Engine Placement EXPLAINED | Why most car engines are in the front?

Cars, trucks, vans, after over a century of innovation, automakers all agree to put the engine in the front. Why do we do this? What about cars where you pop the trunk? Porches, Volkswagen's. What about those cars with the engines in the middle? What about super cars? Rear engine vehicles represent some of the best selling and best performing cars out there. So, I have to ask the question: Why most car engines are in the front?

The answer is more of a story than an answer. It's a world ride to automotive history. From Germany to Detroit, to rough (beep) Canada. But first, if you want the short boring answer, here it is: Front engine front wheel drive vehicles are more forgiving the steer since the weight of the engine is over the front wheels. That gives them more traction. That means it's easier for your less talented drivers to not spin out on icy roads. It's also more economical to cool the engine if it's in the front. So, it's cheaper to manufacture.

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If you're still here, that means you want the good answer. Let's go back in time. In the 19th century, most horseless carriages had rear mounted engines with rear wheel drive. In 1895, French automaker Panhard, made the first front mounted engine with rear wheel drive. To accomplish this, they invented the modern transmission. This design was superior to rear mounted designs at the time, because it distributed the weight evenly between the front and rear wheels, which improved the handling and gave the front wheels more traction. I'm not sure how much handling is required when you're traveling at the speed of smell, but it was a huge accomplishment. Front engine rear wheel drive became the standard with Ford cranking out 16,500,000 model t's from 1908 to 1927, and all other car makers followed suit.

In 1934, Mercedes Benz looked at engine placement and asked a very German question: "Why don't we try it in the trunk ya?" This rear end freak fest, produced the model 130h. Czech manufacturer Tatra, followed suit and started producing rear engine cars. The rear engine design race peak in 1938, when Volkswagen released the Beetle, designed by Ferdinand Porsche. Yeah, that Porsche. Tatra immediately sued VW, due to the Beetles similarity to Tatra's rear engine V570 and 97. The VW Beetle was cheap and economical. The original Beetle got 32 miles to the gallon and sold like toilet paper in a quarantine.

After the success of the Beetle, Everybody was dabbling with back row bangers. Rear engine, rear wheel drive cars were great for acceleration, since the engine weight is right on the rear tires. The main problem though, is oversteer. Since all the weight is in the back, tight turns tend to make the rear of the car swing around. Many tried, but few succeeded in making a rear engine, rear wheel drive vehicle that handled well. They accelerate like a dragster and kind of handle like a dragster. The first real success in that department was the Porsche 911.

Yes, that Porsche. The 911 came out in 1964 with a flat 16 pack. And they got around the oversteer issue by keeping the car low and the wheelbase shorter than the Beetle. Some other popular rear engine vehicles include  the DeLorean DMC 12 and the Alpine a110. Not surprisingly, these cars are two-door coupes. Rear engine, rear wheel drive cars, pretty much had to be until the Corvair. It's the only American car with an air-cooled rear engine. And engine that sat behind the rear tires meant no floor bump to get in the way of your feet. The only problem though, they've had a pretty long wheelbase for rear engine parts. 108 inches, 20 inches longer than the 911. Nevertheless, they sold like beef cakes laced with gravy.

One buyer was a young politician by the name Ralph Nader. After driving the car, he became concerned about the car's handling ability. He published the book "Unsafe at any speed" in 1965. The book scrutinized the entire automotive industry, but was especially critical of the Corvair, calling it, I quote, "one car accident". Most people do Leave a bad yelp review, but that's not Nader's style baby, Nader gang. (laughs) According to the book, The Corvair's swing axle rear suspension would cause the rear tires to quote, tuck-under around turns, which would cause the car to drift. And since the front suspension had no anti roll bar, the Corvair would be prone to rollovers, a sedan with rollovers. That's insane. By the time the book came out, Chevy had already redesigned the Corvair with a four wheel independent suspension, but it was too late. "Unsafe at any speed" was a bombshell and people took notice. Corvair sales were cut in half, in 1966.

