The Greatest Supercars and Sports Cars of the 1950s
Following the post-war austerity of the 1940s, you’d be forgiven for thinking the car world had gone a bit mad by the time the 1950s came around. This decade saw flying saucers, a supercar with the wings of a seabird, and racing cars barely altered and sold for the road, as the car industry gained the confidence to embrace the future and start pushing the envelope in terms of both design and performance.
We’re eager to hear what you think of our supercar countdowns – let us know if we’ve missed any supercars of the 1950s, and which ones from this and our 1940s list you’d have in your dream garage.
Don’t forget to check out our other Greatest Ever Supercars and Sports Cars posts.
Disco Volante literally translates as ”flying saucer” in Italian. That should tell you all you need to know about how far ahead of its time the 1952 Alfa Romeo Disco Volante was in terms of design.
Alfa Romeo’s space-age supercar may have been made in very, very limited numbers, but it’s still recognized as one of the all-time great triumphs of early aerodynamic car design. Seeing one of these tear past in the 1950s would strike both fear and excitement into onlookers; conjuring images of spherical alien craft the likes of which had been firmly injected into the public psyche by films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and War of the Worlds, released in 1951 and 1953 respectively.
Disco Volantes were very light too. Three-quarters of-a-ton-light. Powered initially by a 2-litre putting 156bhp through the rear wheels, this little Alfa was never all-show-and-no-go. Two later models of the spider were fitted with a 227bhp 3.5-litre straight-six, allowing them to soar to speeds approaching 150 miles an hour.
As it turned out, no alien race touched down in the ‘50s. If they’d arrived in a fleet of striking red Disco Volantes, I for one would welcome our stylishly speedy alien overlords.
The original 356 filled in the missing link between the air-cooled Beetle and the first Porsche with full-on sporting ability, as we covered in our 1940s list. It wasn’t til the ‘50s that Porsche really began to hit their stride, kicking off the process of refining their rear-engined formula that’s endured, in one form or another, for around eight decades now.
In 1955 Porsche introduced the 356 A with a 1.3-litre flat-four engine putting out 44bhp – nippy enough when the cars were so light, but it wasn’t until the Speedster arrived that things started to get really quick for the Munich marque.
While the 356 proved popular in it’s time, introducing the four-cam Carrera engine to the lineup and selling in its thousands, it was clear there was room for improvement.
Porsche engineers are never ones to sit idly by when they could be honing and refining their sports cars. Introduced towards the end of the ‘50s, Speedsters lived up to their name – a 1.5-litre flat-four (air cooled, naturally) provided 70bhp, propelling the aerodynamic aluminium coupe from 0-60 in around 10 seconds and on to touch the 100mph mark.
Twin camshafts were later fitted to the engine’s cylinder banks, giving 1500RS models the ability to reach 130mph, thanks to power being upped to 110bhp. The actor James Dean owned one of these uprated 356s briefly, famously dying in his in a crash on the way to a race meet.
Italian design house Zagato also got involved, bestowing the Speedster with an even sleeker, more aerodynamic body.
It wasn’t just Europe that was pushing out speed machines at the time. The USA joined the 1950s supercar fray with the Thunderbird. Almost three times the size of the Porsches of the era, the Thunderbird tapped into the market of aspirational post-war car buyers who suddenly found their pockets lined with cash.
Later Thunderbirds wouldn’t be getting anywhere near this list, but the original proposition from Ford was a sportier affair. Designed as a slightly more upmarket rival to the 1953 Corvette, itself up against the Jaguar XK120, the Thunderbird sold the V8-American dream that so typifies the Stateside auto scene of the 50s and 60s.
Early models came with a 4.8-litre lump up front, giving it an eventual top speed upwards of 110mph. The initial response to the car was extraordinary – within 10 days of the concept being shown at Detroit in 1954, 3,500 orders were placed. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that this muscle-car-shaped monster started to get truly muscular, with McCulloch-supercharged 5.1 V8s giving some 1957 Thunderbirds outputs of up to 340bhp.
