Home » Rear-Engined Car Makers All Seem To Share This One Strange Dream

Rear-Engined Car Makers All Seem To Share This One Strange Dream

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It’s no secret that I have a mild-to-debilitating fetish for rear-engined cars. I don’t really have a logical explanation for this beyond a love for Volkswagen Beetles since childhood and perhaps the fact that, in that well-known but disturbingly reductive classification of attraction into two camps, I’m an ass man. Whatever the reason, I’ve always paid a lot of attention to rear-engined cars, and in my years of studying them, I’ve noticed something interesting: almost all makers of rear-engined passenger cars have at least toyed with the idea of making their cars into cab-forward, one(ish)-box almost-but-not-quite-van people movers.

It’s sort of a hard concept to get across, because so few of these vehicles ever actually made it to market. They’re sort of like vans, but not quite; they generally retain the lower height of a sedan, and are more passenger- than cargo-focused like a van. They also tend to be pretty bold styling-wise and take some real risks, as their fundamental proportions and shape is already pretty unusual. These also tend to be the sorts of cars that you’d associate with the future, but as the future was imagined in the past.

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I think maybe the original template of this concept was the Stout Scarab of 1936:

Cs Stoutscarab

The Scarab had a rear-mounted Ford V8 and an interior that was more like a little lounge area. It’s a one-box sort of design, but you wouldn’t really call it a van. Whatever it is, it seems to have established a sort of latent desire in car designers that worked for companies that made rear-engined cars. The pull of this type of car was a siren, and drew so many in.

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Really, I think there was only one carmaker that was truly successful in pulling this off, at least in the sense I’m thinking of, adapting an existing rear-engined passenger car into one of the One Box Dreams: Fiat.

Fiat took their popular rear-engined 600, introduced in 1955, with a pretty conventional (for a rear-engined car) 2-box design, which looked like this:

Cs Fiat600 Cutaway

…and adapted it, the very next year, 1956, into this incredible triumph of packaging, the Fiat 600 Multipla:

Multipla

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Look at that! On the same chassis as the 600, and with a rear end pretty damn close in design to the original, Fiat made a one-box design that was far roomier, with the front seats over the front wheels, and either one row and a lot of luggage room or two rows of seats and a bit less room for cargo, but with seating for six! Maybe 7 or 8 if you really cram!

Now, you may be wondering what the biggest maker of rear-engined cars, maybe ever, was doing on this front. Yes, I mean Volkswagen, makers of the iconic Beetle. If you need a reminder of how a Beetle was laid out, you’re in luck:

Cs Beetlecutaway2

The Beetle was a 1938 design, and in some ways, you could argue that after the war, by 1950, Volkswagen did achieve the one-box rear-engined, driver’s-butt-over-the-front-wheels dream, in the form of the Type 2 Transporter, better known as the Microbus:

Buscutaway Scarab Dymax

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You can see the microbus cutaway along with a cutaway of the Stout Scarab (lower left) and Buckminister Fuller’s Dymaxion car (lower right, but really probably even too weird to be in this category) so you can see the similarities. But even if it is similar, I don’t think the Microbus counts: it was too much of a van, and conceptually it’s not the same as the One Box Passenger Dream car. The height is a factor, but more so is the intent, which is just different; where a van is more practical, this one-box thing is more futuristic, more, I don’t know, utopian.

Now, Volkswagen did have a plan for this sort of vehicle other than the Microbus; it was a VW/Porsche joint design study called the Type 700. Here it is compared to the three-row Fiat Multipla:

Mult Vw

Look at that thing! It’s a textbook rear-engine one-box dream car. Aside from drawings and models, it looks like one full-size body was completed as well:

Typ700

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Personally, I kind of love it. It was described as a VW for “large families” but VW had a car for that demographic: the Microbus. Still, this did have a very different design, much less van-like and much more delightfully strange.

Typ700 2

As you can see, this thing could have been oddly stylish, almost like if there was a Type 2 Karmann-Ghia, like a sporty version of the bus. I especially like the winged VW logo.

I actually started thinking about all of this when I happened onto a new one of these types of cars I wasn’t aware of before; it seems that even Tatra, the legendary Czech maker of huge, rear-engined luxury cars for high-ranking Communists, had plans for a one-box version of their Tatra 603.

Tatra603 1

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The 603 was much bigger than most of the other cars we’ve been looking at, with a big air-cooled V8 at the rear. Still, despite the change in scale, the 603 had a very similar layout to its rear-engined cousins.

Once, I even got to spend some quality time with a Tatra 603:

Here’s what the design study for what was known as the Tatra 707 looked like:

Tatra1box 1

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Wow! In case the Tatra 603 wasn’t bonkers enough, it’s nice to know Tatra would have had it covered. I also just realized this is a six-door design! Here’s how the 603’s layout would have been adapted:

Tatra707 Diag

The drawing shows what looks like two rows of seats with a third row folded up behind the second row. There’s a massive cargo area behind the seats, and I think even with the third row up, there would still be a pretty commodious luggage area.

I saved this last one, from former rear-engine advocate Renault, for last because it’s sort of the strangest. Where all of these other versions have been one-box designs, the Renault one, based on the rear-engined Renault Dauphine, was a two-box design, just oddly reversed. Here, look:

Renault Dau Proj900

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Both of those cars are facing the same way, by the way. Right. The lower car, 1959’s Renault Projet 900, looks like a sort of small station wagon if you just reverse the front and rear. It’s a cab-forward design still, with the front seat over the front axle, but instead of a box design it retains a separate hood for the engine, like a small station wagon, just at the rear.

This design feels much more like change for the sake of change as opposed to actually solving a problem; are you getting any more room this way? I don’t think so. I think you’re getting more rear legroom at the expense of cargo area? It’s deeply strange, but I think it still deserves to be in this category.

As I said, hardly any production cars fit into this class. The future, though, might bring a comeback of this design concept, especially for electric, automated vehicles. Especially ride-share vehicles that prioritize passenger moving over almost everything else. Look at the vehicles from Zoox, for example:

That’s a one-box design, but not exactly a van, just like these other ones. With small electric motors on one or more axles and no actual driver, it is a sort of departure, but I think these still count as descendants of the Scarab and Multipla et al.

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I hope we do see more of these futuristic weirdos in the future; they’ve earned their time in the sun.

 

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Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
18 days ago

That Renault is already painfully French even BEFORE you get told the steering is at the other end of it. Just… Wow.

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