Is The Everyday Sportscar Dead?

As we get news of another relaunch, we ask who buys sportcars any more?

Austin Healey
Although TVR ceased production of cars nine years ago, under then owner Nikolay Smolensky, it never really died, it just seemed to be asleep. Someone, somewhere was always hinting at its imminent awakening. This year’s announcement, with Gordon Murray and Cosworth involved, seems the most credible and substantial to date. But, however good the product, if most of its targeted customers live in Europe, as with previous TVRs, will it succeed, or has the world changed too much whilst it slept?

Similarly Lotus. Back in the 1960s and 70s, Lotus had a profile well above its actual clout. Colin Chapman’s ingenuity and bravado kept what was a small company in the public eye and, ever since then, it has been trying to recapture those golden days. In that time it has produced one highly successful car, the Elise, a niche vehicle that caters solely to committed and enthusiastic drivers. Beyond that it has floundered with both grandiose flights of fancy and more modest efforts, mostly variants on the Elise. The excellent, more practical, Lotus Evora is an outstanding example of a type of car that no-one seems to want any more, the sportscar that you buy purely on its merits.

The affordable sportscar that stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of popularity is the Mazda MX5. At the end of 2010, the UK had accounted for 5% of the 900,000 MX5 sales since its launch but, now in its fourth incarnation, annual worldwide sales over the past 5 years are less than 25% of typical figures back in the 90s. Has the MX5 lost its attraction, or has the lure of the sportscar lost its romance for everyday folk?

What were people’s reasons for buying a sportscar?  In more innocent times the sportscar, and essentially the open topped roadster, suggested a certain freedom. There’s also the visceral reason, the idea of controlling a fast and dangerous machine, pushing yourself and it to the limit but, let’s face it, if that was the main reason for buying a sportscar the client base would have died out, literally, decades ago. I don’t pretend that people are smarter now, but I think that we are aware that our ‘freedom’ is reasonably prescribed. Once, speeding in a sportscar on a clear road on a sunny day might result in a stern telling off from a policeman, followed by a friendly ‘shame to damage a nice car’. Now, your image is delivered to the Gatso’s lens and an inflexible electronic system has dealt with you before you have even reached home.

Of course, since the 90s, the upper-end sportscar market has flourished. Porsche, Aston Martin, Ferrari and Maserati have had record sales figures and, in a world where an all-new brand of family car would be unlikely to get a foothold, companies like Koenigsegg and McLaren have succeeded. But, without denigrating the technical expertise that has gone into these cars, it has to be said that purchase of these devices is usually more complex that an innocent desire to have a bit of fun. Some of these vehicles are practical enough transport as two seaters, and you could certainly turn up at a business meeting in a standard 911 with a reasonable chance of convincing that it was everyday transportation, and not being suspected of bringing it primarily to show off. But what about the rest on offer?

Gold Ferrari
Riyadh Al Azzawi in his gold Ferrari 458 : http://www.exoticstreetstars.com

Most people don’t live in a bubble of hubris and here I’m really talking about the idea of relatively affordable sportscars. Despite the problems of recent years, quite a lot of people still manage to scrape together the money to indulge themselves one way or the other, but few of them actually seem to decide “I want a sportscar”. They buy or do other things with their money instead. Many younger people, especially city dwellers, don’t even want a car, let alone an impractical one. And many of those who once would have bought a sporstcar, not because it was low and sporty, but because it was ‘different’, are now catered for by a whole load of different ‘lifestyle’ vehicles from the Nissan Juke to the BMW X6.

There is something frivolous about the sportscar and, although so much of what occurs in the affluent areas of the World today would have been frivolous beyond anyone’s dreams 50 years ago, it comes coated with a veneer of purpose. “It is about you, and the need to maximise your personal leisure potential in your asset-rich, time-poor world where the only obstruction to achieving this is …. your imagination!” People take their leisure far too seriously to be seen trawling round in the modern day equivalent of an MG Midget.