You can’t mention the ‘50s without mentioning the Gullwing. While the Americans were building cars named after birds, Mercedes-Benz were building cars directly inspired by the avian world.
The 300SL was available as both a coupe and a convertible, the latter sans the iconic doors for obvious reasons. Its stylish profile gave it buckets of charisma, helping it to shift in big numbers for what was a specialist car in its day – 1,400 coupes and 1,858 roadsters flew out of showrooms, with the vast majority sold in America.
Mercedes based the production models on their SLR racers of the early ‘50s, which cleaned up at Le Mans in 1952 with a one-two finish. These earlier cars had a 170bhp 3-litre straight-six, with further advantage coming from extraordinary aerodynamics and an all-aluminium space frame construction, giving the big Mercs the edge in the track.
This innovative space frame made the gullwing doors a necessity, and a design feature Mercedes-Benz decided to carry across for road-going versions. Production 300SLs were sold with around 212bhp – a very impressive output for any car of its day, and around double that of the source car – the four-door 300 Adenauer – which had just 112bhp.
Ford weren’t the only of the big-3 US manufacturers getting in early on the muscle car phenomenon. Chevrolet first showed off their two-seat sports car at the 1953 General Motors Motorama expo, where the concept was so well received that they rushed it into production 6 months later.
Early production cars were somewhat disappointing – thanks to cost cutting measures, GM were recycling parts from other cars in their lineup, and the first models out the showroom ran a 3.8-litre inline-6, with tweaked compression ratios to produce 150bhp. 0-60? 11.7 seconds – pitiful compared with what was to come. These first cars were hand-built, as a factory with full production facilities wasn’t due for completion until 1954.
It wasn’t until 1955 that the first V8 ‘Vettes rolled off the production line. The 4.34 small-block had an output of 195bhp – a considerable increase over the first cars. This was later upped to 240bhp, allowing the C1 to compete with its European rivals, though this first-generation Corvette’s solid rear axle construction meant handling was far from its strong point.
C1 Corvettes embody the fondness of 1950s America for art-deco-inspired flamboyance, coupled with futuristic chrome features and grilles to make ‘50s V8 ‘Vettes as at home cruising along beachfront boulevards as they were lining up on the quarter-mile.
Jaguar had made a considerable mark on the supercar scene in the forties with their record-breaking XK120. That model persisted in one form or another until 1954, gradually becoming more refined – but with that refinement came more weight. Jaguar needed something performance-focused to compete at Le Mans.
In 1954, they brought out the D-Type. Lightweight, superbly aerodynamic, and with practices incorporated in its design and manufacture from the aircraft industry, it brought Jaguar tremendous success at Le Mans, triumphing in 1955, 1956 and 1957 – taking all four top places in the later running of the 24-hour race.
Powered by a 3.4-litre straight-six producing 245bhp, the D-Type could reach speeds of 172mph on the Mulsanne straight – more than 12mph faster than the next-fastest Ferraris. Performance aside though, I cant think of any feature I want to return to modern cars more than that huge stabilising fin stretching out behind the driver.
Another UK marque that was really getting into the swing of things was Aston Martin. Their DB2/4 built upon the design sentiments set by the DB1 of the 40’s and DB2 of the early ‘50s, taking on a much more familiar shape to fans of Astons today.
Taking the Lagonda-derived 2.6-litre inline-6 engine and slotting it into the front of such a glamorous body proved a winning combination for David Brown’s recent acquisition, beginning to position the brand as the design icon that it is today. The engine was good for 125bhp, though later versions were graced with a punchier 140bhp 2.9-litre.
Famously jaw-dropping variations include the extremely limited run Bertone spider of 1954, which brought some Italian flair to the already-not-half-bad shape produced by Aston Martin. Wire wheels, long bonnet and that lovely little fins emanating from the rear of the doors give this startlingly pretty roadster huge charisma and pushing the value of pristine examples north of the $3,000,000 mark.
The D24 marked a shift for the Italian manufacturer, who’s traditional hunting ground had been Grand Prix racing. Keen to build on their successes in one sphere of motorsport, Lancia took the fight to the world of sports car racing in the mid-fifties.
