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John Simister: What happened to (almost) all the rear-engined cars?

27th August 2017
John Simister

I was thinking back to the impromptu classic car rally to Wales that a friend and I organised last March and how, had I taken my little Stiletto as planned, five of the six participating cars would have been rear-engined. True, those five cars had their roots in the 1960s or even earlier, but why was a rear-mounted engine once such a common design feature in mainland Europe? And why did it all but die out?

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I think we know the answer to the second question, mostly involving the BMC Mini, but the first is worth delving into. My car, though British, was clearly influenced by small Fiats, Renaults and NSUs, with perhaps a bit of Volkswagen mixed in. That's because putting the engine in the back was the fashionable way to devise a small car in the 1950s, when the Imp range was in early gestation and the Mini had yet to appear.

There had been small cars with a front engine and front-wheel drive before the Mini, of course – Panhards, DKWs, the 2CV, Saabs, even Britain's BSA – but the lack of a constant-velocity drive shaft joint able to turn through the tight angle needed to give a suitably small turning circle made them less practical than they needed to be. That's one reason typically given by motoring historians for the failure of front-wheel-drive to take the world by storm until the Birfield-Rzeppa joint and the Mini changed that world, anyway. But just as likely is that the Volkswagen Beetle worked adequately, so other manufacturers imitated it.

So, what was wrong with sticking with a front engine and rear-wheel drive, the layout that everyone was used to? It took up too much space, went the reasoning, with a big hump for the transmission eating into the cabin, so it was better to keep the driving wheels at the engine end. 

Then there was the notion of aerodynamics. If the engine and its cooling system are at the back, the nose can be smooth without turbulence-inducing intakes. The car's cleaner passage through the air allows it to go faster on the same power while using less fuel, and this streamlined approach fitted well with the futuristic aesthetic growing in the 1930s in the middle of Europe.

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Enter Hans Ledwinka, the Czech engineer who devised the rear-engined, air-cooled, independently-suspended Tatra, initially as the flat-twin V570 prototype which gained an aerodynamic body in its second version, later as the flat-four T97 and a series of rapid V8s. Ferdinand Porsche's KdF-Wagen, the nascent VW Beetle, appropriated elements of Ledwinka's concept, but this was brushed under the carpet for many years until Volkswagen, as the Beetle producer became post-war, eventually conceded the Tatra influence and paid damages in 1965. 

As Europe began to develop new post-war cars, the newly-nationalised Renault invited Ferdinand Porsche to advise on a new small car, which became the rear-engined Renault 4CV (750 in the UK). It used the simple swing-axle rear suspension that was gaining ground through Europe, and which made the tail-heavy Beetle tricky on the cornering limit, but people didn't worry much about that. The 4CV led over the years to the Dauphine, R8 and R10, plus the Alpine-Renault sports cars. Meanwhile, Porsche had its Beetle-derived 356.

Fiat's 600 and Nuova 500 followed much the same layout, albeit with a less treacherous rear suspension in the 600 using semi-trailing arms. Then, at the end of the 1950s and worried by the Beetle's US popularity, GM introduced the air-cooled, rear-engined, flat-six Corvair whose swing-axles and slow-witted steering together contributed to the lambasting it got from US consumer lawyer Ralph Nader in his book, Unsafe At Any Speed. US owners' inability to follow GM's recommendation of much lower tyre pressures in the front wheels than at the back didn't help the Corvair's case, and even a revised rear suspension didn't salvage its irrevocably tarnished reputation while Beetles continued to sell vigorously.

Back in Europe, Simca launched its rear-engined 1000, originally a Fiat project. Two years later, in 1963, Rootes launched the Imp and Porsche its 911; a year after that came Fiat's 850 and Skoda's 1000MB. Meanwhile, though, the Mini and its bigger relatives (1100, 1800) were making it ever more obvious that the rear-engined small car was a blind alley, unstable in crosswinds and still sometimes harder to handle than a simple small car should be for an average driver. By the mid-1970s, all except the Skodas, and the Alpine-Renault and Porsche 911 sports cars, had gone.

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Mini designer Alec Issigonis and Imp designers Mike Parkes (later a racing driver for Ferrari) and Tim Fry met up from time to time, as keen engineers did, and in great secrecy Issigonis was invited to try a prototype Imp. 'It's brilliant,' he reportedly said, 'but you've got it the wrong way round.' Yet Tim Fry stuck to his principles; in 2003 I asked him what he would change if designing a new Imp today, expecting him to make it front-wheel driven. But no: 'I'd mount the engine transversely behind the rear seat, as in an NSU Prinz,' he said, 'and I'd fit a front spoiler.' Look at the Smart, or today's Renault Twingo; look at how the Volkswagen Up was originally intended to be. That's what Fry had in mind.

The fact is, though, that mostly-failsafe front-wheel drive is better for a practical small car on almost every level. You can have a big boot covered by a tailgate up to the roof, rather than a small one up front with encroaching wheel arches designed to accommodate the front wheels' steering movements. You don't have to force unbalanced handling characteristics into submission with disparate tyre pressures and, nowadays, electronic safety nets. Now just the 911 is left as a car with an old-school, overhanging rear engine, and that's only because it's an automotive world heritage site.  

Yet nearly all old-school rear-engined cars are lovely to drive in many ways, with light steering, a pointable nose and a feeling of hunkering down under power through a bend. Our Welsh run's Chevrolet Corvair Corsa and three generations of 911 proved that, in a celebration of Ledwinka-inspired dynamic differentness. My car would have done so, too, if only it was working.

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