The 1961 Sports Cars set was Topps' third look at the automotive world, but the first to focus exclusively on exotic cars.
Americans have had a century-long obsession with automobiles. Our lives and geography revolve around them (think suburbia and interstate highways). We stop and stare when a Porsche, Bentley, McLaren, Ferrari or other exotic car passes by; fantasizing what it must be like to sit in the driver's seat.
Auto shows draw throngs every winter and spring to see the latest offerings from Detroit, Germany, Italy, Korea and Japan, while smaller shows can be found every weekend at local parks, airports, schools and even downtown streets. Programs like the BBC's Top Gear attract millions of viewers each week and have spun off look-alike versions for other countries. Even slot car racing, wildly popular in the 1950s and 1960s, is making a comeback.
The early 1960s was a golden era for sports cars, as gasoline was dirt cheap, averaging 25 cents per gallon. The interstate highway system, which began in 1955 and was the brainchild of President Dwight Eisenhower, was rapidly expanding like a spider web across the country. For better or worse, there was no Environmental Protection Agency to regulate gasoline mileage and emissions, and no mandatory bumpers and seat belts. Bucket seats were "hot;" bench seats were the norm.
A generation of World War II veterans who served in Europe came back home with MGs, Austin-Healys, Triumphs and other British runabouts. Volkswagen was just establishing a footprint in the United States, as were Renault, Porsche, Fiat, Volvo and other European companies.
Things were heating up on this side of the pond, too. Chevrolet had introduced the 283-horsepower Corvette eight years before, and it was gearing up for an overhaul in 1962. Ford's Thunderbird had been available since 1955; the 1961 version developed 300 horsepower and was the official pace car for the 1961 Indianapolis 500.
Back at GM, the Corvair was just a year old and had already captured the attention of the automotive world for its unique design free of tail fins, its flat, six-cylinder air-cooled engine that was mounted in the rear of the car (a la Volkswagen) and a unibody construction. Motor Trend, a popular American automobile magazine, named it the Car of the Year for 1960.
The Corvair was one of the first compact, "second cars" that Detroit automakers were hoping to sell- 20% smaller and lighter than their monstrous V8 flagship vehicles, and perfect for shopping and short trips around town. The Nash Metropolitan (1954) pioneered this category and was still selling well in 1961. Nash (by now American Motors), based in the United States, jointly manufactured the car with the British Motor Corporation and sold and serviced it here.
To encourage drivers and sports car enthusiasts, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), started in 1944, sponsored performance driving clinics, road races and rallies at tracks like Lime Rock, Watkins Glen, Road America, Laguna Seca and Mid-America. Hill climbs up Pike's Peak became popular, and the names Le Mans, Sebring and Daytona crept into the vernacular.
At the prestigious 1961 Sebring 12-hour endurance race, Ferrari 250 sport coupes swept the first four places, with a Porsche 708 (driven by Americans Bob Holbert and Roger Penske) following in 5th place. In fact, Porsche and Ferrari entries dominated the first ten places, with the highest-ranking American nameplate (Corvette) coming in 11th.
Cars and racing found their way into popular culture, including the newest wave of rock and roll music (think the Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" and "Fun Fun Fun," and Jan and Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" and "Little Old Lady from Pasadena"). More than a few fathers watched auto racing on TV during the weekends and daydreamed about ditching the family station wagon or sedan for a Jaguar or a Ferrari!
Shop classes in high school were full of kids learning how to build street rods and muscle cars. Weekend warriors handy with tools and welding equipment stuffed oversized American engines into two-seat English coupes, creating "rockets on roller skates." Smartly-dressed young couples took their shiny, polished roadsters out on Saturdays and Sundays to explore the highway and byways.
Unfortunately for most families, a Porsche Carrera 356, Corvette Stingray or Alfa Spyder just wasn't in the cards. Even so, you didn't have to own one of these cars to appreciate them: each month, grown men eagerly devoured the latest copies of Car and Driver and Motor Trend (35 cents an issue back then), folding back or tearing out pages that featured their "must-have" car.
In short, cars were an obsession for millions of Americans.
