Thinking About Speedsters
When car makers discovered that they could put prices up by taking stuff off their offerings, the speedster was born. Sometimes they even added a dollop of horsepower.
Does the name make the car or the car make the name? I refer not to brands—though those are important—but rather to model names, which either fall flat or grow to have great reputations of their own. Examples of the latter are 911, Mustang, Corvette and Corolla. Examples of the former are the model names used by Lincoln and Cadillac, which bounce back and forth over time from names to numbers and again to acronyms to confound the public completely.
Model names evolved over the industry’s early years from simple designations of taxable and rated power to more elaborate discriminators, often referring to the various body styles available on a given chassis. The body style reflected the car’s mission, ranging from a chauffeur-driven town car to an open multi-seated touring car and later to various closed and semi-closed bodies like the sedan/saloon, coupe and convertible.
In the 1950s we even had the “hard-top” convertible, a confusing name for a coupe that was styled to look like a convertible—a brilliant disruption of the status quo that Harley Earl’s styling team introduced for the Buick Roadmaster Riviera of 1949. Its style swept the industry.
When car makers offered sporty models they often reached for race tracks to baptize their creations. Porsche pillaged its historic participation in the Carrera Panamericana for several names. “Monza” found favor at Chiribiri, Ferrari and Chevrolet for its Corvair. At GM Pontiac may have gone too far with “Bonneville” and “Le Mans”—both having been used on striking GM concept cars—but they worked pretty well.
Other circuits and events that identify sporting automobiles include Kyalami, Brooklands, Silverstone, Vallelunga, Indianapolis (both as a Lincoln-based concept car by Boano and a Maserati as “Indy”), Avus (as a concept car), Targa Florio, Mille Miglia (used by Frazer Nash—I owned one), Monte Carlo, Alpine, Ulster, Brescia, Coupe des Alpes and Daytona (both Ferrari and Shelby).
Other appellations were intended to let the buyer know that he was getting something out of the ordinary in the sporting department. Hotchkiss and others used “Grand Sport” to convey this message. Alvis and Rover offered their “Speed Twenty” and Bentley its “Speed Six”. It was indeed speedy, as was the Stanley Speedy Roadster, steam cars being among the fastest of their short-lived era.
Other efforts to endow automobiles with a sniff of performance were the Lagonda Rapide, Lea-Francis Hyper, Riley MPH, Mercer Raceabout, Jordan Speedway Ace, Essex Speedabout, Borgward Rennsport and Thomas Flyer.
Then there is “Speedster”. This is quintessentially American. In his Illustrated Dictionary of Automobile Body Styles historian Lennart W. Haajanen judged “Speedster” a “Genuinely American term for an open and fast two-seater sports car, often with a boat-tail bodywork style.”
Speed-mad Yankees stripped their early Fords and Chevys and called them “speedsters”. This was blindingly easy to do because those automobiles consisted of channel frames with engines and suspension to which bodies were attached, often by the simplest of means.
The Ford Model T was by far the favored basis for early speedsters, many of which were based on Ts whose original bodies were beyond repair. The craze spawned a supporting industry of suspensions, transmissions, engine modifications and bodies, from road sports to racing designs. A leader among many pioneers was Robert Roof, whose Roof Auto Specialty Company met the needs of Model T improvers up to and including 16-valve cylinder heads.
Soon enough the name was adopted by America’s mainstream auto industry. The Stutz Blackhawk Speedster and Auburn Speedster were iconic examples of the genre, as were racy designs from Kissel and Packard. “The period of greatest Speedster production was 1912-1931,” said Porsche Speedster owner Don Bartlett, who identified “plus or minus 80 builders” of Speedster-badged models.
As a historian of Porsche the Speedster I’m most familiar with was produced by that company. It was schemed into life by Porsche importer Max Hoffman and his West Coast distributor John von Neumann to appeal to racy Californians who didn’t need the ultimate in weather protection. Body builder Reutter stripped the interior of the basic Type 356 Cabriolet to the bare minimum. It fitted a low, smoothly curved windshield and a lightly framed canvas top. Window winders were eliminated. Instead, side curtains were provided to be inserted into the plainly trimmed doors.
