Let’s be honest: However much we appreciate contemporary design, there’s little in the automotive world today that excites us as much as some of the cars from the 1950s and the days before mandatory impact bumpers, effective crumple zones, airbag steering wheels, and pedestrian-friendly front ends. Here are five of the best ’50s sports cars, created in a time when body panels were hand-shaped with hammers and wheels, dashboards were made of metal, and seat belts were optional.
1956 Aston Martin DBR1
Talk about a single-purpose car. The Aston Martin DBR1 had one mission: win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Just five of these cars were ever built, styled by Aston’s racing design chief Ted Cutting.
The spaceframe chassis is draped with low-slung, curvaceous, ultra-thin-gauge aluminum alloy bodywork that barely fits over the 3.0-liter V-12 engine and wire-spoke wheels. We especially love the organically shaped front-fender vents, and the small scoops that duct air to cool the rear brakes. This car sold for $22,550,000 (yes, $22 million) at RM Sotheby’s 2017 Monterey auction. Without a doubt it is one of the best ’50s sports cars enthusiasts should remember.
1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa
Its gaping front opening and slim hood bulge hides a 3.0-liter V-12 engine and its six Weber carburetors, and we adore the naked exhaust pipes that run down the side from front to rear. Even the Testa Rossa (“red head”) engine is a work of art. A good 250 Testa Rossa today will cost well into the eight-figure range, and it’s deservedly always on everyone’s list of the best ’50s sports cars.
1956 Porsche 550 RS Spyder
A four-cam, flat-four engine is tucked behind the clamshell-style rear cover, and the interior is simple form over function: three round gauges, two diminutive seats, a steering wheel, shift lever, and little else. Look at the way the center chassis brace, drilled for lightness, curves through the cabin under where the driver’s legs would be. Meanwhile, the body is so effortlessly featureless that without the headlights, it’d be tough to tell if it’s coming or going. This car sold for nearly $3.5 million at RM Sotheby’s 2019 Paris auction.
1956 Maserati A6G/2000 Berlinetta Zagato
The 1950s was a golden age for sports cars—and for Italian coachbuilder Zagato (before its more avant garde work in later years).
The stunning body it created for this Maserati A6G/2000 is proof positive. While several coachbuilders, including Allemano, Vignale, and Frua worked their magic on the Maserati A6G chassis, this Zagato design is superior to them all with its timeless elegance and mid-century streamlined body shape. Bulging rear fenders give the car some muscularity which betrays the fine detail work, such as the jewel-like door handles and miniscule taillights.
1955 Jaguar D-Type
Look at a Jaguar D-type’s details, and sometimes it can be hard to tell if you’re looking at one of the best ’50s sports cars or an aircraft. Exposed rivets hold the aluminum body together, the black-faced gauges have all the stark simplicity of military planes, and the dainty leather straps keeping the hood closed are full of old-world charm.
When it comes to the D-type, it’s almost as if the designers of the Supermarine Spitfire, England’s premier World War II fighter plane, had a hand in this Jaguar’s development. Later examples even had a vertical stabilizing fin aft of the driver’s headrest. Jaguar built 71 D-types, and three won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, what with their 173-mph top speed down the Mulsanne Straight. No wonder Jaguar decided recently to build 25 more D-types.
Best ’50s Sports Cars:
- 1956 Aston Martin DBR1
- 1958 Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa
- 1956 Porsche 550 RS Spyder
- 1956 Maserati A6G/2000 Berlinetta Zagato
- 1955 Jaguar D-type