The myths that the 1959 Austin Mini had the first transverse FWD engine and that the 1962 Autobianchi Primula had the first transverse FWD power train with its transmission inline with the engine—as do essentially all modern FWD cars—have become deeply ingrained. But they’re not based on fact, so let’s set the record straight.
The first transverse FWD engine were in J.W.Christie’s racing cars, first built in 1904. It had a large four cylinder engine driving the front wheels via a rather unusual two-speed transmission. All the details on these very advanced cars are in our article of these unusual racing cars built between 1904 and 1907.
If the fact that the Christie cars weren’t production passenger cars disqualify them, DKW built hundreds of thousands of FWD cars using a transverse engine, starting with this 1931 “Front” F1.
As can be seen here, it’s a transverse two-stroke two-cylinder engine. The transmission is in front of it, not inline with the engine.
When Saab set out to build a new small aerodynamic FWD car after the war, they very much looked at DKW’s rather advancedF9 prototype from 1939.
The F9 was intended to have a three cylinder engine, and the early prototypes had the engine located transversely, with a transverse transmission behind it, as seen above, and similar to their earlier twin. But they could not keep the transmission from breaking behind the more powerful engine.
Ferdinand Porsche had a similar problem with the immensely powerful supercharged mid-engine Auto Union race car. His solution was placing the transmission behind the differential, and having the power double back. This allowed for a stronger and lighter unit, as well as placing the engine as far back as possible.
Since DKW was part of Auto Union, the engineers there used the same solution, relocating the engine in a longitudinal position in front of the axle center line. That was a big first too, for a production car, and would of course become the main alternative configuration to the transverse front engine, used in such cars as the later DKWs and Audis, and with boxer engines in the Citroen 2CV, Subaru, Alfasud, among others.
I’ve digressed…but now we’ve covered both modern FWD engine position firsts in one post.
Although the 1949 Saab 92 was clearly inspired by the F9’s very aerodynamic body and two-stroke engine, they did not copy the F9’s longitudinal engine.
Instead they used a transverse twin, but now with its transmission located inline with the engine, precisely as done in the Primula and the great majority of FWD cars ever since. So Saab gets the credit for being the first.
Saab did emulate the F9’s longitudinal three cylinder engine starting with the 1956 93, but by then that was not new.
The Saab only took the title by a few months. The 92 was first built in December of 1949, and in March of 1950, the German Goliath GP700 arrived, also with a very similar arrangement, a 700cc two-stroke twin and inline transmission.
Here’s a shot of that. The Goliath GP 700 also pioneered fuel injection in the 1952 Sport, a coupe that looked rather like a Porsche of the times.
Just two months later, the Lloyd LP300 appeared, with the same configuration but with a smaller 300cc engine. Both the Lloyd and Goliath were part of the Borgward family, so it’s clear that Borgward engineers favored this arrangement for their low and middle-priced FWD cars.
Of course that was a bit easier with a two cylinder engine. So I take nothing away from the brilliant solution Alec Issigonis arrived at in creating the drive train for the original Mini. With the transmission located directly below the engine, and sharing the same sump, it’s a model of space efficiency. Realistically, there’s no way a transmission located inline with the engine would have fit in the Mini’s narrow chassis.
Fiat’s brilliant designer/engineer, Dante Giacosa, sought to improve on the Mini’s rather convoluted arrangement, and placed the transmission inline with the engine for the Primula. But this was for a class (or two) larger car, and thus it was possible. It wasn’t new, as it’s essentially the same configuration that the Saab 92, Goliath GP700 and Lloyd LP300 used back in 1950, albeit with two cylinder engines.