I'm a nut about roadsters. And what's a roadster? Automotive style designations are notoriously shifty (witness the witless recent fad for the name "four-door coupe," which is like saying "Nikon EOS"). But if you ask me, I'd say a roadster is any small, two-seater, open-topped car where some degree of sportiness is either implied or achieved.
Like the perfect camera, the perfect roadster doesn't exist. As with the perfect camera, people keep trying.
What follows is a rather extemporaneous list of my favorite-looking roadsters. Not all of them have high performance, or are (or were) popular, or are even the best variant of their model or line. But they all look muy fabuloso. (As with aesthetics in every sphere, disagreement on that score is expected and assumed.)
Because some people don't like car posts on their photo blog, I've continued this after a break. (If you click through, though, you're no longer allowed to complain.)
Starting the list from the bottom:
9. Mid-'60s C2 Corvette: More sports car than true roadster, there has never been a very classic-looking 'Vette. The styling of modern ones isn't half bland; worse were the delightfully hideous 1970s "Makos," which, all points and angles and waspy waists, defined high 1970s American style as thoroughly as a 50-year-old hipster of the era wearing bell-bottoms, gold chains, a huge collar, paisley, and a toupé. (And so, naturally, we couldn't get enough of them, and they lived on for well over a decade.) The first generation was pleasant looking by 1960 or so, but then, it wasn't really a sports car until Zora Arkus-Duntov started his Grand Sport program in about '63. The C2 seen here is the prettiest of the bunch, especially in convertible form. Albeit an "Americanized" one, it feels like a roadster to drive.
8. Austin Healey 3000. This one's a BJ8, which isn't quite a two-seater, although most of the 3000's were. But I liked those badges. You can see more pictures of this car here. I've never driven a 3000, but I have a long story to tell about a fateful one all the same. Another day, another time....
7. Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider. I left this spot until last to fill, and it was a close race between this car, the Porsche 356, and the Mercedes 300SL. But a Porsche nearly killed me when I was 16 (damn engine in the wrong place!), and that's not even the only issue I have with them. And although I have a soft spot for the 300SL and even for Paul Bracq's pagoda-roof SL's, it must be said that Mercedes is a company that deep down doesn't get roadsters, as a spin in any current SL or SLK will demonstrate. How Mercedes manages to make even its small cars feel so heavy is a mystery to me.
And although I grew up in the era of Triumph Spitfires and the ubiquitous Alfa Duetto Spiders (called simply Spiders in the U.S., although in Europe the word as a general term means roughly the same thing as "roadster"), the Giulietta Spider is the pure Alfa to me. My parents took us on many trips to Europe when I was young, at the tail end of the heyday of postwar European travel, and I must have seen many of them then. The Giulietta eventually came to signify everything romantic and sophisticated about Europe to me. I've never even seen one here.
6. Shelby Cobra. In 1961, Carroll Shelby asked Britain's AC cars to provide some engineless chasses for its AC Ace modified to accommodate a Ford small-block V8. Thus the legend of the AC Cobra—better known as the Shelby Cobra—was born. Today you can drop a GM LS3 Corvette engine into a Miata and presumably get a better car, but the result would have nothing near the same panache. I've never driven either.
Because there were only a few hundred of the bonafide originals made, this has been one of the most imitated and replicated cars in history. Some of the kit cars are truly horrible. But once again you can get very close to the real thing—a company called Superformance in South Africa manufactures very high-quality replicas that are even approved by Carroll Shelby himself (although they can't use the magic name "Cobra"). The illustration above is of a Superformance MKIII.
5. 1999–2005 Mazda Miata (the "NB"). Currently the used car steal on planet Earth, an absolute joy to drive on real roads with speed limits, and cheap cheap cheap—you can get a decent driver for $5–8k and it's about as hard to maintain as a Corolla. I just love the styling of these cars. Can't get enough of 'em. Not for nothing has the Miata/MX-5 been the iconic roadster of the past 22 years, outlasting many others and serving as inspiration to the competitors that remain. (Thanks to Phuong Tao for this picture, of his Miataspeed factory turbo. You can see more pics here.)
