As I view it, the four-year-old Petersen Automotive Museum Los Angeles is already a national treasure. General Manager Ken Gross and his knowledgeable cadre have made this an increasingly dynamic institution, not just another musty, static warehouse. An example of the way the Petersen Museum packages its history lessons was “Postwar Sports Car Performance and Passion for the Road,” an exhibit that ran from mid-February through May. It related a meaningful, yet highly enjoyable three-dimensional history of our hobby in what this observer considers its golden age, hitting the target almost dead center.
Like many other enthusiasts and historians, I believe that the post-WWII decade was a vital period in automotive history. We saw the proliferation of high compression V8 engines, automatic transmissions, air conditioning and power everything. With that in mind, it is significant that only the early Porsche deviated from the traditional front engine/rear drive layout that for many years was the accepted configuration for sports cats, and normal passenger cars as well. Yet, the ’90s idiom for maximum performance is biased heavily toward a mid-engine layout, while front wheel drive is featured on most passenger cars and on the current Fiat and Alfa Romeo Spyders, with more, like the Audi 1T, to come. Still, the purists among us remain staunch defenders of the front engine/rear drive configuration.
In the Petersen Museum exhibit, the MGTC had a place of honor, recognition for it having been the vehicle which, more than any other, launched the sports car craze in America. Available only in right hand drive, 10,000 TCs were produced, and most came to America. England needed American dollars and a significant number of Americans had been smitten by the jaunty, nimble and economical MG. Many of them were raced, rallied, and otherwise used in a sporting manner. The drivetrain was pre-war; a non-synchro, four-speed gearbox, and a pushrod OIIV 1.25 liter four-banger rated at 541IP, a combination that gave the MG TC a top speed, under favorable conditions, of about 80 mph. Sports cars, led by the MG, soon became the focus of a cult-like band of enthusiasts.
Jaguar soon became the next nameplate to capture America’s newfound fancy for sports cars. The XK120 was an entirely different proposition from the MG—ultra-sleek, powerful, and fast. Ownership carried with it immediate status as an automotive connoisseur. The 120 mph Jaguar was so successful that demand even surprised the company, causing it to tool up for higher volume production in steel bodies instead of the initially intended, low-volume aluminum body construction. It wasn’t long before the robust American market influenced the English to bias production in favor of left-hand-drive export models, with other British nameplates following suit. Considered the most handsome of the XK series, the XK120 enjoys the highest resale value among collectors. Each succeeding model was quicker, better handling, and more comfortable. It was refreshing to see an unrestored fixed-head-coupe chosen for the Petersen display.
In 1954, the Austin-Healey 100-4 appeared, filling the price and performance gap between MG and Jaguar. Donald Healey’s low-slung design was wrapped around off-the-shelf mechanicals from Austin to create a 100+ mph sports car.
At the Petersen exhibit, a French-bodied Spanish Pegaso was the first vehicle that caught one’s eye as the escalator arrived at the second level exhibition area. Slightly more than 100 V8- powered Pegaso sports cars were built in the mid-1950s, usually with one-off Italian coachwork. The majority of the more than two dozen sports cars from a half dozen countries were grouped in a larger display hall.
In addition to the seminal British sports cars, there was the obligatory Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, plus several American efforts at creating a home-grown sports car. The rare and exotic were even better represented. These included a Cisitalia 202, Allard K3, Siata 208S and a Maserati A6 2000, plus a Bugatti 101C, just about the last car to bear that nameplate until the marque’s short-lived 1990s revival.
Keeping company with the Bugatti, other sports car icons in the exhibit included an early Gmund Porsche, Ferrari ’42 America, and an Alfa Romeo 1900. From America’s “Big Three” came a 1955 Ford Thunderbird (the very first one produced), a 1954 Chevrolet Corvette, and the Dodge Storm, with styling by Bertone (which didn’t make it to production).
According to a chart at the exhibit, the 165-mph Mercedes-Benz 300SL was fastest, but only slightly quicker than the 160-mph Bosley. The somewhat arcane Morgan trike was the group’s slowest, topping out at 70 mph. As for acceleration, as might be expected, the hybrids powered by American V8 engines joined Ferrari, Pegaso, and Jaguar as stars in the 0-60 acceleration competition, while the Lancia Aprilla and Morgan were most leisurely, taking well over 20 seconds to attain that velocity…and the TC could get into the teens only if supercharged. Ultimate speed and acceleration ranked far beneath handling and general sportiness in defining the essence of a sports car.
Looking at the big picture, sports cars actually represented only a small percentage of the imported cars that invaded our shores during that first post-war decade, but their impact on America’s love affair with the automobile was enormous. In 1957, slightly more than a quarter million foreign-built cars were imported into this country, of which Japanese makes accounted for a mere 401 vehicles. Imports represented a still seemingly harmless 2% of the new car market. Two years later, foreign car sales had grown to a far more serious 10%, and even the most myopic Detroit executives got the message—something was lacking from the domestic automobile. I choose to think that the missing ingredient was fun.