Defining a modern sports car is relatively simple - but in the 1930s, this emerging class of vehicle took some explaining
Matt Burt
5 November 2015

Car manufacturers love devising new segments in which to place their models, but back in the 1930s, even defining a ‘sports car’ prompted a fair amount of head scratching.

This wasn’t altogether surprising. In the early years of the car, most makes and models had been proven in speed trials and races, regardless of size and shape. However, by the 1930s, the variety of cars available to fulfil specific purposes was growing.

What Autocar’s Brian Twist wanted to fathom was the criteria that could be used to classify a sports car.

“The term has been in existence so long that it has become accepted for everyday use, and people rarely stop to consider what exactly is meant by the definition,” he wrote. “There is nothing to stop a manufacturer calling his products what he will, but many excellent cars are called ‘sports cars’ when it is not easy to see what right they have to such a term.”

Obviously short of entertainment one evening, Twist gathered his colleagues to debate it over some furious pipe-smoking.

“To start the ball rolling, I said that I thought a definition might be made out for a car in the building of which, as regards engine, chassis and bodywork, performance was the principal consideration,” wrote Twist.

“Someone asked how I would define performance. After some thought, I replied, ‘Good acceleration, maximum speed, roadholding, cornering and brakes’. It was suggested that such a car must also ‘hold its tune for a long period’.

“This was agreed to after some discussion, during which it was pointed out that some machines beloved by sporting enthusiasts needed frequent adjustments and were none the less beloved for that.

“There was, however, at all events, unanimity on the fact that a true sports car must necessarily be an open car, though the converse need not apply.

“If one accepted my original definition as a basis of argument, comfort could only be a very secondary consideration in the building of a sports car, and then allied only with the necessary comfort of the driver for the proper control of the car on long-distance journeys.

“A closed car definitely puts comfort first, for although some saloon models are said to be faster than their equivalent open models, that is only because of the design of the open cars in question.

“A friend suggested my definition came perilously close to describing a racing car. I amended it accordingly to ‘a car built for road purposes in which engine, chassis and bodywork were designed with performance as the primary consideration’.

“I opined that as a matter of fact no four-seater could be a sports car, since the mere fact that there were four seats brought in the consideration of carrying people, and any car should have a better performance if its bodywork had been designed as a two-seater. Single-seaters were ineligible for the argument, as constituting racing cars.

“It was now getting late and, knocking out his pipe, ‘I’m for bed’ said one of the party. A few minutes later a terrific noise outside heralded his departure, in a much-cherishedmachine certainly of sporting tendencies, but not a real sports car in the light of our argument.

“So the discussion ended, with no final decision. Is there any such thing as a real sports car? My original definition was accepted with certain amendments and limitations, merely from lack of a better one.”

Previous Throwback Thursdays

4 March 1899 - Steam, electric or combustion engine? 

26 June 1906 - The first French Grand Prix

9 July 1907 - The beginning of Brooklands

14 February 1913 - 100 miles in one hour

8 April 1916 - Making post-war predictions

25 March 1922 - Caterpillar tracks are the future

4 July 1925 - Citroën lights up the Eiffel Tower

28 September 1928 - Engine tech takes a great leap forwards

2 February 1934 - The ethics of skidding

6 July 1934 - A tour of Cowley

1 June 1935 - Introduction of the driving test

22 June 1945 - Driving through post-WW2 Europe

21 January 1949 - Tidier tails

25 August 1950 - The evolution of transmissions

27 April 1951 - Frankfurt hosts its first motor show

24 April 1959 - Aston Martin enters Formula 1

16 September 1960 - The beginning of MOT tests

28 October 1960 - Economy driving 1960s style

27 January 1961 - Ford Thunderbird road test

17 November 1961 - TVR Grantura road test

10 September 1965 - The birth of modern Audi

19 August 1966 - Four-wheel drive on test

6 May 1971 - Driving Ford's Supervan

12 June 1976 - Cars for under £100

10 July 1976 - Land's End to John O'Groats on one tank

8 October 1977 - Music on the move

13 May 1978 - Ferrari 512 BB road test

19 January 1980 - Talbot Horizon road test

13 February 1982 - 4x4s tested on the farm 

17 April 1985 - Secrets of a lost British supercar

4 September 1985 - Ford's electronic test bed

15 August 1990 - Giugiaro's vision of a 1990s Jaguar

28 April 1993 - BL's unseen concepts

16 March 1994 - Bentley's Concept Java

16 April 1997 - When Bugatti bit the dust

11 October 2000 - BMW X5 Le Mans

4 April 2001 - 0-260mph in 6.0 seconds

25 July 2001 - 180mph in a Chevrolet Corvette

Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below:

Join the debate

Comments
4

5 November 2015
It seems that in 2015, we are no closer to a definition?
Perhaps today's sports car is a performance SUV?

5 November 2015
A two seater Morgan, or a Caterham would still fit the bill in 2015. But in my view an MX5 wouldn't, too svelte. Performance SUV? That's a "lifestyle" vehicle, isn't it? Surely, the hot hatch replaced the sports car and its role, from the first Golf GTi onwards.

5 November 2015
Of course, I was deliberately being provocative. But it's disappointing to see so few sports cars on the road today. There really are no modern equivalents of the Austin Healey Sprite, MGB, Sunbeam Alpine, TR6 etc - all cars which were unashamed two-seaters and relatively affordable and popular half a century ago.

6 November 2015
And if you had asked anyone then, they would have had no difficulty listing the cars you have as sports cars. Very often too, you would know what the car was just by hearing it! The TR6, the MGB, so distinctive. Come to think of it, the MGB was a kind of performance benchmark too, which may seem rather quaint today. Then they stuck the MGB motor in the Morris Marina, which confused everyone. Definitely not a sports car, though.

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Lexus LC500
    Car review
    20 October 2017
    Futuristic Lexus LC coupé mixes the latest technology with an old-school atmospheric V8
  • Maserati Levante S GranSport
    First Drive
    20 October 2017
    Get ready to trade in your diesels: Maserati’s luxury SUV finally gets the engine it’s always needed
  • Jaguar XF Sportbrake TDV6
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The handsome Jaguar XF Sportbrake exhibits all the hallmarks that makes the saloon great, and with the silky smooth diesel V6 makes it a compelling choice
  • Volkswagen T-Roc TDI
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    Volkswagen's new compact crossover has the looks, the engineering and the build quality to be a resounding success, but not with this diesel engine
  • BMW M550i
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The all-paw M550i is a fast, effortless mile-muncher, but there's a reason why it won't be sold in the UK