What makes a sports car a sports car?
A sports car should be fun, right, but what does that actually mean? What makes a sports car a sports car?
THE ANSWER BEGINS with two of my other favourite sports, sailing and glider flying. Neither sailing nor gliding is a practical means of transport, having been superseded by powered boats and powered aircraft. Yet both sports have devotees, and it’s because they are fairly easy to do adequately, but endlessly difficult and challenging to do well as they demand a lot of skill, knowledge and intelligence, leavened with a large degree of willingness to take risks. Sound familiar? Maybe you’re thinking I missed ‘speed’ off that list? Nope.
In a powerboat, you open the throttle and hang on. There’s some skill in keeping it straight, but realistically, it’s not that hard.Compare that to flat-out in a sailboat in high winds. Every half-second you’ll be making tiny, or not so tiny adjustments on the tiller or the sails, keeping the boat as level as you can, hanging out for dear life on the trapeze – try that if you think sailing isn’t scary – and you’re reading the waves, the wind, literally feeling part of the boat, feeling alive, connected. When you anticipate and trim for that gust you felt coming, the boat spurts over a wave and surfs over the crest… it is a visceral, deep sense of exhilaration.
Just like gliding. When you’ve used your knowledge to scout for the uprising columns of air that are thermals, centred your aircraft it in just so with controls perfectly balanced, anticipated the upward thrust as you ease back on the stick, see the altimeter spin upwards, and if any further confirmation is needed you’re joined by an eagle keen for a free ride…that too is exhilaration and achievement by skill and knowledge. And if that’s not excitement enough, then try struggling to find a thermal at 200m above the ground, failing, then taking a split second decision to land in a field but realising too late there’s powerlines in the way.
And that brings us to driving, and the essence of a sportscar. There’s all sorts of definitions of a sportscar, such as the number of doors it must have, the looks, the manufacturer’s intent, the performance… but it’s all irrelevant, because the real definition of a sportscar is simple – does the car make you want to take the long, windy way home for pure driving pleasure? If the answer is yes, it is a sportscar. If it is no, then that lump of metal and plastic is just a car, whether it’s front, rear or all wheel drive, two doors or four… it matters not, any more than whether your mates are fat, thin, Asian or Caucasian.
The pleasure of driving is precisely the same as the pleasure of sailing or gliding – it is the combination of controlling some transportation device that provides a never-ending intellectual and physical challenge, with the tang of danger, in pursuit of an unattainable perfection. That’s what sportscars are all about, but today we’re seeing more fastcars, not sportscars.
A fastcar is a car that is, well, fast. I’m going to single out the Nissan GT-R here as it has a truly amazing array of go-faster gizmos, an incredible automatic gearbox and launch control. All of this combines to make for a stunningly fast car, but sheer speed is not the primary attribute of a sportscar. In the same way a powerboat goes faster than a sailboat but demands less skill, being strapped into a fastcar and giving approximate driving inputs which are translated into apparent skill is no fun. The whole point is intellectual and physical challenge. Take that away and you may as well buy yourself a rollercoaster, same thrills, less insurance costs. And I say enough, enough of the fastcars. Let us have sportscars. Fast is not a direct equal for fun.
A true sportscar is the motoring equivalent of the glider and the sailboat. It is easy to drive adequately, but hard to drive well. You feel what’s happening through the steering wheel, pedals and your sensations through the seats. There will be numerous ways to control the car through combinations of inputs, so you’re on a never-ending journey of discovery and perfection. And of course, on the racetrack, there’s that excitement of holding the engine to the redline, changing gear, seeing that corner approach and knowing it’s just you and your skill between a successful exit or a trip to the hospital. It’s living, and it’s addictive.
Yet because the pleasure of driving is knowing you’ve got it just right, you don’t actually need to be travelling at supersonic speeds or at the limit to enjoy driving. The fun-factor satisfaction of a well-executed manoeuvre is much the same whether it’s on the limit of adhesion or well below, just the danger and excitement level varies. But only if you have a machine that rewards skills and exposes errors, not camouflages mediocrity.
Sadly, fastcars are destroying this enjoyment. The consumers and media are responsible for this, with an entirely pointless obsession about numbers such as power, torque, 0-100 and top speed. You read breathless reports about how some car may now a whole 15kW more than before. Yet none of that matters and the measurbators who obsesses over a 4.5 vs 5 second 0-100 time are missing the point as surely as complaining that a sunset is too dark. In the real world, you won’t notice any difference between two cars with closely matched figures.
It is interesting to note that the sailboat and glider have not evolved into equivalents of the fastcar, and there is a reason why. Because they lost their relevance as practical transport many decades ago they have not been subject to continuous ‘improvement’ in the same way as the car. But had this not been the case you can be sure that sailboats would now have wind detectors, automatic tiller correction, anti-capsize technology and self-adjusting sails. Gliders would have autopilots, thermal detectors and there’d be lots of emergency runways. All of which would make them more efficient and easier…but ruin the pleasure. It’d be like driving a sportscar that corners by itself.
But there’s hope for sportscar lovers, and it’s sitting in my driveway. It is a sportscar in my sense of the word, designed for driving pleasure. It is certainly not a fast car. I don’t actually know what the 0-100 time is or top speed, and nor do I care. What I care about is that this car is a true pleasure to drive, but exactly how and why that is the case will have to wait for another time. Because right now I’m going out to drive my car because I feel the need…the need for the pleasure through challenge that only a true sportscar drive can deliver. Meet my Toyota 86.