Automotive History: Advancing Backwards – The Front-Drivers That Went RWD (Part 2: 1970-present)

(first posted 4/5/2018)       Welcome to the second part of this look at FWD history in general and FWD cars that went Rong Wheel Drive in particular. After the mad ‘30s and the relative calm of the ‘50s, FWD exploded on a global scale in the ‘60s. But RWD was still very much a thing in all segments – from the smallest DAF to the biggest limo. The bastardization of FWD bodies into RWD, thus far, had a pretty poor track record. But also quite a scant one: there were not many FWD cars to undergo the procedure before the ‘60s.

The Princess 4-Litre R, Harriman’s previous pet project, was a market failure.


The decade really defined the modern transverse FWD layout as devised by Issigonis in the mighty BMC Mini of 1959, later improved by Dante Giacosa. This is true in hindsight. At the time, many other FWD designs were devised by key automotive players around the world. For their part, BMC stretched and badge-engineered the Mini concept more or less adroitly. The 1964 “Landcrab” (ADO17, a.k.a Austin 1800) was about as large as Issigonis wanted to stretch the Mini layout. BMC boss George Harriman felt that a replacement for the big Austin Farinas and the slow-selling Rolls-engined Princess saloons was a top priority. RWD was the norm in the executive car segment, which meant Issigonis was taken out of the loop on this ADO61 project.

Cost-saving (a.k.a penny-pinching) dictated that the new Austin luxury barge would use the centre section of the Landcrab’s body. But the extensive modifications needed to share the sheetmetal offset pretty much any of the expected reduction in unit cost. Both the image and the looks of the new Austin 3-litre, when it finally came out in 1967, were subject to harsh (and justified) criticism. The use of the ADO17’s centre section gave the car an unpleasant air of déjà vu, soon made worse by the 1969 launch of the cheaper FWD Austin Maxi, which also used the same body, but had a rear hatchback.

The 3-litre was afflicted by a longer, wider and even more peculiar nose than its FWD brethren and a bigger trunk. And whatever the Princess 4-litre R was besides, at least it looked the part – even BMC’s hasty switch to quad headlamps failed to remedy a fundamentally F’d-up product, both in concept and execution. Furthermore, the car’s build quality, performance and fuel consumption were well below-par. BMC’s complete fumbling of the ADO61 was symptomatic of the British automaker’s many Deadly Sins (which we won’t get into here), but other BMC products, both FWD and RWD, were quite successful in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Whereas BMC never abandoned RWD, Renault operated a complete 180-degree turn from rear engines to longitudinal FWD, developing four such models (R3/R4, R6, R16 and R12) plus a van during the ‘60s. Legacy rear-engined models coexisted with the FWD cars for the whole decade, but were clearly on their way out. Renault’s about-face nudged Peugeot and Simca towards FWD solutions already long-espoused by Citroën and Panhard. By the mid-‘60s, France became the first large car-producing country where all major automakers switched to FWD and where more than half of cars produced were FWD.

Though far more diluted, this “French Wheel Drive” domino effect was visible on a global scale in the ‘60s. New FWD designs were now offered in pretty much all major markets by industry heavyweights, with a wide variety of models: a re-born Audi (with Daimler and VW as godparents) rising from DKW’s ashes, as well three other really big heavies: Ford’s aborted American FWD reappeared in Germany as the Taunus 12M; Fiat entered the ring with the Autobianchi Primula and Fiat 128; and GM’s huge Toronado/Eldorado coupés re-introduced US consumers to domestic FWD cars for the first time since the Cord years.

Smaller generalist firms were also beginning to take an interest in FWD. Lancia switched over entirely during the ‘60s; Peugeot and Simca launched some seriously competent small transverse-FWD saloons; Honda pioneered FWD in Japan with the kei-sized N600 and the mid-size 1300. And let’s not forget the NSU Ro80 and the Triumph 1300…  That last one, though, had a twist in its tale (tail?).

