Why not put all the weight at the rear of the car?
There are a few reasons to put the engine at the back of a car instead of the front or middle. Front-wheel drive is, relatively speaking, a modern phenomenon for vehicles, so the first reason was to put the engine as close to the drive axle at the back of the car for efficiency. The second reason a designer might choose to go for a back engine layout is to use that weight over the drive axle to help create a little extra mechanical grip. We're going to cross rear-mid-engine cars from this list, though, as that's a whole different ballgame. For now, we're concentrating on cars with the engine placed firmly in the rear. You likely already know what the first two will be.
You can't talk about rear-engine cars without the Beetle. It's tradition, or an old charter, or something. It's also one of the most important cars in automotive history. Ferdinand Porsche had four reasons to put the engine in the back. First, it minimized the distance the power had to be transmitted to get to the drive wheels. Second, it improved traction, which was necessary for a car designed to be used in all weather. Third, it helped make the steering light, which was vital as it was designed to be driven by anyone. Fourth, it made access to the engine for maintenance and repair easy, as the Volkswagen Beetle had to be easy and inexpensive to keep running. The rear engine in a Beetle is a masterpiece of design and a large part of the reason it was built and bought from 1938 until 2003.
Porsche has resolutely stuck to keeping the 911 rear-engined since it arrived in 1964 following on from the Porsche 356, which followed on from the Beetle. It has never been an easy car to master, but for those that can get to grips with the dynamics, it's a car that can scorch roads or tracks in any form or trim level. The dynamics are helped by a flat-six engine keeping its weight low and Porsche's bloody-minded dedication to making it work. Over the past few generations, the engine has slowly crept forward an inch or two, but if you're going to go fast, you had better learn how to drive a Porsche 911 properly first.
One of the few rear-engine American cars is the Chevrolet Corvair. It was Chevy's response to the popularity of European sports cars in the 1950s (and Porsche's sports cars in particular) that soldiers returning from WWII had been importing. Like the Porsche models it emulated, the engine was air-cooled, and the handling was spritely. In 1959, it was Motortrend's second car of the year.
Unfortunately, the Corvair's problems began shortly after with small but persistent mechanical design issues, and competition from the Ford Falcon and Mercury Comet. The final and insurmountable problem came from a young Ralph Nader looking for an opportunity to make a name for himself. In his book, Unsafe at Any Speed, he went to town on the Corsair and, in a Congressional hearing, said that the car was "the leading candidate for the un-safest-car title." After it went out of production, it was demonstrated that the Corvair was no less dangerous than any other car, but the damage was already done.
Speaking of cars that went out in flames: The DeLorean DMC 12. It should have been amazing, but it wasn't. Despite that, and only being in production for two years, the DMC 12 has achieved pop-culture immortality. The design originally called for a mid-mounted Wankel rotary engine, which would have been fantastic. Unfortunately, it ended up with a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo concocted V6 engine, which wasn't fantastic and forced the back engine redesign.
To be fair, it was a brand new car by a brand new company led by a man with good form that was shooting for the stars. If DeLorean had made it into its third and fourth year, it could have done amazing things with the DMC 12. Unfortunately, the company ran out of money, and John DeLorean was arrested in October 1982. He was charged with conspiring to smuggle $24 million worth of cocaine into the US, which ended the company. He was later acquitted, but the damage was done. Still, the DMC 12 lives in many car enthusiast hearts, including ours, as something wild that should have been.
It seems that all rear-engine American cars have a saga behind them, and the Tucker 48 is definitely one of them. In fact, the DeLorean DMC 12 was close to history repeating. The Tucker 48, sometimes called the Tucker Torpedo, was an innovative car developed by Preston Tucker that featured future-looking technology like adaptive headlights, a shatterproof glass front window that was designed to pop out in a crash, and an integrated roll bar. The innovative engine that was developed never made it into more than a couple of the 50 completed cars, and it ended up with an air-cooled flat-six over the rear wheels.
The Tucker 48's unveiling was a disaster. The prototype's independent suspension arms snapped the night before its public showing, and the engine didn't start easily. A prominent newspaper columnist called the car a fraud, and that set the tone for what followed. Tucker had business ideas that got him in trouble, and investigations leading to indictments created too much negative publicity for the company to survive. Like John DeLorean, Tucker Preston wasn't convicted of anything, but again, the damage was done.
Although not as successful as the Porsche 911, the rear-engined Renault Alpine A110 was still a success. The various four-cylinder engines mounted over the rear axle helped the European sports car achieve a lasting impression on rallying. It launched in 1963 with many of its parts pulled out of Renault parts bins, including a cast iron engine, which was switched out for a lighter aluminum lump later. It did come to North America via a licensing agreement to be built in Mexico by Diesel Nacional (DINA) and sold under the name Dinalpin. By 1974, the A110 had been developed as far as it could, and the Lancia Stratos, the first car specifically designed and homologated for rallying, came on the scene. Production stretched out until 1977, though. In 2017, the name was brought back, but the modern Alpine A110 is mid-engined.
Without the BMW 700, there would be no BMW as we know it today. BMW's financial troubles were so bad that a merger with Daimler-Benz was being planned. The little-known hero was an engineer called Willy Black. He was tasked with designing a car based on lengthening the BMW 600 microcar chassis. However, he converted it to a steel monocoque structure and increased the displacement of the R67 motorbike engine used in the 600 model. It came from the Volkswagen Beetle school of engineering but was more sporty. The BMW 700 took a class victory at the 1960 Hockenheim 12-hour race and the German saloon car title in 1961. It also beat out Abarth on its home turf of Monza.