In the meantime, automakers kept messing with front engine layouts. The British Motor Corporation asked a very British question. "Why don't we make our automobiles as small as possible? I'm talking about the mini designer Alec Issigonis, had the bright idea of engineering the transmission into the oil sump, flipping the engine around to minimize the engine footprint, so you could squeeze it under a hood, that was a little over four feet wide. The engine could only make 33 horsepower, but since the car was so tiny and light, it was enough power for the Brits. Transverse engines allowed the hood to be shortened and per passenger space to be maximized inside. Plenty of companies from Fiat, Volvo to even Land Rover use transverse engines, but none as awesomely as a 1965 Lamborghini Miura, which use a B12 transverse engine mid mounted behind the two seats.

The big three we're focusing on the front engine, rear wheel drive layout, producing some cars, you might have heard them around like Mustang, Camaro, Firebird, the Charger, et cetera. With the engine in the front, there was no danger of oversteer unless you push that gas baby. That's what I'm talking about. They actually have a bit of understeer, but the engine weight improves the front tire traction so it's easier for your average driver to corner. It's also cheaper and easier to put a radiator in the front of the car, and running hoses all the way to the back sucks from a design efficiency and maintenance standpoint. It makes sense to have your radiator engine in the same place. Thus began the muscle car era, with the big three and AMC trying to cram as many horsepower’s as possible into a car.

But when you want more horsies that usually means a bigger, heavier engine. As engines got beefier. But less weight on the back wheels which decreases rear wheel traction and acceleration. To keep some weight on the back tires, you have to move the engine further back and you push the passengers back towards the rear axle and you're left with an enormous hood. I'm talking 80s  Camaro, 70s Firebird, 70s Chargers, pretty much every muscle car ever. If you push the engine far enough back, you actually get a front-mid engine car. If the engine is between the front axle and the passenger compartment, it's technically mid-engine, but front mid-engine. Eventually you're going to say enough is enough. If you're already sacrificing passenger area and want to maximize power and handling, you have to rethink engine placement.

Take the Corvette, for example, the C7 Corvette was basically the best front engine rear wheel drive car that Chevy could design. But this year, they're finally delivering the mid-engine Corvette. It's called the CA. Not only does it offer up to 700 horsepower, rumoured, it's going to be the best handling Corvette ever. Why does moving the Corvettes engine back improve handling?

With the engine behind the two front seats, but in front of the rear axle, the Corvette centre of gravity is in the middle of the car, which means a lower polar moment of inertia. I'm sorry, did you think you're getting through this without learning some rotational dynamics? You're in the science zone (beep). Alright, the polar moment of inertia. Think about a figure skater spinning. When they pull their arms in, they spin quicker. Think about you sitting in an office chair spinning around, when you pull your arms in you spin faster, and if you can put your arms and legs out you spin slower. Why is that? The same principle applies to cars. If your car's center of mass is centrally located, it can change direction quickly and with less effort. Amid the engine layout also improves braking. With the weight of the engine distributed evenly across all four tires, all four brakes help equally. That’s why mid-engine vehicles are the best handling, most expensive two-seat vehicles on the planet. Here you've BMW IA's, it's your Audi R8's, Porsche Cayman's, most Ferrari’s and Lamborghini's.

 Anyway, to sum it up, let's run down the pros and cons of each engine location. 

  • Rear engine, they got great acceleration, but there's less weight on the front tires. You're more likely to Tokyo Drift, if you don't know what you're doing. 
  • Mid-engine, awesome handling and braking but no room for extra passengers or luggage. And generally they're expensive to ship. 
  • Front engine, they're prone to a bit of under-steer, but maximum traction on the front tires. They're spacious and they're cheap to build. Automakers have proven that, they can make rear and mid-engine designs work super well. But most customers want a real second row of seats and they generally don't need all that performance for driving the children to schools. They offer a cheaper, more spacious front engine car that's good enough.

You know what, money talks? The front engine cars have one, at least for now. I want to hear from you. What are your experiences with driving rear engine cars? Have you ever driven an exotic with a mid-engine? Do you have an engine placement preference? Do let me know in comments below.


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