When it bowed in 1965, the Triumph 1300 was a competitive car in its segment, got favourable reviews in most of the automotive press and seemed destined to sire a successful new family of FWD cars to compete with BMC. Alas, Leyland-Triumph got a ticket aboard the BL Titanic in 1968. Triumph’s Donald Stokes had the captaincy, but BMC (not to belabor the maritime analogy) was the leaking hull that needed urgent attention. The Triumph boys were told to leave FWD to the specialists – the Grand Exalted Master of the Mini, Alec Issigonis, somehow preferred the BMC way of doing things. But Triumph still had to have something on offer in that crucial segment. The two-door-only RWD Herald was on its last legs, and so much money and effort had gone into the 1300’s unibody…

The Toledo replaced both the FWD 1300 and RWD Herald – first as a 2-door, then 4-door from 1971.


In a Stokes of genius (ha ha), Triumph turned the 1300 into the Toledo, whose RWD drivetrain was an adaptation of the Herald’s ancient well-proven underpinnings to the 1300 body shell, which did not need substantial alterations. The small Triumph saloon was planned out with both FWD and RWD from the beginning, which is now common, but was then very novel. The original intent was to allow for the possibility of a 4×4 drivetrain, which never materialized. But this meant that the monocoque could be switched over from FWD to RWD with ease. Michelotti updated the tail and face of the car a bit and presto, the Triumph Herald’s replacement was born.

Interestingly and confusingly, the FWD Triumph was continued as the 1500. Michelotti gave it some BMW with the quad headlamps. The previously independent rear suspension was changed to a cheaper beam axle and the trunk got lengthened by a few inches, but the body was identical to the Toledo’s in most ways. Then Triumph launched the 1972 Dolomite, which was a RWD version of the 1500 (i.e. with a longer trunk), which could also be had with 1.8 litre engines. The whole messy long tail/short tail RWD/FWD 1300/1500 Dolomite/Toledo affair was rationalized as the FWD platform was abandoned for good; by 1975, the range was entirely renamed Dolomite.

So for four model years, Triumph’s small saloons were available with either front- or rear-wheel drive. Over the bodyshell’s lifetime, it went from all-FWD to FWD/RWD and finally all-RWD in the space of a decade. The last Dolomites were made in 1980. Triumph’s FWD-to-RWD operation had been pretty successful, on the whole. Triumph abandoned the FWD layout because they felt the 1300/1500 had not been the big hit they thought it would be, which meant FWD wasn’t worth the expense. Luckily, the design’s bake-in features allowed Triumph to do the switch, although in typical BL fashion, this was done in a rather Brownian way. The RWD Triumph Dolomite sold pretty well – they made them as long as the tooling could take it. Not one of BL’s numerous Deadly Sins, our little Triumph saloon. Still, not unlike Rover, Triumph went from sophisticated IRS RWD and FWD designs in the ‘60s to bog-standard live axle RWD in the ‘70s. Pretty symbolic of the state of affairs within BL.

The 1976-85 R5 Alpine was limited by its FWD layout – Renault’s drastic solution: go mid-engined.


The Triumph could be a relatively sporty car, but it wasn’t part of the new ‘70s (mainly but not uniquely) European segment – the “hot hatch,” represented by the VW Golf and other FWD newbies. A good example of the new shape of small, urban cars was the Renault 5, launched in early 1972. But Renault were finding themselves a little stuck with FWD when trying to continue with competitive racing, especially European rallying. The Alpine A110 was getting on in years. The R12 Gordini was too big for the job and the R5 Alpine couldn’t compete with the likes of the Lancia Stratos or the Ford Escort RS. The answer was to bit the bullet and completely re-engineer a Renault with a mid-mounted RWD drivetrain.

Renault 5 Turbo (1979 prototype).


The little Renault 5, then at the height of its popularity, was essentially gutted, skinned and picked clean of its internal organs. A spiced-up fuel-injected 1.4 litre Cléon Fonte 4-cyl. with an Alpine-made alloy hemi head and a Garrett turbo, mated to a R30 5-speed gearbox, took the place of the rear seat and much of the trunk. The fuel tank migrated to the front along with the spare tyre and battery to improve balance.

The Renault 5 Turbo, complete with its bulging air intakes, was unleashed upon the planet in 1980. This was far more than a hot hatch – it was a seriously fast, barely street-legal pocket rocket. It did not have the sophistication of the Alpine, though it was up there in terms of exclusivity and street cred. Renault wiped the floor with the competition in rallying until the late ‘80s and sold about 5000 units of the street version, which packed 160 hp (DIN) and could reach over 200 kph – for a hefty price.

