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A sports car," says David Brown, head of the British automotive and tractor group which builds the famous Aston-Martin, "must be capable of accelerating from a standstill to 100 mph and braking again to a full stop inside 60 seconds." The definition demands too much of many medium-powered, modestly priced machines that qualify on all other counts, but it serves to illustrate the qualities a sports car lover looks for. Most will compromise on a machine versatile enough to handle as easily in traffic as it does on a race track, and the cars shown on the following pages, Europe's latest models, exemplify these standards.
When and where the first true sports car broke away from the rugged, bellowing tradition of the mammoth "racer" to acquire more tractable habits is a favorite subject of argument among lovers of the sporting speedsters. It seems likely, though, that the four-cylinder, "Alfonso" Hispano-Suiza of 1910—a beautifully built and very roadable little car with a T-head engine—sired the new breed.
Today it is unnecessary to spend a fortune acquiring a detuned version of last year's Grand Prix winner in order to own a sports car. Many of the more successful examples of the breed claim no racing origin but stem from production touring models whose components have been modified in the light of practical road tests.
Sports cars fall into three general groups: sports racing, sports touring and turismo type cars. In the first group are those purebred, direct descendants for which Italy is famous—Maserati, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Lancia. Britain, because of a certain genius for improvisation, predominates in the second group with such makes as the Austin-Healey and Triumph TR2; the Jaguar XK 120 (in its original form) and the ubiquitous little MG. The turismo category is something else again. Often used as a generic term, the name has come to imply exclusively cars with comfortable and practical enclosed bodywork, yet suitable for high-speed rallies and certain "production series" races. Prime examples of such cars are the Lancia Aurelia Gran Turismo (SI, Nov. 1) and the Alfa Romeo 1900 TI which did so well in the Mexican Carrera Panamericana.
Taken as a group, this year's crop of sports cars differs little from its 1954 counterpart. Of the 16 makes shown here, only one is brand-new—the British Doretti. Despite its picturesque Italian name, the Doretti was designed by an Englishman named Rainbow. It is, in fact, a luxury version of the Triumph TR2, using the same engine and running gear in a tubular chassis of longer wheelbase. The Doretti, with bodywork by the old, established Swallow firm, symbolizes a clean break with the unimaginative school of thought that grudgingly gave up the stubborn classicism of the box on wheels only to turn British sports cars into timid copies of the bold Italian sweep.
The French Salmson is a pedigreed machine whose forebears included early aircraft engines and various sports and racing cars famous in the '20s. Precision of manufacture and high performance are therefore inherent in the Salmson. Like the snub-nosed experimental body of the little DB Panhard, its lines may be lacking in romantic appeal, but its engine qualities are undeniable. As for the Panhard, packed under that blunt hood is a two-cylinder engine of tremendous endurance with a greater wallop than that of many four-cylinder units of larger displacement.
Each of the other makes holds a specific appeal for the potential buyer. For instance the Mille Miglia Ferrari is the fastest and most powerful custom-built sports car on the market. The 300SL Mercedes is the fastest production series machine available and the only one to adopt fuel injection. The Alfa Romeo is equipped with turbo-cooled (finned) aluminum brakes of direct racing origin. The Jensen 541 reflects a new trend in the use of plastic for closed bodies. The Jaguar XK-140 is now offered with an optional 210 horsepower cylinder head originally used on the racing "C-Type," the victor of Le Mans; the Frazer-Nash Sebring, besides its beautiful styling, is the lightest and most powerful model yet produced by this elite small firm. The fabulous Pegaso features the greatest—and as yet most unproven—concentration of advanced engineering ideas ever grouped together in one car. The Porsche Type 550 Spyder not only is the fastest 90 cubic inch sports-racing car in the world but the only one with a quadruple overhead camshaft, rear-mounted engine.
There may be doubts as to the elusive definition of a sports car, but its impact on the spare-time activities of a quarter of a million Americans is unquestioned. The advent of such "sporting" cars as the Thunderbird, Corvette and Darrin indicates that in America the polished art of driving for fun has come back to stay.
FOUR NEW MODELS FROM ITALY
Lancia Aurelia PF 200 coupe featuring jet styling and tail fins is a modern conception by the famous Italian coachbuilder, Pinin Farina. Powered by a unique V-6 engine of 118 hp, this car has the transmission and the rear axle combined in a single unit for optimum weight distribution and road-holding quality.