Growing up in America, all cars were front engined; engine in the front, transmission in the middle, trunk at the back. But in the early days in America there were engines laid out in a variety of combinations; Packard, Stutz a number of cars had a trans axle – the engine in the front and the transmission in the back which gave pretty good weight distribution. The fact that your wheels were 26 inches high and the car was three feet off the ground, I don’t know if there was any benefit of the road-holding ability of the trans axle, but it seemed to work for weight distribution!
Growing up on Mustangs and Corvettes, I have always been more comfortable with front engine road cars because I feel like I know when I’m going to lose it a lot easier than I can with some other cars. But I do have a passion for rear engined cars too.
I have a 1938 Tatra T87 that is one of the more fascinating rear engined cars because the engine is literally as far back as you can get it. It’s behind the trunk space. The engine is so far away from the driver that the car is really quiet and you can literally steer it with one finger.
The car was designed by Dr Hans Ledwinka, who was an Austrian who lived in Czechoslovakia and he, along with Ferdinand Porsche, more or less brought forward the idea of the swing axle. So you had a car with a big fin, a magnesium V8 overhead cam engine hanging way off the back.
This car was quite helpful during WWII because it probably killed more Nazi officers than almost any other vehicle. They were quite fast and comfortable and Hitler’s soldiers would come flying off the exits and roll them, and kill themselves. After seven or eight officers killed themselves, literally in a row, Hitler said, OK that’s it! I don’t want any more officers driving them. It was almost like a plot to kill them. The Tatra is probably the most extreme example. If you drive it normally and set your air pressure properly it’s quite good. At the back of my mind, coming into a corner I always see Hitler’s face going ha ha ha!
Another rear engined car I have is a ’66 Corvair, which in America we sort of called the poor man’s Porsche. It was a flat six, it had a turbo charger long before Porsche did, it had 180 horsepower and it had a 4-speed. With the right suspension modifications it was a pretty good handling car. But I have to say, psychologically I don’t find myself as firmly planted in that coming off an exit at high speed as I am in a Corvette or a Mustang or a Firebird or any traditional front engine cars.
That said, I’ve got a McLaren F1, which is one of the most amazing handling cars of all time, but a very tricky car because there’s no traction control or ABS or anything like that. It’s the kind of car where you don’t know you’ve lost it until you’ve actually lost it. It can get a little twitchy. Obviously it’s a fantastic car but I find with the front engine stuff, for your novice driver or for someone like myself who isn’t a professional driver, I need to know there’s a tremendous amount of leeway when I’m going to lose it, as opposed to just snapping out like you do with the Tatra.
Rear engine cars are more stable and handle better. This was proved in Indianapolis, in the early 60s, when Jimmy Clark showed up with the rear engine Lotus and ran against Parnelli Jones and all the guys with big front engine Offies. The next year everyone was rear engine and that was that.
Rear engine, or mid engine is probably the best handling of all. Even my McLaren SLR , although it is s front engine car, it would probably best be described as more mid engine because the engine is closer to the centre of the vehicle.
There weren’t many rear engine cars for sale in America until we started seeing the effects of the GT40 and all the European race cars and then suddenly became the way to go.
Rear engines even made it into station wagons. There was a VW Wagon and a Corvair wagon but they were never very popular. A station wagon is sort of the equivalent of sensible shoes. You don’t wear high heels or running shoes when you just want to walk, and that’s pretty much what a station wagon does.
The two most famous rear engined cars are ones I do not have. The Beetle and the Porsche 911.
I like 911s very much. I’ve never had any. I have the Carrera GT which I think is a much easier car to drive at extremely high speeds than, say, a McLaren. The McLaren is not very forgiving and at really high speed it can get a little twitchy. Whereas with the Carrera GT you’ve got your ABS and your traction control. And you have the benefit of 10 or 15 years more of design and material than you do with the F1 McLaren.
Having said that, I did spin the Carrera GT at 188 miles an hour. I was going down the back straight at Talladega. I had done maybe 50 or 75 laps at above 180 and I was just getting into it and I came down the straight at just about 190 and the guy gave me the thumbs up. All I did on the straightaway was lift my foot off the gas pedal a little too quickly and WHAM! it just snapped and brought the back end around and I went spinning down the track. I’ll take the blame for that but it shows that balance is everything in a car. Ask Hitler….