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As long as legislation permits, there will always be some who will take their fun where they can find it. For the while, you can still search out a few of miles of Welsh valley road and risk your, and a few sheep’s, life and limb. Some countries have larger unpoliced areas. Or you can opt for the somewhat organised artificiality of a track day. But on most European roads it is becoming harder and harder to justify ownership of a relatively uncivilised and uncomfortable device on the off-chance of the odd ten minutes of fun.

So, as with any enterprise that doesn’t substantially threaten other people’s lives or well- being (assuming Gordon Murray stays onboard and tames that chassis) I’ll wish TVR’s new venture well. But my feeling is that, whereas on my first view of a Griffith nearly 25 years ago I could see the attraction, today the out-and-out sportscar has become an anachronism, made acceptable only if it has the social cachet of a high-end badge .

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18 thoughts on “Is The Everyday Sportscar Dead?”

  1. Indeed: the pervasive sense of constrained possibilities has drained much of the fun out of driving in a spirited fashion. The sportscar was a means to access the free space of the country roads in lightly populated areas. I think there was a huge element of the romance of the cars. It might not be that you imagined hard-charging down the A4593 between Nether Offingten and Bishop´s Palsy very often more that drivers saw the car in a social setting, among people. I have argued elsewhere that there is less scope for this and people are looking less at the car as a social instrument as much as a status instrument or simply an instrument. I can only speak for myself but there was only once or twice in two decades that I ever used my saloon in the manner suggested by its design: a long road trip to the Lake District and a two daytrips with four-up to somwhere or other. The rest of the time it has been a transport device. And the same goes for the nice, every-day sports car which mostly does what a four-seat b-segment hatch can do.

  2. I recently received a small inheritance, thought about squandering some of it on a sports car. Two seater, probably open, small, not that powerful or quick or fast. If new, Miata. If used and modern, S2000. Nothing German, they have a well-earned reputation as money pits. Or an interesting car old enough to import into the US.

    After thinking hard about past experience with sporting cars — Alpine V, Corvair Turbo Corsa, 2 litre Touring bodied Alfa, Fulvia Zagato, two Scimitar coupes, all but the Alpine bought used — and what my current car — Accord, 4 cyl, manual trans — does I abandoned the idea. The S2000 is the best alternative and I can’t really take advantage of what it does better than the Accord.

    The Scimitars are probably the fastest cars I’ve owned, I’ve seen 115 mph in both, but that was thirty years ago. Nowadays traffic is too congested and speed limit enforcement too common to drive as fast as I used to.

    I maintained my cars until I gave up my Scimitars for a Honda. I’m no longer up for anything but minor maintenance, have low tolerance for old car disasters and long waits for parts to arrive. Getting insurance cover for old crocks is a problem too.

    I’m an old man now, appreciate air conditioning, cruise control and quietness. My Accord is faster and quicker than my old crocks were, costs less to run and is more reliable. More comfortable, too.

  3. Fred. Thank you for your comment. And that’s a nice list of interesting cars that have gone through your hands – over in the UK, the Corvair Corsa would be the rarest and most exotic! I think you’re confirming my point that, even disregarding those luxuries that one begins to find necessities with age, the satisfaction that an old or interesting car once gave is lessened by the though of using it on today’s roads.

    I see your logic. The Miata would be the more useable, comfortable car for everyday use, but that’s not why you buy a sports car. But then you consider the more purist S2000, you wonder whether the compromises are worth the trouble. I think a lot of car buying decisions are made with some ideal drive in mind, a sunny day on some favourite twisty road by the sea maybe. But then the car only ends up doing that trip once in its life, if that. The rest of the time it ends up being out of place.

  4. Hi Fred – thanks for dropping by. The Touring and the Zagato must have been memorable. Those hand-finished cars have a unique character and we’re the poorer for the absence of the equivalent today.
    The S2000 might have served very well as a daily car being as reliable as the Accord. Perhaps we are getting things backwards when we choose a multipurpose car like a saloon or hatch to do the routine trips of one person plus a bit of shopping – a light agile sportscar can do all that 90% of the time. In a parallel universe a 5-seat family sedan would be a speciality reserved for the minority who need a jack of all trades vehicle and every other type of car would proliferate.