The Next Best Thing
Fifty-plus years ago, Topps catered to that obsession with a 66-card set of the world's sports cars, featuring well-known nameplates like Aston-Martin, Porsche and Alfa Romeo, along with some obscure brands like Denzel, Skoda and Borgward.
For kids whose primary card-collecting passion didn't involve baseball or football, this was a bit of a welcome surprise- especially those who had painstakingly built plastic models of these cars, or had posters of them stuck to their bedroom walls. You might never own a Ferrari California, but having a full-color card of it was an acceptable substitute at age 12.
The 1961 Sports Cars set included many cars to drool over, but there were also a few oddities such as the Gogomobil, Lister-Chevy, Scarab and Stanguellini. European cars dominated the set, with only a handful of American-made models included. For many collectors, this set represented the first time they'd even heard of these brands- and perhaps the last time!
Several of the cars featured were one-offs or custom-built cars that were sold in extremely small quantities. A few of them were actually prototypes for later, better-known models, and here and there you'll find "one-hit wonders"- cars that made their debut at a show or a major race; then disappeared quietly the next year.
Inside The Set
There are 66 cards in a complete set of 1961 Sports Cars. To complicate matters, Topps (as usual) printed the cards in both gray back and white back card stock, and the white back cards are quite difficult to find in high grade. Presently, PSA makes no distinction between the two backs.
The obverse of these oversized (2½" x 4¾") cards featured full-color photos of the cars, set against solid color backgrounds. The car's nameplate and model appear in large solid block letters, with smaller text describing the type of car and its country of origin.
On the reverse, you'll find a short write-up about that particular car, along with three basic specifications: horsepower, top speed and price. To the right, Topps included its usual cartoons, some of which are labeled "Small Car Gags" and are actually pretty funny, such as a police car using a fishing net to catch a small speeding roadster, a boy using an oversized magnet to pull tiny sports coupes off the road, and another boy discovering a Volkswagen parked in the garage next to the family sedan and exclaiming, "Hey, the Buick had a baby!"
Other card backs feature interesting facts about sports cars, courtesy of Car and Driver. Did you know that a racing car might only get five miles to the gallon, and that back in 1911, one could cross New York City faster on a horse than in a car? The usual gags about women drivers are also present ("I bought her a Volkswagen because it makes smaller holes!") and super-tiny imports, such as images of wind-up keys sticking out of trunks and convertibles wedged under luxury sedans.
There are two checklist cards in the set: #32, which features the Chevrolet Corvette SS "sports racing roadster" in a shiny blue color with an aerodynamic intake scoop behind the driver, and #60, which showcases Jaguar's XK-150 sports convertible.
Drivers of today's sports cars may be surprised to find out just how lightly-powered many of these vehicles were. While the aforementioned Corvette and Jaguar produced 310 and 265 horsepower (HP) respectively, the Lotus Super 7 (featured on card #1) cranked out all of 48 HP, while the previously-mentioned Nash Metropolitan seen on card #11 was good for 55 HP.
An Italian Moretti sports coupe seen on card #15 featured just 43 HP, and the legendary Porsche 356 Carrera (card #23) was rated at 70 HP. Renault's Caravelle (#27) was quite underpowered at 40 HP, but the Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia sports touring coupe showcased on card #43 generated all of (ready for this?) 36 HP- about the same as the electric motor in a 2013 Toyota Prius.
So, how much would a sports car cost you back in 1961? It turns out that prices were all over the place. A 70 HP, 110 MPH Osca 750 from Italy (card #19) was yours for just $8,000, which is about $62,500 today. A 57 HP Simca Plein Ciel sedan (card #31) cost $2,947 back then, or $23,000 in current dollars.
The Chevrolet Corvette Stingray prototype shown on card #34 developed 310 HP, could go 160 MPH and sold for $20,000 back in the day. (That's a measly $156,000, 52 years later.) And the underpowered Karmann-Ghia from card #43 was ticketed at $2,340, which would require you to write a check for $18,430 in 2014 dollars.
There is at least one uncorrected error in this set. Card #38 features the Denzel Sports Roadster, which is mistakenly identified as an Australian car on the obverse. As revealed on the reverse, the Denzel is actually from Austria (sorry, mate!) and was the brainchild of Wolfgang Denzel. Denzel built many custom cars from Volkswagen and Porsche parts and actually won the 1954 Alpine Rally over better-known rivals.
