What is a Speedster?

Speedster is an American term that describes a car whose earliest conception was like that of a horse-driven buckboard or buggy – small, light, open, and fast. Where it differed from the buckboard and buggy, aside from being horseless, was its purpose-built nature: to have open air fun and adventure on the roads.

It’s hard to pinpoint who first coined the term “speedster” or ascribed it to a moving vehicle. However, by 1905 that term had found its way into the vernacular, as a few automobiles were being named “gentlemen’s speedsters.” An example is  J. Walter Christie’s 1906 street model.

1906 Christie Gentleman's Speedster courtesy of  Antique Automobile.

1906 Christie Gentleman's Speedster courtesy of Antique Automobile.

The term itself described a light, open car that was built for speed and adventure. Having fun at the beginning of the twentieth century in one of these often meant navigating rutted dirt roads over hill and dale, especially if one travelled outside the city limits. Minimalist bucket seats with no seatbelts were bolted onto an open platform structure. Leaf springs with no shock absorbers. Bicycle tires and iffy rear brakes. No protective bodywork aft of the dash cowl. This car shouted adventure!

“Speedster” appears to have been a slang term of the era, referring generally to something going fast, and so the name was soon applied to this new type of motor car whose main goal was to carry one or two adventurers on their way to glory or just plain fun.

1918 Paco Racing Bodies ad courtesy www.HCFI.org.

1918 Paco Racing Bodies ad courtesy www.HCFI.org.

Various names were given to early versions of speedsters: runabout, raceabout, racy roadster, semi-racer, torpedo, submarine, jack rabbit, and so on. However, all varieties of these automobiles have enough in common to form a definition based on what they featured and what they offered:

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Speedster: A Definition

 A Speedster is a simple but powerful car meant for speed, fun, and adventure.

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1921 Model T speedster courtesy AACA Library.

1921 Model T speedster courtesy AACA Library.

Like many definitions, it describes but does not restrict. There’s a reason for that.

When viewed in context with its historical peers, a speedster would stack up like this:

·     Cabriolet: convertible-top cruiser, seating up to seven, luxuriously outfitted.

·     Roadster: convertible-top cruiser, fewer luxury accessories, stock engine.

·     Speedster: stripped-down, outfitted with the basics, with a powerful engine for going fast and adventuring.

Because style, technology, and creature comforts changed with the times, the speedster of 1912 was not at all the same as the speedster of, say, 1922 or even 1932. However, when a speedster is compared with its same-year peers, it was clearly different and met its definition.

This type of car has gone through some amazing changes in the short 110 years of its existence. The speedster’s historical arc connects some of the most venerated automobile manufacturers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, from 1905 to the present. The speedster definition above embraces all interpretations of that name under its umbrella, from distant past to right now.

The speedster as a model has been under-reported in automotive history, yet its essence permeates the very roots of our emotions that bond us to the most significant invention of the twentieth century – the automobile. This blog is written to celebrate the speedster.

 

1919 Paco Racing Bodies ad courtesy www.HCFI.org.

1919 Paco Racing Bodies ad courtesy www.HCFI.org.