While most of us will be forever resigned to owning less exciting cars due to their practicality and price, owning a top-of-the-range sports car is still a dream for many people. Their performance, beauty, and exclusivity fuel the imagination, and just getting the opportunity to drive a sports car can bring out the excited child in us all. Sports cars were originally designed to replace horse-drawn carriages, and while the first models had relatively limited top speeds and horsepower, they brought an air elegance and style to their owners. Since then, advancements in mechanical and aerodynamic engineering have allowed manufacturers to test the limits of what is possible in automobile design.
To pay homage to those pioneering designers and engineers, here is a quick lesson on the long and illustrious history of sports cars.
Back in the 1920s, sports cars were designed to be a statement of elegance, signified by sideways hoods and formal group seats. Leaded fuels and other technical advancements made during WWI had made for high compression engines (4-8 cylinders, with at least two valves for each), and subsequently, more horsepower. As can be seen in the detailed video by Compare the Market car insurance below, this principled design and styling were further refined in the 30s, and there was stiff competition between the emerging European manufacturers. By the end of the decade, many sports cars were already capable of going over 100 kph (70 mph), most notably, the Bentley 3 Litre (1921) and Lancia Lambda Torpedo (1925). Later masterpieces like the Bugatti Type 57 (1934) and the Mercedes-Benz 500K (1936) are highly sought after today, with many fascinating stories adding to their legend.
The 40s and 50s saw the wide application of WWII adopted technology in consumer goods like automobiles, which made for speedy and powerful sports cars. The bodies started to become wider and lower, with larger engines that were capable of cruising at 130-220 kph (80-130 mph). In terms of design, edges were smoothed out to make room for curved hoods, bumpers, and lines to reduce wind resistance. Notable examples of this era include the Aston Martin Atom (1940), the Jaguar XK120 (1948), and the Healey Silverstone (1949), all of which are highly regarded for their iconic design and engineering.
While this is undeniably the era of America's muscle cars, European car manufacturers also developed some serious up roadsters with smooth designs for higher speeds of over 270 kph (170 mph). Many legendary motorsport rivalries began to heat up during this time, such as that between Ferrari, Ford, and Lamborghini. This resulted in a push for more technical developments that really drove the automotive industry forward. Aerodynamic drag was further reduced in the 70s, but emission controls put a limit on the average top speed of the era’s sports cars. Iconic muscle car icons like the AC Cobra (1962) and the Porsche 911 (1964) remain in use today; the Aston Martin DB5 (1963) was made famous for its appearance in the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.” The same movie franchise also made another British sports car famous, the Lotus Esprit (1976), which appeared in “The Spy Who Loved Me” (1977). In addition, the Lamborghini Countach (1974) took the motoring world by storm with its aggressive lines and unique wedge shape, which would be imitated by automotive designers for the next twenty years.
The Iranian Revolution and strict emissions controls led to fuel price spikes and forced all car manufacturers to be more innovative in their designs. Taking their inspiration from the Countach, the most famous sports cars of this era are recognizable by their eye-catching, spacecraft-like designs, with trending rear spoilers and fender vents not only making the cars ultra-stylish but also improving their stability and aerodynamics. As a result, some of the fastest cars of this era were capable of top speeds of well over 300 kph (200 mph), as well as being able to achieve 0-60mph in less than four seconds.
Memorable sports car models of this sci-fi age were legendary designer Marcello Gandini’s truly iconic Lamborghini Diablo (1990) and its predecessor, the Countach (first produced in the 70s but revamped throughout the 1980s), the Jaguar XJ220 (1992), and the Ferrari F50 (1995). Later, Italia’s Giorgetto Giugiaro became the Car Designer of the Century (1999) for his contribution to the design of many iconic supercars.
5. From 2000 to Present Day
The beginning of the new millennium saw many new manufacturers entering the race, and the maximum speed for sports cars went from just over 400 kph (250 mph) to about 490 kph (300 mph) recently. As for the design, wider rears and downward noses are common in order to maintain a neutral pitch angle and avoid the build-up of pressure. Lately, more car manufacturers have shifted towards developing alternative engines and using greener power to operate these high-performance cars. Like the Countach before them, today’s supercars look like something out of a sci-fi or fantasy movie, with Lamborghini’s latest models like the Aventador and the Huracan, in particular, threatening to take off into space at any moment.
Other noteworthy names of the modern era include the Koenigsegg Agera R and the Hennessey Venom GT, but we have deliberately left arguably the most important until last. Considered by many to be the greatest sports car ever made, the Bugatti Veyron was first released in 2005, after which various models were manufactured until 2015. With unprecedented power and an eye-dropping price tag, the Veyron was like nothing that had been seen before, and with so few models made, it is an incredibly highly sought-after collector’s item.
Not only can the sports cars of today burn rubber at incredible speeds, but they also guarantee heads to turn with their sleek lines and dynamic angles. Looking back at history is the best way to judge the success of modern car manufacturers, and it is safe to say that they have been carrying on the legacy of great sports cars by pushing the boundaries of aerodynamics, power, and style. What is in store for the future of sports cars is anyone’s guess, but it is sure to be a thrilling ride!