So we know the Czechoslovakian Tatras (a T603 is seen here in ’70s Bratislava), as well as those 411/412 VeeDubs with their awkward looks and poor performance, but what other big (over 1.6 litre) rear-engined four-door saloons did Europe produce? None? Well, close. Give or take a dozen…
In part 1 of this review of large mid- and rear-engined (RE) cars, the focus was mostly on the ‘30s and ‘40s, which was the heyday of the RE concept in general, except for sports and race cars – which are beyond the scope of this post. American engineers were very keen on the idea, but it had originated (or, more accurately, was re-discovered) in Europe in the ‘20s. Let’s explore these early attempts before we cast our eyes to the ’30s and the post-war period, when large RE prototypes were studied by several European automakers.
This is the granddaddy, the ur-Tatra, the first swing of the axle: the Rumpler Tropfenwagen (tear-drop car), built in Germany from 1921 to 1925 in about 100 units. If this car looks bizarre now, just imagine what it must have looked like then! The brainchild of Austrian aeronautics engineer Edmund Rumpler, the Tropfenwagen (or Tropfen-Auto) was available as a two-door sedan, a roadster and a LWB four-door limousine. It featured Rumpler’s patented rear swing axle, which was later widely used on most RE designs, as well as several front-engined cars, e.g. DAF, Mercedes-Benz or Triumph.
The Rumpler’s engine sat ahead of the rear wheels. It was a Siemens-built W6 with a displacement of 3.4 litres. The car’s aerodynamic body was way ahead of its time: when it was put in a wind tunnel in 1979, it was found to have a Cd of 0.28 – a figure that few (if any) cars of the ‘70s could claim.
It’s fair to say that the car was something of a failure in the marketplace. The only people who took a shine to it were taxis, as the body’s vast interior and high roof were an undeniable asset. Another use for the oddball vehicle was as a bit player in Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi masterpiece, Metropolis, where several Rumplers were immortalized (and a few sacrificed) on celluloid.
English aristocrat Sir Charles Dennistoun Burney, a famous aeronautics engineer and inventor in his own right, elected to design a car that could include as many of his latest patents as possible. As a result, the Streamlines were not only unlike anything else on the road, they were all different one from the other. About 12 cars were made from 1927 to 1932, all with a similar layout: the engine was behind the rear wheels, allowing for a capacious cabin and entertaining handling.
The chassis was basically a FWD Alvis put back to front. The rear track was 13 in. (33 cm) narrower than the front, aiding the car’s aerodynamics. Most Burney Streamlines used a Beverley-Barnes OHC straight-8 mated to a Wilson pre-selector 4-speed gearbox, though the last three cars used a 185 ci (3-litre) Lycoming 6-cyl. instead (Burney was trying to market the car in the US at the time).
Famously, one of the Streamlines was bought by the Prince of Wales around 1930, finished in a suitably royal deep blue lacquer. But it wasn’t Burney’s intention to become an automaker as such: he was more interested in the patents and in licensing the Streamline to another concern.
Burney was successful in this endeavour: Crossley Motors bought the license and started marketing their version of the Streamline in 1934. The Crossley Streamline was a little different from the Burney cars: the radiator was moved to the front of the car (as was the battery), presumably to improve weight distribution. The wheelbase was shortened and the engine was now a 2-litre Crossley 6-cyl. unit producing 55 hp, mated to a Wilson pre-selector gearbox – which still propelled the car to 80 mph.
Crossley also replaced the Burneys’ airship-style fabric body with more traditional aluminum and steel panels. The price of the Crossley Streamline when it was launched was a hefty £750. By late 1935, that had come down to £395. It seems the 25 cars that Crossley put together were a tough sell. Either way, Crossley was to retire its automobile branch by 1937, earning the Streamline a coveted CC Deadly Sin nomination.
It was perhaps unavoidable for the mighty Škoda works to design a Tatra lookalike. The result was not exactly graceful. The 1935 Škoda 935 Dynamic had a 2-litre water-cooled 55 hp flat-4 placed ahead of the rear wheels, just behind the rear seats. The 935 was a logical development of the firm’s previous RE prototype, the 1.5 litre Škoda 932 of 1932-34.
The car was put on display at the 1935 Prague Motor Show and never seen in public again. It was used and tested by Škoda through to 1939, when it was sold off to a lucky Czechoslovak citizen. Škoda tracked it down and bought it back in 1968, but only restored it to its full glory in 2015.
