It never really made sense in the first place and now it's dead. You do have to love the cheap midengine sports car, though, don't you?
The thing about a midengine layout is that it's pretty much inherently complicatedly packaged and compromised on everyday usability. The thing about a cheap sports car is that it should be simple and easy to use on a regular poor broke person's daily basis.
You can see that these two philosophies don't really match up.
But the allure of a midengine car in an affordable package is so strong that a number of carmakers gave it a shot.
Lotus was one of the first with the Europa in 1966. It was actually less expensive than the front-engined Elan +2 sold beside it (here's an original brochure if you don't believe me). The thing is, the price could be low because the car was made out of the cheapest parts around. The engine was a little Renault unit, and all the trim and whatnot came from the lowest market Ford chunks Colin Chapman could get his grubby hands on. There were drum brakes in the back, not discs.
Still, it was a fantastic car to drive. Maybe not the most precise car ever made, but low and quick and thrilling. Those who still have them today will praise them for hours.
Porsche and VW gave the cheap midengine game a run with an ill-fated joint deal that fell through. The whole thing ended up being the Porsche 914. It was never the most thrilling car on paper, but now that nobody cares exactly how fast it is or exactly how it compares to the contemporary 911, people can see it for the well-balanced little car it always was.
Fiat made a mini Ferrari with the X1/9 (later sold independently in the US as a Bertone, as pictured below).
This tiny thing got compared to its bigger 308 cousin perhaps more often than was healthy. Americans hardly were interested in conventional Fiats by that time, let alone ones that asked for exotic compromises. It was fun, but it didn't exactly withstand the harsh realities of the international car market.
In the '80s there was another run of cheapo midengine cars.
The Toyota MR2 grew from an economy machine with plenty of Corolla parts under the skin to something of a hot sports car.
The Pontiac Fiero also started off marketed for commuter efficiency, but got killed before it ever reached its more powerful potential. I myself met one of the people who was at the meeting when "Roger" killed the third-generation car. Decades on, he was still not what you'd call happy about it.
Ever since the Miata (a car that could have been midengined, but rejected the concept) showed the way back to the easy, almost retro front-engine layout, the idea of the economical midengine sports car has been pretty much dead. Porsche's Boxster was cheap compared to the 911, but not compared to the rest of the market. The MR2 Spyder survived until the mid 2000s, but wasn't really a hit with anyone at all.
And as it gets harder and harder to justify even conventional sports cars like the front-engined Toyobaru twins, it seems like we may never again have a cheapo sports car with the engine sandwiched between the driver and the rear wheels.
I guess there are always more rusty X1/9s to restore just a Craigslist post away. And hey, we can import Autozam AZ-1s and Suzuki Caras now, can't we?
Photo Credits: Mazda, Lotus, Fiat, Porsche, Toyota, Pontiac, Suzuki