So for the 1st article proper, we’ll start with the car type that, probably more than any other, needs to be the perfect combination of objective dynamic ability and subjective feel. In other words, a car that a racing driver might be able to drive around a track doesn’t always equate to being the car that us mere mortals might enjoy the most during a country lane thrash. It’s also quite timely as for the first time in a long while, it looks like car manufacturers might be waking up to this area again.
We should start with what a proper sports car is for, what is its reason for existence. For myself, and (arguably) any self respecting petrolhead, it’s that it must be fun in real life. It’s not just about being fast on a track (though by default it won’t be slow), it’s for being quick in the real world, and fun at real world speeds. This is the reason many feel real sports cars no longer exist – modern vehicle dynamics are so good that at legal speeds you get nowhere near the limit, and don’t have much fun on the public road. Most people with a licence could make a stock Ford Focus keep up with a damn good driver in a 1967 Triumph Spitfire – but I know who’d be having the most fun.
It’s not about outright speed, it’s about the feeling of speed.
There are a few other things to consider. Sports cars are designed for unmarried people who have little responsibility in life (so they’re likely to be young but not rich), and as such need to be cheap as well. They’ll probably be used to get to work (few can afford the perfect car for each of life’s driving related tasks) so it needs to be reliable, and fairly cheap to run. But really they only need a smattering of practicality – so 2 seats, room for a weekend bag, and a few creature comforts so you can cope with being in the car for an hour or so.
Basically it’s a toy to make driving fun, something to make you arrive at the office with a smile or to make the weekend trip to a country pub/B&B wonderful just for the excuse to drive.
In the 60’s sports cars happened to be the fastest cars out there, but then came the GT cars (designed for high speed cruising over long distances), followed by Supercars (go as fast as you can, but still just about usable on a normal road) and finally, Hypercars (go faster than you should, and forget your back is falling to bits while you do).
So considering all of the above, you need something small, reliable, cheap, quick (but not really that fast), slightly practical/comfortable, good looking, and above all, fun. How you achieve this is surprisingly easy, and the ingredients look something like this:
Family saloon/hatchback engine (allowing 150-200bhp per ton, so probably 4 cylinder)
This gives you reliability and low cost as the engine can be mass produced.
Running gear/suspension from saloon/hatchback
Where possible carry-over parts are used to again keep costs low.
Front engine + Rear Wheel Drive + Short wheelbase
To give you simple and pure driving dynamics
Light weight (800-900Kg max)
Because this is the only way to make a car properly good fun.
2 Seats (in good looking, well trimmed, but basic interior)
To give comfort, but just enough. Keeping it simple also helps keep the price down
Small size and limited luggage space out the back
Helping with low weight, it also means the design can be kept small and pert for looks and aerodynamics
Coupe & Soft top options
As some people really want to show off themselves as much as the car, and some are happy to hide a bit more and enjoy the car themselves.
To make the customer want it, and then everybody that sees it want one too.
Mix these together well, get some handling experts to season with a little suspension tuning, and Powertrain engineers to spice things up with a more aggressive engine calibration, and you’ll end up with something wonderful.
If you can’t quite visualise the result, here are a few cars that tick all these boxes:
MG Midget/Austin Healey Sprite, Triumph Spitfire, Alfa Romeo Spider, Lotus Elan, Sunbeam Alpine, Mazda MX5, Honda S2000, BMW Z1/Z3/Z4, Renault Spider, Morgan Plus 4, Westfield/Caterham and many more.
Apart from the engine position you might also include the MR2, Lotus Elise/Europa, MGF, Porsche Boxster etc. Personally I think sports cars are more fun due to the limitation caused by having the engine out front, but all of these are still real sports cars.
And we also have some new ones to look forward to – Tobaru GT86/BRZ, the new Alfa small sports car, the next Mazda MX5 (it’s meant to be going back to its roots and getting lighter) and who knows what else. I certainly hope these cars are a success and we see a resurgence of the proper sports car.
Now I’m off to go and dream up a plan for my own interpretation of this recipe – think of a Ginetta G4 style of car, running a Toyota Aygo engine – if you don’t understand why, it fits all the rules above.
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