What is a sports car?

Tom McCahill

page 6 from his book Tom McCahill on Sports Cars

T McCahill on Sports Cars

When the road is your playground and your car loves it – then you’ve got yourself a sports job, McCahill avers.

A sports car, this writer feels, can be best described as a state of mind. The owner of a Jaguar XK 120 or an M.G. who uses either of these for competition, or just plain fun, is the owner of a sports car. The kid who builds a hot rod either to impress his friends with the Bankhead baritone of its exhaust or to use in straight-away speed trials is the owner of a sports car. By the same token, who is to say that the gay blade who buys a sedan with an eye on the comfort of the back seat for pleasanter parking on Old Ox Road. doesn’t own a sports car? So you see a sports car is a state of mind and now, with your indulgence, I will narrow this wide sweeping label down to the road race car classification.
These could and should be divided into two distinct categories, namely catalog factory competition cars or open-class cars which may be altered catalog jobs, complete build-ups which might include the component parts of many catalog rigs, and in this open class may be new model cars from the tires up, too. This immediately brings up the question of hot rods and rightly so.
Through an unfortunate lack of diplomacy on the part of some officials at sports car events, hot rodders have been barred from competing without a proper explanation that this is due tor heir cars being hot rods, but because they are unsafe for road racing and would be a menace to the other competitors. Unfortunately, many of these hot rod owners have felt they are barred because they own hot rods and for no other reason.
To prove the fallacy of this, the two principle sports car events in America in 1950 and 1951 were won by hot rods and nothing else. The Bridgehampton race was won by a Cadillac Allard in 1950 and a Chrysler Allard in 1951; and the two main events at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix were taken by a Cadillac Healey and a Cadillac Allard in 1950. If these cars are not hot rods then there are no such things as hot rods. Where these cars differ from the popular conception of hot rods is that they are built on chassis with superb road handling, cornering, steering and braking characteristics unknown to American stock family cars. Most hot rods that Americans hear about are built on modern Detroit chassis and these are rarely altered sufficiently to make them safe on a hard cornering course with other cars competing alongside them.

Where most American sports car groups have fallen down is in not having a definite standard posted which every car must meet before it can compete. If a clear-cut formula were set down in black and white by the sports car groups pertaining to steering, brakes and suspension and if this were closely adhered to, no owner would object if he were barred from a road race for which his car was not qualified. Ratio of steering wheel turn to front wheel turn is highly important in road racing and the current American eight-day clock winding type is far too dangerous in tight spots or hard corners where fast counter-control may be necessary. Incidentally, this is not an exclusively American feature, as one of England’s newest numbers, which has enjoyed reams of good publicity, steers like a Mississippi showboat and should never be allowed on a race course.Suspension is where the typical American hot rod falls down and where the real engineered road race car excels. Hot rods that are built for straightaway lake trials (again on American stock car chassis) might need a ten-acre lot to maneuver a hard corner at high speeds. Brakes are another factor to be considered. Unless correct provisions are made for brake cooling and unless the linings and brake drums are designed to take a constant beating, brake fade is almost a certainty, i.e., no brakes, which is a very hot spot to be in when you are closing in on a corner at 90 or 100 mph. Without considerable reworking, no American brake delivered on American production line cars today is adequate for hard racing or cornering and this again, to keep the score straight, is not peculiar exclusively to Detroit products. The early models of the famous Jag XK 120 had a nasty way of losing all braking power after a few hard laps and many skilled drivers found themselves in the embarrassing position of having to run up escape roads because they couldn’t stop. On close examination, the drums were often found to be untrue and by turning them down and adding different shoe lining, many of these early XKs were made into decent competition road race cars.

With the revival of interest in road racing in this country and participation in European Grand Prix, there are signs of correctly engineered sports cars being produced here at home. These cars will be safe to qualify for competition on the basis of steering, suspension and brakes. We now have the Nash Healey, the Crosley Super Sports and the Cunningham in this group.

True sports or competition cars, once successful and popular on these shores, left the American scene in the early 1930’s during the terrible depression, when it would have been considered bad taste to indulge openly in such expensive luxuries while many who had owned these fancy rigs in the past were seriously wondering where their next meal was coming from. By an odd twist of fate, the countries in Europe that are now struggling up from the bottom with loans from Uncle Sam, hit their highest peak of competition car perfection during those same years.
It was in the 1930s that Herr Hitler came into power and under his subsidies Germany produced the finest racing machines ever conceived by man. His pompous pal Mussolini was his only serious competitor for world supremacy on wheels.
Not far behind was France’s adopted Italian genius, Ettore Bugatti, who built classic sports cars that will go down in automotive history as among the greats of all time.
I can hear that guy who just laid out his dough for this book screaming, “Hey, how about the English?” Well, how about them? The following may come as quite a shock to some readers, especially the young ones, but the fact is, English road race cars have not been really major league for over a quarter century, until 1951. They jumped into prominence after World War II first because other European builders took longer to get back into production, The English Jaguar XK 120 world stock car speed trial record of 132 mph fell by the boards to a newer Ferrari which posted a sizzling 149 mph over a European track.
The English hold the distinction of being perhaps the world’s greatest sports car’ enthusiasts and their automotive writers, and there are hundreds of them, enjoy a following in England equal to that of our baseball writers in America. The English are the cheer leaders of the sport and their racing clubs are the best in the world. I sincerely believe they get more genuine fun out of automobiles than any other group of people on earth.
But the cold facts still remain that as builders of outstanding big time competition cars they have for a long time been strictly minor league. They build more sports cars of various designs, prices and classes than all other countries combined and they build fine cars for inter-club racing, but up to the winning of the Le Mans race in June, 1951, by an experimental Jaguar 200, and followed by an Aston-Martin in third place, the Italians and French were the only major league post-war builders. (A Briggs Cadillac finished in 10th in the previous year Lemans race in june 24th 1950) see this recreation of this Cadillac)

The English were partial winners in this country in that, in our recent sports car events, American-English hybrids have been outstanding. Most of these have been English Allard chassis with American Cadillac or Chrysler engines, another notable car being Briggs Cunningham’s English Silverstone Healey with a Cadillac engine. Finally, without the English enthusiasm, it is quite possible that the sport of road racing would have died a fast death years ago. •

Illustrations from Richard Arbib automobile designs:

Which eventually led to these prototypes or actual designs:


Packard 1953 show car

Top ten sports car from late 40’s and early 50’s

Alfa Romeo 1950

Allard J2 1950

Aston Martin DB2 1950

Cisitalia 1950

Crosley Super Sport 


Ferrari 1950

Nash  Healey



Top ten sports car from late 40’s and early 50’s as tested by Uncle Tom McCahill


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