Big Rear-Engined Four-Door Cars – Part 1: American Attempts

How many large (over 1.6 litres) rear-engined four-door cars can you name, offhand? The Corvair, obviously: the most widely-built “big” rear-engined car, over 1.6 million made. The Tatra, naturally: the first genuine production car with a motor in its tail, followed by several generations over six decades. The ’48 Tucker, of course: so cool they made a movie about it. Oh, and the sorry-looking Volkswagen Typ 4 (411/412). And… er, that’s it?

Beginning of an archetype: the 1934 Tatra T77.

 

Sports cars (Porsche, Alpine, etc.) and subcompacts (NSU Prinz, Hillman Imp, etc.) constitute the overwhelming majority of mid and rear-engined (RE) cars, and are still with us today. But since Tatra quit making cars in 1999, no large RE four-door remains in production. Years before Tatra, there were a few who gave it a go, but the issue with these pioneers, which we will examine in Part 2, was that they were talented eccentrics, not industrialists.

Chevrolet Corvair sedan with experimental fastback body.

 

This was about to change on both sides of the Atlantic. There were a more than a few interesting attempts, right up to the ‘60s. American engineers’ enduring love affair with large RE streamliners in the ‘30s and ‘40s can perhaps partially explain the existence of the Corvair, beyond the success of small RE imports such as the Beetle or the Dauphine.

 

Ford

One of the first American RE designs were the John Tjaarda-penned Briggs prototypes, built in 1932-33. Tjaarda had been designing his “Sterkenburg” prototypes for a few years by then, but this one was the first to be actually built and road-tested. At least two prototypes were developed by Briggs in close collaboration with Lincoln, whose president, Edsel Ford, wanted a smaller car to improve dwindling sales. One was shown at the Ford Pavilion at the 1933 Century of Progress exhibition.

An all-alloy V8 (based on the Ford flathead) was even made for it, sitting just ahead of the rear wheels, and the prototype was road-tested in 1934. However, it was a little too “out there” for production and was soon succeeded by a more traditional V-12 front-engined design, which would ultimately become the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr.

RE Ford design with FWD, patent filed in 1936. Source: Special-Interest Autos

 

Throughout the ‘30s and into the ‘40s, Ford experimented with other RE cars, issuing patents (many by Henry himself) for various compact mid/rear-engined designs, including at least one with a V8 atop the rear wheels and FWD, as well as a four-wheel steering concept. Though some of these were tested – in chassis form – in Dearborn, it seems others were only paper cars. At least one used a modified French Matford body. It is unknown whether Henry Ford was seriously considering making RE cars or whether these were made in part to deceive Ford’s competitors.

 

Dymaxion

How would a sausage-shaped three-wheeler with a Ford V8 in the middle, rear wheel steering and FWD sound? Bonkers, in all fairness. But mad as it was, the Dymaxion 4D did exist – the first one was built in 1933 by its inventor, Buckminster Fuller, an architect with unconventional tastes. It seems three were made in total, all slightly different in detail. More doors and headlamps were added, for instance.

The Dymaxion was an outstanding vehicle, but it did negate the benefits of the whole RE layout by going FWD, which meant it needed a driveshaft and that the engine’s weight did nothing to add traction to the driving wheels. Under the aluminum skin and wood skeleton, the Dymaxion had two frames, a one horizontal for the body and a canted one for the engine, which were hinged together near the car’s centre of gravity.

Second Dymaxion with vertical front bumper and rear fin.

 

The highly unusual layout did enable the vehicle to have an extremely well-streamlined body, but the complexity of the concept made it less practical than it might have been, as well as very peculiar to drive.

“Drive us to your leader!”

 

The massive front overhang placed the driver well ahead of the front wheels, which did not do much for stability and safety. A well-publicized crash of one of the Dymaxions during the 1934 Chicago World Fair (which killed the driver) seemed to arouse the public’s concern about the concept’s overall soundness…

 

Stout

First Stout Scarab prototype (1932)

 

Another early example of the MPV / one-box concept, the Scarab was the brainchild of engineer William B. Stout, who developed it in the mid-‘30s. Uniquely among most of the cars we will be looking at in this post, this one was actually sold (at a very high price) circa 1935-36. The Scarab’s engine was a 3.6 litre Ford V8, positioned atop the rear wheels to maximize interior space as well as traction. The RE also allowed for a flat floor and the forward driving position, though less extreme than the Dymaxion’s, increased the amount of passenger space.

