Cars, trucks, vans, after over a century of innovation, automakers all agree to put the engine in the front. Why do we do this? What about cars where you pop the trunk? Porches, Volkswagens. What about those cars with the engines in the middle? What about supercars? Rear engine vehicles represent some of the best selling and best performing cars out there.
Why are most car engines in the front? Buckle up, babe. (laughs) It’s Wheelhouse time. Thanks to Blinkist for sponsoring today’s episode. If you know me, you know I love to read. I’m a registered word-perv. When I was in college, sometimes I was so busy I couldn’t find the time to read an entire book. I’m still just as busy. Which is why I now use the Blinkist app. Blinkist summarizes and condenses books into just 15-minute versions that you can read or listen to, podcast style. With over 3000 nonfiction titles, there’s something for everyone. Which is why there are more than 12 million active Blinkist users.
That’s awesome. I’m on a self-improvement kick lately, so I’ve been reading the insights on books like “The 7 Habits ofHighly Effective People”, and “The 5 AM Club”. I still gotta work on the 5 AM part, I get up at eight. And I love how concise the summaries are and the best part, thesetitles are available on, or offline. The first 100 peopleto click the link below are gonna get unlimited access for one week to try it out. You also get 25% off if youwant the full membership. That’s a great deal. Support the companiesthat help support Donut. Thank you, Blinkist forsponsoring this episode. The answer is more ofa story than an answer. It’s a world ride to automotive history.
From Germany to Detroit,to rough (beep) Canada. But first, if you wantthe short boring answer, here it is: Front-engine front-wheel drive vehicles are more forgiving the steer since the weight of the engine is over the front wheels. That gives them more traction. That means it’s easier foryour less talented drivers to not spin out on icy roads. It’s also more economicalto cool the engine if it’s in the front. So, it’s cheaper to manufacture. Thanks for watching, like and subscribe. Thanks. If you’re still here, thatmeans you want the good answer. Come with me. Let’s go back in time. In the 19th century,most horseless carriages had rear mounted engines with rear wheel drive.
In 1895, French automaker Panhard, made the first front mountedengine with rear wheel drive. To accomplish this, theyinvented the modern transmission. This design was superior to rear mounted designs at the time, because it distributed the weight evenly between the front and rear wheels, which improved the handling and gave the front wheels more traction.
I’m not sure how much handling is required when you’re travelingat the speed of smell, but it was a huge accomplishment. Front engine rear wheeldrive became the standard with Ford cranking out16,500,000 model t’s from 1908 to 1927, and all other car makers followed suit.
In 1934, Mercedes Benzlooked at engine placement and asked a very German question: “Why don’t we try it in the trunk ya?” This rear end freak fest, produced the model 130h. Czech manufacturer Tatra, followed suit and started producing rear-engine cars. The rear-engine design race peak in 1938, when Volkswagen released the Beetle, designed by Ferdinand Porsche. Yeah, that Porsche.
Tatra immediately sued VW, due to the Beetles similarity to Tatra’s rear engine V570 and 97. VW was able to avoid a lawsuit by Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. They did wind up paying asettlement after the war though, remember guys, war can’tsolve all your problems. The VW Beetle was cheap and economical.
The original Beetle got32 miles to the gallon and sold like toilet paperin a quarantine, nope (beep). The original Beetles got32 miles to the gallon and sold like AnimalCrossing in a pandemic. After the success of the Beetle, Everybody was dabblingwith back row bangers. Rear engine, rear wheel drive cars were great for acceleration, since the engine weight isright on the rear tires. The main problem though, is oversteer. Since all the weight is in the back, tight turns tend to make therear of the car swing around in a fashion some refer to as dude. Many tried, but few succeededin making a rear engine, rear wheel drive vehiclethat handled well.
They accelerate like a dragster and kind of handle like a dragster. The first real success in that department was the Porsche 911. Yes, that Porsche. The 911 came out in 1964with a flat 16 pack. And they got around the oversteerissue by keeping the car low and the wheelbaseshorter than the Beetle.
That’s right, sure. Some other popular rearengine vehicles include the DeLorean DMC 12 and the Alpine a110. Not surprisingly, thesecars are two-door coupes. Rear engine, rear wheel drive cars, pretty much had to be until the Corvair. (old school upbeat music) It’s the only American carwith an air-cooled rear engine. And engine that sat behind the rear tires meant no floor bump to getin the way of your feet. The only problem though, they’vehad a pretty long wheelbase for rear engine parts.
108 inches, 20 inches longer than the 911. Nevertheless, they sold likebeef cakes laced with gravy. One buyer was a young politicianby the name Ralph Nader. After driving the car, he became concerned about the car’s handling ability. He published the book “Unsafeat any speed” in 1965.
The book scrutinized theentire automotive industry, but was especiallycritical of the Corvair, calling it, I quote, “one car accident”. Most people do Leave a bad yelp review, but that’s not Nader’s style baby, Nader gang. (laughs) According to the book, The Corvair’s swing axle rear suspensionwould cause the rear tires to quote, tuck-under around turns, which would cause the car to drift. And since the front suspensionhad no anti roll bar, the Corvair would be prone to rollovers, a sedan with rollovers.
