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How Sports Cars Work

Sports Cars of the 1950s

The aftermath of World War II was a fertile breeding ground for the sports cars of the 1950s. Everyone needs money, and Americans had plenty to spend after World War II. That in a nutshell explains the parade of new sports cars that charmed Americans in the 1950s. Jaguar, MG, and other British makes had begun the procession. Now European companies and even some U.S. automakers fell in step.

Despite problems at home and abroad, America in the 1950s was generally prosperous, upbeat, and eager to meet the future. A booming economy and relatively high employment and wages created a burgeoning, more affluent middle class that began fleeing crowded cities for spacious new suburban communities, where a family might own two cars instead of one.

With all this, Americans could afford to indulge themselves for the first time since the Roaring Twenties, and they indulged in sports cars to the tune of $30,000-$60,000 a year. Though small-potatoes by Detroit standards, that volume was well worth going after for a tiny outfit like Morgan or Aston Martin, where the added income from U.S. sales could spell the difference between life and death. For larger companies, having a sporty model in the line could be a valuable, even necessary, showroom lure.

Below are links to profiles to some of the choicest sports cars produced during the 1950s:

AC Ace and Aceca
AC Ace-Bristol and Aceca-Bristol
Alfa Romeo 6C 2500
Alfa Romeo 1900
Alfa Romeo Disco Volante
Alfa Romeo Giulietta
Alfa Romeo 2000 & 2600
Allard J2
Allard K2
Allard K3
Allard J2X
Aston Martin DB2
Aston Martin BD2/4
Aston Martin DB Mark III
Aston Martin DB4
Austin-Healey 100/4
Austin-Healey 100 Six
Austin-Healey Sprite
BMW 507
Bristol 401 and 402 Bristol 403
Bristol 404
Bristol 406
Cistalia 202 Gran Sport Crosley Hot Shot and Super Shot Cunningham C-3 Continental
Daimler SP250
Facel Vega and FVS
Facel Vega HK500
Facel Vega Facellia/Facel III/Facel 6
How Ferrari Works
Fiat 1200/1500/1500s/1600s
Healey Jaguar XK120 Jaguar XK140
Jaguar XK150
Kurtis Lotus Elite
Maserati A6G
Maserati 3500GT/GTI
Mercedes-Benz 190SL
Mercedes-Benz 300SL
MGA Twin Cam
Morgan Plus 4
Morgan 4/4
Triumph TR2
Triumph TR3
Triumph TR3A & TR3B

The sports cars available to Americans in the 1960s spanned a dazzling array of types and prices. At the high end were the thoroughbred likes of Ferrari, Jaguar, and Porsche. Mercedes-Benz joined the ranks in 1954 with the fabulous 300SL Gullwing coupe, a racer-turned-road car costing more than a Cadillac limousine -- a towering $7000. Two years later, BMW launched the 507, its first sporting car since the prewar 328, priced at an astronomical $9000.

Moderately priced sports cars also blossomed, mirroring the growth of America's middle class. Among the most popular were 1953 British newcomers, the Austin-Healey 100 and Triumph TR2. Though both were designed around existing components from mass-market models, each had a character all its own, and they fast won devoted U.S. followings.

Nineteen fifty-three also introduced the one showroom sports car ventured by Detroit's Big Three. A mix of traditional British roadster and period American "dream car," the Chevrolet Corvette cost as much as a Jaguar XK but lacked its performance and handling. Purists scoffed, and limited availability greatly hampered initial sales. Had Ford not introduced the Thunderbird, the Corvette would have died after 1955. Happily, General Motors answered its crosstown rival by transforming the 'Vette into a genuine sports car.

Allard sports car
Allard was one of the many companies who scored big during the explosion of sports cars that occurred in the 1950s.

The Thunderbird was of one of the more successful semi-sportsters on the Fifties scene. Though it resembled a true sports car and had more power than most, the rakish two-seat convertible was slanted toward comfortable cruising, not slicing up twisty roads. It could be made to race, and did. But though this "personal car" immediately outsold the Corvette by no less than 16-1, Ford was after even bigger profits, and found them by blowing up the Bird into a luxury four-seater after just three years.

The 1951-54 Nash-Healey sold respectably, but was a far more credible sports car, thanks to co-father Donald Healey. Like the smaller Austin-Healey that followed it, the N-H clothed a humble powertrain in cool two-seater duds, yet was surprisingly raceworthy and could go the distance. Over its short career, the Nash-Healey made impressive high finishes in several international events, including Le Mans. Until the Corvette came along, it was the one real sports car sold under a major U.S. nameplate.

But there were plenty of minor-leaguers. Indeed, the early postwar years were filled with dreamers who figured to make untold riches by putting a sporty body on a borrowed chassis. Most of these efforts were poorly financed lash-ups that died aborning and are little remembered today. Many were sold as mere kits, leaving assembly to the owner. But not all were so unprofessional.

Famed Indy-car engineer Frank Kurtis built thoroughly modern sports cars, though not many, starting in 1948. A few years later, Chicago dealer S.H. "Wacky" Arnolt brokered beautiful Italian bodywork for MG and British Bristol chassis. At about the same time, sportsman Briggs Cunningham bankrolled a handful of Chrysler-powered sports cars that could match most anything from Europe. In 1957, Californian Bill Devin turned from selling bolt-on fiberglass bodies to building complete sports cars that could pace with a Ferrari (just 4.8 seconds 0-60 mph) and cost half as much ($5950).

No doubt about it: Americans were treated to a sports-car smorgasbord in the 1950s, with something for most every taste and budget. Of course, new versions of established favorites were also on the table. The Jaguar XK, for example, was updated twice during the decade. And there were some tasty surprises like 1955's new MGA, a comparatively shocking advance on the classic T-Series it replaced.

As the years passed, it became increasingly clear that import cars in general and sports cars in particular were influencing the American public out of all proportion to their sales. This undoubtedly accelerated the shift in buyer attitudes that hit home in 1958, when a sharp recession caused many consumers to reject Detroit's overstyled, outsized gas-swillers for thrifty European compacts and minicars.

But whether cheap and cheerful or exotic and expensive, sports cars were a permanent part of the American scene by decade's end, no small achievement considering their higher cost and less practical nature versus mainstream machinery. Moreover, the ranks of sports-car fans were still growing. For them, the Fifties had been a great ride. The Sixties would be something else.