The dominance of front-wheel drive (FWD) designs has been with us for around half a century now, though some might point to the 1770 contraption above and say it’s been with us since the beginning. There are exceptions in all segments and across the world, but few could quibble with the transverse-engine FWD layout’s many advantages. This means once a model, range or platform had gone FWD, there is virtually no incentive to change that. But there are – and have always been – folks who don’t follow the rules.
By the way, this post is only considering actual platforms / bodies, not nameplates. Yes, you could get a RWD gen. 7 Corolla wagon alongside a FWD gen. 8 Corolla saloon in the mid-‘80s Toyota range, but they were different platforms. Cars / nameplates that may have reverted to RWD (e.g. Renault Twingo, Maserati Quattroporte, Dodge Charger, etc.), but use a “proper” RWD-specific platform, are also excluded.
If there is one principle of automotive design, it is that FWD is the best configuration for passenger cars. It frees up interior space, saves weight, enables a tighter package, grips the road better (usually) – the benefits are manifold. The dictum of FWD was generally accepted by the ‘30s, when FWD cars really hit the streets, but only became widespread after the ‘60s, when even Detroit and VW acknowledged that RWD and rear engines were going to have to go, except for a few niches.
Rear- and mid-engined cars tend to have a sort of natural size limit (explored in an earlier two-part series) for four-door family-oriented fare. Though the layout is still with us, it has become completely marginal, when it used to be a real FWD alternative from about 1930 to 1960. The “traditional” front engine / RWD “système Panhard,” pioneered by Émile Levassor in 1891, remains too, but only in larger cars. Somebody among the CCogniscenti will surely inform us which is the smallest front engine / RWD car currently in production, but I doubt if there is anything under 2 litres. Aside perhaps from the Egyptian-made Lada Riva, which might not be in production any longer and is a 50-year-old design.
But there are drawbacks to FWD. One necessarily involves financial and technical means: the (relative) novelty of FWD, initially, was beset by technical difficulties. These were overcome, thanks to the pioneering work of Harry Miller, J. A. Grégoire and others, during the ‘20s. In 1927, Alvis were the first important European firm to propose a FWD chassis for sale (after having proved the concept in racing); Grégoire’s small Tracta works also began making cars around this time. The Bucciali brothers’ super low-slung (and very low-production) cars debuted in late 1928, soon followed by the sublime Miller-designed Cord L-29, the first 8-cyl. FWD car ever made. Ruxton also appeared (briefly) in 1929, with a stunning body designed by Joseph Ledwinka (cousin of Hans). Yes, there are probably many I’m forgetting, but this is really an excuse to post some of the best-looking cars of the day…
Speaking of which, the Bucciali was quite a stunning car, with bodies usually made by Saoutchik. The French marque used their own transmission, a form of front-drive swing axle that the Bucciali brothers patented in 1927. Bucciali did not make their own engines, but used contemporary 6- and 8-cyl. motors (usually Continental). The firm’s stated goal was not so much production as it was to sell or license their FWD designs to a larger automaker. To keep Bucciali in the spotlight, The firm announced a V16 model, the TAV30. But the engine, essentially two Continental straight-8s joined at the hips, was just a mock-up. A client asked for a Saoutchik saloon, but insisted on a Voisin V12 sleeve-valve engine.
The resultant car, originally called the TAV8-32 but now usually called TAV12, was shown at the 1932 Paris Motor Show. It was eventually bought by a Parisian banker. As was common in those days, he soon bought another chassis and told Saoutchik to make the FWD body fit the RWD Bugatti Type 46 chassis – also a 5-litre, but a more potent (and reliable?) DOHC straight-8.
This is our first example of a switch from FWD to RWD, so let’s be kind. The Bucciali was eventually reconstructed using as many original parts as possible (including the body) in the ‘70s. That was a good decision – there are some beautiful Bugatti 46s (the “Petite Royale” – a work of art in and of itself – was one of the best cars of the era), but this one is definitely not among them. The Bugatti was about as low-slung a RWD chassis one could buy, but the difference with the Bucciali is stark.
By the early ‘30s, progress with CV joints enabled specialists (Rzeppa, Tracta, Bendix-Weiss) to propose various systems for automakers to employ. Smaller FWD cars appeared: Adler and DKW in Germany sired a line of highly successful small FWD designs: Adler’s mid-sized 1932 Trumpf (top left) was licensed abroad, while DKW essentially kept refining their 1931 F1 for the next two decades (pictured top right: a late ‘30s F7). Within Auto-Union, larger 6-cyl. FWD cars were also made under the Audi marque (middle left) from 1933 to 1938. Aero of Czechoslovakia (middle right) also joined the fray in 1933, later followed by Jawa. In France, small but ambitious Derby launched two FWD models in 1933: a 1-litre 4-cyl. “L2” and a 2-litre V8 “L8” (bottom left) – good but too expensive, the firm went under in 1936. British conglomerate BSA initially launched a FWD three-wheeler in 1929; this was followed by a proper four-wheel light car by 1931, eventually becoming the BSA Scout (bottom right) – the first (relatively) cheap FWD sports cars.
