Nat's Top 10 Sports Cars of the 1950s
Special To The Auto Channel
By Nat Berman
The 1950s were a new kind of Golden Era in the world of competitive racing. Following closely after WWII, many countries had automobiles on the road which predated the war and were in terrible condition. Restrictions on automobile production during the war meant that no new automobiles or parts were produced. But by 1950, companies around the world began to focus on rebuilding factories and expanding and strengthening highway systems. New technologies developed for aircraft during the war were transferred into car engines, allowing faster speeds, better handling, and durability. These were improvements which undeniably expanded the capabilities of racing cars around the world.
Partially due to the Space Race, and cultures fascinated with mechanical performance, the idea of modifying engines to increase performance took hold, and the idea of hot rods became popular. In 1950, the November Hot Rod magazine cover introduced the first ever hot rod to exceed a speed of 200 miles per hour. In America, the Bonneville Salt Flats became ground zero for the tradition of land speed racing. Raw power and customization took hold as car enthusiasts embraced not only more speed but more style.
Drag racing was established at the Santa Ana Drags at the Orange County airport in Southern California. Americans, with the money which flowed after WWII, began to purchase British Jaguars, MG’s and other European favorites. Part of the lure of the sports car came because they were smaller and far more stylish than the typical family cars produced in Detroit. Other influences included the lure of the expensive, exotic, impractical and sheer whimsy of owning a powerful car which provided a great ride. American and European sports cars remained competitive with ever improving performances throughout the 1950s.
The Jaguar C and D Types
Jaguar is one of the legendary racing cars of the 1950s. The company began with three of its C types racing at Le Mans in 1950, where it was determined that with less weight and improved aerodynamics, the Jaguar C-type could be produced solely for racing.
1951 Jaguar XK 120C
This car made the first mark for the company at the 24 Hours of Lemans, winning its very first race in 1951 at the classic French competition. It began Jaguar’s legendary run of five conquests of the prestigious event during the 1950s. The car was designed on its ancestor, the XK 120, and retained several of the stock parts from the landmark XK 120. What was new, included its space frame chassis, freshly designed aerodynamic body, and newly designed suspension. The existing twin-cam 3.4-liter, six-cylinder, inline engine was tuned to 204 horsepower. The “C” in the model name stands for competition. It is famous for the use of Dunlop aircraft disc brakes beginning with the Le Mans 1953 competition. The brakes allowed the cars to brake straight from speeds near 150 mph without fade, braking much later than race rivals. The Jaguars finished first, second and fourth that year.
A rare C-type Jaguar POV 114 was recently sold at Bonhams auction in Monaco. It has the distinction of racing at Le Mans in the 1950s. It sold for $7,540,541.
In 1955, 56 and 57, the Jaguar D-Type took Jaguar to it’s third, fourth and fifth victories at Le Mans. The Jaguar D-Type used the Jaguar 3.4 liter straight-six engine.
A 1955 Jaguar D-Type recently sold at public auction at Pebble Beach for $21.78 million. It is the most expensive British car to do so, and well worthy of collecting, as it was one of the famous Jaguars, winning the 1956 24 Hours of Le Mans.
1953 Chevy Corvette
The Chevy Corvette debuted in 1953, and is now an American legend. Only three hundred were made by and that first year. It was the first American two-seater sports car, and it featured an innovative body construction made from fiberglass. It was introduced at the 1953 GM Motorama, and it was a crowd favorite. Russian born Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Russian émigré with superior knowledge of European car racing, took the 1953 Chevy Corvette and added the 1955 Chevy V8 small block racing engine to it. By the year 1956, the Corvette race car became a competitive threat in the world of racing.
When the first 300 Corvettes were born, the theme for the company was “See the USA in a Chevrolet”. Company founder, Louis Chevrolet’s motto of “never give up” had merged with style and speed, resulting in the high performance Corvettes, and history was made. New models of Corvettes continued to be manufactured throughout the 1950s, with variations on the Corvette theme:
- 1954 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible Coupe
- 1955 Chevrolet Corbette Roadster
- 1956 Chevrolet Corvette
- 1957 Chevrolet Corvette Roadster
- 1957 Chevrolet Corvette SS
- 1958 Chevrolet Corvette
- 1959 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray
The first 300 Chevy Corvettes had 150hp, 6-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions with two speeds. All of them had white exteriors with red interiors. Their value in 2013 was $300,000, based on their premium position as first ever of the line of iconic Corvettes.
