Back to Front

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

Image: Rover Group via pinterest.com

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.

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

15 thoughts on “Back to Front”

  1. Good morning, Bruno. An interesting topic today. I have driven 5 of the 7 more widely applied layouts, with mid engined all wheel drive and rear engined all wheel drive being the ones I haven’t sampled.

    I was completely unaware of Ben F. Gregory’s and Rover contributions to the rear engined front wheel drive layout. Rover’s claims seem a little optimistic.

    Now that the world is moving to BEV’s things are a bit different. The main weight is in the batteries and they are in the center of the car. The electric motor is small and basically can go anywhere there is enough space for it. Even Volkswagen is back to rear wheel drive.

  2. I do wonder if that 1999 Rover Group proposal Bruno highlights above was intended for the Spiritual concept which was at one stage put forward as a potential Mini successor? It was, I seem to recall to have been rear-engined. The timelines might also back up this theory. Anyone know any more on this?

    1. Yes – I think you’re right, Freerk. Here’s an interview with lead designer, Geoff Upex. I find it interesting (and sadly funny) to hear everyone’s views in the video, from a distance of a quarter of a century. Incidentally, Mr Upex mentions ADO 16 in his interview.

  3. Good afternoon Bruno and thanks for today’s collection of the weird and (not so) wonderful. One can make a credible case for most combinations of engine position/orientation and driven wheels, but surely not for rear-engined and FWD? The Dymaxion just looks ‘wrong’ and it proved to be, fatally so. How extraordinary that Rover considered such an eccentric layout, presumably for its ‘Spiritual’ concepts as Eóin says, although I don’t recall any mention of this at the time, just that they were to be rear-engined. Here are the concepts:

    1. According to Graham Robson’s MINI book, the Spirituals’ engines were under the rear seats, and drove the rear wheels. Not that it actually mattered because the scope of the 1995 project did not extend to building the horizontally mounted 800cc three cylinder K series engine, nor the new transaxle which would have been required. However front crush test resistance is mentioned – presumably in a car with a very short front end an engine is more of a hindrance than a help in designing a crash structure.

      The rear suspension shown on the Rover patent drawing is puzzling – are these composite leaf springs, as used on some Sherpas from 1985-91?

    2. There were some other odd things going on at Rover in the BMW era. I recall reading in CAR of a plan to develop a front engine / rear wheel drive MGF replacement using the Freelander’s platform. The engine would still be transverse, but drive to the front wheels would be omitted, and the Freelander’s propshaft and rear axle used. I hope upgrading of the latter parts was part of the plan, as they were a heap of trouble in the 4WD Freelo.

      Some time later there was an advanced stage prototype for a Rover 45 replacement with a longitudinal engine and front wheel drive, for no obvious reason or benefit to Rover or the parent company.

  4. Citroën purists look away now, but in the spirit of this article’s subject have a look at this “Traction Arrière” on VW suspension and drivetrain (a one-off done by a South American VW enthusiast) :

    1. Apart from the change from FWD to RDW the wire wheels and mirrors on the front wings really look out of place. It looks like the engine might have fitted in a pre ’52 Traction Avant with the smaller boot. Still, what is seen cannot be unseen.

  5. What about the mighty Molden? It was a Mini with a Holden engine. It was front wheel drive with the Holden straight-six longitudinally mounted right beside the driver. The gearbox was ahead of the engine. Take a look https://www.pressreader.com/australia/australian-muscle-car/20200521/281522228266081
    It worked well- well enough to get banned from racing.

    Then there is Theon Parseghian’s Ford Festiva. It has front wheel drive with a 355 cid small block Chevrolet mounted behind the driver (a Chevrolet engine in a Ford, what will the neighbours think?). There is quite a bit on the net about this one
    https://www.autoblog.com/2007/12/25/cardomain-find-of-the-day-v8-mid-engined-ford-festiva/
    https://www.chevyhardcore.com/news/ebay-find-a-ford-festiva-with-a-chevy-350-v8-swap/
    https://bangshift.com/general-news/videos/rabid-fwd-v8-powered-ford-festiva-severely-violent-totally-bangshift-approved/
    That would have to be more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

  6. Robertas

    Re Transverse engine and transmission with rear wheel drive.

    A popular modification for Mitsubishi Evos used for track work (not loose surfaces though) was to delete the drive to the front wheels. One advantage to this was it allowed the engine to be shifted backwards and downwards in the car. It was also possible to tilt the engine to get the CoG even further to the rear and much lower. So, you ended up with a transverse engine and transmission at the front of the car with the centre differential removed but retaining the 90-degree gearset powering the driveshaft which was attached to the differential unit at the rear of the car.

    Some of the Subarus were also converted to rear drive only. The deletion of drive to the front wheels allowed the engine to be moved further aft and lower in the car.

    Andy Rouse tried the transverse front engine/transmission rear wheel drive layout for the early Ford Mondeo BTCC Supertourer. The engine was transverse and the drive went to the rear. He moved the engine to place its mass in the most advantageous position- all of it well behind the front axle line. The car handled very well but it was not raced due to losses caused by the need for two 90-degree changes of direction in the drivetrain (one more than the rear wheel drive cars needed and, two more than the front wheel drive cars needed). It is said to have cost some 5 to 8 bhp. The performance of the cars was so evenly matched this actually mattered! Andy Rouse stated that he believed the layout still held a great deal of promise but needed more development. The time and budget to do it was not available then. The frantic time-starved nature of Supertourer racing meant there never was the time to revisit the idea and perfect it by eliminating the losses or at least minimising them.

  7. As always you can trust on Citroen to go one better: here’s rear-engined RWD and front-engined FWD at the same time

    And here you get FWD, RWD and AWD at the same time with an OHE (overhead engine).

    1. Ah, yes the 2CV. I wonder what an Alfa would with the same idea would look and, more importantly, sound like. I was not alone in my wonder 🙂

    2. Of course I meant, 2CV Sahara. In case you wonder: on the registration it says the Alfa is a 12 cylinder 😉

  8. There was interesting reasoning why Buckminster-Fuller’s Dymaxion car was as it was. The original design had a tail empennage similar to an aircraft. There were aerodynamic vertical (rudder) and horizontal (elevator) surfaces. The idea was that as the car accelerated to highway speeds the pitch and yaw control would solely be provided by the aerodynamic surfaces. The tailwheel would be lifted clear from the roadway altogether. It would only be in contact with the road surface at low speed.

    Examining the horizontal tail surfaces it is clear they are “upside-down”. Instead of providing downforce, as in conventional aircraft practice, in the Dymaxion they are cambered to provide lift. Aside from this the elevator surfaces function as expected and are used to control pitch. The vertical aerodynamic surface with rudder controls yaw exactly as on conventional practice.

    Buckminster-Fuller’s aim was to make the car ultra-maneuverable at low speed (for example, driving in tight spaces in cities, parking even) and also operate with a pitch free smooth ride at higher speeds. Hence rear steering and front drive. How about that for radical? He certainly wasn’t frightened to be innovative. But before we dismiss his thinking, just consider how ahead of his time he was. It was many, many decades later that aerodynamics was used to make cars “fly”, albeit staying on the ground. Wings appeared again. This time to provide lots of traction.

    Downforce!

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