WWII Gave Birth to American Sports Car Culture
Without wanting to be overly simplistic, nor wanting to tread into politics, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll agree that war is an ugly plague, a waste of life, resources, and energy that’s sadly sometimes necessary in the face of greater evil—perhaps never more so in modern times than in the case of the continental European theatre of WWII. I’ll avoid any further tired platitudes here, but suffice it to say that the world’s never been the same since, politically, geographically, socially, or technologically—all four of which play a large role in the spread of worldwide sports car culture, particularly in the United States.
With war’s end in 1945, the world collectively relaxed its shoulders and let out a massive sigh of relief. In the US, spared the physical damage of battle within our borders, the stress of years of sacrifice and loss dissipated nearly overnight to reveal a massive, vigorous economy fueled by wartime scientific and manufacturing breakthroughs, and a fresh, overwhelming optimism spilling in to displace an oceanic vacuum of angst—jobs were plentiful, goods were cheap, and homes were both. Fun was on everyone’s mind, and for hundreds of thousands that meant the motorized kind.
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.