The Golden Twilight of the traditional sports car

The Golden Twilight of the traditional sports car

If you want to get behind the wheel of a fun two- or two-plus-two-seater, now’s your chance—it may be the last one for a while

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In the fall of 1973, a short, humourous column appeared in the November issue of Road & Track. Titled “A Nice Morning Drive,” it spoke of a fictional 1982 where most cars had become larger and heavier in the name of safety. The hero of the story narrowly dodges a couple of “6,000-pound sleds” in his little MGB, then crashes into some bushes. The story would go on to inspire the car-obsessed Neil Peart to pen the Rush song “Red Barchetta,” exchanging the MGB for a Ferrari 166M.

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In an age where pickup trucks continually top the best-seller lists, and manufacturers seem to be abandoning sedans and small cars in favour of crossovers, it’s hard not to think we’ve finally arrived in that dystopian 1982. Especially when it comes to the industry’s growing obsession with the electric pickup truck: both the Rivian R1T and the Ford F-150 Lightning qualify as 6,000-pound sleds. The battery pack in the GMC Hummer EV weighs 1,325 kg — more than a Honda Civic!

If you’re a fan of lightweight cars, the future can seem pretty glum. But we aren’t quite there yet. In the real 1982, the MGB was deader than a door nail, killed off by hot hatches like the VW GTI. In 2022, anyone shopping for a sports car has choices aplenty.

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With the launch of the Nissan Z, there are now no fewer than eight front-engine rear-wheel-drive, two- or two-plus-two-seater sports cars on the market. Broaden the definition to include the likes of the mid-engine 718 Boxster-Cayman, the Corvette, and, heck, let’s throw the 911 in the mix, and we start to approach more than a dozen temptations. And that’s without getting into the really exotic stuff. Granted, the 911 is a bit more of a grand tourer than a sports car, but the fact remains: even in a coming age of electric, manufacturers are keeping the sports car alive.

In some cases, they pretty much have to. In terms of financial bottom line, Mazda’s new CX-50 is a far more important product than the MX-5. But Mazda can’t really point to a sense of driving fun in their vehicles if it only produces cars and crossovers. Having an MX-5 in the showroom, preferably in Soul Red Crystal Metallic, shows that the company actually believes in its mission statement.

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Sports cars have long had a halo effect in the car industry. The idea is over a hundred years old, dating back to a time when coachbuilders created lightweight, streamlined bodies to be placed on the frames of a more conventional car chassis.

In those days, “sports car” was not just a name; these machines were built to race. You can easily get a whiff of that sense of tweedy speed at the Goodwood Revival, where period-correct sporting machines go neck-and-neck down the narrow track. These days the racers are required to wear modern helmets instead of goggles and a handlebar moustache, but everything else is the same as it ever was.

1970s MG MGB Roadster
1970s MG MGB Roadster Photo by Brendan McAleer

By the time the 1970s rolled around, the idea of a sports car had expanded to a more mass-produced definition. The cars still raced, at hill-climb events or circuits, and even a casual enthusiast could find themselves a track warrior on the weekend. This was the era of the small European roadster, and while those of us who have experienced an old British or Italian car may mock the slightly wonky reliability, we can’t fault them for charm.

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However, in the modern era, there is a whiff of “What’s the point?” to sports car ownership. Actual racing isn’t as easy or cheap as it used to be, and it’s not like speed limits have increased as car performance has improved.

Further, speaking of performance, just look at how fast the 6,000-pound sleds are. That GMC Hummer EV clocks in at more than 4,000 kg, but it’ll sprint to 100 km/h in about three seconds. In terms of straight-line speed, near-instantaneous electric torque can simply not be beat.

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In a world where a Tesla Model S Plaid will blow the doors of all kinds of expensive Italian exotics, what place does the sports car still have? That question brings us back to the MX-5, and the lessons it holds. Mazda’s been producing this car for thirty-three years, and it has never once claimed to be the fastest thing on the road. It’s not the speed of the drive, it’s the experience.

It’s why the GR86 is just plain more fun to drive than the much more powerful Supra. It’s why a base-engine Boxster can be just as much fun as a 911. Speaking of 911s, it’s why everyone seems to order the 911 GT3 with a manual transmission, even though that’s the slower option. And if you can’t justify the price point for that car, be cheered that the new Z also has an incredibly high take rate for the stick-shift version.

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And also, let’s not kick sand in the face of the Supra or any other sports car where a manual is not or not-yet offered. Yes, a manual gearbox is generally more engaging, but it’s just frosting. Any great sports car is one you gel with, one that makes it worth poring over maps to find the wiggliest roads. And while tastes differ — I’d have a Z over a Supra in a heartbeat — having more options at the smorgasbord is simply better for all driving enthusiasts.

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The Mustang, the Camaro, the GR86 and the BRZ, the MX-5, the Supra and BMW Z4, the Z, and the mighty Corvette, and on and on — we’re spoiled for choice. It can be hard to get your hands on one, what with supply shortages, but anyone shopping for a sports car has a long list to get through.

But any golden age, by definition, ends. You can see the cracks forming: both the Z and the GR86/BRZ are not brand-new cars but rather optimizations of older ones. The development money is going elsewhere.

Meaning, unfortunately, that cars are probably going to get heavier for a while. As long as the weight of extra batteries outperforms the added mass, performance is going to come with a hefty curb weight.

There’s still hope. Porsche’s Mission R concept is half the weight of the F-150 Lightning and hints that the coming all-electric Cayman and Boxster could be great. While we wait to see what the electric future holds for sports cars, any traditional enthusiast should take a good look at today’s market. It might be your last chance to get yourself your own barchetta, red or not.


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