And in 1934 came the Citroën bombshell. The Traction Avant combined FWD, all-steel monocoque, hydraulic brakes, torsion bar suspension, a new OHV engine and no running boards. Plus, it was available as a full range, from the 1.6 litre 4-cyl. to a (never actually produced) 3.8 litre V8, and available in a dozen body styles. It was a triumph and a catastrophe that made the company’s name but broke its back at the same time, inciting Michelin to take the company over.
One should bear in mind the economic context of the ‘30s – FWD was not an attractive proposition for most automakers in those days. The difficulty and cost of the enterprise, fatal to many small firms as well as Cord and Citroën, meant that most automakers were in no hurry to develop (or even contemplate) FWD, though a lot of R&D on FWD and rear-engine designs started to take place.
Many smaller automakers were incapable of any R&D – let alone FWD-related work. At a time when all-steel bodies and more efficient OHV engines were becoming de rigueur, few could keep up. There were, however, FWD cars or bodies that might be used for RWD chassis. The Citroën Traction Avant, besides its powered front wheels, was also a new and rather pretty monocoque, with interesting variants (long wheelbase saloon, six-light limo, two-door convertibles, etc.) – quite an attractive bit of kit for a low-volume producer such as Licorne, whose sedate but elegant small cars were finding fewer takers by the mid-‘30s. Licorne asked Citroën to provide a few thousand extra normal and LWB saloon bodies. The deal was struck and the new 1936 Licornes looked… familiar.
Of course, Licorne finished the bodies and made a few changes here and there. Notably, they had to cut the floor to make a transmission hump: Licorne’s chassis were RWD, of course. And the chassis is actually under there, too. With the unibody sitting on top. Bit over-engineered – or under-engineered? The Citroën-bodied Licornes, which soon included a Traction Avant-sourced LWB version called the Normandie, even started using Traction engines by 1938. But they remained RWD until the war and did not reappear after it.
But even stranger than Licorne was Delage.
Though renowned for their luxury and racing pedigree, Delage’s big straight-6s and -8s weren’t selling as they used to and the smaller cars were not competitively priced. Delage went bankrupt in 1935 and was bought by Delahaye, who immediately launched a new entry-level Delage chassis with a 2-litre Delahaye 4-cyl., the DI-12. Neither Delahaye nor Delage had any body-making experience, so Delahaye shopped around for a cheap alternative and came knocking on Citroën’s door, just after Licorne.
The 1936 Delage DI-12 saloon (a few cabriolets were also made) was not a success. The Citroën body was costly to modify and, once reinforced and adapted to the DI-12 chassis, the result was too heavy and too common for this high-society debutante. The DI-12 switched to a more suitable design and ditched the Traction bodyshell within a year. When Delahaye had to repeat the operation with the 1939 Type 168, they wisely selected a Renault Viva Grand Sport (RWD) bodyshell.
One might say that these examples are of FWD car bodies used to clothe another automaker’s RWD chassis. One would be correct, of course. So here’s one that was made by same company as both FWD and RWD together. Chenard-Walcker was a significant French player in ‘20s; though well below the Big Trois (Citroën, Peugeot and Renault), the firm had ambitions to increase their sales by switching to the fashionable FWD layout. Chenard introduced their new FWD car in 1934 – just when Citroën stole the show with their Traction range, now complete with a V8 model. Chenard’s new FWD SuperAigle 4, by comparison, had a gutless sidevalve 2.2 litre 4-cyl. that strained under the weight of its old-fashioned body. Said body was identical to other RWD Chenards, which all more or less shared the basic saloon body. The Citroën’s sleek all-steel monocoque, hydraulic brakes and OHV engine made for a far more attractive cocktail at a more affordable price.
Come 1935, Chenard-Walcker were on the ropes – though they did design a new (and better-looking) body for their RWD and FWD ranges. The struggling firm found a partner in Chausson, a large-scale coach and car body maker. Chausson were working on the new Matford all-steel bodies, which could be made to fit C-W’s range.
The Chenard range looked positively different by 1936. But the cars were still pretty slow sellers, so Chenard needed had to find ways to save money. The Chenard V8 was switched to the 3.6 litre Matford flathead and the FWD was dropped before the end of the year. Indeed, Chausson and Citroën had done a deal: Chenard would quit the FWD in exchange for Citroën’s 2-litre Traction engine – and everybody wanted that engine in the late ‘30s, it seems… Chenard-Walcker carried on making RWD cars, with Citroën and Ford engines, until 1940. The experience did not go to waste entirely, as they finally turned a profit after the war with a FWD van design that was picked up by Peugeot. Let’s leave French cars for a minute, hop on the Normandie (the ship, that is) and cross the pond. It’s going to be worth the trip.
