The rear engine Corvair wasn’t exactly GM’s first foray into the mysteries of rear engine cars. There were a number of experiments, and the 1949 Corsair concept, although only a 3/8 scale model, was a preview of what might have been a rear engine Cadillac or Oldsmobile. In my CC on the Tatra 603, when I titled it “This could have been the first new postwar Cadillac or Olds”, I was referring to the Corsair.
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If this sounds screwy, it’s typical of some of the inspired double-talk that has been going on ever since the revival of the rear-engine ruckus.
The Burney design, which went whole-hog on radiators with one in back to cool the engine and another in front to heat passengers, was sold eventually to the British Crosley. They came out with a $3000 sedan which set no sales records.
An experimental rear-engine design made its appearance in 1933. John Tjaarda, a Detroiter who designed two experimental models for the Briggs Manufacturing Company, claimed it was ridiculously simple to drive. He explained in the magazine Automobile Topics: “When starting, all one has to do is turn on the ignition, when a red light will show on the dash. Then step on the throttle which simultaneously starts the engine and the red light will go out and a green light shows. As the engine can not be heard in the front seat, the lights will tell what is happening in the rear.”
Tjaarda’s cars caused a mild sensation in the industry for a year or two. Then Chrysler and Ford, potential customers for whom Briggs already made bodies, had to decide whether the sensation was good or bad. The freaks had V-8 engines mounted over the rear axles and buzzed through the streets of Detroit without mishap until winter arrived. The original notion was that the engine heat could not seep forward and cause discomfort during hot weather. As it turned out, passengers were cool enough in summer, but during the winter they froze. No heating system had been devised!
Most unconventional and probably most comfortable of all interiors in a rear-engine experiment was brought out several years before World War II by William B. (Bill) Stout.
As usual, GM thinking with the Corsair was too out there, with the central driving position between the front wheels. Which they then gave as the reason for killing the idea. They should have just built something like the Tatra 603, which was eminently practical, and offered every bit as much or more interior room as GM’s new post war production cars, a proper trunk in front, and competitive performance. And they could have called it the…Corvair.