André Dubonnet was the heir to a liquor magnate and used his considerable wealth to race Hispano-Suizas and Bugattis in the ‘20s. He helped develop and promote an innovative independent suspension system that was licensed to several manufacturers, including Fiat and GM. But he also dabbled in making full-blown prototypes.
The Dubonnet Dolphin was created in 1936. André Dubonnet was interested in making a truly aerodynamic car, which led him to opt for a mid-RE layout. The engine he picked, like a number of other prototypes at the time, was the 3.6 litre Ford V8, mated to a Cotal electromagnetic 4-speed transmission. Naturally, the Dolphin featured Dubonnet’s patented suspension on all four wheels. The three-door body was made by Hibbard & Darrin, one of the most expensive coachbuilders in Paris – but then, Dubonnet was a man of means.
Once finished, the Dolphin was taken to a circuit with its creator at the wheel, where it was raced against a standard Ford sedan with an identical engine. The production Ford reached 131 kph (82 mph) and required 15.6 litres / 100km (15 mpg); the fin-tailed Dubonnet’s top speed was 173 kph (108 mph) and used 10.7 litres / 100km (22 mpg). The car was then sent over to Detroit, where it failed to impress, and disappeared in the ‘50s.
Work never stopped on the Ile Séguin, an island on the Seine just west of Paris covered entirely in Renault factory buildings, even during the darkest moments of the Second World War. Soon after the defeat of 1940, Louis Renault found a modus operandi with the Germans to allow his precious factories to continue operating. Developing new cars was strictly forbidden, but Louis Renault couldn’t care less: whatever happened, peace would come and new models would be needed. A secret prototype programme was initiated in late 1940, starting with a small RE car inspired by the KdF-Wagen that Renault had seen at the 1939 Berlin Motor Show. The car was continuously developed throughout the German occupation and finally emerged as the 4CV in 1946.
Renault also planned to launch completely new 4- and 6-cyl. family cars after the war: traditional front-engined RWD affairs, with strongly American-influenced styling. In 1944, the French provisional government put Louis Renault in prison (where he died soon after in murky circumstances) and the company was nationalized in 1945. The new Renault executives, led by Pierre Lefaucheux, wanted to focus on the 4CV and the compact pre-war Juvaquatre for the time being.
It quickly became clear that a larger car should be added to Renault’s post-war range. Why let Citroën have all the 2-litre cars? Renault engineers therefore began work on a completely new prototype, “Projet 108.” The car was an upscale version of the little 4CV in many ways. Its 1997cc OHV 4-cyl. engine was placed behind the rear wheels, which eschewed the swing axles in favour of a novel trailing arms suspension.
The 108 was tinkered with and tested in 1948-49, but Renault engineers soon became disenchanted with the whole idea. The engine’s chronic overheating was impossible to cure. Another issue were the front wheel wells encroaching on the floor more than expected, negating one of the RE’s key features: ample legroom. Lefaucheux also reasoned that the 108’s unconventional architecture would make it a tough sell in a highly competitive market segment, and that its industrialization could be far more difficult than with a conventional RWD car.
By late 1949, the 108 was abandoned and a new 2-litre car with a front engine and RWD was slated instead, using a modified version of the RE car’s four-wheel independent suspension. Alas, the 1951 launch date was not moved, leading to the woefully underdeveloped Renault Frégate, whose lackluster career was to last until 1960.
Interestingly, Renault did not give up the large RE saloon idea and launched the “Projet 900” in 1958. This was a time when Renault worked in close collaboration with Ghia, who had a lot of influence in the 900’s styling. But the overall concept was pure Renault: a cab-forward RE car.
The underpinnings were closely related to the Dauphine and the Dauphine-based cab-forward “Projet 600” of 1957. However, the 900 aimed higher: it had a 1.7 litre V8 – essentially two Dauphine 4-cyl. blocks at a 90° angle – behind the rear wheels.
The first prototype was built in late 1958 and immediately posed a problem: the lack of luggage space. Renault and Ghia modified their approach, placing the V8 ahead of the rear wheels and creating a serviceable trunk in the tail. The second prototype also had very different front and rear styling, with a hint of ’59 Chevy in the taillights.
A third proposal was devised with a fastback design, perhaps to address the jarring “coming-or-going” results of the previous two. These cars were serious attempts: they were tested on the track, where they fared relatively well due to their low weight (about 1000 kg) and decent aerodynamics. However, nearly all focus groups took an extreme dislike to the driving position, which was viewed as far too exposed and unsafe. The 900 was dumped in 1960 and Renault found itself without a large family saloon until the FWD Renault 16 debuted in 1965.