Renault thought the experiment such a success that they repeated the formula with the 2nd series Clio. In 1998, the Paris Motor Show was visited by a mid-engined Clio concept car, which entered the range officially in late 2000. This time, a 3 -litre V6 was used, mated to a manual six-speed. Initially rated at 230 hp, the V6 was given 25 extra horses in 2003 – bringing the car’s top speed over 245 kph (150 mph). The crucial difference with the R5 Turbo was that the Clio never saw a rally course – it was not made for that. The Clio V6 was built by Renault Sport at the ex-Alpine works in Dieppe, which is where the real connection really was: the Clio V6 was a sort of final Alpine. But another RWD vehicle was made from a FWD Renault platform – in a very different category.

The first Dacia was a licensed copy of the Renault 8, but the Romanians had their eye on the upcoming FWD Renault 12, a far more modern package. The R12 came out in 1969 as the Dacia 1300 and was a mainstay of Romanian production for well over two decades – beyond the fall of Ceaușescu. Dacia made a number of changes to the original design over the years, including introducing variants that the French never got: besides the wagon, there was a (rather nice) 1410 coupé in 1981, preceded by the first Dacia 1302 pickup trucks from 1975.

Above: late ‘80s Dacia 1304 RWD pick-up; below: ‘90s Dacia 1309 FWD pick-up.


The cheap pickups were direly needed and quite successful. There was a single-cab, an extended cab (1304), long- and short-bed versions thereof, and two four-door double cabs: the 1307 (pick-up based) and the curious FWD-only 1309 (above), based on the Dacia wagon. The wagon’s suspension was used at first, but it soon proved ill-suited for hard labour in relatively tough conditions. [If only they had gone for the Peugeot 404, thinks the Editor…] The timeline escapes me, but at some point in the early ‘80s, Dacia started offering their pickups with 4×4 and RWD-only drivetrains as well as FWD.

By the year 2000, the Dacia pick-up looked a bit different — but nothing had changed underneath.


Many facelifts were applied to the range (saloons and pickups) and production, as well as exports, continued for many years. The Dacia pickups were made – with a rather unprecedented choice of three drivetrains – until January 2007. Still, some parts of the story remain unclear. Does anybody know what vehicle donated their live axle (GAZ?) and/or 4×4 setup (ARO?), or whether this was a pure Dacia effort?

Above: Mercedes V-Class; below: Ford Transit – source: Wikicommons.


The only other vehicle available from new with all three front-engine layouts (FWD, 4×4, RWD) seems to be the current- (third-)generation Mercedes-Benz V-Class van. Other vans, such as the Ford Transit, also propose a choice of FWD or RWD. But this is a bit tangential – this post is focusing on cars. But it shows that the notion of picking a drivetrain within the same vehicle range is no longer an exception – in the van world, that is.

Two more recent examples of FWD cars switching to RWD exist – both made by long-standing automakers, no less. Well, sort of. When the Rover 75 came out, few were betting on Rover’s long-term future. That was especially true of BMW, who got rid of the gangrenous BL legacy that was MG-Rover (but kept the good stuff) in 1999 – just as the new Rover hit the streets. The 75 was steeped in retro and came with sedate 4- and 6-cyl. engines and the obligatory wood and leather interior. The new Rover was a magnet for OAPs and low government officials, but a certain Rover tradition was about to attempt to change all that.

That tradition is the famous Rover V8 engine, born a long time ago, in a country far, far away. Alas, by 2001, the newly-independent MG-Rover had no access to this hallowed (and ancient) engine, which was now reserved for Range Rover in Solihull. But they did get a hold of the Ford Mustang’s 4.6 litre V8. The ensuing Rover 75 V8 and MG ZT-T, launched in 2003, were completely modified with an RWD layout. Rover had baked this into the design – the FWD Rover 75 had an RWD-like floor hump from the beginning.

The rumour that the 75 had an empty transmission tunnel because it used a BMW platform is apparently not based on fact, though it would have made the car an RWD-turned FWD-turned RWD… MG-Rover went under for good in April 2005, having only made 900 Mustang-powered RWD saloons (versus 200,000 FWD versions). The successor entity, Chinese-owned MG-Roewe, continued producing the car as the Roewe 750 / MG 7 until 2016, but only in FWD form. Let’s stay in Asia and explore one last oddity that was made until about a couple of years ago, but was definitely not a new design.