Aston Martin DBR1E/2
This Aston Martin raced in the 1959 Le Mans, driven by Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori, both racing legends. It also was victorious, driven by Sir Stirling Moss at Goodwood in 1958 and 59. It was believed to be put up for auction at a price of 20 million British pounds in 2012, which was thought to break a record for the most expensive classic car ever sold at that time. In 2015, an Aston Marton DB4GT Zagato sold for $14.3 million at public auction.
The British Lotus cars were first built by Colin Chapman in a garage. In 1950, he entered his first race and won against a Type 37 Bugatti. The Lotus Mk IX was the first to race at Le Mans, though the car was disqualified for reversing out of a sand bank. The Lotus Eleven sports cars followed, and with their Coventry Climax engines, they were race winners.
The Lotus won seventh place in the 1956 24 Hours of Le Mans and the S1.1 class win. It won ninth place at the 1957 24 Hours of Le Mans and the S1.1 class win.
1954 Triumph TR2
Britain revived its participation in the world of sports cars when it introduced the Triumph TR2 in 1952. The restrictions on the motor industry caused by WWII had left Britain struggling to regain normal production. But the Triumph TR2, followed by the Sunbeam Alpine and then the legendary Jaguar made Britain famous for excellence in classic sports cars. The company began as a manufacturer of bicycles named Triumph.
Eventually, the company expanded to include cars. The Triumph TR2 was its first successful sports car. The model was popular in the American market for its high 100 mph performance for a purchase price of under $2,500.
1956 Mercedes-Benz W196
This Formula One racing car won 9 of the 12 races it entered. It also won two world championships. It included the first use of Daimler-Benz desmodromic valve and direct fuel injection. These technologies were adapted from the WWII Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighter planes. When it crashed at Le Mans in 1955, Mercedes pulled out of competitive racing and the company did not race again for thirty years.
The Le Mans 1955 race turned out to be what is termed The Darkest Day in Le Mans history. The event turned horrific when the Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh drove into the pit-lane grandstand. His car crashed, killing 82 people, who were mostly decapitated. The race leaders, Mike Hawthorn driving a Jaguar and Juan Manuel Fangio driving a Mercedes, were alleged to cause Lance Macklin, driving an Austin Healy, to stray into Levegh’s path. It was said that the two leaders were in a duel for supremacy, with Hawthorn determined to bring his Jaguar to win over Fangio’s Mercedes. The Brit did not want to allow a German car to beat a British car, such was the post war hatred. It all ended in disaster when Levegh’s Mercedes exploded in the viewing stands upon impact.
A W196 was sold at Goodwood Festival of Speed in July 2013 for a new World Record at that time of $29.6 million. It is the most successful of the surviving W196R cars, having won the 1954 German & European Grand Prix at Nurburgring.
Alfa Romeo 1952 Disco Volante
The Alfa Romeo is respected by vintage car enthusiasts for its stylish designs and a car racing heritage dating back to 1911. The company created the 1953 Disco Volante sports racer which some view as an inspiration for the Jaguar D-Type. The car had a low slung profile, convex tail and sleekly curved fenders. It was made of light alloy instead of iron, and was powered by a revolutionary 1290 cc, 4-cylinder engine. This exceptional engine was used in production until 1998. It is one of the iconic designs of the period, with the stylishness of a concept car.
The company’s racing models shared the reputation for high performance luxury, powerful engines and above all, stylish design. A 1958 Alfa Romeo Giulietta 750 d Spider has recently been offered for sale for $35,100.
1955 BMW 507
The BMW 507 emerged as the first car capable of competing with the powerful Ferraris and Jaguars of the 1950s. Throughout WWII era, the company had struggled with divisions due to the war, and the decision to manufacture a sports car surprised the world. The BMW 507 was designed as an open-seater with the excellent suspension and steering enjoyed by the company’s larger sedans. Its aerodynamic styling was excellent, and it reached a top speed of 120 due to its weight. At the time, it sold for $9,000 in the United States, never making money for the company, and only 253 units were produced. But it has the reputation of being the grandfather of modern “ultimate driving machines” because it laid the ground work for sports cars which were impeccably engineered.