A stunning design by Gordon Buehrig, the FWD Cord 810/812 sedan and roadster was only made for two years (in less than 2500 units) before the Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg empire crumbled. By August 1937, the Cord tooling was sitting there, unused and hardly worn. It was bought by Norman De Vaux, whose own automobile business had collapsed the previous year, for US$ 500,000. De Vaux figured the Cord body would make a great car if the price could be brought down. This would mean switching to a RWD drivetrain – and, most unfortunately, abandoning the hidden headlamps.
The Hupp Motor Co. showed interest in De Vaux’s concept and hired him to develop it as the new Hupmobile. After a very bumpy stretch in 1935-37, the company was peddling a range of 6- and 8-cyl. cars that were not selling all that well – fewer than 2000 units in 1938. Work on the Cord-bodied Hupmobile project really began in mid-1938. It was not an easy task. The front end was redesigned by John Tjaarda and the floor and firewall were re-engineered to allow for the transmission; Hupmobile used leaf-sprung solid axles front and back, in an effort to keep costs down. The biggest issue was making the Cord body, an extremely time- and labour- consuming process that plagued Hupp for a long time. Hupp showed the new Skylark at the 1939 New York Auto Show and orders poured in pretty much instantly. But Hupp had about 30 cars in stock and no means to make the bodies on a large enough scale.
Hupp had nothing to sell – the old-line “senior” sedans were out of production and the new Skylark was impossible to build. Enter Graham-Paige, who had followed the whole affair with interest – De Vaux had approached them initially – since the start. Graham had launched their distinctive “Sharknose” cars in 1938 and continued the line into 1939, but sales were rather dismal. Graham had previous experience sharing bodies (which is cleaner than it sounds), so now that Hupp had done most of the heavy lifting, Graham were able to make a deal to manufacture the cars, as well as launch their version alongside Hupp’s.
Things didn’t pan out too well. This was the first unit body for both Hupp and Graham, so putting it in production was a long and difficult process, finally solved by getting the bodies made by Hayes, an experienced industrial coachbuilder. Both companies kept their own engines, which were both 6-cyl. plants: Hupp had a 4-litre (245 ci) and Graham used a 3.5 litre (218 ci); the Graham engine, though, could be provided with a supercharger, making the Graham a very interesting performer. The first production Hupmobiles arrived in early 1940, by which time pretty much every advance order had been cancelled. Hupp went bankrupt by the summer.
Graham launched their 1940 Hollywood, which had a bit more success, alongside the remaining Sharknose range. The supercharged engine at least followed the spirit of the Cord, and Graham even managed to make a few convertibles. Graham managed to hold on with the Hollywood’s help until 1941, when military orders saved the company. The Hollywood was the last Graham-badged car, although the remnants of Graham’s automotive side served as a base for Kaiser-Frazer after the war.
It may be worth noting that the original plan for Kaiser was to share most of its body with the Frazer, but not its chassis. Henry J. Kaiser wanted his name to grace a FWD car with a unibody and torsion bar suspension. A sort of American Citroën, if you will: Henry Kaiser was known to have been interested in the French car. One big difference was the location of the transmission at the rear of the engine, which made for a better package than the Traction Avant. This was all great in theory in 1944, the problem was making it work.
The Kaiser was supposed to share its body (with a few modifications) with the RWD Frazer that Graham-Paige were busy making alongside the daring new Kaiser. The planned car was shown (and two prototypes made) and advertised in 1946, but the technical issues were too great to be resolved for a 1947 launch. Pressed for a solution, Kaiser simply abandoned the FWD car and fielded a facelifted Frazer design that was much cheaper and quicker to get into production.
The popularity of the FWD layout grew quickly after the war. The old pioneers (Citroën, DKW) were joined by a throng of recent converts: Hotchkiss, Lloyd/Goliath, Panhard and Saab, followed in 1959 by BMC’s landmark Mini. Several DKW-derived machines also grew in the Eastern Bloc (Trabant, Wartburg and the Polish Syrena). None of these were converted to RWD – but one was famously made into a very bizarre 4×4 that might qualify.
Only Citroën could have actually designed and sold an oddity like the 2CV Sahara. It came of age in 1959, just as Citroën were about to restyle the 2CV’s corrugated and louvred front end. The Sahara never got the new hood, as the model sold poorly and the spare wheel had nowhere else to go. For in the trunk, there was a second 425cc flat-twin to drive the rear wheels.
Citroën built about 700 of these until 1966 – the price was steep, the performance inadequate and the fuel consumption in 4×4 mode rather off-putting. But you could run it with either end solo, making the 2CV Sahara the only FWD that is also a rear-engined RWD (and 4×4) ever commercialized. Saint Sahara, Our Lady of the Pointless Innovation, we pray to thee.
And with this incantation, I bid you farewell. Until part two, same time tomorrow.