The Stout Scarab’s aircraft-like qualities extended to its low weight, though the original sketch called for more use of lightweight metals and a 4-cyl. engine instead of the steel and V8 that Stout ended up using for cost reasons. Stout built a first prototype in 1932, and then derived a 24-pax bus design that was made in about 175 units by Gar Wood until 1936. Stout then tried his hand at a railcar version, the highly advanced 120 mph Railplane, but no operator bought the idea. By 1935, Stout revisited his car concept, giving it a stunning Art-Deco visual makeover by a stylist named Gaston and selling a precious few to the likes of Wrigley (as in chewing gum), Firestone (as in tyres) and Dow (as in chemicals).

No two Stout Scarabs were strictly identical, being very much in the bespoke / prototype category. One or two even featured a pneumatic suspension, developed by Firestone. All of them seemed to use a two-door layout, one on the right side for passengers and one on the front left side for the driver.

In 1945-46, Stout built a final iteration of the Scarab, this time using fiberglass. Not just for the body though: even the last Scarab’s platform and seats were made of the stuff. The last Scarab, which also featured the world’s first wraparound glass windshield, looked decidedly different from its previous incarnation.

Several in-depth articles on these fascinating cars are available online. I recommend this one.

 

Hoffman

 

The story around this prototype is somewhat muddled, though sources do agree that Roscoe C. Hoffman, a Detroit-based automotive engineer who worked with several automakers, built at least two of these in 1934-35 in close collaboration with Budd. Hoffman drove this particular one as his personal car until 1961, when he gave it to Brooks Stevens.

Almost everything about this car is out of the ordinary: the Budd-designed unibody with interchangeable doors, the rear independent suspension with Cardan joints, the engine mounted atop the rear wheels… The most intriguing aspect is the engine: a water-cooled X8 displacing 170 ci (2.8 litres) with OHC, producing 75 hp. It is known that Ford made several prototype X8 engines, both air- and water-cooled, but this one seems to be unrelated to those.

It seems that the Hoffman car was at least partly funded by French industrialist Emile Mathis, who was doing business with Ford at the time. The deterioration of the Mathis-Ford relationship after the creation of Matford may have doomed further development of the Hoffman X-8, which was much closer to a practical RE car than many of the wackier designs of the period.

 

Checker

The famous Kalamazoo-based cab company made increasingly oddly-styled taxis throughout the ‘30s, but underneath it all, they were well-built and very conventional. This was about to change in 1944, when Checker design and built the Models B and C, going for a RE layout to maximize passenger space while minimizing exterior dimensions. A rather crude test mule was developed under the supervision of Herbert Snow. And unfortunately, only one photo (also quite crude) seems to have made it to this century.

Checker did not build much of its cars’ components aside from the chassis per se and the body: the suspension, wheels, steering and brakes came from Studebaker; the engine was a Continental side-valve 6-cyl. (probably the 226 ci (3.7 litre) 80 hp “Red Seal”) mounted  transversally behind the rear wheels, mated to a Warner 3-speed manual gearbox. The 100 inch (254 cm) wheelbase gave ample room to the four rear seats thanks to the driver’s position sitting atop the front wheels. The overall styling would probably have been much easier on the eyes than the test mule’s.

1947 Checker A2 taxi in Helsinki – no Finns at the rear?

 

The prototype was tested through 1945, but ultimately abandoned: Checker determined that the rear-facing seats would probably be very unpopular with the clientele, and the RE made the prototype’s handling extremely tricky and not especially comfortable. Checker completely changed tack and designed a FWD prototype (Model D), which also ended up being canned in favour of the traditional RWD layout of the Checker A2.

 

Beechcraft

 

Around 1943, the Beech Airplane Co. shrewdly figured, not unlike SAAB, that aircraft orders might dry up once the war ended, whereas demand for cars would be very high. The company had been working on a four-wheel-drive hybrid vehicle for the army, of which two prototypes were made with air-cooled 100 hp Franklin flat-4 engines in the back. The engine powered DC motors powering each wheel (one prototype used GE motors, the other Westinghouse).

