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Vintage Sports Cars

By: Lucy Debenham BA (hons) - Updated: 15 Oct 2012 | comments*Discuss
Vintage Sports Cars

It is probably best to start by differentiating between the various “fast” vintage cars that might fall into the vintage sports car category. In relatively modern terms generally, a sports car is defined as a two-door, two-seater car designed with the handling, weight and optimum speed as the major engineering considerations. But rather confusingly, this is still open to interpretation! There is, however, a difference between what can be mind-bogglingly described as a racing car, a sporting car and a sports car.

The latter were built as predominantly with competitive racing in mind, loosely following the definition above (as some earlier racing cars were four seaters). They did, however, retain a ‘dual use’ in that they were also used as road cars, and so are not ‘racing’ cars in the purest form of the word. The sporting car label, however, relates to road cars and some tourer models that utilised aspects of the racing cars, such as the contoured lines, bigger engine capacity and break horsepower. The sporting family tourers were a little sparser than normal road cars, yet in contrast the sporting road cars - especially in the US - tended to be a little more luxurious and heavier to handle. For this reason sporting cars were not completely suited to racing. Specialist racing cars started to make an appearance much later on, near the end of the vintage car period.


During the vintage era, the UK was not a particularly large driving force behind the manufacture of sports cars, mostly due to post-war economic hardship. The British sports cars still tended to be constructed from many French parts. Principally, organised competitive races and endurance tests were most popular in France, and as such Europe dominated the racing scene. It is then no surprise that between the wars, European car manufacturers tended to lead the way in the production of lightweight road and sports cars.

There were, however, a few choice UK manufacturers that produced touring and sports cars. For instance, Bentley’s Standard Six and later Speed Six both managed some success Le Mans in the late 1920s. Aston Martin Motoring Ltd turned out many a scrupulously crafted and respectable sporting car during the vintage era. The 1926 Frazer-Nash is also a notable but rare British vintage sports car - moderately priced, yet it was more than capable of competing with its French counterparts, the Amilcar and Salmson.


Throughout the mid to late 1920s, sports cars and car racing really began to gather momentum amongst the car-buying public in Europe. Throughout the vintage period Germany struggled to keep abreast of developments, having been somewhat lambasted by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The ensuing political chaos and economical weakness meant that the German car market tended to withdraw from the seemingly luxurious field of sports cars. However, as Germany’s strength grew, and the difference between specialist racing cars and expensive sports cars became more apparent, the eventual production of Mercedes-Benz’s much acclaimed ‘Silver Arrows’ in 1934 and 1937 put Germany back on the map in this genre.

Rather surprisingly, it was not until 1926 that Italy became well-known for its sporting cars, largely in part due to Alfa-Romeo’s decision to shift their focus to producing both sporting and sports cars for private market. Bugatti had started the trend for Italian sports cars around 1910, with what is sometimes described as Bugatti’s first “real” car, the Type 13. It began its life under the guise of the Type 10 prototype, and later resurfaced after the war as five different versions of the model dedicated to racing. Eventually, the successive Type 13 Brescia was raced at Le Mans in 1920 in the ‘Grand Prix for Voiturettes’ (translating as the Grand Prix for small or light cars). The race was organised specifically for lightweight cars under 1500cc, and the Type 13 Brescia dominated by taking the top 4 places.

However, despite this France continued to somewhat dominate the sports car scene until the introduction of Alfa Romeo’s 6C. In its everyday original form, the 6C could be regarded as quite an unremarkable private car. It was fairly light and was designed to seat six, and only managed a capacity of 1,486cc. However, in 1928 the introduction of several variations of their double overhead-camshaft car really brought them to the attention of the sports car set. The Super Sport Compressore could obtain 4,800rpm and accomplished 75bhp. A touring model was also produced, offering a relatively more modest 53bhp and could achieve 4,500rpm. Above all, these two models increased the popularity of the small dual-car, rendering the four-seater designs less desirable in this field. Stylistically, the 6C also introduced some very appealing bodywork designs, merging the superior ‘functional’ engineering with pleasing aesthetics.

Speedsters in the USDespite the massive social and economic changes that the car brought about in the US, before and during the vintage period, the car manufacturers themselves tended to shy away from the production of sports cars, favouring the mass manufacturing of utility, lightweight and luxury models. Whilst high speeds and optimum break horsepower were great selling points for luxury and touring cars, the manufacturers opted towards toward a sort of middle ground between sports and luxury. This materialised in the form of what is known as a speedster or roadster. Not intended for competitive use, they utilised elements of the sports cars, such as optimised engine capabilities to achieve impressive speeds, or similar sports car chassis designs fitted with stylish contoured bodies. The speedsters did, however, retain a sense of relative luxury and comfort, and whilst they could be driven fast and hard, their weight and handling was not anywhere near the desired capabilities required for racing.

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