good motoring
Automobile folklore
H. Kishie Singh

The automobile industry, which is over a 100 years old and has changed the face of the planet to the point of almost destroying it, has to have its share of stories. The internal combustion engine is a genie that refuses to go back into the bottle. We all know its destructive power, yet continue to worship it unashamedly. We have discussed four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive but missed out on front-engine and rear-engine cars. Where should the engine be?

World War I was over. A new industrial revolution, with the automobile at the epicentre, was gaining momentum globally. England, France and Germany were major car manufacturers in Europe, America was a leader not having been affected by the war. Most cars were front-engine and rear-wheel drive. This was the accepted norm. Experiment is the mother of success! Cord in America, Alvis in England and Adler, DKW and Stoewer, the third largest manufacturer in Germany after Benz and Daimler had experimented with front-engine and front-wheel drive. The engine sat in between the front wheels, so it moved the front wheels. Simple! Sometime in the 1930s, Andre Citroen, a Frenchman, said if the engine was in front, why waste energy to move the rear wheels, so far away. So the Traction Avant (front-wheel drive) was born. Citroen's argument was that a horse (any animal) pushes a carriage, so a front wheel drive. This makes sense.

"Nonsense!" The Germans said, "We are not moving carriages, we are moving automobiles — so push. This will add to the performance." Performance is the operative word, so a rear-engine makes sense. As a matter of principle, the Germans and French are loathe to agree with each other on just about everything. The Germans had lost World War I. They were determined to win this war. They were at battle stations again. In the 1930s, the biggest, the best, the fastest cars were being made by Daimler-Benz. Invariably, they were front-engine, rear-wheel drive. However, in 1934 at the Berlin Motor Show, Daimler-Benz showed a small two-door, four- seater car. It had the engine at the rear. It was the first mass-produced, rear-engine car, years before the VW Beetle saw the light of day. A radical change for Daimler-Benz. It should come as no surprise that the chief designer for Daimler-Benz, from 1926-1929, was a man called Ferdinand Porsche.

Daimler-Benz stuck to front-engine, rear-wheel drive. They do so till today. Ferdinand stuck to his idea, rear-engine and rear-wheel drive. Citroen would also not budge, it was front-engine and front-wheel drive. By the mid-1930s, Citroen's technology was a success and accepted. Not by Ferdinand.The same time, in the mid-1930s, Adolf Hitler, gave a call for a ‘Peoples Car’, Volkswagon. The Beetle was born. Small, two-door, four-seater, four-cylinder horizontally opposed engine at the rear. Most important, air-cooled. The Wehrmacht (German army) loved it. From the icy Arctic cold of Russia to the burning hot sands of the Sahara, it performed flawlessly.

When a car moves along, it creates a vacuum behind it. This sucks in air into the engine compartment and helps in cooling. So one immediate advantage of the rear engine is that it is air cooled. No radiator. The Beetle was famous for this, as were the earlier Porsches and till date.

There were some disadvantages to rear-engine cars, with all the weight at the rear, while braking or even decelerating there was a tendency for the rear tyres to lose grip. This would make the rear slide out, especially while cornering. Porsche was famous for this. This syndrome was referred to "the tail wags the dog" by Porsche drivers. Technically, this is known as oversteer. The engine is the heaviest component of a car and where it is placed will decide the handling dynamics of the car. Simply saying, "rear engine," opens another debate. Should it be placed behind the axle or ahead or on the axle? What is the outcome of this war? I think it's a dead heat. Most cars today are front-engine, front-wheel drive. So one up for the French. Andre Citroen was right. Even VW Beetle, today is front-engine, front-wheel drive. But if you want performance, the engine has to be at the rear and rear-wheel drive. One up for the Germans. Ferdinand Porsche was also right. In the front-engine vs rear-engine, we forgot mid-engine cars but another time. Happy motoring.