Car Life Nation

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

When Driving is about Lifestyle, Car Life Nation is the Answer

A gray 2023 Mazda Miata RF is shown driving to a used sports car dealer.

Burnt Rubber on a Budget: The History of Affordable Sports Cars

With their bold styling, unbeatable power-to-weight ratio, and performance-minded design, sports cars are unlike any other segment on the market. Most vehicles on the road are built to be well-rounded, offering a mix of performance, comfort, convenience, and efficiency. Still, that formula goes right out of the window when you start pumping the 91 octane. Sports cars prioritize speed, acceleration, and handling above all else, creating a one-of-a-kind driving experience that can quickly evolve into a full-on obsession.

While many think sports cars are out of reach for all but the most well-heeled drivers, the numbers don’t exactly back up that notion. Sourcing a preowned model from your local used sports car dealer is one way to save some dough, but even when shopping new, the average price for a 2023 sports car was just under $33,000, with seven models actually falling below that price point. One caveat to this lower-than-expected price: sports cars aren’t always the most practical choice for a daily driver. That means that sports car owners (especially those who live in areas with harsh winter weather) often purchase a sports car to supplement their everyday car, truck, or SUV.

Still, finding an affordable used sports car might be easier than you think. The segment might get pricey towards the upper end, but if you’re on a tighter budget, you’re not necessarily out of luck. This isn’t a recent development by any means; automakers have long emphasized the production of affordable, entry-level models that allow even the thriftiest drivers to experience life behind the wheel of a sports car. Join us as we take a closer look at the history of affordable sports cars, from an unlikely roadster that changed the fortunes of one major auto brand to the storied JDM model that has become the go-to project car for drivers looking to enter the segment without breaking the bank.

A Minor Success

The need for speed has been a driving force in the auto industry since its earliest days. The world’s first sports car, which at the time was a loose term describing any low-slung, two-seat production vehicle built for speed and handling, actually hit the market a full eight years before the Model T. Dubbed the Rennzweier, the sports car was designed by Czech brand Tatra and powered by a modified Mercedes-Benz engine. While the Rennzweier wouldn’t turn any heads today with its nine horsepower and 50-mph top speed, every segment needs to start somewhere. The Rennzweier would be followed by early sports cars from the likes of Mercedes, Vauxhall, and the American Motor Car Company, which all had two things in common: they were fast and priced well outside the reach of the average driver.

Innovation in the sports car segment would slow down in the 1910s as the world marched off to war, but following the conflict, it would pick up right where it left off. Sports cars became increasingly popular following WWI, but prices remained high until Cecil Kimber hit the scene. The famous automotive designer was the manager for Morris Garages—the dealer for William Morris’ Morris Motors based in Oxford, England—where he started tinkering with the brand’s popular Morris Oxford model. Kimber would modify the Oxford into a sportier ride, adding his “MG Super Sports” badge to the resulting vehicle. These early MG models would prove exceedingly popular, and by 1935, Kimber’s MG Car Company would be acquired by the more prominent Morris brand.

The newly merged companies would continue to produce Kimber’s custom creations, finding early success with bespoke versions of the Morris Oxford, but it was the rival Austin Seven that would really kick things up a notch. Austin’s economy car was one of the best-selling models of the early 1920s, becoming a popular choice among early auto racers and spawning no shortage of imitators, including the 1928 Morris Minor. To call the Minor an Austin Seven knockoff would be doing the car a disservice as it embraced some cutting-edge engineering techniques that its predecessor lacked. For example, the Minor was built with an overhead camshaft engine, whereas the Minor relied on a more primitive side valve design.

Enter the Midget

If the Morris Minor stopped there, it would still go down in the automotive history books. Still, Kimber wasn’t done tinkering just yet. The designer used the Minor as the platform for his next sporty experiment, resulting in the MG M-Type Midget in 1929. This souped-up version of the Minor wasn’t just fast— it was affordable, making it one of the first high-performance vehicles aimed at the mass market. Contrary to popular expectations, the M-Type’s low price was actually a boon for MG, which had seen sales of its larger saloon-type vehicles falter during the economically tumultuous late ‘20s. The sports car’s popularity would buoy MG through tough times, keeping the automaker afloat in the pre-WW2 years.

So, what made the M-Type so popular? It’s price, for one. Starting at $350 (about $6,300 today), the M-Type was only $100 more expensive than the Morris Minor it was based on. For that price, drivers got to experience a host of features that must have seemed like pure science fiction at the time. The two-door roadster featured a modified version of the four-cylinder, overhead camshaft engine found on the Minor, which, when paired with a constant-depression carburetor, gave drivers some 20 hp to play with. That has the M-Type sorted as far as power was concerned, but to achieve the lowriding feel of a true sports car (and gain the associated handling benefits), MG tweaked the Minor’s suspension by adding half-elliptical springs and friction disk shock absorbers. The early sports car also received improved brakes, with rods and Bowen cables replacing the bare wire cables and pulleys used in the Minor.