4. 1965 Ferrari 275 GTS. This is reportedly not a Ferrari of the first water, seen from the driver's seat. Seen from just about any other angle, the car is all business and pure style, one of Pininfarina's most confident and assured designs. What would today be called the 275's "design language" would later be echoed in the off-the-rack Fiat 124. I sorta miss the discipline of mandatory round headlights—designers have been going overboard in the other direction lately. Significantly, the 275 GTS is simple, without the trying-too-hard, over-the-top styleyness (example) that is all too prevalent now. See many more pictures here. (And get a load of that price! Wow.)
3. 1956–1959 BMW 507. Not a great car, and too expensive to be popular in its time (only 252 made, which makes it all the more valuable now, of course), this Albrecht von Goertz masterpiece is nevertheless one of the most perfect designs ever to come out of Germany, which is saying a mouthful. (Goertz later penned the original Datsun 240Z, another high point of automotive style.) Rather amazingly, BMW created its own modernized homage to the 507—the Z8—and it isn't a very good car either (at least according to those who should know), despite coming from one of the world's most capable automakers and costing the proverbial arm and leg. The Z8 looks sweet, too, if a tad pudgy, but just misses the lean, lithe, pantherlike elegance of the perfectly-proportioned original.
Many more pics here, which might collectively give a better overall idea of what the car looks like.
(And, in roadster news, BMW is said to be preparing a new small roadster for market, the Z2, seeing as the Z4 has gone so far upscale.)
2. Pre-War MG TA Midget. Henry Ford wasn't the only one with a model called the "T"—that's what the TA was called before the nearly-identical TB came along. Some people prefer the raked radiator and fender-integrated headlights of the TF, and I used to, too. But now I go along with the crowd and prefer the more upright, slab-sided classic TA/TB/TC series produced before and after WWII. When production resumed after the war with the TC of 1945–1950, this was the car that introduced a generation, and a nation, to roadsters. (Note not only the detached headlamps but the absence of a front bumper on the car in this picture.)
I was imprinted on MGs as a child, which explains a lot. ("Look, an unrestored chrome-bumper MGB! Mama!"*)
1. Jaguar E-Type. Enzo Ferrari himself considered the E-Type, celebrating its 50th birthday this year, to be the best-looking automobile ever made. The E-Type tops many lists of the all-time best-looking cars. This was the car that haunted my dreams as a boy. I'm over it now, but you never forget your first love.
And who knows, maybe now that I can afford it, maybe I might even buy one. (By popular demand I'm adding this second picture, of a Series 1 XK-E, for those who dislike the Series-3 V12 pictured in black above. I do admit the Series 1 I-6 is purer, but the V12 happened to be the one that transfixed me in the sheet metal as a kid. Chacun à son goût....)
Beyond Category: 1928 Bugatti 37A. The truest icon is the Type 35, one of the most beautiful machines ever created by Man, but I've chosen the 37A for this list for two reasons: first, because it has the four-cylinder engine that the roadgoing versions had, rather than the eight cylinders of most of the racecars (although, as Jay says, this one raced); and second, because it's the subject of this awesome video. (It's a bit long; start it at about 9:00 if you're pressed for time.) Jay Leno became one of my heroes when I saw this. I've been reading Bugatti lore since I was, like, ten—the one in the millionaire's living room as a sculpture, stripped of its body panels; the mythical Bugatti train; all the race victories; the craftsmanship; the engineering; le pur sang; Ettore's eccentricities; on and on—and almost nobody ever talks about driving them. To see Jay tooling along the highway in L.A. in his Type 37A at the end of this video is just one of the greatest things I've ever laid eyes on in my life.
Maybe I exaggerate.
But only a little. The true spirit of the roadster, neatly, in five and a half minutes of video.
*I'm trusting you're up on your Konrad Lorenz.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by the other James: "I'm not a car person, but I have to say that watching Jay talk about his cars is a pleasure. He obviously gets a lot of joy from them and loves to share that joy in a very genuine (as opposed to Hollywood) way."
Featured Comment by m3photo: "Anyone for a Morgan? I believe it's a roadster too you know...."
