When talking about a car, there’s almost always two questions that come up first: where is the engine located, and which of the wheels are driven? For enthusiasts, that sweet spot has almost always been front engine, rear-wheel drive. Most cars today are front engine, front-wheel drive, and I’m personally partial to the rear/rear combo in an old Beetle or a Porsche 911. But what about the rear engine, front-wheel drive cars?
When talking about the possibility of rear engine/front drive, there’s another pair of questions that tend to come up almost immediately: Why the hell would you want that?, and What the hell is wrong with you?
That’s because, based on such flimsy pretexts as “conventional wisdom,” “engineering,” and “physics,” rear engine/front drive seems to be that special combination of elements that offers the worst of all worlds.
You get the power-sucking, space-taking, weight-having driveshaft of a front/rear setup, along with the inherent oversteer and packaging issues of a rear-engine, but without any of the improved traction of rear/rear or front/front. It’s a nightmare of a layout that makes no sense. That’s why hardly any automakers have ever done it.
The closest any mass market car would come to this would be the front-mid FWD layouts of longitudinal FWD cars like the Citroën Traction Avant or most FWD Saabs, where the engine is behind the front, driven axle. But that’s still a far cry from front drive/rear engine. I don’t think there’s any front-drive mid (as in behind the driver, but in front of the rear axle) cars. Are there?
So, with rear engine/front drive, you get difficult handling, the complexity of steering with your drive wheels, packaging issues from both a driveshaft and having all your big mechanical bits at the rear, and in exchange for that you get benefits? Are there any benefits to a rear engine/front drive layout?
If there are any beyond novelty, I’m not sure what they are. Still, because human beings are amazing, determined creatures, this layout has been attempted. Not once, not twice, but three times that actually resulted in running cars, and one attempt again, quite recently, but only at the patent stage.
Here’s that big chart of all the rear engine/front drive cars, as promised:
The most famous of these is Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car, which, not content with being weird just because of a rear engine/front drive layout, also had three wheels, steering with the solitary rear wheel, and looked like a 20-foot long land Zeppelin that mated with an Airstream trailer.
It’s an amazing car. Amazing-looking, amazingly original, and amazingly terrible to drive. I’m not even talking about the accident in 1933 that killed its driver (though that one really wasn’t the Dymaxion’s fault), but I say that as someone who has driven one, briefly.
We’ll have a video of it soon, but for now I’ll just mention that I drove the Lane Motor Museum’s Dymaxion replica, made from original plans. The car is terrifying to drive, a long, wandering drunken land-whale of a car. I think the issue had to do more with its one-rear-wheel steering, but I don’t thing the FWD aspect helped.
The other two I have no idea about, though I would love to try and see what an otherwise conventional car feels like with a rear engine and power through the front wheels. The lane owns the Gregory, so maybe someday I can talk someone into letting me have a go.
The Coleman seems to have been a design exercise, something built to evaluate and see what was possible, and the patent for that Rover RF design does sort of make a compelling argument for the layout, in a weird way.
My colleague and fellow admirer of terrible automotive ideas Raph was wondering if the new AWD Porsche 911 can be forced into a FWD mode, and if that might count as a FWD/rear-engine car. Maybe? He asked the Porsche engineers this question, but I think they just cut off his booze and a PR person took him aside and quietly suggested he seek out his clergyperson.
Maybe I’m just getting some sort of contact-crazy from looking at all these bonkers ass-engined, body-dragging machines. If I’ve missed any, I’m sure I’ll be told in the comments section within the hour, so I’ll do my best to update if that’s the case.
But I don’t think it is. How many loons like this can there really be?
Contact the author at email@example.com.