The Type-M’s body completed the sports car equation thanks to a design that was basically just a fabric cover wrapped around a wooden frame. Later, M-Type models would employ an all-metal body, but the wooden approach allowed the early version to achieve an impressive power-to-weight ratio as it tipped the scales at just 1,120 lbs. This combination was enough to send the M-Type from zero to 60 in record time with an impressive top speed of 60 mph to boot. The M-Type would challenge the popular notion of how thrilling an affordable car could be, setting the stage for decades of sporty innovation.

The Next Generation

The MG Type-M Midget was indeed the first of its kind, but it certainly wasn’t the last. While it’s always fun to dive into a little automotive history, today’s car buyers aren’t too likely to run into a Type-M for sale anytime soon. The early sports car does come up for auction now and then, but with an average price of $15,000 to $20,000, it’s an expensive (and more than likely, not street-legal) collector’s item. So, where should buyers go if they’re looking for an affordable used sports car in the year 2023? Directly to the Mazda Miata.

When the Mazda MX-5 Miata first hit the market in 1989, it was the last of a dying breed as small, affordable roadsters like the Triumph Spitfire, Fiat Spider, and the MG B (a Type-M descendant) had mostly gone the way of the dodo. The similarly sized Alfa Romeo Spider was still around, but it was significantly more expensive than the Miata. The original Miata had all the characteristics of a good sports car— a peppy engine, sharp handling, and a low curb weight that made for an impressive power-to-weight ratio. The public was immediately enthralled. The first-generation Miata would be the model’s most popular iteration, with Mazda moving almost 230,000 units in the US alone between 1989 and 1997.

So, what was the secret to the Miata’s success? In a word, simplicity. Mazda didn’t reinvent the wheel in designing the Miata— they simply borrowed existing parts from the brand’s extensive catalog to create a lightweight, affordable chimera of a sports car. Mazda lifted the inline-four engine from a family hatchback, giving drivers either a 1.5- of 1.9-liter block to choose from. Going with a relatively simple inline-four also made the Miata easy to work on, which, combined with its low price, made it a popular choice as a project car ripe for aftermarket customization. Weighing in at less than 2,500 lbs, the Miata already boasted an impressive power-to-weight ratio, but by adding an aftermarket turbocharger, drivers could squeeze even more excitement out of the diminutive sports car.

The Miata’s unique longitudinal truss design, marketed under the name Powerplant Frame, makes for a tight, responsive ride as it forms a strong connection between the engine and differential. This minimizes flex while improving balance, which is always a recipe for sports car success. The compact sports car also featured relatively neutral handling with a 50/50 front/rear weight balance, making it easy to produce the sort of oversteer that’s so important on the racing circuit.

Then, of course, there’s the price. The Miata was never expensive to begin with, with a starting price of just $13,800 when it first went on sale in 1989, and used models are just as affordable. Much of this can be credited to the Miata’s prodigious production run. With Mazda producing almost a quarter-million units within the first ten years, the used market is full of affordable Miata’s. This ubiquity and the aforementioned ease of modification have made the Miata the project car to beat all project cars. There’s a robust Miata modding community, which means plenty of support, advice, and parts available for those who want to build a sports car on a budget. Even a late model Miata falls below the sporty segment’s $33,000 average, with 2023 models retailing for $28,050. The late-model Miata is not only the most affordable sports car on today’s market, but it’s also rated as the best convertible and has the best gas mileage in its class, according to

MG Type-M Midget and Mazda Miata are here to prove that you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to get a taste of that wind-in-your-hair sports car lifestyle. We tend to think that performance and price go hand-in-hand, and while this is often true, there are always exceptions to the rule. As we mentioned earlier, a sports car might not always be the most practical choice for every driver in every situation. Still, if comfort, cargo space, and headroom aren’t an issue, you might be surprised to discover what kind of deals are lurking on the used sports car market. These models might not have the bells and whistles of a high-performance luxury vehicle, the passenger space of an SUV, or the towing power of a pickup, but when you’re trying to spice up your morning commute by pulling a few Gs, look no further. While the Mazda Miata is a real standout for affordable performance, it’s certainly not the only option for those seeking a sports car on a budget. There are plenty of deals to be found on the preowned market; it’s often just a matter of knowing what to look for and having a little patience.

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