But the idea of a gasoline-electric hybrid four-wheel-drive civilian car was soon to take hold. This was not an entirely new concept, having been pioneered at the turn of the century in Europe (as mentioned in this CC article). The Beechcraft Plainsman, as it was dubbed, was shown in 1947, although it seems the civilian mock-up was never mated with its military-derived drivetrain.

 

Beech had designed a truly unique body for the Plainsman, with panoramic windows and windscreens that did not go unnoticed in the automotive world: soon, this was copied by Zagato on a few bespoke Fiats, as well as by Isotta Fraschini, as we will see in Part 2 of this article. This luxurious car was to be aimed at the top end of the market, with a projected sales price of US$ 5000 – above Cadillac and Packard. This may have contributed to the project’s demise, as did Beech noticing that demand for small aircraft remained pretty healthy.

 

General Motors

 

There were RE experiments at GM in the mid-‘30s of a very innovative nature. These compact cars, nicknamed “Martia”, featured a very odd two-stroke all-alloy X-4 engines with twin pistons in the back in three displacements: 101 ci (1.65 litres), 130 ci (2.1 litres) and 160 ci (2.6 litres). The prototypes also had unibody construction and all-round Dubonnet independent suspension.

GM Research boss Charles M. Kettering and the Martia. Source: Special-Interest Autos

 

Three prototypes were put together and tested from 1934 to 1938, although the radical X4 engines were further developed (albeit in standard Chevrolet or Oldsmobile chassis) through to the mid-‘40s. The cars ran rather well, with a rear weight bias of only. 52/48, and fuel economy as well as durability were reported to be above average. But there were setbacks, including an apparently terrible exhaust odour (“a mixture of tear gas and skunk,” according to one of the GM engineers) that proved insurmountable.

But GM didn’t stop there. More RE projects were to flourish after the war – with grander ambitions. This 1949 article from Mechanix illustrated goes into the matter of RE cars in general (and the GM Corsair concept car in particular) into much more detail than I ever could. It’s very interesting to see the RE issue from a 1949 American point of view, when RE cars were still very much the “in” thing.

GM ended up shelving the idea of a truly big RE car, though of course the concept would be completely re-engineered for a well-known RE compact a few years later. As a side note on this, the Corvair prototypes made and tested circa 1957 were all badged as Holdens. Even memos produced by Ed Cole and other GM top brass regarding the upcoming RE car used Holden stationary, so as to keep as many people as possible off the scent. Just like the RE Pontiac (a Corvair with a pointy nose), the RE Holden was not to be, just a means to develop the RE Chevrolet with added discretion.

 

Studebaker

 

During the Second World War, there was still much non-military activity going on in many automakers’ R&D departments. After all, the war would end someday and military contracts would dry up. In South Bend, the men in charge of forward planning were consultants from Raymond Lowey Associates, namely Bob Bourke and Virgil Exner. Letting their imaginations run wild, they developed a proposal for a RE Studebaker around 1943.

The car was different from previous American RE designs, owing little to the Tjaarda prototypes or the Stout Scarab. Studebaker soon decided to drop the RE idea and go back to the traditional RWD set-up, but the RE car’s sloping tail remained. The new post-war Studebaker applied this language to great effect, setting it apart from the competition’s warmed-over offerings.

Porsche designed and made the 542 for Studebaker. The paper RE car below, also proposed, never got made.

Studebaker found itself in dire financial straits by the early ‘50s. A novel Porsche-designed sedan (Typ 542, with a front-mounted V6, unibody construction and all-round independent suspension) was nixed by the Packard merger, as was a second Porsche proposal for a 2-litre flat-4 RE car (Typ 633) that could have been the American Volkswagen, well before the Corvair.

For reasons that remain unclear, Curtiss-Wright (who had bought Studebaker-Packard) looked into a RE version of the Lark. Sometime in late 1959, some C-W engineers bought a Lark coupe at a South Bend dealership and installed a Porsche 1.6 litre flat-4 in the back. There were a few sketches of a RE Studebaker compact made around that time, so this might have been an attempt to prove the concept on the cheap. Nothing came of it, as far as is known.

 

End of Part 1…

It’s no Tatra, but it’ll do.

 

Is it any wonder, given the abundance of RE prototypes made in the US over the years, that one of the Big Three ended up making over a million of these cars, i.e. way more than any other large RE sedan design anywhere? But don’t discount old Europe. As we will see in Part 2, switching from sedans to saloons, big RE cars aroused a lot of interest there, too.