From the Golden Age to Today’s Modern Marvels: The History of America’s Sports Cars

by Jackie Edwards

German engine designer and automotive engineer Carl Benz applied for a patent for his “vehicle powered by a gas engine” on January 29th, 1886. According to Mercedes Benz, the patent number, 37435, “may be regarded as the birth certificate of the automobile.” While automobiles have progressed greatly over time, the sports car is a marvel within the industry with an evolution of its own. From the Golden Age to the high-tech features of today, the history of sports cars in America boasts a variety of unique and innovative examples — from the Ford Thunderbird of the 1950s to the 2024 Nissan Z.

1914 Prince Henry Sports Car.

1914 Prince Henry Sports Torpedo.

While the striking 1914 Vauxhall 25 hp ‘Prince Henry’ Sports Torpedo is often regarded as the “world’s first true sports car,” it’s generally believed that sports cars grew in popularity among Americans following World War Ⅱ. “By the early 1950s, even American automakers were getting in on the action, launching cars like the Ford Thunderbird and the Chevrolet Corvette, while previously unknown foreign brands like Porsche and Ferrari established a foothold on these shores,” highlights one 2016 Hemmings article by Kurt Ernst. This boom in popularity gave way to what is now referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of sports cars in America, and effectively underlines the innovation of the time period. The 1953 Corvette, 1955 Ford Thunderbird, and the 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder are just a few prominent examples of the time.

Sports cars are well-rooted in American history. American icons like Elvis Presley, for example, made them even more popular, with many from his collection famous even today. GQ notes that the DeTomaso Pantera was the first mass-produced mid-engined sports car made in America, and while it wasn’t very reliable of a vehicle, Elvis’ purchase of a secondhand yellow Pantera for former girlfriend Linda Thompson in 1974 made history itself. In fact, the Pantera “is most famous for being so unreliable that after it had broken down once too often, Elvis pulled out a handgun and shot it.” Today, the car is in a private collection — still featuring the famous bullet holes.

1969 Porche 911

1969 Porche 911, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Following the golden age, the modern era of sports cars took hold in the 70s and 80s. This was when sports cars underwent “a significant transformation,” according to one Borro post. “They became more refined and sophisticated, and many of them were equipped with advanced technology,” highlights the post by Richard Shults, who goes on to cite one of the most important sports cars at the time, the Porsche 911. The Porsche 911 was first unveiled to the public on September 12th, 1963, launched at the Frankfurt International Motor Show. Designed by F.A. Porsche, the son of the company’s founder, Ferry Porsche, and his team, the official Porsche site notes that the original 911 featured an air-cooled flat six engine rather than the four-cylinder boxer engine of the 356. “It developed 130PS, could accelerate from 0-100 km/h in 9.1 seconds and had a top speed of 210 km/h.” While these features may sound unimpressive by today’s standards, there’s no question that they were extremely advanced at the time and established the Porsche 911’s influential place in history.

In the 1990s, sports cars remained an iconic and stylish emblem. The Dodge Viper and Acura NSX are just two noteworthy examples of high performing sports cars at the time, though one of the most iconic of the decade is the McLaren F1, debuting in 1992. According to McLaren Philadelphia, the F1 was the only road-legal vehicle capable of achieving over 200 miles per hour. The Manual points out the McLaren F1’s unique features, which included aluminum double-wishbone suspension, lightweight wheels, and special tires that were made in collaboration by Goodyear and Michelin. When tested by Car and Driver in 1994, the F1 went from 0 to 60 mph in just 3.2 seconds, from 0 to 100 in 6.3 seconds, and traveled through the quarter mile in an NHRA-level 11.1 seconds at 138 mph, The Manual highlights.

Nissan Z Sports Car, photo from Nissan.

Sports cars today boast a variety of high-tech and unique features that serve as a testament to how much the automotive industry has evolved. MotorTrend highlights several affordable options in 2024, from the Nissan Z Sport (manual) Coupe priced at $43,450 to the Ford Mustang EcoBoost Coupe priced at $32,515. According to MotorTrend, the original Datsun 240Z played a significant role in history by popularizing Japanese sports cars in America. The 2024 Nissan Z, according to the article, presents as “a twin-turbo continuation of that illustrious history.” The U.S, News & World Report lists the many features of the Nissan Z, including a keyless start, vehicle anti-theft system, back-up camera, rear parking aid, illuminated mirrors, and smart device integration. Safety features also reflect modern touches, from electronic stability control to blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, and cross-traffic alert.

Regarding the 2024 Ford Mustang EcoBoost Coupe, MotorTrend notes that the turbo four-cylinder in the base mustang is capable of taking the car from 0 to 60 in under five seconds. While it’s noted that the 10-speed automatic is offered and requires the $3,475 2.3L High Performance package in order to be “useful as the bargain performance car it was meant to be,” though the quality still remains.  With the package in place, MotorTrend notes that added value includes a quicker-accelerating, slide-friendly 3.55 Torsen differential in addition to an electric drift brake and high-performance Brembo Brakes.

Investing in a sports car is a fantastic way to appreciate the history behind such vehicles, whether you’re an enthusiast who wants to start a collection or someone who wishes to take one of the newer models and their high-tech features on the road. While purchasing a piece of history can be done through a bit of research, the search for a newer model can be tricker — while you may be able to read all about an antique Corvette, the nature of a new sports car can leave many questions unanswered. All sports cars share the same goal of providing a fun driving experience while delivering heightened performance, though an abundance of modern features can leave many buyers overwhelmed. Reviews of new sports cars are essential to exploring the pros and cons of a new vehicle, and will provide insight as to what consumers like and dislike when it comes to features. Consumer ratings can also be beneficial when determining the price range of today’s top models, and are a powerful tool that help prospective buyers compare two (or more) different models.

Russell Travel Center Museum, on Route 66 in Endee, New Mexico. Photo by Kathy Alexander.

Sports cars have come a long way since the very first vehicle was invented, initially gaining popularity after World War Ⅱ. While speed, performance, and design have been the longstanding goal of any sports car throughout time, the evolution continues today with the integration of modern, high-tech features.

©Jackie Edwards, for Legends of America, May 2024.

About the Author – Jackie Edwards was a mining engineer before becoming a semi-retired freelance writer.

More from the Author: 

Three of the Most Celebrated Gardens in American History

Revitalizing Abandoned Coal Mining Towns: Exploring Opportunities for Repurposing and Sustainability

The Bell Witch: Tennessee’s Most Haunting Legend 

Notable and Historic US Military Bases

Also See: 

American Automobile History