Although Denzel Motors ceased production in 1959, Denzel was also a shareholder in BMW (Bavarian Motor Works) and, with other shareholders, successfully argued against nearly-bankrupt BMW merging with Daimler-Benz (Mercedes) that same year. Denzel also designed the BMW 700 (the 173 HP, $10,500 BMW 507 appears on card #24).
Among the "fallen" nameplates featured in this set are A.C. Motors (Great Britain), whose Ace chassis later evolved into the original American Cobra; Asardo, an American-built car with Alfa components; Borgward, a manufacturer of luxury sedans and trucks that went through a mysterious bankruptcy in 1961 even though still financially solvent; SIMCA (Société Industrielle de Mécanique et de Carrosserie Automobile), which was founded by Fiat in France and acquired by Chrysler in 1970; and the quirky-sounding Gogomobil, a German line of compact sedans and convertibles that used two-stroke engines and electrically-operated transmissions.
The Gogomobil TS-400 sports coupe, featured on card #56, was the most underpowered of any car in the Topps set (just 24 HP!!) and cost a mere $1,395. The company was founded in 1955 and cranked out these little putt-putts until 1966 when Gogomobil was acquired by BMW. The last sedans came off the assembly line in 1969 and the factory was eventually shut down.
Scarcity and Values
To date, PSA has graded a handful of 1961 Topps Sports Cars cards. As this article was being written, there were a total of 1,462 examples accounted for on the PSA Population Report. (Compare that with the 1961 Topps baseball set, which has 237,305 cards total!)Â In fact, more 1961 Nu-Card Dinosaur trading cards have been encapsulated (1,633) than Sports Cars.
A typical card from this set will show 20 to 30 examples across all grades in the Population Report. The toughest card in the set to find is #37, which features the Sunbeam Alpine. To date, 11 copies have made their way into PSA holders, with a lone PSA NM-MT 8 awarded and nothing higher. Four more copies are in PSA NM 7 holders, while two earned PSA EX-MT 6 grades.
Other "tough" cards include #3 Maserati 3500 GT (16 total graded with one PSA 8), #8 A.C. Ace (14 graded with one PSA 8 and one PSA MINT 9 listed), #24 BMW 507 (17 graded with one PSA 9 and two PSA 8s), #28 Borgward RS (13 graded with four PSA 8s), #40 DKW-1000 (16 graded with four PSA 8s) and #64 Jensen 541 (13 graded with three PSA 8s).
Currently, PSA shows just two PSA GEM-MT 10s and 42 PSA 9s on the Population Report, representing 3% of all cards submitted. Add in 459 PSA 8s and the percentage of high-grade cards in this set (out of all submissions) is 34%, definitely on the low side.
As for values, most cards have equal SMR prices listed - $10 for a PSA 6, $20 for a PSA 7, $40 for a PSA 8 and $80 for a PSA 9. The #1 card (Lotus Seven) carries a premium of about 100% in all grades, as does card #66 (Lotus Elite). Checklist card #32 (Corvette SS) is valued at $100 as a PSA 8 and $200 as a PSA 9, as is checklist card #60 (Jaguar XK).
A quick check on eBay revealed a PSA 7 example of card #64 (Jensen 541) with a Buy It Now price of $40, a PSA 6 example of card #24 (BMW 507) for $25, a PSA 6 example of card #66 (Lotus Elite) for $19 and a PSA 7 copy of card #26 (Borgward Isabella TS) for $25. Five raw, lower-grade copies of card #37 (Sunbeam Alpine) were available for reasonable prices.
The Finish Line
If you are looking for a new challenge in collecting, 1961 Topps Sports Cars would be a great place to start. While many of the cards are easy to find in lower grades, finishing a high-grade set will be quite the accomplishment. And if you REALLY want a challenge, you can try to assemble both gray back and white back sets, which may leave you feeling afterward like you've just driven the 24 Hours of Le Mans race by yourself...
Thanks to Levi Bleam at 707 Sportscards and owner of the No. 1 Current Finest, 1961 Topps Sports Cars set on the PSA Set Registry, for providing scans to go with this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of January 2014.
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