Featured Comment by Ben: "Good choice of the E-Type, although bad choice of photo as what you have there appears to be V12 abomination. By then the E was getting fat, tired, middle-aged, wearing lots of make-up and soon to be replaced by the wacky XJS (a car that never really looked its best until a couple of years before it was retired). You want a photo of a Series 1 E-Type to really demonstrate the freshness and delicacy of the design." [In the same spirit, Speed suggests this photo —Ed.]
Featured Comment by Carsten Bockermann: "Excellent selection! I only have to disagree with the Mazda MX-5 NB as I definitely prefer the NA model with its retractable headlights."
Featured Comment by Dale: "When I was in Acadia last weekend, I was standing at Otter point overlook and a guy pulled up in a 'Bug Eye' Sprite ('61). I asked how many of them he had so he could keep one running and told me 'twelve'! Gotta love British sports cars. I have a friend who once owned 19 MGAs to achieve the same result...."
Featured Comment by Geoff Wittig: "Somehow I've never been able to get past the sense that roadsters are cars that really want to be motorcycles, but lack sufficient conviction. All the things roadsters have going for them—the wind on your face, simplicity, light weight and great moves—motorcycles have more of. And here in the great white north, I generally see roadsters at their worst—crusted with salt grime, torn canvas/rubber lid flapping in the breeze, that rear window scarred into opacity.
"But then, that's just the envy talkin'. I used to own and ride motorcycles, frequently going too fast. I mentioned to my wife last year how much fun a motorcycle might be again, since many of our early dates involved rides. She smiled indulgently and then said, 'Just make sure when you crash it you're killed cleanly, not just maimed. I don't want to be pushing your wheelchair.' She's sweet that way."
Featured Comment by John Krill: "'62 Vette. The best ever. Downhill from there."
Featured Comment by Mike Plews: "Great list even if it lacks my old TR3a. I think the 275GTS is the most beautiful drophead Ferrari but the 275GTB has a grip on me that is over 40 years old."
Featured Comment by Jim Hart: "You left out my first brand new car, paid for by poker money earned while in the U.S. Army, the 1970 Triumph Spitfire MKIII. $2,450 brand new out the door. The Triumph could be flogged through turns without too much concern about breaking speed laws. Four speed, four cylinder, two seater, curb weight @ 1600 pounds including fuel and driver. Top end about 95 mph, assuming a gently sloping downhill road, tail wind, and the deployment of a sail borrowed from the sloop America. 0-60...yes, eventually.
"It was an E-type for the folks from the poor side of town. Since then we've titled a number of roadsters and sports cars (including a Fiat 124 Spyder, an Opel GT and a Chevrolet Corvette, but the Spitfire remains my favorite driver.
"These days, being older and larger and not as willing to fold, spindle, and mutilate myself into the driver's seat, my daily driver is a Jeep Commander—but its stablemate in the garage is a 2005 Ford Thunderbird. The T-Bird fits the definition of roadster (drop head, V8, dual exhaust, two seater) but the automatic trans ruins the car for me. My wife loves it and it's her summertime daily driver, but I don't really consider it to be a 'roadster.'"
Featured Comment by Ed Hawco: "An unfulfilled roadster fantasy: in 1997 I spent three weeks in Las Vegas preparing for a trade show. As you can imagine, living on the strip for three weeks will drive anyone batty. Anyway, the BMW Z3 was new at the time and I was utterly in love with it but completely unable to afford one.
"However, one of the casinos on the strip had one mounted atop a bank of slot machines. All you had to do was hit the jackpot on one of the machines and the Z3 was yours.
"In the meantime, another casino had a Star Wars promotion on, which included a life-size Darth Vader doll as a jackpot.
"In my somewhat Vegas-crazed mind, I though I could win both, and that I would then embark on a trans-continental drive back to Montreal in my new Z3 with Darth Vader in the passenger seat.
"I won neither.
"Fortunately I didn't lose my shirt. A combination of small wins plus the occasional sanity check kept my losses digestible."
Mike replies: Ed, thanks for an amusing mental image!