How Sports Cars Work

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Corvette Stingray
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When the automobile sputtered to life in the late 1880s, the sports car wasn't far behind. Briggs Cunningham, the storied American sports-car builder of the 1950s, once declared that "in the beginning every car was a sports car, because they weren't practical or particularly useful on a day-to-day basis."

Then, starting in 1913, one Henry Ford made the motorcar itself universal by using a moving assembly line to crank out his simple Model T with unheard-of speed in unheard-of numbers. Competition and free enterprise did the rest. Soon, most anyone who wanted a car could afford one.

It was in this heady, fast-paced era of technical innovation and industrial growth that the sports car began to emerge as something beyond mere transportation. As pioneer American auto journalist Ken Purdy explained it: "The automobile had tremendous appeal for the sportsman of the [early 1900s]: It was the fastest vehicle at man's bidding, it was new, much about it was unknown. It offered a great challenge."

To the manufacturers, turning out perhaps a few score automobiles a year, racing was the best kind of advertising. Because it was a brand-new sport, the newspapers gave it extensive news coverage, and the manufacturer whose car won an important race on Saturday could be sure of a full order book the following Monday evening." In short, the first racing cars were also the first sports cars. They've been close cousins ever since.

Good or bad, the sports car evolved up to World War II as a creature mainly of Europe and England, not the U.S. Though motorsports remained very popular on both sides of the Atlantic, the topography and economic conditions "over there" tended to breed sportier cars with the defining attributes of quick acceleration, agile handling, and strong brakes. It seemed, that sports cars were thriving.

Then the Depression hit. Smaller companies perished, and the larger U.S. automakers adopted emergency survival measures -- none of which included sports cars. With the start of a terrible new world war, some thought the sports car as good as dead.

But the pundits were wrong again. Liberated by unpredecented prosperity in the early postwar years, some Americans began rejecting homegrown automotive values for cars that looked good and were actually fun to drive. Though no one knew it at the time, a revolution was underway. The sports car was about to captivate America as never before.

In the following pages, you will be able to trace the exciting history of sports cars, from their postwar boom to the present day. Along the way you will also find links to individual sports car profiles that offer history, specs, and photos. In addition, you can also read sports car reviews and browse through our sports cars by year and manufacturer.

We'll get started on the next page by learning about the sports cars of the 1940s.