Swimming against the tide of automotive history.
Over the past century or so, many mechanical configurations for the automobile have been devised, developed, engineered, tested and produced, although several failed to clear those demanding final two hurdles on their way to the showroom.
Front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel-drive, all-wheel-drive, even just one driven wheel: they have all been tried, some with more success than others. The same goes for the location of the powerplant: it can either go out front, in the middle or at the back(1), each option coming with its own set of pros and cons. Engine location and driven wheel combinations have resulted in seven more or less widely applied pairings(2), but there have also been some unusual and eccentric mixes: one definitely belonging in the latter category is the rear-engined, yet front-wheel-driven car.
At first glance, this arrangement appears bizarre as it would seem to combine the negative characteristics of both, yet the concept was explored seriously as recently as the turn of the 21st century.
The FWD rear-engined car first emerged in 1932 in the form of the Coleman ‘Maroon Car’. It was not named after its creator, a certain Harleigh Holmes, but rather after those who had financed the project, brothers Alfred and George Coleman, who were lead and zinc magnates. Harleigh Holmes had established the Four Wheel Drive Company in 1921 but sold it a year later to the Colemans. The company was renamed Coleman Motors Corporation and production of four-wheel-drive trucks commenced in 1925. Holmes’ services were retained for various design and engineering tasks.
The experimental Maroon Car was the brainchild of Harleigh Holmes but the Colemans agreed to finance the project because they believed it might produce some patentable engineering features from which licensing royalties could be harvested. Apart from its unique rear-engined FWD setup, with a Pontiac 251 cubic inch V8 engine that was produced for one year only, the styling of its body was also quite revolutionary, with no separate wings, a smoothly rounded frontal appearance and, for the time, a very low profile . The sizeable air scoop on top of the rear part of the roof was a dissonant feature, but essential for engine cooling.
Holmes was obsessed with minimising height and achieving a low centre of gravity, so he had also patented and built two prototypes of a highly unusual inverted U-shaped front axle that ran over the engine instead of under it. While this facilitated a lower centre of gravity, maintaining correct wheel alignment proved to be a problem. In any case, independent front suspension would soon appear on the majority of passenger cars, making the idea redundant.
In total, the Colemans would finance the construction of five different vehicles designed by Holmes, but none of them was ever seriously considered as potentially marketable. Instead they generated publicity and served as test-beds for ‘outside the box’ engineering features. The company did secure patents for some of the innovations, although it is not known whether they ever made any money from them.
From 1935 on, Coleman Motors Corporation abandoned the idea of producing cars and changed course to produce axles, all-wheel-drive transmissions, transfer cases and related items for mainstream manufacturers such as Chevrolet, REO, Ford, Mack and International Harvester. Shortly after the end of World War 2 it was absorbed into the American Road Equipment Company.
Easily the most widely known in today’s lineup is Richard Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car of 1933, although not everybody may be aware of its unusual engine placement and drive configuration. The car has been described in detail in countless other resources, both digital and in print, so its description here will remain brief.
Dymaxion was a term that combined the words Dynamic, Maximum and Tension and was a portmanteau for a total concept philosophy by the American polymath. That the vehicle resembles the fuselage of an aeroplane is no coincidence: Buckminster Fuller envisioned that flying cars would become reality in the future (we’re still waiting) and designed the Dymaxion car with potential modification into a flying car in mind. The three-wheel setup also mirrors the landing gear and tailwheel seen on most aeroplanes of the era.
Buckminster Fuller’s futuristic vision earns its spot here courtesy of its rear engine (a Ford flathead V8) combined with front-wheel-drive. Added spice is provided by the fact that steering duties fell to the single rear wheel, which gave the Dymaxion a small turning circle, but also imbued it with a tricky handling characteristics at speed: a test driver was fatally injured in a crash shortly after its presentation, prompting Buckminster Fuller to state that the Dymaxion Car could not be made available to the general public without “significant ameliorations.”
In the immediate postwar period, US demand for new cars was enormous after Americans had been deprived of them for almost four years. Established manufacturers as well as ambitious newcomers developed countless new cars in the hope of claiming their piece of the lucrative pie. In 1947, the compact Gregory Sedan broke cover as part of this wave.
Its Kansas City designer and sometime stunt driver, engineer Ben F. Gregory, had already built ten front-wheel-drive cars before, one of which was powered by a Hispano-Suiza aircraft engine. Gregory aimed to secure a spot within the new car sales market with a compact (153 inches long, just 8 inches more than a Crosley) and inexpensive (the proposed sales price was US $ 1,000) front-wheel-driven car with room for five. Power was provided by an air-cooled flat-four engine made by Continental and delivering 40bhp, enabling a claimed maximum speed of 70mph and fuel consumption quoted to be in the 30-35mpg range.
According to Gregory, the rear-engined configuration was chosen in the interest of keeping noise and fumes away from the occupants. Being front-wheel-drive, as all of Gregory’s cars were, this of course meant that a driveshaft running back to front intruded into the available passenger room, which was already at a premium thanks to the car’s modest dimensions. Unfortunately for Gregory, he was unable to attract investors willing to finance volume production of his small car, so only one fully functional prototype was ever constructed. It has survived and is currently on display in the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee.
Eventually Gregory did manage to see one of his car designs make it to the production stage, although it would never be available to the general public as it was a military vehicle. The M422, nicknamed the Mighty Mite, was a small 4×4 Jeep-like vehicle for the US Marine Corps, designed to be carried by helicopter to the battlefield, which was one of the reasons for its all-aluminium body construction. American Motors Corporation bought the rights to the M422 from Gregory and would produce close to 4,000 Mighty Mites between 1958 and 1962. However, the arrival of more powerful helicopters that could carry much heavier loads would soon make the M422 redundant, as it was expensive compared to the regular Jeep.
Five decades passed before the rear engined FWD concept resurfaced once more. Engineer Michael Basnett of the soon to become defunct Rover Group filed a patent application in June 1999 for a front-wheel-drive, rear-engined vehicle architecture. The benefits of this concept claimed by Rover in the patent application were improved safety in a frontal crash due to the larger front crumple zone, better comfort through reduced NVH levels, a lower centre of gravity, improved weight distribution, better utilisation of passenger and cargo space and greater freedom in styling.
The concept never advanced further than this paper form. Whether this was because Rover was already circling the drain at the time, or the idea simply being not that good on closer inspection is not reported- considering how its conceptual predecessors had fared, it might well have been both.
(1) In the case of electric power the motors can also be located within the wheels themselves.
(2) Front/rear, Front/front, Front/all, Rear/rear, Rear/all, Mid/rear and Mid/all being the main variants. Subsets of the first and third variants are Front-mid/rear and Front-mid/all, where the engine sits well behind the front axle line.