The characteristics of a production vehicle or production car are mass-produced identical models, offered for sale to the public, and able to be legally driven on public roads (street legal). Legislation and other rules further define the production vehicle within particular countries or uses. There is no single fixed global definition of the term.
In 1897 the term production car was used to describe a railway carriage that carried the scenery for an opera company. The earliest use of the term production car being applied to motor cars, found to date, was in a June 1914 American advertisement for a Regal motor car. The phrase was a shortened form of mass-produced or quantity-produced car. The phrase was also used in terms of the car to be made in production, as opposed to the prototype.
At that time production cars referred to cheaper vehicles such as Model T's that were made in relatively large numbers on production lines, as opposed to the more expensive coach built models. Now the term has broadened to include vehicles that are hand assembled, or assembled on a production or assembly line. The main criteria being that there are a number of the same model with the same specifications.
There is no fixed definition of the number of vehicles or the amount of modification allowed outside of motorsports or national regulations or laws that determine what is or is not a production vehicle. For example, Guinness recognises a modified 2-seat Jaguar XK120 as the world's fastest production car in 1949.
By 2011, the Guinness Book of Records listed the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport World Record Edition as the world's fastest production car, but only five of this version were said to have been made. In 2013 their decision was appealed on the ground that the Bugatti was a modified version - the limiter was turned off. Guinness upheld the appeal and initiated a review of their production car definition. The outcome of the review was that turning off the limiter was not a fundamental modification and the Bugatti record was reinstated. Guinness were also reported in some sources as saying that at least 50 identical vehicles were needed to be made to constitute a production car. In February 2014, Road and Track wrote that Guinness required 30 identical vehicles.
There have been numerous disputes over what constituted production and modified cars when used in motorsports. Even under Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the exact definition of what was (or was not) a production car was unclear and controversial, which led to rules written in 1955. Although the term is defined for particular types of vehicles, and that a certain number of a model must be produced in order to qualify as "production", it is another matter to enforce the rules. For example, the 1968 FIA rules state that "production" for sports cars need to have at least 25 identical cars produced within a 12-month period and they were meant for normal sale to individual purchasers. However, FIA rules tend to allow a degree of modification from the original.
Another example is the Utah Salt Flats Racing Association, which is concerned solely with the speed of a vehicle, uses its own definition of a production vehicle. The Association allows quite a high level of modification over the original. In 2006 a Pontiac TransAm was classified as being the fastest production model with a top speed in excess of 297 mph. Road tests of the same type of car available from the production line were incapable of anything like this speed and Popular Mechanics referred to the car as production based, which was probably a more accurate description.
Land Speed Records
The FIA Land Speed Records Commission has regulations governing series-production cars attempting land speed records under its 2014 Appendix D - Regulations for Land Speed Record Attempts. Series-production cars fall under rule D2.3.2 and state that they must be:
Category B: Series-production Automobiles in production at the time of the application for the Record Attempt and either homologated by the FIA, or for which an application for homologation has been made to the FIA or recognised by the ASN of the country in which they are manufactured for National Records.
The high level of modification allowed under these FIA's rules would tend to indicate that the cars are production based, rather than straight from an assembly line. For example Category B Group III had a Dodge Dakota with a top speed of 217.395 mph. Forum's citing the Dakota's top speed indicate a standard production Dakota R/T would only reach about 125 mph.
Various countries have laws that define production vehicles. For example, in the United States Briggs Cunningham's business was classified as a hobby by tax officials because he did not manufacture enough of each model for the Cunningham automobile to be considered a production vehicle, but rather the IRS classified them as high-performance prototype automobiles built as racecars. Legislative definitions tend to revolve around issues of safety or revenue (taxation).
Not all performance specialists are officially recognised and their cars are not usually referred to as production vehicles.
Limited production cars
These are usually vehicles where the production run is restricted to a specific number of vehicles. An example of this is the 1957 Rambler Rebel, a limited-production car where only 1,500 were produced.
Motor vehicle production statistics are available for countries worldwide, by country, make, and model. Production statistics by country and by model, as far as announced, are available for each make as well.
From concept car to production model
Pre-production cars come after prototypes or development mules, which themselves may be preceded by concept cars. Pre-production vehicles are followed by production vehicles in the mass production for distribution through car dealerships.
Three lists within Wikipedia illustrate the difficulty in defining what a production car is. These are:
- List of automotive superlatives
- List of fastest production cars
- List of fastest production cars by acceleration
The definition of a production car for the first two lists, arrived at after debate among interested Wikipedians, was vehicles
- that are constructed principally for retail sale to consumers, for their personal use, and to transport people on public roads (no commercial or industrial vehicles are eligible);
- that have had 20 or more instances made by the original vehicle manufacturer, and offered for commercial sale to the public in new condition (cars modified by either professional tuners or individuals are not eligible); and
- that are street-legal in their intended markets, and capable of passing any official tests or inspections required to be granted this status.
The List of fastest production cars by acceleration requires 25 instances of the vehicle. In this list a production car was described as:
- constructed principally for retail sale to consumers, for their personal use, and to transport people on public roads (no commercial or industrial vehicles are eligible);
- had 25 or more instances made by the original vehicle manufacturer, and offered for commercial sale to the public in new condition (kit cars and cars modified by either professional tuners or individuals are not eligible); and
- street-legal in their intended markets, and capable of passing any official tests or inspections required to be granted this status.
The talk pages for all these articles continue to have ongoing discussions about the definitions.
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