A new flat dash had two main dials and temperature gauge, a grab handle in front of the passenger—and that was about all. It lacked even a fuel gauge. As in the Citroën 2CV a dipstick was provided to measure the fuel level. The seats, lightweight buckets with slotted backs and high sides, had a race-car look and feel.
To attract new customers to his dealers by getting the placard price of the Porsche Speedster down to $2,995, Hoffman charged extra for heating and the tachometer, both of which were fitted to all Speedsters. Defying its handicaps, some 1,800 Speedsters were sold in the first year and a total of 4,854 through 1957, after which the model was discontinued. Porsche had to go back to making a profit!
Likened many times to a bathtub or a chubby hunchback, the Porsche Speedster was aesthetically anything but pleasing. Sideward vision with all-weather equipment in place was negligible. But in its spurning of the luxury accoutrements of the normal Porsches the Speedster was perfectly named. German though it was, the spunky Speedster flawlessly fitted the traditional use of this name.
In 1923 and ’24 Studebaker offered Speedsters based on its Big Six Model EK touring car. Its managers revived the name for a top-of-the-line President coupe in 1954, just when Porsche was building the prototype of a new car for the South Bend company. Initially Studebaker built 14 special Speedsters for the late-‘54 auto shows. This led to production as a 1955 model. A magpie for good ideas, Max Hoffman swiped Studebaker’s “Speedster” name.
This trope was spot-on for Porsche’s new baby. Like its American antecedents this Speedster was a dashing open two-seater with primitive weather protection. The name fit the new model like a glove. Best of all, while the classic American speedsters were usually the most expensive of their lines, this was Porsche’s least costly.
Porsche’s sparse Speedster promised liberating freedom to anyone who could do without all-weather comfort. Weighing 155 pounds less than the Cabrio, it was the obvious choice for racers. John Von Neumann drove the newcomer in its first race at Torrey Pines, California on Thanksgiving weekend of 1954 to win the 1.5-liter class for production sports cars. That great names like Dan Gurney and Steve McQueen began their racing careers in Speedsters only added to their charisma.
Porsche abandoned the Speedster concept for a while, then brought it back in the 1980s in a less Spartan version than the original. After several more iterations over the years, in 2018 Porsche showed a concept Speedster based on its latest 911 Carrera Type 991 product range. It followed with the announcement that in 2019 it would make the model in a batch of 1,948 units, a tribute to the year Porsche began sports-car production. Proof that the original version had legs, it was the first Porsche Speedster of the 21st century.
In the automobile world of 2022 the demands of safety, the environment, communications and comfort are such that the speedster concept is beyond the reach of the volume auto producers. They don’t even have separate chassis to which their cars could be stripped for action. Their equivalent is the sports car, which fortunately is still alive and well.
If the 21st century has a speedster equivalent it’s the raw, open racer-styled automobile like the Caterham Seven, Westfield, Elemental RP1, Lotus 3-Eleven, Zenos E10, Vuhl 05, Ariel Atom. Radical RXC GT, BAC Mono, Dallara Stradale and KTM X-Bow. These chiefly suit serious exponents of the track-day events that are held world-wide on racing circuits. They’re also roadable but many have no windscreens so road use means wearing a helmet—as I used to when driving to compete in races with my 1952 Maserati A6GCS.
What sparked my interest in speedsters was an invitation from author Ronald Siebler to write a foreword to his book, Classic Speedsters, about the authentic speedsters that enriched automotive history, not only in the book but also on his website www.classicspeedsters.com. The author has a flair for presentation that puts the cars, their makers and their stories front and center without distracting frippery.
I’m impressed by both the book and the website, which perfectly complement each other. They show how thoroughly and attractively Sieber has studied the speedsters that are his passion—including the Porsche variety—and interpreted their significance for the 21st century reader. Moreover Ronald Sieber discovered and mined a seam of automotive history that has not already been done to death—not all that easy to do!