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The 10 greatest sports cars of all time

Perfection on wheels, with just two seats

Jaguar E-type Heritage Coupe
Image Source: Jaguar Land Rover

In its strictest sense, the term "sports car" signifies a vehicle with two seats, a compact frame and sleek styling. Perhaps thinking that's all there is to it, many car manufacturers have tried their hand at creating their own classic car, to takes its place alongside the legends. However, automotive history has shown that that's easier said than done.

While many contenders have come and gone, certain sports cars have stood the test of time and become truly iconic of the form.

Karl Brauer, a senior director at the car valuation and analysis company Kelley Blue Book, has provided CNBC.com with his definitive list of what he believes to be the 10 greatest sports cars.

"The sports car represents the purest form of personal transportation," he said. "It's not concerned with storage space or luxury appointments or fuel efficiency. Even raw horsepower isn't critical, though a sports car must have enough power to entertain its driver while strafing apexes on a twisting road or racetrack."

So which cars does Brauer believe are the greatest of all time? Read ahead and find out.

By CNBC's Daniel Bukszpan
Posted Nov. 22, 2013
Updated May 18, 2015 by CNBC staff

Tune in to "The Car Chasers " on CNBC Prime.

10. Lamborghini Miura

Image Source: Arnaldo Magnani | Getty Images

According to Brauer, the Miura is believed to be the first exotic sports car ever made. In production from 1966 to 1972, its V12 engine and midengine design set it apart, and it went on to win many performance and styling awards.

"It offered the highest top speed of any road car at the time, at 170 miles per hour," he said. "It started the trend of placing powerful engines between the passenger compartment and rear axle."

9. Ferrari 250 GTO

A 52-year old Ferrari smashed records for the most expensive car ever sold at auction. The 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO sold for $34.65M by Bonhams at this year’s Pebble Beach Classic Car Auctions.
Amanda Weindel | CNBC

The GTO was produced for a scant three years in the early 1960s, and only 39 units came off the line. On that basis alone, it's easy to understand why Brauer calls it "arguably the most sought after sports car of all time."

Still, there's more to its status than rarity. Its ability to hold its own on the racetrack and off is an essential component that makes it a classic.

"Some would argue the purest expression of a sports car is a vehicle capable of being driven to a racetrack, beating the competition and then driving home again—all with little or no work being done between road worthiness and track readiness," Brauer said.

The GTO succeeds in spades.

8. Acura NSX

Acura NSX concept
Image Source: Acura

When the NSX was introduced in 1990, it turned the sports car world on its ear. Up to that point, the exotic sports car was considered a purely European creation, but Honda came along with this and put Japan on the map.

"An all-aluminum monocoque body, featuring a midengine V6 and double-wishbone suspension, gave the NSX full exotic car credentials," Brauer said. "The NSX backed up its technical pedigree with real-world performance numbers that forced Ferrari and Porsche to sit up and take notice."

7. Jaguar E-Type

Jaguar E-Type
Source: Jaguar Land Rover

When your nemesis calls your product the most beautiful car ever made, you've got something very special on your hands.

According to Brauer, Enzo Ferrari gave that very compliment to the Jaguar E-Type, despite its being his company's primary rival.

"Style is one of the key elements to a successful sports car, and the Jaguar E-Type is one of the most successful styling executions in the history of the automobile," Brauer said. "The long-nose/short-deck proportion was commonly used for sports cars before the E-Type went into production in 1961, but the clean and purposeful lines of the E-Type were unlike anything before it, or since."

6. Dodge Viper

2014 SRT Viper
Image Source: Chrysler

The Dodge Viper was introduced in 1992. It had a 400 horsepower V10 engine under its clamshell hood, and while nobody questioned its power, this type of car simply wasn't in vogue, so it could very well have ended up as a limited-edition novelty.

Instead, it stayed in production almost two decades, until 2010.

