By Matt Wolfe
The debate over what was the first true sports car has been around nearly as long as the car itself. A “sports car” is generally defined as a production vehicle designed for speed and maneuverability with a low body and seating for two. Numerous vehicles present a convincing case to earn this title.
One of the earliest examples of such a car is the Rennzweier. Produced in 1900 by a German company now known as Tatra, the Rennzweier (Double Racer) was one of the first cars designed specifically for racing. It was very low compared to contemporary vehicles, and was powered by a modified Benz engine producing 9 HP. It was capable of reaching 50 mph, a blistering speed considering most people were still riding around in horse-drawn carriages.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, two American automakers were preparing vehicles for a race in Grosse Pointe, MI. Henry Ford and Alexander Winton raced their vehicles against each other for the first time in October of 1901. Winton raced his well-known “Bullet”, but it was Henry Ford who would emerge victorious driving a machine he named “Sweepstakes”. Both cars were low, fast, and could be considered the first American race cars as well as the first sports cars.
However, some would argue that these vehicles were not sports cars, but purpose-built racers that were never meant to be production road cars. As such, a vehicle like the Mercedes 35 hp presents a compelling case. Introduced in 1901, the 35 hp was designed by Wilhelm Maybach and Paul Daimler (Gottlieb Daimler’s son). It represented a major departure from previous car designs, which bore a close resemblance to horse carriages. The 35 hp became a dominant racing machine thanks to its reliability and powerful engine.
Others might argue the first sports car was produced by the American Motor Car Company, a firm that existed only eight years before going bankrupt. American introduced the first “underslung chassis” car in 1907, which it developed in collaboration with Harry Stutz. The chassis was designed so that the body hung below the axles rather than atop them. This meant the powertrain could sit lower to the ground, giving the car a low center of gravity and a “sporty” appearance. Though the company that created the underslung body did not survive, it provided the inspiration for two legendary “underslung” cars; the Stutz Bearcat and the Mercer Raceabout
Back in Europe, two vehicles that are among the most widely recognized as the first sports cars were under construction; the Prince Henry Vauxhall and the Austro-Daimler Prinz-Heinrich-Wagen. Both vehicles were designed specifically for the 1910 Prince Henry Tour; a race that was organized by the brother of Germany’s Kaiser. The Vauxhall was based on an existing chassis with a modified engine, while the Austro-Daimler was designed by Ferdinand Porsche. The Vauxhalls performed admirably in the race, but it was the Austro-Daimler cars that finished 1-2-3 with Porsche himself driving the winning car.
Though the origin of the sports car may never be truly decided, the competition that ensued after its creation has produced some of the most impressive machinery and innovations in automotive history. Henry Ford once said, “Auto racing began 5 minutes after the second car was built.” In that sense, the sports car may have been born the very day that second car fired up.