For some reason, Ghia became besotted with the whole 900 concept and produced the 1959 Selene, penned by Tom Tjaarda, and the 1962 Selene II designed by Virgil Exner, Jr. Neither of the Selenes were fitted with engines.
Isotta Fraschini, founded in 1900, was a legendary Italian automaker in the ‘20s. Their 8-cyl. cars rivalled Duesenberg and Rolls-Royce in all aspects. The marque’s export-driven success fell on hard times after the 1929 crash though. IF was bought out by aircraft-maker Caproni in the early ‘30s, putting an end to chassis production. IF focused on trucks, aero engines and machine-guns until 1945, when Caproni found itself in need of new products. Aircraft were now out of the question, and there was a great deal of factory space to occupy.
Caproni had two or three concepts up its sleeve though. One was a 1.1 litre FWD car, which I’ve touched upon already. Another ambitious project was a RE executive car, to be marketed under the Isotta Fraschini marque. Work on this prototype had started in secret in 1943, under the aegis of Luigi Rapi.
The 8C Monterosa, as it became known, had a 3.4 litre water-cooled OHV all-aluminum V8 with hemi heads, designed by Aurelio Lampredi, that produced 125 hp (some sources say 110 hp) @ 4200 rpm mounted at the very rear of a sturdy box-section chassis. It also featured an all-synchromesh 4-speed gearbox plus overdrive, rubber-mounted suspension and built-in hydraulic jacks for all four wheels.
The initial prototype was clad with a sweeping limousine body, courtesy of Zagato, in late 1946. This initial prototype, resembling a fin-less Tatra T87, was extensively road-tested. The car was deemed a bit too tail-happy and that the V8 tended to overheat. To address this, the twin side-mounted radiators moved to the front of the car on subsequent chassis.
The second and third cars were bodied by Touring as two- and four-door saloons. The front-mounted radiator also helped with the car’s aesthetics, allowing the IF badge to be set within a big chromed frame more suited to the marque’s still-present mystique.
Caproni embarked on a PR campaign, sending the Touring-bodied cars to various motor shows and producing a lavish publicity brochure in several languages. This was done in spite of not having any chassis to sell!
The brochure is a true gem for this era. In it, Luigi Rapi let his imagination run wild, devising a dozen different bodies for the 8C Monterosa chassis – none of which were actually made, but the sheer creativity and style is breathtaking, like a fantasy RE garage.
The Isotta Fraschini was displayed again (and admired) at the 1948 Paris and London Motor Shows, this time with a two-door convertible body by Boneschi. The 8C Monterosa was doubtless one of the most refined European cars of its time, featuring a sophisticated heating and ventilation system, radio, a clock mounted on the steering wheel’s hub and seating for six.
Unfortunately, Caproni did not possess sufficient political and financial backing to go push ahead with either the small FWD car, or the 8C Monterosa. Isotta Fraschini was still present at the March 1949 Geneva Motor Show, but after that date, the cars disappeared from public view. Caproni went into receivership soon after.
The firm continued building IF-branded trucks, buses, trams and a variety of engines, but no passenger cars, until the aborted rebirth of the late ‘90s. Between three and six Isotta Fraschini 8C Monterosa chassis were made; two cars have survived.
Full disclosure, folks: I’ve got virtually nothing on this. Lancia, it seems, tried their hand at a large RE car around 1947, going as far as building this prototype and getting Ghia to design a coupé body for it. This LP 01 (“Lancia Posteriore”) was powered by a 2-litre V8, had a tubular frame and a pre-selector gearbox.
Given the size of the engine and the history of the company, it is likely that a four-door would have been on the cars had this prototype been developed further. These seem to be the only photos out there of this mysterious LP 01, which was Gianni Lancia’s personal possession and seems to have disappeared.
Stalinist Russia isn’t the first place that comes to mind when wondering about interesting avant-garde automobiles, yet the NAMI 013 was undoubtedly one of the most advanced cars of its time. NAMI is the Russian acronym for the Central Scientific Research Automobile and Automotive Engines Institute, established in 1920. It led Soviet engineering in the fields of military vehicles, tractors, public transport, etc., even producing cars in the ‘20s and ‘30s. After the war, it produced many prototypes, with 013 being their first prototype car. The brains behind this project was Yuri Aaronovitch Dolmatovsky (1913-1999), who was involved in the design of the GAZ 20 Pobieda, the first post-war Soviet car.