"By 1990 the possibility of a large, mainstream automaker introducing a raw, unapologetic sports car, one that was reminiscent of the 1960s racing legends, seemed far-fetched at best," Brauer said. "But that's exactly what Dodge did when it turned the Viper concept car into a full-fledged production car for 1992."

5. Shelby Cobra

Image Source: Shelby American, Inc.

The Shelby Cobra had an inauspicious beginning. According to Brauer, the car was the brainchild of a Texas chicken farmer, Carroll Shelby, who envisioned a vehicle with a small British body and a big American V8 engine. The result was the racing legend that is beloved to this day.

"If being copied by dozens of kit car companies is the most important measure of success, the Shelby Cobra wins the crown hands down," Brauer said. "It's one of the most recognizable sports cars to come out of the 1960s, with a proven competition history that included beating Ferrari on the world racing stage."

4. Mazda MX-5 Miata

Image Source: Mazda Motor of America, Inc.

When a car is described as "powerful" and "exotic," the Miata is not necessarily the first to spring to mind. Regardless, the "Guinness Book of World Records" proclaimed it the best-selling two-seat convertible sports car in history, so Mazda gets the last laugh.

"Introduced in 1990, the Miata essentially recreated the successful British roadster recipe of the 1950s," Brauer said. "It was small and light, with incredibly responsive handling, while costing barely more than a well-equipped economy car."

3. Mercedes-Benz SL

Image Source: Daimler AG

Introduced in 1954, the SL is one of the oldest cars on this list. It was the first production car to offer fuel injection and a top speed of more than 160 miles per hour, both major technological leaps forward.

"Over the following 60 years the Mercedes-Benz SL has continued to be a leader in technology, luxury, performance and style," Brauer said. "Today's SLs can be ordered with up to 621 horsepower and 738 pound-feet of torque in the SL65 AMG, making them among the most powerful cars available for public road use."

2. Chevrolet Corvette

2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray equipped with Z51 performance package
Image Source: General Motors

It may be hard to believe, but the Corvette has been in an almost constant production for more than 60 years.

As a result, said Brauer, it wears the mantle of "America's Sports Car" and should be used in the same breath with "baseball" and "apple pie" when speaking of uniquely American products.

"Now in its seventh generation, the Corvette has always offered a high degree of performance at a remarkably low price," he said. "While never considered an 'exotic car' the Corvette has often been described as an 'exotic car slayer,' because it effectively competes with sports cars costing two to five times as much."

1. Porsche 911

2014 Porsche 911 GT3
Source: Porsche

In Brauer's estimation the Porsche 911 is the greatest sports car of all time—remarkable, because he believes the car is an assembly of engineering design mistakes that should undermine its performance.

"The engine is mounted over the rear axle, which can compromise handling," Brauer said. "The 911's horizontally opposed engine, or 'boxer engine,' isn't typically associated with refined horsepower. And until relatively recently the engine was air-cooled, like the original Volkswagen Beetle."

Regardless, the 911 has remained in production for over 50 years with only minimal changes to its basic design, so Porsche must be doing something right.

"It boasts a more impressive racing pedigree than any other road car ever produced," Brauer said, "and its performance continues to set the bar by which all other sports cars are measured."

The Car Chasers

Jeff Allen and Perry Barndt are gamblers—their game being classic and exotic cars. They travel the country looking to buy and sell them. Whether it's a rare Shelby Mustang or a vintage hot rod, the key is buy low and sell high, something that doesn't always happen.

Selling cars is a dangerous business, but perhaps there's no greater risk than negotiating with your own father. Tom Souter, Jeff's dad, runs a classic car dealership around the corner from Jeff's shop in Lubbock, Texas. They are not just regular trading partners; they are trading partners hell-bent on one-upmanship. Tom said doing a deal with his son is like being locked in a closet with a porcupine: "It's gonna hurt, but you know it won't kill you."

Tune in to "The Car Chasers " on CNBC Prime, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT this fall.

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