That’s insane. By the time the book came out, Chevy had already redesigned the Corvair with a four wheel independent suspension, but it was too late. “Unsafe at any speed” was a bombshell and people took notice. Corvair sales were cut in half, in 1966. People were afraid to buy rear engine cars that were Unsafe at any speed. I don’t blame them. Chevy decided to move on and production after the 1969 model year. Nice. And Ralph Nader wenton to run for president like a million times. Nader gang.
In the meantime, automakers kept messing with front engine layouts. The British Motor Corporationasked a very British question. “Why don’t we make ourautomobiles as small as possible? “So we stay out of other people’s away because we’re polite andmeek and love to cue (beep).” That’s my British accent, I’m sorry. That’s right. I’m talking about the mini designer Alec Issigonis,had the bright idea of engineering thetransmission into the oil sump, flipping the engine around tominimize the engine footprint, so you could squeeze it under a hood, that was a little over four feet wide.
The engine could only make 33 horsepower, but since the car was so tiny and light, it was enough power for the Brits. I mean, I really want one of these things. Transverse engines allowedthe hood to be shortened and per passenger spaceto be maximized inside. Plenty of companies from Fiat, Volvo to even Land Rover use transverse engines, but none as awesomely asa 1965 Lamborghini Miura, which use a B12 transverse engine mid mounted behind the two seats. That’s right.
The transverse engine went from this, (car engine revving)to this, in six years. Anyway, back in Detroit, the big three we’re focusing on the front-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, producing some cars, you might have heard them around like Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, the Charger, et cetera. With the engine in the front, there was no danger of oversteer unless you push that gas baby. That’s what I’m talking about. They actually have a bit of understeer, but the engine weight improves the front tire traction so it’s easier for your average driver to corner.
It’s also cheaper and easier to put a radiator in the front of the car, and running hoses all the way to the back sucks from a design efficiency and maintenance standpoint. It makes sense to have your radiator engine in the same place. Speaking of understeer, shout out to my Miata gang. Speaking of which, check out our new show “Money Pit” Zeck job does that exact thing to a Miata. I can’t wait to see this thing finished.
I can’t wait to drive it. Hopefully, he lets me (beep). Thus began the muscle car era, with the big three and AMC trying to cram as many horsepowers as possible into a car. But when you want more horses that usually means a bigger, heavier engine. As engines got beefier. You got a little more power mo toke mo took, yeah. All right, we’ll keep that. But less weight on the back wheels which decreases rear-wheel traction and acceleration.
To keep some weight on the back tires, you have to move the engine further back and you push the passengers back towards the rear axle and you’re left with an enormous hood. I’m talking 80s Camaro, 70s Firebird, 70s Chargers, pretty much every muscle car ever. They got some big (beep) long (beep).
If you push the engine far enough back, you actually get a front-mid engine car. If the engine is between the front axle and the passenger compartment, it’s technically mid-engine, but front mid-engine. Eventually, you’re going to say enough is enough. If you’re already sacrificing passenger area and want to maximize power and handling, you have to rethink engine placement.
Take the Corvette, forexample, the C7 Corvette was basically the best frontengine rear wheel drive car that Chevy could design. But this year, they’re finally delivering the mid-engine Corvette. It’s called the CA. Not only does it offer upto 700 horsepower, rumored, it’s going to be the besthandling Corvette ever. Why does moving the Corvettes engine back, improve handling? With the engine behindthe two front seats, but in front of the rearaxle, the Corvette center of gravity is in the middle of the car, which means a lowerpolar moment of inertia.
I’m sorry, did you think you’regetting through this without learning some rotational dynamics? You’re in the science zone (beep). (bright upbeat music) Alright, the polar moment of inertia. Think about a figure skater spinning.
When they pull their armsin, they spin quicker. Think about, think about you sitting in an officechair spinning around, when you pull your armsin you speak faster, and if you can put your arms and legs out you spin slower. Why is that? (gentle upbeat music) The same principle applies to cars.
If your car’s center ofmass is centrally located, it can change directionquickly and with less effort. Amid the engine layoutalso improves braking. With the weight of theengine distributed evenly across all four tires, allfour brakes help equally. (beep) That’s why mid engine vehicles are the best handling, most expensive two-seat vehicles on the planet.
Here you’ve BMW IA’s, it’s your Audi R8’s, it’s a Porsche Cayman’s, mostFerrari’s and Lamborghini’s, McLaren’s lotus’s, or is it low tide? No, no. Anyway, to sum it up, let’s run down the pros and cons of each engine location. Rear engine, they got great acceleration, but there’s less weighton the front tires.
You’re more likely to Tokyo Drift, if you don’t know what you’re doing. Mid-engine, awesome handling and braking but no room for extrapassengers or luggage. And generally they’re expensive to ship. Front engine, they’re proneto a bit of understeer, but maximum traction on the front tires. They’re spacious andthey’re cheap to build. Automakers have proventhat, they can make rear and mid-engine designs work super well. But most customers want areal second row of seats and they generally don’tneed all that performance for driving the children to Chili’s.
They offer a cheaper, more spacious front engine car that’s good enough. You know what, money talks? The front engine cars haveone, at least for now. I want to hear from you. What are your experienceswith driving rear engine cars? Have you ever driven anexotic with a mid-engine? Do you have an engineplacement preference? Does anyone have a CA I can borrow?.