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A roadster (also spider, spyder) is an open two-seat car with emphasis on sporting appearance or character. Initially an American term for a two-seat car with no weather protection, usage has spread internationally and has evolved to include two-seat convertibles.
The roadster was also a style of racing car driven in United States Auto Club (USAC) Championship Racing, including the Indianapolis 500, in the 1950s and 1960s. This type of racing car was superseded by mid-engined cars.
The term "roadster" originates in the United States, where it was used in the nineteenth century to describe a horse suitable for travelling. By the end of the century the definition had expanded to include bicycles and tricycles. In 1916, the United States Society of Automobile Engineers defined a roadster as: "an open car seating two or three. It may have additional seats on running boards or in rear deck." Due to it having a single row of seats, the main seat for the driver and passenger was usually further back in the chassis than it would have been in a touring car.(p258) Roadsters usually had a hooded dashboard.(p257)
In the United Kingdom, historically the preferred terms were "open two-seater" and "two-seat tourer". Since the 1950s, the term "roadster" has also been increasingly used in the United Kingdom. It is noted that the optional 4-seat variant of the Morgan Roadster would not be technically considered a roadster.
The Italian equivalent is "spider" (pronounced "speeder"). Various manufacturers have used the words "spider" or "spyder" as a name for their roadster models.
The earliest roadster automobiles had only basic bodies without doors, windshields, or other weather protection. By the 1920s they were appointed similarly to touring cars, with doors, windshields, simple folding tops, and side curtains.
Roadster bodies were offered on automobiles of all sizes and classes, from mass-produced cars like the Ford Model T and the Austin 7 to extremely expensive cars like the Cadillac V-16, the Duesenberg Model J and Bugatti Royale.
1926 Ford Model T roadster
1932 Duesenberg J Murphy-bodied roadster
1937 Delahaye 135MS roadster
1949 MG TC open two-seater marketed in USA as a roadster
1946 Triumph Roadster designed to appeal to and named for the U.S. market
By the 1970s "roadster" could be applied to any two-seater car of sporting appearance or character. In response to market demand they were manufactured as well-equipped as convertibles with side windows that retracted into the doors. Popular models through the 1960s and 1970s were the Alfa Romeo Spider, MGB and Triumph TR4.
The highest selling roadster is the Mazda MX-5, which was introduced in 1989. The early style of roadster with minimal weather protection is still in production by several low-volume manufacturers and fabricators, including the windowless Morgan Roadster, the doorless Caterham 7 and the bodyless Ariel Atom.
The term roadster was used to describe a style of racing cars competing in the AAA/USAC Championship Cars series (the IndyCar equivalents of the time) from 1952 to 1969. The roadster engine and drive shaft are offset from the centerline of the car. This allows the driver to sit lower in the chassis and facilitates a weight offset which is beneficial on oval tracks.
One story of why this type of racing car is referred to as a "roadster" is that a team was preparing a new car for the Indianapolis 500. They had it covered in a corner of their shop. If they were asked about their car they would try and obscure its importance by saying that it was just their (hot rod) "roadster". After the Indianapolis racer was made public, the "roadster" name was still attached to it.
Frank Kurtis built the first roadster to race and entered it in the 1952 Indianapolis 500. It was driven by Bill Vukovich who led for most of the race until a steering failure eliminated him. The Howard Keck owned team with Vukovich driving went on to win the 1953 and 1954 contests with the same car. Bob Sweikert won the 1955 500 in a Kurtis after Vukovich was killed while leading. A. J. Watson, George Salih and Quinn Epperly were other notable roadster constructors. Watson-built roadsters won in 1956, 1959 - 1964 though the 1961 and 1963 winners were actually close copies built from Watson designs. The 1957 and 1958 winner was the same car built by Salih with help by Epperly built with a unique placement of the engine in a 'lay down' mounting so the cylinders were nearly horizontal instead of vertical as traditional design dictated. This gave a slightly lower center of gravity and a lower profile.
Roadsters had disappeared from competition by the end of the 1960s, after the introduction, and subsequent domination, of rear-engined machines. In 1965 Gordon Johncock brought the Wienberger Homes Watson to the finish in fifth place which was the last top-ten roadster finish and the final time that a roadster finished the full distance of the race. The last roadster to make the race was built and driven by Jim Hurtubise in the 1968 race and dropped out early. Hurtubise attempted to run the same car in 1969 but, while making his qualifying run at a very good speed, the engine failed on the last of the four laps.
Other classes of racing cars were built with the offset drive train and were referred to as roadsters. Some pavement midgets roadsters were built and raced into the early 1970s but never were dominant.
roadster noun an open car without rear seats.
Roadster. A two-passenger open car of sporting appearance.
Here it is, with other body types and distinctions, officially determined recently by the Nomenclature Division of the Society of Automobile Engineers:
(for the purposes of this British publication) "In order to avoid confusion, however, the universally understood terms 'Tourer', 'Coupé', 'Saloon', 'Limousine', etc., have been adopted, adding the American term 'Roadster' as the two-seater edition of the tourer."