Two-seater cars produced in the 1960s were usually open roadsters or sports coupes. The sports car was not primarily an American product, although it did have the Chevrolet Corvette. Rather, it was a European concept that gained popularity following World War II when returning U.S. servicemen shipped British vehicles home. Japan's Datsun developed a roadster that rivalled the quality of its European counterparts when it began exporting its economical cars to the U.S. in the early 1960s.
Few American automakers in the 1960s were interested in producing two-seater sports car when they could mass-produce big coupes with V-8 horsepower. However, the Corvette achieved modest success after it received the 260 cubic-inch V-8 in 1955. By 1962, it received a 250-horsepower 327 V-8. For 1963, Chevrolet introduced the second-generation Corvette with a split rear window, which lasted one year and then abandoned as a safety concern. Today, enthusiasts consider the 1963 through 1967 Corvette, with its styling based on the lines of a stingray fish, as perhaps the most beautiful American-made sports car. Beginning in 1968, the third generation Corvette appeared with over-the-top curves and bulbous front fenders. Underneath the hood was an optional big-block 427 V-8.
Detroit didn't pay much attention to Japanese automaker Datsun, which ultimately became Nissan, when it began importing bargain basement-priced cars in the early 1960s. Its first sports car imported to North America was the SLP212, which Datsun crafted from a truck design and powered it with a 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine. The SPL213 followed. These cars took on the name "Fairlady" and successive generations ran through 1970. The two-seaters, including the Datsun 1600 and 2000, featured five-speed manual transmission, which was unusual at the time, to transfer power from engines up to 2 litres and generating up to 133 horsepower.
Before U.S. safety and emission control standards sapped the life out of the 1960s sports car, England ruled the roost. MG imported to North America the MGA through 1962, the 1961 to 1979 MG Midget, the 1962 to 1980 MGB and the 1968 to 1969 MGC. Austin-Healey had its toylike 1958 to 1971 Bugeye Sprite. Triumph produced the Spitfire and the GTR4, TR4A, TR5, TR250, the GT6 and the TR6 throughout the 1960s. These modestly priced two-seaters featured just the basics: a four-cylinder engine, drum brakes and door windows that didn't roll up. Only the two-seater 1963 to 1971 Mercedes-Benz 230, 250 and 280SL models, which were more like luxury convertibles than sports cars, and the Jaguar XK-E offered a measure of luxury. The XK-E was a rare mass-produced two-seater that combined power with a 4.2-litre six-cylinder engine and sleek, timeless European styling.
Best of Both Worlds
Leave it to retired race drive Carroll Shelby to bridge European and American automotive technology. When the British-made AC Ace lost its Bristol 2-liter six-cylinder engine after it was phased out, Shelby stepped in and offered to purchase the two-seater bodies, bring them to the U.S., and stuff them with big Ford V-8s. Between 1962 and 1967, Shelby produced the AC Cobra with the 260, 289 and 427 V-8s. The competition model's 427 wielded 485 horsepower.