  5. Richard, I take your point about using an S2000 as a daily driver. I can imagine doing that but I’m not sure how often I’d get the benefit of an S2000’s agility on the way to the grocery or to one or another of our doctors. Straight roads, low speed limits, fairly heavy traffic even on secondary streets. And the omnipresent police officers waiting for speeders.

    The Alfer was underpowered and didn’t have outstanding roadholding. If I recall correctly a good Giulietta could outrun it. But it was a comfortable car for long drives on good roads. Sort of a superior two seater Ford Thunderbird. The Fulvia was great fun but, again, underpowered. One of my colleagues had a 2002. He could run away from me on on straights but I always caught up in the twisty bits. But back then we could drive much harder on public roads than now. And we were younger and stupider and more willing to take really dumb risks. The Corvair was also underpowered — GM’s claim that the turbomotor made 180 hp was, if true, true with the cooling fan disconnectedl — and had horrible aerodynamics (top speed, ~ indicated 112, was drag limited) but had outstanding roadholding for the time.

    I contemplating having two cars for m’self and one for my wife. We were there once, with my last Scimitar. I used a Civic — trouble-free, low maintenance, good fuel economy — for my long commute, rarely drove the Scimitar. It coupe was a decent car for its time but by the mid-80s its time had passed. I contemplated getting another one but haven’t forgotten all those grease nipples and the RSSOC’s gurus’ advice that they had to be dealt with every 1200 miles or so. Not fun in winter.

    1. Fred: I can’t vouch for the Honda’s abilities, but I’ve always believed that of all the characteristics a car can exhibit, one that steers and rides fluently will be enjoyable at any speed, under any conditions. Isn’t that more likely to be the case in a well sorted sports car than a (modern) saloon? 40 years ago there were affordable saloons that offered these qualities. Today? I’m inclined to think not.

  6. Fred: quite right, you probably won’t get the benefit of the S2000s agility or speed most of the time. The same goes for my five-seat family saloon with its 1200 litre loadbay, 80 litre tank and 600 mile range. I don’t need those most of the time either. It wasn’t until this little conversation that I realised that a two-seatet sportscar is as much a deviation from the essence of a typical car’s activities as a family saloon. The essence of a car is something like a VW Lupo with a 200 mile range and 100 litres of space in the boot. What would you say to a shooting brake sized like a Miata? Would that not be a useful compromise? You’d have the Accord’s luggge space but not the rear seats you and most of us seldom use.

    1. A Miata-sized shooting brake with a/c and cruise control? This sounds much like a Honda Fit/Jazz or a hot version of the Mazda 3. I tried a Fit before settling on an Accord. My biggest complaint about it was noise but one would have done very well for me. And because its not particularly fast it would give me the pleasure of driving hard without attracting much attention.

      As I thought about which, if any, sports car to buy I found a constraint — it binds me, may not bind anyone else — I hadn’t been aware of. Fleet size. I’d much rather have one general-purpose vehicle than several specialized ones.

      200 hundred mile range? Living in the UK has warped your mind. Before I retired my daily commute ranged from 130 to 200 miles. My commuter cars were a variety of Civics and Integras, range ~ 400 miles. A car with less range wouldn’t have done. Living in the US has warped my mind.

  7. The UK sports car scene exploded in the late ’50s and 1960s for numerous reasons: a surfeit of postwar engineering expertise; predominantly rear wheel drive power trains; buyer tolerance for patchy quality; tight, twisty pre-motorway roads; the lack of safety legislation. Sports cars could be developed quickly and sold cheaply, which, combined with increasing disposable income at home and export demand (chiefly the USA), both created and fuelled the market.

    In the postwar period, cars were also approaching their zenith as a cultural concept. Car ownership was aspirational, with numerous adverts selling the idea of speed and the open road. Sports cars existed at a nexus of sex, desire and crucially, perceived attainability. You could have it any way you wanted with the latest model, if you could (just about) afford it.

