Or the Volkswagen Beetle, because that’s too easy.
The rear-engined car has a history that pre-dates the Volkswagen Beetle. In the earliest cars, the engine placement was largely irrelevant as passengers usually sat over the machinery so it depended mainly on how the power was transmitted to the drive wheels. The standard layout of front-engine and rear-wheel drive was established in the 1900s as more powerful engines meant that lowering the height to improve stability became important. However, that also meant the transmission and driveshafts intruded on interior space.
It was in the 1920s that the idea of mounting the engine in the rear was conceived and experimented with, and with most success in Germany. However, the idea of a people’s car wasn’t Hitler’s and designing it with a rear-mounted air-cooled engine wasn’t a sudden inspiration from Ferdinand Porsche either. An engineer and journalist named Joseph Ganz was promoting the idea in 1928, and a company called Adler built a Ganz prototype.
Ferdinand Porsche started worked on an economy car in September 1931 featuring a 3-cylinder air-cooled engine with transmission and final drive at the rear of the chassis. Then, the Tatra Type V570 prototype appeared in 1931. It doesn’t take a keen eye to see the similarity to the Type 1 Volkswagen Beetle that appeared in 1938 to Tatra's Type 97 shown below. The Beetle cemented the rear-mounted engine as a viable and practical design though, and since then there has been many more.
It’s easy to forget that BMW, a company we know and love for its front-engined rear-wheel-drive cars, had a rear-engined vehicle. The 700 was the car that saved BMW from bankruptcy in 1949 and was powered by a 697cc flat-twin engine at the rear. That allowed a spacious interior and generous trunk in the front. It was so successful that it didn’t just save BMW from bankruptcy, but also prompted BMW shareholders to block a looming merger with Daimler-Benz.
When it comes to iconic rear-engined cars, the Dolorean comes in third place due to its placement in the movie Back To The Future and the epic story of its failure. In regards to the movie, some careful nerd calculated using real-world physics that, in all likelihood, the Delorean would have hit the Fotomat at 70 mph, not reached the target of 88 mph, Doc Brown would have died, and we wouldn’t all have sat and awkwardly watched Marty McFly kissing his mother at the Enchantment Under The Sea dance.
Another movie featuring the DeLorean came out recently, but this was called Framing John DeLorean and covers the rise and fall of the man behind the car.
Like the Mini, the Hillma Imp was built for the UK market in the 1960s, featuring more room inside for passengers than the more successful small car. It was also the first mass-produced car with an aluminum cast block and cylinder head. It was also the first British car to be mass-produced with an engine in the back.
Alpine started playing around with the rear-engined 110 design in 1955, and in 1961 dropped the 110 sports car. It became a European Icon, designed to be as light as possible and even claimed some World Rally Championship wins towards the end of its 16-year production run. In 1973, it scored the WRC manufacturer’s championship.
When we think of Messerschmitt, we mainly think of the BF 109 airplane that tore up the skies in World War II or the other fighters and bombers the manufacturer built. However, after the war, and for understandable reasons, Messerschmitt wasn’t allowed to make aircraft. Instead, the company turned to other avenues of income that included the adorable little bubble cars. It was available through its 10-year run from 1955 as a 1-door coupe, a 1-door convertible, and a 1-door roadster. It was powered by a 191 cc engine because all it needed to push around was 507 lbs of 3-wheeled car and its driver.
America’s answer to the European sports cars didn’t pan out well in the long run. However, most people that have driven one will tell you that the German-inspired air-cooled engine in the back helps make the Corvair a fun car to drive. And, despite the freak out the press had over it, it was also quite undramatic to the point of being a relaxing car to drive. It turns out that taking the Beetle/911 drivetrain example and matching it to a roomy interior with comfortable seats and 2-speed Powerglide transmission was a great idea. Unfortunately, the timing sucked.
We’re not going to cover the Beetle here, but the Type 2 (more commonly known as the Microbus or just bus) gets a mention for a few reasons. First, it was the forerunner to modern passenger and cargo vans and inspired the popularity of the forward control style layout of having the driver positioned right at the very front.
Then, most of us know it as the cultural pop culture icon in the form of the camper van variant. Its popularity was bred by being easy and simple to work on and volume of practical space available inside. That gave it wide popularity as a used vehicle that peaked at the turn of the century when they were at their cheapest, and now the earlier split-screen models are commanding serious money from collectors.
The Tucker 48 is the third of only three rear-engined American cars made. However, it never made it into production despite being set up perfectly to do well. The world was a new car oyster following World War II while the big three were still stuck selling their pre-war designed cars. The Tucker 48 was fresh, packed with new technology and advanced safety features as well as being stylish. Fate wasn’t kind to the Tucker 48 and was scuppered by government interference after the founder, Preston Tucker, made some moves the feds didn’t approve of.
The rear-engined city car makes an incredible amount of sense, and the Fiat 500 has always delivered it with style. It was drafted up as a competitor to the Volkswagen Beetle but came in a smaller package with a 2-cylinder engine. It ran from 1957–1975 as a single generation before its rebirth with the engine in the front for 2007. Despite its size, the original 500 was amazingly practical and that translated into sales throughout Europe and also led to the performance versions by Abarth.
Before Skoda started its image turnaround under the Volkswagen umbrella, the Czech manufacturer had a rich history. In the 1980s though, the company was pushing out cheap cars as a result of being in the Eastern Bloc. Its cars were a figure of fun in the UK, particularly the Rapid due to its cheap price, awful build quality, and sketchy handling, despite its impressive sales success. The Rapid was not rapid with its 58-horsepower engine, and was once described as the "poor man’s Porsche”.
What surprises Brits that weren’t into motorsport at the time is that the Rapid won its class in the RAC rally for 17 years running.