Neoclassic Speedsters; The Future’s Looking Bright

As we have covered in prior posts, the classic speedster evolved in the early 20th century as the automobile itself developed from a horseless carriage to an engine-powered craft. A subgroup of autoists had wanted more power, more speed, more sportiness, and more adventure. Speedsters emerged from their desire.

1906 Apperson street/track speedster. The name speaks for itself

1906 Apperson street/track speedster. The name speaks for itself

By the 1950s, improvements in automobiles and the roads that carried them had reshaped the fabric of modern urban, suburban, and rural life. Cars themselves had undergone radical shifts and transformations, largely due to trends in customer wants, data teased out from focus group research and market sales. Oil market shocks, economic upheavals, increased demands for and issuance of environmental regulations, increased urbanization, as well as a host of other influences have all shaped modern travel today.

And now, what do we see? A dominance of SUVs and trucks, high-speed closed cabin travel, inattentive drivers, and the promise of electric and autonomous nanny vehicles that threaten to toss the venerable internal combustion engine and the freewill idea of “Hey, let’s go out and drive somewhere – anywhere!” Oh, boy…

The classic speedster as we know it, a simple car endowed with few creature comforts that was built for power, speed, and adventure, had largely disappeared from the sales floors by 1960. However, it had given birth to several distinct threads that are still evident in the 21st century. Despite the ominous signs as noted above.

The Strength of Sports Cars

Notwithstanding the unending demand for purpose-built vehicles that haul, carry, or commute people and things from Point A to B, there have always have been people who wanted a little more fun and adventure in their lives. Sporting-type vehicles were the answer.

1955 MG TF factory illustration

1955 MG TF factory illustration

In the beginning, “sporting cars” were nothing more than bare-bones cutdown speedsters. And over time, as we have catalogued in this journal series, they evolved into safer, more enclosed vehicles. There were still sporty speedsters, mind you, but also roadsters, cabriolets, grand tourismos, and other variants.

The postwar 1950s introduced the European concept of the sports car to the United States and other parts of the world, a more luxuriant form of speedster, and it was only a matter of time before modern creature comforts crept in, first considered as options, and then, as necessities.

1962 Austin Healey 3000 lifestyle ad

1962 Austin Healey 3000 lifestyle ad

The radio and the heater subsequently led to the air conditioner and heated seats, and then on and on. Lately, navigation and other electronic assists have commandeered the middle seat. What ever happened to simple?

And yet, despite their relatively low demand numbers and limited utility, sports cars still ring a bell in any true car-lover’s heart. They are fun. They bring joy. They are here to stay!

Heritage Speedsters

There are only a few companies who have recognized and repeatedly exploited speedster mojo to the benefit of their customers, as well as witnessing the resulting black ink at the bottom right of their financial reports. One of these companies is Porsche.

Beginning in the early 1950s as a limited-production automaker, Ferry Porsche traveled to New York to meet with his primary importer, Max Hoffman. Porsche wanted to secure and expand a serious foothold in the American market, and Hoffman convinced him to lasso the American name “speedster,” put it on a stripper version of a Porsche convertible, and see where it took the company. The rest is history, say marketers when they talk about success stories, because the 356 Speedster put its company on the map! (FOTO 4 356 Spdstr in competition)

356 Speedsters in the lead and on the move!  photo courtesy Leonard Turner

356 Speedsters in the lead and on the move! photo courtesy Leonard Turner

After six seasons of sales, the venerable 356 Speedster was transformed into the Convertible D, and then to the Roadster, and then subsumed into the Cabriolet model line. But Ferry Porsche did not forget what the Speedster had done for his company, which was to wow the fans at the track and bring them into the showroom, whereupon they would buy the more expensive but more comfortable models, the cabriolet or coupe.

The focus on heritage has persisted in Porsche, and its flagship model, the Type 911, has been in continuous production since 1963. And also undergoing continuous refinement, which makes it one of the best luxury sports cars in the world. Hands down.

The marketing lesson of having a speedster in the 356 lineup was a powerful one for Porsche. Since that time, Porsche has periodically issued a limited-run 911 Speedster built for the street that features current design thought and a few extra tweaks to appeal to a limited clientele.

· The 1989 911 Speedster was produced as part of the Carrera 3.2 series of 911s, and a little over 2000 were built.

· In 1994, the 964 model 911 Speedster was produced; fewer that 1000.

· In 2011 Porsche again issued a 911 Speedster, this time featuring 3.8 liters and a host of performance-oriented and luxo goodies. Not a stripper concept. Limited to – get this – 356 copies. Hmmm…

· In 2019, Porsche again issues a limited edition 911 Speedster, which promises to sell out its production run of 1948. That number honors the year that Porsche was born.

Porsche has a rabid fan base and a balance sheet that makes competitors gnash their teeth in envy at board meetings. Porsche understands the power of heritage and speedster mojo. Porsche is winning.