Dolmatovsky began work on NAMI-013 in 1949, using as many GAZ and ZIS parts as possible, but with a completely different philosophy. Hi goal was to maximize interior space, leading him to opt for a RE layout with a forward cab. The Pobieda’s 2.1 litre 4-cyl., which was mated to a NAMI-made automatic transmission, wasn’t very powerful, so Dolmatovsky tried to make the car’s unibody as aerodynamic as possible.
At least three roadworthy prototypes seem to have been made in 1952-53; Dolmatovsky drove one of them for the next 15 years. Somewhat shocked by the car’s appearance, NAMI directors pulled the plug on the project in 1953, although the basic idea would be recycled by Dolmatovsky (with much smaller engines) on other NAMI prototypes in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
In the late ‘50s, British company Engineering Research and Application (ERA, formerly English Racing Automobiles) were asked by BMC to build a prototype mid-range saloon. This car was to be compared with BMC’s in-house team efforts (led by Alec Issigonis) based on the Mini. ERA’s car, presented to BMC’s top brass in 1959, was a RE saloon with a 1.5 litre four – it was deemed inferior to BMC’s designs and soon discarded, just as ERA decided to refocus on other activities. But some of the ex-ERA engineers took the design to another company, Rootes, a couple of years later.
Rootes were working on the Hillman Imp, making them perhaps more receptive to the concept of a bigger RE car to replace their ageing Audax range. The project was codenamed “Swallow” and featured, much like the BMC prototype, a mid-RE design to allow for additional trunk space behind the rear wheels. Rootes initially planned to develop the car as both a 4-cyl. and a V8, though by the time the prototype was being built (in 1963), the V8 had been dropped in favour of existing Rootes engines, ranging from 1220cc to 1725cc. The styling was penned by Rex Fleming, who also did the Arrow saloon.
But as the Imp encountered more and more problems, Rootes began to shy away from the Swallow concept. After all, a more traditional RWD car would present fewer potential teething troubles. So by 1964, the Arrow was given the green light and the Swallow was consigned to the historical footnote section. The Arrow was launched as the Hillman Minx and Hunter in 1966 and its descendants were built well into the 21st Century as the Paykan.
Porsche & Volkswagen
Porsche and VW were always umbilically tied as the creations of Ferdinand Porsche. But it was important for them to define their respective areas of competence, as Porsche’s activities always included consulting work for a number of automotive clients. The VW-Porsche understanding was that Porsche would never design anything that would be a direct competitor to the Beetle, except if the client was VW. This left a lot of potential for Porsche to develop its own cars, as well as cars for other automakers, such as Studebaker.
Neither Porsche nor VW were making four-door cars in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, though this did not mean they hadn’t looked into the idea. Porsche commissioned Ghia to design a couple of four-door sedans based on the 356. It is possible that these cars were fitted with the 2-litre flat-4 that Porsche was developing for its 356 Carrera at the time.
The 1962 Ghia prototype is particularly interesting, as it shares some styling cues with Tatra prototypes of the ‘60s. Coincidence? Given the long and troubled history between VW/Porsche and Tatra, anything is possible…
VW looked into a similar idea by the early ‘60s. The Corvair had given them food for thought, as did Porsche’s new 1991cc flat-6. The EA 128 Prototype (covered in more detail here) was made in 1963-65 with a de-tuned version of the Porsche 911 flat-6, as well as Porsche suspension front and back.
This interesting VW-Porsche prototype was developed as both a four-door notchback saloon and a wagon, but the idea was ultimately dropped in favour of the Typ 4 and its 1.7 litre VW flat-4.
Finally, a fun custom-built special: the 1967 Porsche 911 S sedan made by coachbuilders Troutman and Barnes of Culver City, CA. The order came from Texan Porsche distributor William Dick, who wanted to give his wife a unique Christmas present. The 911 platform was lengthened by 21 in. (53 cm) to accommodate the suicide rear doors. The car’s interior was entirely trimmed in a specific type of leather that matched Mr Dick’s boots; the dash featured wood paneling.
Mr Dick’s bespoke Porsche was featured in many publications at the time, including the March 1968 edition of Road & Track. The car remained unique: though Porsche knew about it, it would be years until they dabbled in anything with four doors under their own marque – and by then, the notion of a RE sedan was beyond passé.
The saga of the large RE saloon came to an end in 1999 with the demise of the Tatra T700, which still had an air-cooled V8 in its tail – as had most of its predecessors since 1934. It was probably unavoidable: tougher EU emissions controls and Tatra’s lack of capital to design a new engine meant that the T700 never had much of a future. But what of the RE saloon concept? Is it dead and gone?
The answer in three words and one letter – no: Tesla Model S!