In 2014, a fine restored 1958 BMW Series II 70157 sold for $1,925,000 at the Pebble Beach Auctions. It was in exceptional condition, with disc brakes, a hardtop, a five-speed gearbox and Rudge wheels painted in Midnight Blue with its interior of Dark Red Leather.
1956 Austin Healey 100
The Austin-Healey 100 is a classic sports named after its developer, Donald Healey. It made its debut at the London Motor Show, impressing the Managing Director of Austin, Leonard Lord. He viewed it as a replacement for the Austin A90, and requested that Healey build more. It was powered with a 2,660 cc, 4-speed transmission engine. It reached a top speed of 100 miles per hour, and this fact was included in its name.
In 1997, the Austin-Healey driven by Lance Macklin during the 1955 24 Hours at Le Mans was auctioned for more than $1 million. It had been a part of the worst accident ever at Le Mans. The Austin-Healey was rammed by the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR driven by Pierre Levegh, and the Benz flew into the crowd, killing 83 spectators. The Austin Healey 100 Special had been stored in a barn after racing through the 1960s.
1954 Ferrari 375-Plus, Chassis Tag 0384
In June, 2014, Bonhams Goodwood Festival of Speed auction sold the bright red, 1954 Ferrari 375-Plus, identified with chassis tag 0384 AM, for $18.3 million. It was the highest price ever brought at auction for a competition, first-built Ferrari. Once the sale was completed, Bonhams withdrew the lot due to the dispute over who had legal ownership of the vehicle. Two years later, in April 2016, it was reported that the dispute was resolved granting ownership to Les Wexner, the owner of Victoria’s Secret. Wexner is a noted collector of Ferrari.
This particular Ferrari was built to race the 1954 World Sports Car Championship. Only five of its kind were built, making them rare indeed. The five used the 375 MM, added a stronger chassis, and the powerful 4.9-liter V-12. It was rated at almost 350 horsepower. The aluminum body was designed by Pinin Farina with flush fenders and the rounded trunk which made space for its 47.6-gallon fuel tank and a spare tire.
During the 1954 season, this Ferrari won at Silverstone, driven by Jose Froilan Gonzalez, and at the Grand Prix d’Agadir, driven by Giuseppe Farina. After a 24 Hours of Le Mans DNF, Jim Kimberly of the Kimberly-Clark fortune purchased the car. Howard Hively became the owner next, and the car competed until the Grand Prix of Cuba in 1957. A serious fire ended the 0384 AM’s career in racing. With the extent of damage, the car was sold to Ohio engineer Karl Kleve for a reported $2,500. For thirty years, the car was stored near Cincinnati, and there is speculation that Kleve may not have realized that collectors would value it.
In 1986, the trailer storing the Ferrari’s chassis, transmission, radiator and boy panels was stolen. For decades, the car was part of court battles across continents. The car had been acquired by Belgian Jacques Swaters, Ferrari importer. Swaters had completely restored the car by replicating body panels which were missing and installing an engine correct for the period.
By 1997, Kleve contacted Swaters, claiming ownership of the Ferrari. Swaters agreed to pay a settlement of $625,000, claiming he was not aware of the car’s theft from Kleve. Unfortunately, in 2013 Kleve died and in 2010 Swaters died, and it is not known whether or not Kleve received the settlement payment. Complicating the issue, Swaters’ daughter Florence had been able to find and purchase the original 0384 AM engine, and she had it returned to the car in 2009. Both the Swates and the Kleve families claimed rightful ownership, and the legal battle continued.
Bonhams declared that the auction would move forward, but the dispute arose, and the entangled the new buyer, Les Wexner into it. In November 2015, the High Court of London, England declared that Florence Swaters had the right to offer the Ferrari for auction. Wexner filed suit for a refund of his purchase price, against Bonhams. But, on April 18, all parties in the lawsuit agreed that Wexner would receive clear title to the car. The Ferrari 375-Plus, chassis tag 0384 AM, will become a part of Wexner’s Ohio collection of historically significant motorcars.