2019 Porsche 911 Speedster.  photo courtesy Porsche AG

2019 Porsche 911 Speedster. photo courtesy Porsche AG

Another firm that operates on a smaller scale than Porsche but nevertheless trades on solid heritage is Eagle. Their history begins over 35 years ago as a restoration facility for Jaguar E-Types, which they continue to this day. Their more recent product is a “restocreation” of the Series 1 E-Type Jaguar, a design that Enzo Ferrari once said was the most beautiful car in the world.

The Eagle Speedster, an aluminum-bodied version (built from an original E-Type donor) with a limited series of 10, is indeed a beautiful, timeless shape. Updated suspension, electronic minders to keep all operations copasetic; it’s thoroughly modern and a classic at the same time. Plus, its engine bay contains a heart-throbbing XK motor. Now, that’s 4.7 liters of heritage!

2017 Eagle Speedster, courtesy of Eagle/UK  photo by James Lipman

2017 Eagle Speedster, courtesy of Eagle/UK photo by James Lipman

The Hoodoo With Hotrods

One of the earliest trends in motoring was the rise of homebuilt, repurposed automobiles. Some were remade to power farm equipment, others turned into pumps and generating stations. But thousands were reused to imitate what was then showing up at the county fair tracks, gow jobs that were causing a lot of hubbub. Kicking up dust. Raising Cain. Speedsters!

1912 County Fair, Marquette, Michigan.  photo courtesy Jack Deo, Superior Photo

1912 County Fair, Marquette, Michigan. photo courtesy Jack Deo, Superior Photo

The homebuilt street speedster movement, which began as early as 1910, in turn gave rise to the hotrod movement beginning in the mid-teens, a trend that grew well into the 1930s but was paused for the duration of World War II. Hotrods really came into their own after this conflict ended and have never looked back.

1950s custom shop backlot.  photo posted by Rikster on the H.A.M.B. July 2009

1950s custom shop backlot. photo posted by Rikster on the H.A.M.B. July 2009

There are several branches of hotrods and hotrodding that have been sustained over the years. That topic requires a whole book unto itself, a whole series, even. This post will highlight one branch: the custom boulevard-riding speedster.

Part high-speed berlinetta, part tire-melting hotrod, these modern beauties pull inspiration from classics of the 1930s Coachbuilt Era. This was a time when Deco was waning and Bauhaus was emerging, an undeclared war of art waging between carrossiers regarding whose atelier was the best, the most au courant.

2017 Boattail in Blue.  photo courtesy Delahaye USA

2017 Boattail in Blue. photo courtesy Delahaye USA

Two veterans of American hotrod design who compete for top honors at shows like the annual Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona are Rick Dore of RD Kustoms and Terry Cook of Delahaye USA. Both are master designers and craftsmen who evoke that 30s look in the speedsters that they design. And, they often win top honors for the work that they do in creating a new era in custom car design.

Orange Speedster.  photo courtesy Delahaye USA

Orange Speedster. photo courtesy Delahaye USA

Concept Vehicles

Concepts are more than just a preview or trial balloon of a new vehicle that companies are considering. These are also a design team’s showcase of talent, and so there is a lot on the line when the cover is pulled. Brand image and direction are but two of the indicators present in any concept.

Speedsters often are used as the test bed for ideas: they are elegant, they are basic, and they are associated with powerful, fast, and beautiful. Speedsters have a design currency that no four-door sedan will ever carry; it’s that simple. (FOTO 11 Lambo Spdstr)

2012 Lamborghini Aventador J Speedster.  factory image

2012 Lamborghini Aventador J Speedster. factory image

Recent years have introduced a number of stunning concepts using speedsters. The press release photos below pretty much tell all, but a few similarities are worth noting:

· they are almost all European

· some are compacts, some are supercars

· convertibles reign

· big power is omnipresent and accounted for.

2011 Skoda Speedster at a Volkswagen Group rollout.  factory photo

2011 Skoda Speedster at a Volkswagen Group rollout. factory photo

2011 BMW ConnectedDrive.  factory photo

2011 BMW ConnectedDrive. factory photo

2017 Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato Speedster, factory photo. All 28 examples were pre-sold.  Sorry!

2017 Aston Martin Vanquish Zagato Speedster, factory photo. All 28 examples were pre-sold. Sorry!

What is apparent here is that the speedster concept, which has gone through several transformations in its 115-year history, still injects a vibrant influence in design as well as by application. It speaks to the desire for having fun and adventure in a car.

Designers are mindful of this as they craft dream vehicles that will hopefully get produced. Marketing departments sweat deep into the night injecting excitement into the humdrum company product. But the bean counters in Accounting always bring it all back down to Dollars and Sense. Bummer!

A sunny day, a dash by the docks or in the hills on a curvy road, a few hours of freedom in a speedster. Now, what can be better than that?

Eagle Speedster dockside.  photo by James Lipman, courtesy of Eagle/UK

Eagle Speedster dockside. photo by James Lipman, courtesy of Eagle/UK