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