What­ever hap­pened to mak­ing cars with the en­gine in the boot?

The Witness - Wheels - - MOTORING - SI­MON HAW

A FIFTIES’ ad­ver­tise­ment show­ing a puz­zled man peer­ing un­der the bon­net of a car with the cap­tion “Where have they put the en­gine?” re­minded me that in the 1950s and ’ 60s, cars with their en­gines in the rear were quite com­mon and this led me to won­der why this lay­out has dis­ap­peared from all but large pas­sen­ger coaches.

Be­cause the last one rolled off a Mex­i­can assem­bly line as late as 2005, most peo­ple think im­me­di­ately of the VW Bee­tle and its var­i­ous off­shoots, such as the Kombi, when asked to re­call ve­hi­cles with a rear en­gine.

And well they should, as Fer­di­nand Porsche’s thir­ties’ de­sign was the first mass- pro­duced car with this en­gine lay­out.

But South Africans got their first taste of cars with “the en­gine in the boot” from Re­nault.

The dinky lit­tle 4CV was de­signed un­der the noses of the Nazis dur­ing the war and was re­leased to a car- starved pub­lic in 1947.

By the early fifties, 4CVs were a fairly com­mon sight in a South African ve­hi­cle park still dom­i­nated by Amer­i­can and Bri­tish mod­els.

I have a par­tic­u­lar mem­ory of the lit­tle Re­nault as it nearly led to my six- year- old self hav­ing a long tod­dle to school, not be­cause it broke down, but be­cause I was un­wise enough to re­peat my Stude­baker- Pres­i­dent- cos­set­ted mother’s opinion that it was the most un­com­fort­able car she had ever trav­elled in.

Re­nault con­tin­ued to favour a rear- en­gine lay­out with sub­se­quent mod­els.

The 4CV was suc­ceeded by the gut­less and trou­ble­some, but im­mensely pop­u­lar, Dauphine, and then by the sweet- han­dling, boxy Re­nault 8. The hot Gor­dini ver­sion rapidly be­came a com­mon sight on South African race­tracks. The only other French rear- en­gined car to reach our roads was the Simca 1000.

Across the bor­der in Italy, Fiat also pro­duced rear- en­gine cars at the bud­get end of its range.

First to ap­pear was the iconic Fiat Cin­que­cento Nuovo, fit­ted with an air- cooled twin of 500 cc ca­pac­ity — one of the most con­vinc­ing retro- cars of the 21st cen­tury, the Fiat 500, is a mod­ern rein­ter­pre­ta­tion.

For those with a bit more cash, Fiat of­fered the Fiat 600 and its Mul­ti­pla de­riv­a­tive, both fit­ted with the same wa­ter- cooled four.

And for the even more plu­to­cratic, there was the 850. Like Re­nault, Fiat switched to fron­twheel drive and the now ubiq­ui­tous trans­verse lay­out with the gear­box in line with the en­gine is a Fiat devel­op­ment.

The Bri­tish con­tri­bu­tion was the Hill­man Imp — a cutely styled mini- car fit­ted with an adapted ver­sion of the all- alu­minium Coven­try Cli­max, sin­gle OHC, sta­tion­ary en­gine of­ten en­coun­tered on fire- fight­ing equip­ment.

The Imp was rather too cun­ning for its own good as its pneu­matic ac­cel­er­a­tor ac­tu­a­tor was a lot more trou­ble­some than a ca- ble would have been.

In fact, Rootes Group’s new baby is of­ten cited as an ex­am­ple of how not to build a mo­tor car. Prob­a­bly the worst de­ci­sion of many that the com­pany made was to site the fac­tory in the de­pressed Cly­de­side ship- build­ing area of Scot­land as it now had to deal with in­cred­i­bly mil­i­tant strike- prone work­ers who had no ex­pe­ri­ence of build­ing cars — a fact that showed in the shoddy build qual­ity and un­re­li­a­bil­ity of the new mini- car.

A much bet­ter built and sur­pris­ingly in­no­va­tive car was the U. S. con­tri­bu­tion to the genre. This was the Chevro­let Cor­vair, which was pow­ered by an air­cooled flat six mounted in the rear. Ev­ery­thing should have been in the new Chev’s favour ex­cept that it ran counter to Ameri- ca’s love af­fair with vast ship- like au­to­mo­tive con­fec­tions which sailed rather than drove across the prairies. Even more dam­ag­ing, how­ever, was the con­dem­na­tion of one of the world’s first con­sumer cru­saders,

Ralph Nader, whose pub­li­ca­tion Un­safe at Any Speed has an en­tire chap­ter on Chevro­let’s revo­lu­tion­ary baby.

Nader’s con­cerns speak to at least one of the rea­sons why the de­sign has dis­ap­peared from our roads. I re­mem­ber that, dur­ing my teenage years, jokes about Bee­tles rolling over in the veld abounded. The general con­sen­sus seemed to be that cars with rear en­gines were a crash wait­ing for a place to hap­pen.

While hugely ex­ag­ger­ated, there is a smidgeon of truth in this.

Most rear- en­gine cars tend to over­steer — that is, the heavy tail end breaks away, lead­ing to in­ex­pe­ri­enced driv­ers find­ing them­selves tak­ing a much sharper line through cor­ners than they in­tended.

For the motoring pub­lic, the sort of un­der­steer built into front- wheel- drive cars is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered safer and fur­ther­more there is no need to travel around with a sack of mielies in the “boot” to weigh down the free- float­ing front end.

Add to this prob­lems with en­gine cool­ing, long ca­bles and gear link­ages, and it is per­haps not sur­pris­ing that it was Citroën’s Trac­tion Avant rather than VW’s Bee­tle that rep­re­sented the wave of the fu­ture.

SI­MON HAW The general con­sen­sus seemed to be that cars with rear en­gines were a crash wait­ing for a place to hap­pen.


The cute Re­nault 4CV ( left) was fit­ted with an in- line four of 750 cc. Hill­man’s Imp was well- named as it cer­tainly showed its mis­chievous side to its frus­trated own­ers.

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