Early cars were badged D20, and these raced at the Mille Miglia in 1953 without great success, though the two cars that did finish came home a respectable 3rd and 8th. Experiments with superchargers increased performance, but at the cost of reliability.
The D24 was introduced towards the end of the 1953 season and, barring one win in the hands of Juan Manuel Fangio in Mexico, did not bring tremendous success for Lancia in sports car racing.
In the end, Lancia dropped their sports car racing programme, choosing to focus all their efforts on Grand Prix racing, but despite its failings on the circuit, the 265bhp D24 with it’s Pininfarina-designed classically-proportioned blood-red body draped over the steel frame and that raucous 3.2-litre V6 engine remains the stuff of supercar dreams.
The Jaguar XKSS is the automotive equivalent of finding out you’ve leftover pasta Bolognese in the fridge from last night because you made way too much again – you heat it up with a bit of cheese through it and it always tastes way better than first time around.
At the end of the 1956 racing season, Jaguar came home from having won both Le Mans and the Rally Monte Carlo and was about to call it a day for its motorsport programmes when it uncovered several part-finished D-Types at their Browns Lane factory. Sir William Lyons, Jag’s co-founder and then-managing director spied an opportunity, to save these chassis from the scrapheap while reminding the general public just what Jags were all about.
Though it had a very brief production run – only 16 XKSSs were produced before a catastrophic fire tore through Jag’s factory, halting production – the XKSS would prove instrumental in informing future Jaguar sports car design with its muscular-yet-svelte lines, poised as if ready to pounce. Thanks to its racing heritage, that body wasn’t making performance promises the road car couldn’t live up to. Alterations made for the road were mostly cosmetic: the driver’s-side fin was removed and a passenger door added, while chrome trim pieces and a fabric roof were added for styling and comfort reasons.
For those of us that weren’t around in 1957, Jaguar recently announced a limited run of 9 Heritage XKSSs, completing the originally-planned production run of 25. The first of these are expected to be delivered in 2017, 60 years after the first XKSSs rolled off the producton line.
You thought we weren’t going to mention it, didn’t you? How could we not!
Introduced at the 1954 Paris Motor Show with a Pininfarina-designed body, 250 GTs built in the first 2 years of the cars’ lifespan were coach built before bodywork was standardized.
The formula of front-engined V12 GT car had already proven a winner for Ferrari – the previous decade’s 166 S had already proven triumphant for the Italian supercar stable both on and off the track. The 250 GT moved things on with 220bhp at the command of the driver, endowing the 250 with impressive pace for its era.
Some considered the original 250 GT Europas’ styling a tad on the safe side, however, something that was remedied with the introduction of the 250 GT Berlinetta, later badged the Tour De France model after competing in the eponymous 10-day race. these longer-wheelbase models also came with uprated engines putting out between 240 and 260bhp.
The 1956 BMW 507 was not a profitable car for BMW. In fact, it proved to be a huge loss maker for the Munich marque despite early projections of huge sales in the States. Thanks to the growth of the bang-for-your-buck muscle car across the pond coupled with fierce competition from the aforementioned Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing, the 507 failed to make huge waves on the supercar scene at the time and by the end of its production run in 1959, BMW had only managed to sell 252 examples.
Its looks certainly weren’t to blame – the 507 is one of the prettiest roadsters of the 50s, and the forward thinking design was more than influential on BMW’s modern Z-series of cars, with the Z8 in particular being a near stroke-for-stroke copy of the 507’s stunning proportions.
BMW weren’t short of famous clientele either – Elvis (yes, that Elvis) had one which he bought while stationed in Germany during his army years. Its 3.1-litre V8 wasn’t short of grunt either, propelling the 507 from 0-60 in 11.1 seconds and on to a top speed of 120mph.
Sadly, it seems a case of unfortunate timing for BMW, which created a vicious cycle that drove prices up in the US and in BMW’s native Germany. The decision is over to you: this, a 300SL or a Corvette?