What If The Volkswagen Beetle Had A Front Engine?

By far the best book on the subject of the Beetle’s early development is Chris Barber’s “Birth of the Beetle”. Barber spent 20 years researching it, and the resulting book was published in 2003. It’s very expensive now; currently used ones are priced at over $900 at Amazon. I managed to find one for just under $300, but it came too late for my story on the genetic origins of the Beetle. That’s ok, as I planned all along to do another article on the actual gestation and birth of the Beetle, now that we know its parentage.

One tidbit in Barber’s book caught my eye: a drawing by Franz Xavier Reimspiess from 1937 showing the definitive version (top) and an alternate-reality one with its engine in front, driving the rear wheels through a rear-mounted transaxle. I’m not sure why, as the fundamental configuration of the VW’s rear engine design goes back to Porsche’s very first drawings in 1932.

Clearly there would be some advantages and disadvantages.

The larger rear luggage compartment is of course the obvious advantage (the spare tire and fuel tank are relocated to the rear behind the transaxle). And the front suspension with its transverse torsion bars would have had to be completely redone. And the Beetle’s superb traction, which allowed it to be so readily adapted to military use in the form of the Kübelwagen, would be missing. That alone would have likely been a no-starter, as potential use as a military vehicle was in the design brief from the get-go, once the government got involved.

Coincidentally, down in Austria, Steyr was building their “Austrian Volkswagen” with just that configuration: a boxer four in the front with a conventional drive train to a rear swing axle. And a scan be seen, it does have a fairly good sized luggage area, although as was the inevitable tendency by brochure artists, the passengers are undersized to make it look roomier than it was.

As can be seen by this cutaway, the engine was rather different than that of the VW, the only rear similarity being a boxer four. The Steyr’s was a water-cooled flathead cast iron unit, as their early experiments with an air cooled engine did not pan out. It took the folks at Porsche quite some time to make theirs work reliably. The Steyr engine had a tall radiator above the engine, and used the thermosyphon principle (no pump) to keep the water flowing. In its second and definitive version, it made 23.5 hp, the exact same as the VW engine. And thanks to a four speed transmission and the right gearing, it was able to climb the steepest passes and mountain roads in the Alps. But it was priced at three times of what the VW was going to sell for, so sales were relatively modest.

Of course this was essentially the formula Tatra had made so successful with their T11/12, and later the four cylinder T30/T57 models, starting in 1923. These all had a solid front axle, and Tatra did master the secrets of air cooling early on.

In any case, despite the unusual drawing for a front engine VW, there was never any doubt about its location. Just as well, as it’s a bit hard to imagine it today with a front engine under its nose. It just seems so antithetical.

Now if it had also had front wheel drive, now that would be a different story…