The Roadster: An Automotive Tradition

In the modern day, two-seat droptop roadsters are often seen as an enthusiast's luxury item, but going back over a century, the segment actually describes many of the world's most pioneering cars. These early "horseless carriage" models were quite literally based on horse carts, and naturally inherited their open-top design.


Ford Quadricycle - Images by Newsweek c. 1896
Ford Quadricycle - Images by Newsweek c. 1896

The first roadsters, colloquially called runabouts, were produced in small numbers and very spartan in features. Looking at Henry Ford's first vehicle, you can see it rides on bike tires, controlled from what appears to be an office chair. More expensive runabouts would include more stylish contemporary components like stitched leather seating and brass fixtures. As cross-country started to be made in early cars, their practical limitations were quickly made apparent. While open top motoring is lovely on lush country roads, it can be absolutely killer in hot environments like the Mojave desert, and more space was needed to fit precious cargo, tools, and water.


In 1903, this Winton Touring Car became made the first transcontinental automobile trip.
In 1903, this Winton Touring Car became made the first transcontinental automobile trip.

So, in the early 20th century, mass-produced cars like the Ford Model T began to roll off of assembly lines with fixed roofs and seating for multiple passengers. Roadster variants of the Model T and its Model A successor would however remain quite popular.


1929 Oakland Sedan
1929 Oakland Sedan

1926 Model T Roadster
1926 Model T Roadster

Getting into the '20s and '30s, roadsters started to be positioned as luxury items compared to their coupe and sedan contemporary, and the conception of a sports car would be born with high-dollar brands like Duesenberg and Bugatti.


Bugatti Type 35 Roadster
Bugatti Type 35 Roadster

Getting into the mid-20th century American roadsters started falling out of popularity in favor of big sedans, but light, nimble, and cheap sports cars became all the rage in Europe. This would become what some consider the heyday of roadsters, with iconic cars like the Alfa Romeo Spider, MGB, BMW 507, Mercedes SL, and AC Ace, which would later become the Shelby Cobra.


1965 Cobra continuation currently owned by The Starting Line
1965 Cobra continuation currently owned by The Starting Line

This sports car boom was definitely noticed by carmakers over in America and Japan, who responded in turn with the original Chevy Corvette, Ford Thunderbird, Nissan Fairlady, and Honda S500.



Through a fuel crisis and several boring economic factors, roadsters nearly became extinct through the 70's. They were usurped by compact but practical hatchbacks, as many families could no longer afford a second weekend car. Then everything changed in 1989, when Mazda's MX-5 Miata almost singlehandedly brought back the roadster concept. American and Japanese design teams came together to create the affordable performer, harkening back to that golden age of sports cars. The MX-5 has since seen three successive generations carrying it into the modern day. German competitors like the Porsche Boxster and BMW Z3 (later Z4) is also still going strong.



in 1999, the Honda S2000 came onto the scene with one of the most powerful naturally aspirated production engines ever created. That venture went on for a little over a dedicate, but has never been followed up, despite years of hinting and teasing from Honda execs.



Although they've become a tiny portion of the automotive market in 2021, roadsters continue to deliver a ton of driving excitement at a fair price, and The Starting Line hopes they'll continue to do so for decades to come.

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