Previous to the war, American cars were for the most part strictly practical devices, built with simplicity, robustness, ease of manufacture and fitness for purpose in mind, that is, they were made for American customers driving American roads—long, straight, and wide, and frequently unpaved. If our roads weren’t fertile ground for the development of sports cars, Europe most certainly was. Twisty, narrow, mountainous roads, and then as now, more expensive fuel meant that European cars, out of necessity, were generally lighter, smaller, and more efficient—traits even more apparent in the open top roadsters favored by daring young airmen stationed in Britain.
Morgans, Super Swallows, Invictas, and MGs flooded stateside with returning soldiers, their acquired taste for something low, long, and loud not catered to by anything available domestically at the time. They drove them, raced them, and formed clubs—the SCCA, though with roots dating back to the thirties, most famous and influential among them. The glamour of speed and danger, and the sexy rakishness of machines built purely for their pursuit lit the public imagination like fire to a fuse. This new fascination grew exponentially over the years immediately preceding the war, small boutique sports car manufacturers entered and quickly left the foray, unequipped with the resources and business acumen of the big Detroit boys, who by the mid 50s had finally been convinced—there was money to be made, after all.
First to market for 1953 was Chevy’s Corvette, followed by Ford with the Thunderbird in ’55. Both cars were unquestionably style icons, but that’s about as far as they went, each encumbered with traditional American build methods, automatic transmissions, and relatively soft suspensions—still, for much of the market that’s all that was needed, and substance took a back seat to style. Of course performance would soon radically improve for the ‘Vette, but to this day it remains the only true icon of the American sports car—Muscle seemed to be much more our specialty, as the innumerable legends born of the 60s Detroit power wars stand in shining, rumbling testament to.
Tire-shredding, pavement-wrecking, big-hearted V8 beasts may never have caught on in Europe like the sports car did here, but then again they put mayo on frites, too—our tastes me not be as “refined”, but they’re arguably more democratic in balance. Down the road from my house is a combination Chevrolet/Lotus dealership, where Z06s and ZR1s rest fender-to-fender with Exiges and Elises—I’ve never been much of a flag-waver, but damned if I don’t recite the pledge of allegiance in my head every time I pass that gorgeous tribute to the melting pot.