Roadsters (2)

In my first post on this topic, I looked at roadsters in their original concept: simple, economical fun. Today I’m going to look at a development of the concept, which added performance — mostly, it should be said, in terms of speed, but also comfort: bigger, better suspension and so on, all at (of course) a steeper price.

It began almost at the same time as MG were bringing out their early TA model, when the SS Motor Company (later Jaguar) produced their SS Jaguar 100 model, which unlike the earlier Mercedes SSK was designed not for the track but for touring.

It had a brute of an engine (3.0-liter inline six-cylinder, compared to the TA’s 1.3-liter four-banger) and a top speed of just over 100mph. The popularity of these cars, by the way, can be seen by the fact that almost every one you see nowadays is a replica, not a rebuilt original.

Of course, these cars could be raced, and they were. Sports car racing was big at the time, so there were all sorts of cars like this: Bentley, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo (to name but some) all had a hand in the game, and in the U.S., there were Duesenbergs, Cords and Auburn (to name but some of them).

I’m not a fan of big, brute cars; I prefer the smaller touring models to the racers: modestly sized but still with decent performance. Hence I tend to prefer the SS 100’s successor, the exquisite Jaguar XK 120:

I also prefer the smaller German models like the later 190 SL:

…which is really the budget version of racing monsters like the 300 SL Gullwing.

In the U.K. again, the little MGA sports car begat the Austin-Healey with its powerful 3-liter engine (but with the same legendary unreliability of its smaller cousin):

Now on to the present, or rather, the recent present. One of the problems of car manufacturing is that it’s so damn expensive. Only large corporations can build cars profitably, because of both economies of scale and the fact that they can subsidize their more interesting (and less popular) models with mass-market versions. And sadly, performance touring cars are a niche market. Even BMW can keep their excellent 650 touring models in production only because they sell boatloads of 330s, 530s and 750s.

And with a lovely segue, we come upon Wiesmann touring sports cars. Started by the two eponymous brothers in the late 1980s, Wiesmann produced what I think are some of the most beautiful cars made in the modern era. Here’s their MF-3, which uses a BMW M3 3-liter 6-cyinder engine:

…and if you’re thinking that it looks rather like the Jaguar XK 120 above, you’d be correct. Unlike the older XK, though, which had a spartan interior, Wiesmann gave the lucky driver this cockpit to play in:

Note the manual transmission, which is the default offering (you could get an automatic gearbox, but that would be a gross betrayal).

Later versions had the monster 4.4-liter BMW engines, which didn’t add that much power, but did turn an already-expensive proposition into an exorbitant one — which limited their market.

Sadly, Wiesmann went out of business in 2014, because their cars required too much money to convert them into US roadworthiness and the high (hand-built) cost limited their European market — these are people who want to tour, not race, so you’re not going to get the Ferrari-Porsche Set to buy one.

The same can be said for Aston Martin cars, by the way:

They’re ridiculously expensive and yet (still) a little too unreliable for people who want to (say) drive from San Diego to Maine, or Free Market Towers to Naples.

But because Aston Martin is a British company, they will always have wealthy customers in the UK who don’t want to drive a European (read: German) car, and who also don’t mind a little bit of unreliability because remember: one shouldn’t have too much fun while enjoying oneself.

Roadsters (1)

The concept of “roadsters” began, bizarrely I think, in 1930s Britain. In a country not known for its copious sunshine (or perhaps because it has so little thereof), car companies began to make small two-seater open-topped cars, modestly powered with a front-mounted engine and rear wheel drive, that could take a young man and his girlfriend on exhilarating trips through the country side, on the tight, twisty and narrow roads so common on this Scepter’d Isle. Thus you had cars like the MG TA:

…which after the slight disturbances of the early 1940s, became the MG TF:

…which turned into the MGA of the late 1950s:

Now you have to understand the concept behind these cars. They were never intended to be racers, nor were they tourers (in the Grand Touring style). They were sports cars — in the literal sense, in that one drove an MG for fun, on short road trips (all road trips in the UK are short: it’s a tiny island, remember) — which meant that the drivers were not going to be stranded hundreds of miles from home by the inevitable mechanical breakdowns and electrical failures, not to mention the fact that these cars leaked like a bucket hit with buckshot; and as we all know, it can rain a bit here in Britishland.

Excuse me while I explore a branch line in my train of thought. Why is it that the Brits can come up with all these excellent concepts, and yet their engineering can suck so badly? Mr. Free Market (who has owned many British cars) once commented that a long trip in his Triumph Stag could move the share price of BP, so much oil did his car consume. For any owner of this type of car, essential items to be carried in the tiny trunk/boot were: a set of wrenches/spanners and other tools, spare hoses, a can of water to refill the radiator every few miles, a can of oil to refill the leaking sump, and a pan to catch the leaking oil while the car was at rest.  (It’s easy to see why these were known as “bird and a sponge bag” cars — there was no room for anything else.) My absolute favorite example of this silliness was in an episode of Top Gear, when Jeremy Clarkson had a meeting of a local MG club at some remote town in the country. Every single driver had oil-stained fingers and hands as a result of having had to stop and tinker with their cars on the way down. And speaking of silliness: if you look back at the pic of the 1949 TF above, you will note the huge gap between the windshield and door window — a veritable funnel for driving rain to soak the inhabitants. My only conclusion is that the British nation is a bunch of masochists who have an abiding distrust of things like comfort and reliability when it comes to roadsters. One should not have too much fun when enjoying oneself, after all.  [end of branch line]

Of course, the Italians went for the small sports car concept in a big way, incorporating even the unreliability factor (and anyone who’s ever owned an Alfa Romeo Giulietta of that era knows what I’m talking about).

Let’s be honest, here. The concept of a sports car (roadster) is a brilliant one. Of course, it took the Japanese to make the roadster concept truly enjoyable, as Mazda proved when they made a modern copy of the MGA, called it the Miata and sold tens of thousands of them all over the world:

There it is: small underpowered front-mounted engine, stick shift, rear wheel drive, two seats — only with astounding reliability and functionality. From Clarkson again:

The fact is that if you want a sports car, the MX-5 [Miata] is perfect. Nothing on the road will give you better value. Nothing will give you so much fun. The only reason I’m giving it five stars is because I can’t give it fourteen.

That’s the reason that I’m going to buy one of these sports cars, when I finally have a few pennies to spare. Unfortunately, my British heritage (from my mother’s side of the family) means that I’m going to buy not the Miata, but the Fiat 124 Spider derivation:

Because one should not have too much fun when enjoying oneself, after all — and I’m pretty sure that Fiat will provide the appropriate levels of failure.