Take a pinch of ‘60s Hillman and a dash of ‘80s Peugeot…


Iran Khodro assembled cars for the domestic market since the early ‘60s. The Hillman Hunter, introduced in 1967, became known as the Paykan in Iran and became ubiquitous. The simple Rootes engine and RWD were ideal for the tough weather and road conditions. Peugeot inherited the deal when they took over Chrysler-Rootes in 1978. This was a good opportunity for Peugeot to enlarge their presence in Iran; soon Iran Khodro started assembling the equally-rugged (but slightly bigger and faster) 504 under the name “Peugeot Pars.” The Paykan and the Peugeots were gradually made with more locally-sourced parts. Peugeot switched to the FWD 405 platform, which is still in production in Iran.

The Paykan was really showing its age by the ‘90s. The 405 sold well, but it seems Iran Khodro felt that an intermediary car could attract some customers. The Peugeot 405 RD – essentially a 405 shell mated with a Paykan engine, drivetrain and suspension was the result. The model was later renamed Peugeot ROA and replaced the Paykan as Iran’s affordable family saloon for a good decade, until 2016. That means the lowly Hillman Hunter’s mechanicals (though not its body) remained in production for 50 years – eat that, Austin Mini. How many would be in the 50+ year club, though? Hmmm…. VW of course… Morgan… Fiat 124… I feel another post might be due on the subject.

The FWD domino effect, on a global scale, really took place in the ‘80s. Aside from a few defenders of the Old Faith (BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar and most prestige/sports carmakers), the FWD bug had infected GM and Chrysler (on both sides of the pond) pretty conclusively, though RWD never completely perished. Ford were more ahead of the FWD curve in Europe, but the American lineup gradually caught up. All Japanese automakers got in on the game – even Volvo eventually switched over, eventually. And so did the Eastern bloc, whose reliance on outdated RWD and rear-engine designs was a source of profound irritation to its demoralized engineers.

They had been developing great FWD designs since the ‘60s, but nothing was getting through. In this context of formidable economic and bureaucratic constraints, the Lada 2109 Sputnik/Samara, Moskvich 2141 Aleko and Škoda Favorit only made it to production by the late ‘80s. Unlike contemporary Dacias, Fiat-derived Yugo / Zastava or East German DKW-derived relics, these cars were home-grown efforts, though Škoda had help from Porsche and the Moskvich was, according to some, a straight-up reverse-engineered Simca 1307. But there was a fourth new-fangled car out there, only it wasn’t as new as all that: the Izh 2126 Oda.

I’m going to leave this post with a question mark, as I have not found conclusive evidence about this one. The last car designed by Izh, the 2126 Oda came out in 1992 – long after the other three. Perhaps this explains why the Oda looks like a mish-mash of the Aleko and the Samara, which itself isn’t a million miles from the Škoda, design-wise. Unlike the others, the Oda (1992-2005) kept the ‘60s-era RWD drivetrain used on the Izh 2125, a derivative of the Moskvich 412. The Bertone-designed Škoda is clearly a different species from the Russian cars, but does anybody know whether these remarkably similar cars share more than just a skin-deep resemblance?

We ended part 1 on a twin-engined 2CV, so here’s the one-off 1953 2CV “Bicéphale” to finish part 2.


In this century, the pendulum has swung back from FWD’s overwhelming ‘90s dominance. The traditional RWD layout has its merits and is unlikely to disappear. A new generation of rear-engined cars (Smart, Tata Nano, Renault Twingo, Tesla S) has brought back a little variety to both the subcompact and the executive segment. It now seems there is no FWD/RWD mash-up in production anywhere in the world, though I haven’t really looked into the Chinese side of things. Unnatural as these FWD-based RWD cars are, I hop they made for an interesting case study in pointless wheel-reinvention.


Related posts:

Carshow Classic: 1969 Austin 3 Litre Deluxe – The Landcrab Trilogy Is Complete, by Roger Carr

Curbside Classic: 1974 Triumph Toledo–The Only Car Ever To Be Switched From FWD To RWD?, by Tom Klockau

Curbside Classic: 1983-86 Renault R5 Turbo II – Le Monster Car, by Dave Skinner

Cohort Outtake: Dacia 1307 Double-cab Pickup (with RWD) – The Most Unusual Find at CC Yet?, by PN