cars. One of the smallest was the Crosley Hot Shot, introduced in 1949. It was so small many might say it was not even big enough to qualify as a sports car. But the Sports Car Club of America had a racing class that it fit right into, and had a notably successful racing career.
In the same year, 1949, Oldsmobile introduced the full-sized high compression Rocket 88–clearly not a sports car–and some commentators claim it was the first Muscle Car due to its emphasis on horsepower. But while European sports cars moved away from larger size, some American sports cars stayed with the concept even after WWII. If you count the Nash-Healey as a sports car (I do) and as a fully American car (more iffy), it was one of the last examples of the very large sports car. It debuted to the public late in 1950 (as a 1951 model), hot on the heels of a 4th place finish at the prestigious Le Mans 24 hours.
The iffy part of it being fully American rests in the fact that it had an Italian-designed and -manufactured body on an English Healey chassis, powered by its fully American Nash engine and drivetrain. But with today’s American cars having foreign-made parts and some of them even being assembled in Mexico or Canada, it is difficult to exclude the Nash-Healey as not American. And if it was good enough for the American-as-apple-pie millionaire playboy, played by William Holden in Hollywood’s blockbuster Sabrina (1954), as well as TV’s Superman, then it is good enough for me, too. And besides, by the time we got to the Dodge Viper (1992), manufacturers were defining their relative status as “American” by how well their models conformed to the “Most American Cars List.” To get on the list, at least 75% of the car’s parts have to be manufactured in the U.S.A.
But the larger sports cars were beginning to lose favor, and the more nimble smaller vehicle would soon rule. The small-production Woodill Wildfire came out in 1952, followed in quick succession by the Corvette in ’53, Hudson Italia and Kaiser-Darrin roadster in ’54, and Ford Thunderbird in ’55. The Italia and Kaiser-Darrin were slightly larger, but the trend toward small was in full swing. The trend toward more power soon weeded out the under-powered models as Corvette introduced its V8 engine in 1955.
The dilemma over which way to go transformed the industry. The proliferation of Muscle Cars and Pony Cars in the 1960s took all of the pressure off of the sports car genre, so it could devote itself to smaller more balanced machines. America had apparently finally found the solution to its automotive psychosis. But just to keep the picture from becoming crystal clear, in 1962 Carroll Shelby introduced the Ford/Shelby AC Cobra. It was clearly a sports car. It was also a beast with tremendous power. By 1967, Shelby was under contract with Ford to modify Mustangs, and the Shelby GT-350 was born. Not a sports car by most definitions, it was a Pony Car with added flair. But Shelby had made his mark on Ford and was largely responsible for the formidable racing program that emerged when Ford launched its assault on international sports car racing with Cobras and the GT-40, a limited production racing car.
The 1970s were lean years for American sports cars due to the industry’s re-focus on economy cars. But by 1981 the DeLorean was introduced and sports car fans began to see more light at the end of the econobox tunnel. In 1992, the Viper arrived. Almost a Supercar before America had Supercars, the Viper was clearly a sports car.
These days the picture is again clouded as to how to define a sports car due to the introduction of the Supercar. Was this a separate category or a sub-genre of sports cars? The first American Supercar was the 2000 Saleen S7. It is unclear what the future of the sports car definition is going to evolve to, but it is crystal clear that in whatever form, sports cars are going to be a part of the American automotive scene for many years to come.