The Origin of Sports Cars

As we’ve said in other articles (links) differentiating car categories is a game with blurry lines. The goal of a sports car is to maximize, or prioritize, dynamic performance. It’s technically possible for an SUV, Truck, or Coupe to become a “sports” version if the performance ranks equal to the other aspects of those models. It’s difficult, however, for a passenger or commuter car to have a sports model as the priorities are less compatible.

Sports cars are a strong seller, despite being a less practical car than say a commuter car. The companies which created sports cars at the beginning of the turn of the twentieth century still make sports cars today. One reason could be that people see cars on the racetrack and wish to purchase something similar. Another, oft-given reason is to the thrill of driving. So, there has always been a potential market here.

Going Back to the Early Days

McLaren F1

The term sports cars has its origin in 1919 in the UK but the first reference in the US was in 1928. These were two-seater cars without fixed roofs. It was only after 1970 that you would see a sports car with a fixed roof. These types of cars were previously known as grand tourers. We would later get sports cars which have three seats, one seat for the driver and two for the passenger, such as the McLaren F1 in the 1990s.

But we are getting a long way ahead of ourselves. In the early days there was no real distinction between sports and other cars, apart from the two seats (like the modern-day coupe) and there were early models with four seats, like sports sedans.

The names of the first sports cars are still popular today – Bugatti, Ferrari and Aston Martin.

Not all Sports Models are Still Around

Prince Henry 1914 Oldest Sports Car in the World

One name which has been lost is the Prince Henry Sports Torpedo. This type of car would be easy to overtake by today’s racers as it only reached 80mph. It did stun hundreds at the track, however.

Other long forgotten examples include the Hewson Rocket, which was created in Hollywood, California and the Wildfire which resembled a Jaguar in design with its lightning 6 cylinders and fiberglass body producing something not exactly stable.

The Mercer

The Mercer was created by 1911 in New Jersey, developed by the Roebling family. It was a bit of a stretch them as they had previously specialized in the manufacture of wire rope and designing bridges. They joined up with the Kusers, big names in banking and brewing alcohol. So evidently a group of just plain businessmen who knew where the action was.

Mercer Type 35R

The first Mercer factory was a converted brewery and was named Mercer after a county in New Jersey. It created the Type 35 Runabout, another two-seater racing car this time with 55 horsepower.

It managed to win five out of the first six races it entered, unfortunately losing in the first Indy 500. Although prized for its brilliant handling this was not enough to save two racers who collided “on the track” in Elgin and the adverse publicity meant that racing had to stop – please note that this was in 1914—before fans started coming to the track specifically to see the wrecks. It is a shame that later designs weren’t as good as the Type 35R.

It’s hard to comprehend the slowness of the early sports car when you look at most cars today – not just sports cars, any cars – but at least they are now safer by an astonishing degree. Which is probably just as well.