    Compare that with now, and it is obvious why sports cars have declined. Expectations of quality, safety and utility, plus the widespread adoption of front wheel drive, means that the numbers for manufacturing anything small and rear wheel drive no longer add up. (It is no coincidence that the hot hatch came about just as the small sports car segment was on its last legs.) Roads are straightened, congested and GATSO-strewn, robbing the act of driving of much (perceived) pleasure. Any car manufacturer seeking to portray speed (or indeed any sort of excitement) in their advertising will have their knuckles firmly rapped.

    Their cultural capital thoroughly expended, cars are now as ubiquitous as fridges and are just as exciting. Into this cultural landscape, the market amongst 18-25 year olds, surely the largest demographic for an impractical two seat car, no longer exists. That is not just for sports cars; they don’t want ANY car. Cars are for crusty old parents, toting their spawn to swimming classes in bloated CUVs. Cars are the enemy, consuming space, resources (both financial and environmental) and lives. The young are no longer enticed by the idea of getting their driving licence, never mind in trying to lose it.

    1. Not at all Chris. We always welcome (reasoned) rants at DTW. Speaking as someone who has just bought a fridge .. I mean Cube … himself, I have predicted the imminent demise of the motor car since the early 70s, I’ve therefore been equally appalled at my predictive capabilities as pleased, for purely selfish reasons, that I was wrong. I’ve always found the industry’s inability to understand the allure, or lack, of the products it offers odd. Only when they’re on pretty safe ground (retro Fiat 500?) do they get it right. Most the time they haven’t a clue – they shoot in the dark and occasionally surprise themselves.

  8. When I look at currently presented new cars, it really seems that they come from an industry in an agonising lack of orientation as their customer base threatens to break away. Chris’s rant (which I enjoyed reading, too) cited the reasons for that, and another article currently much discussed here on DTW shows a particularly sad example of this agony.

    As for everyday sports cars, I’ve never been a lot into them. But if we’re talking of everyday fun cars, this is pretty much my thing. I’m just currently reviving one of those, my Citroën GS. Of course, this was never intended to be fun or sporty, but with its engineering that clearly addressed an ambitious clientele (or was it just ambitious because its creators fancied to do so, who knows…), today it provides its very own version of fun driving. I’m happy to live in an area where there are still some winding, uncongested roads available from time to time, and with a rather unsporty car, they can be enjoyed without too much danger for life and licence. But I understand that many of these occasions have vanished, so probably the concept of a fun car really is a dying one. Also for me, it’s kind of linked to the past, as some part of the fun certainly comes from the GS being one of my childhood memories, a witness of an innocent time.

  9. Another problem for the small sports car market is the longevity of the MX5, which means that good examples are available at any price point. I myself have dallied with the idea of a £1500 mark 1 as a second car. Find a good one and it will literally run forever.

    1. This is a really insightful point – I mean, hasn’t Mazda effectively saturated the market with the various iterations over time of the MX-5. The current new one is rather lovely though.

  10. Chris: thanks for that. It wasn’t ranting at all.
    Fred: I will make it a 400 mile range. The shape of car I have in mind is a roadster with an elongated roof leading to a hatchback; the roof is a sliding canvas as on the Fiat 500; it would be as low as a Miata. I’d give it RWD and keep weight to 1100 kg; 2.0 litres should give it enough poke without burdening it with weight. It should clearly look like a two seater sportscar up front; only from the b-pillar back does it go all shooting brake. Does that work?

    1. Interesting idea, Richard. I can do without a top that comes down, if only to lose some noise. I know I’m repeating myself but a three car fleet is much less appealing than the two car one my wife and I have.

      FWIW two of the old crocks that attracted me were a Phase 2 Rochdale Olympic and a Peerless GT. If I hadn’t had one an Alpine V with hard top would appeal too. But I’ve had one. In two years Chrysler paid the dealer more for warranty work than we’d paid the dealer for the car, hard top included. I suppose a restored survivor would be less troublesome but …

  11. True, the Z3 did pop into my mind. Maybe BMW had this in mind. My version would not be so different other than the canvas roll away roof. I might consider raising the H-point a bit and giving it a boxer engine to compensate.

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