Home » This 1969 Ford Rear-Engine Prototype Is A Fascinating Mystery

This 1969 Ford Rear-Engine Prototype Is A Fascinating Mystery

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Once again, I’m procrastinating writing an ever-expanding list of car reviews I really, really should get to writing. But I’m not. Because this absurd gelatinous mass of electrically-sparking fats crammed into my skull that I generously call “a brain” would rather thumb through decaying copies of Popular Science from over 60 years ago. I could fight it, but what’s the point? It always wins in the end. It’s clever, I’ll give it that. Really knows how to manipulate me, such as by finding fascinating automotive tidbits, like this single-page article that shows a remarkable 1969 Ford prototype car called the Phoenix that was, incredibly, rear-engined. What is this thing? Why is there hardly anything about it online? Let’s take a look.

Phoenix1

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Look at this thing! It’s familiar and strange, all at once. Technically, it’s extremely strange, because of that transverse inline-four mounted at the rear. Ford has only brought to market cars with the engine behind the driver for their GT40 and later Ford GT cars: low-volume exotics only. So a mass-market rear-engine Ford is fascinating, because though Ford experimented with rear-engine concepts, they never really seemed to seriously consider them for mass-production.

But then there’s this eminently rational-looking compact car, with a rear engine! How serious was this? And while I can find almost no references to Ford’s Phoenix (so far at least; I’m reaching out to Ford’s archives for a follow-up) it’s hard not to notice just how Pinto-like the styling is. The Pinto would have been in development about this same time, and if you compare it to this Pinto design proposal from around the same era, you can spot a lot of similarities:

Phoenix2

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Look at the window shapes, the line of the fender that eventually curves up into the C-pillar there. The somewhat flared wheelarches, that inset rear panel – these cars are stylistic siblings. Plus, the taillights on that Phoenix look like an early version of the lights that would end up on the production Pinto and Maverick:

Taillights

From the front, you can see a lot of what would become the Pinto’s look as well:

Phoenix Pinto

The proportions, those lights inset into those hexagonal recesses, the low and wide central grille area, the shape of the beltline, the character lines on the hood and sides – this all really feels like an early, more exaggerated take on what would become the Pinto’s design.

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In a way, it’s not too surprising Ford may have looked to a rear engine for their new compact car, since one of their primary competitive targets was the Volkswagen Beetle, as you can see from these snippets from one of the Pinto’s first big ad campaigns in 1970:

Pintp Ad Stuff

Look at that: even one of Ford’s own pre-written questions in their ad was about rear engines! Clearly, this is what people were sort of expecting from new compact cars back then. Air-cooling, too. So, with the Beetle such a clear target, it seems pretty obvious that they’d at least experiment with rear-engine designs.

The short article ends with a prediction that came true: that Ford would eventually go with a conventional front engine/rear-drive layout, and they also reference GM’s project XP-887, which we now know was the ill-fated Vega. Really, both the Pinto and Vega had difficult paths, but perhaps the Pinto could have had a very different history if it had been rear-engined. After all, that gas tank would have been up front, which would have saved Ford a lot of trouble, as we all know from the Pinto’s early, disastrous fate.

I really love the idea of a rear-engined Pinto; after all, GM had their rear engined Chevy Corvair, now in its ninth and last year at the time of this prototype. It could have been a thing.

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Relatedbar

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Someone At Popular Science In 1968 Had To Be Spying On Ford Because This Drawing Is Just Too Damn Good

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John
John
9 months ago

No doubt the Ford Mustang 1969 is a fabulous model in old shape but the info about its specs and features are not easy to find. Recently I found complete details regarding this then I open this blog https://pricefigures.com/ford-mustang-1969-price-in-india/ and in which all information about this car is available.

Ted Fort
Ted Fort
10 months ago

Studebaker also made a prototype Lark with a Porsche 356 engine to investigate the viability of such a layout. I suppose it was on everyone’s mind.

Sklooner
Sklooner
10 months ago

Lightweight cast iron, that seems a bit umm not true

Manuel Verissimo
Manuel Verissimo
10 months ago
Reply to  Sklooner

That gave me a good laugh. Even more than road hugging weight.

Vanillasludge
Vanillasludge
10 months ago

Imagine an alternate universe where the Pinto had a rear engine and front mounted gas tank.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
10 months ago

It’s interesting how Pinto ended up with rear-wheel-drive drivetrain when Ford could simply tap into its European operations for the front-wheel-drive technology.

Oh, I forgot how much it cost to retrofit the massive factories in the US for the Ford’s first-ever FWD cars when things were going to shit in the early 1970s with stagflation, stymied emission regulations and bumper standards, and oil crisis…

Anoos
Anoos
10 months ago
Reply to  EricTheViking

It seems like this was a little early for mass-adoption of FWD in the US. I know there were cars the offered it before, but I feel like the Taurus was the first car to successfully sell FWD as a feature in the US market.

Chris D
Chris D
10 months ago
Reply to  Anoos

Don’t forget about GM’s X-cars. They were garbage, but rather successful, and predated the Taurus by at least half a decade.

Vee
Vee
10 months ago
Reply to  EricTheViking

Dearborn didn’t like the way Ford Of Europe did things and didn’t even pay attention to them, seemingly. The Fiesta and Capri were brought over in a moment of panic, and even the NA Escort was headed by Dearborn despite being intended for Europe (only for Europe to make their own better Escort and release it a year early). I feel like if Ford had started building the Taunus and Fiesta over here in 1976 as knockdown kits instead of importing just the Fiesta they wouldn’t have nearly died going into 1982. But pride and subtle xenophobia won out and we got stuck with the Pinto and Fairmont while Ford got stuck with a near-death experience.

Zeppelopod
Zeppelopod
10 months ago

Ah yes, the Ford Otnip.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
10 months ago
Reply to  Zeppelopod

Oray hetay Ordfay Intopay…

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
10 months ago

I rather like the yellow prototype/concept. Pinto sized. The rear 3/4 view gives me a bit of Maverick vibe, along with a suggestion of Mustang ll in the rear/back glass area. What could have been.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
10 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Yeah, that’s actually pretty sexy for what was supposed to be a basic economy model, would have been a logical counter to the Vega’s Baby Camaro styling

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
10 months ago

This car was ahead of it’s time. It would be about a decade before Ford would need something to rise from the flames.

Interesting that GM would end up with the name, though.

Old Busted Hotness
Old Busted Hotness
10 months ago

Don’t get in too much of a hurry on those new-car reviews. I’d rather read about stuff like this than a new electric Kia.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
10 months ago

It depends on what those reviews are about. Could be great stuff! Think of the possibilities! He could be reviewing the Pinto! Or, the electric Kia…

Luxobarge
Luxobarge
10 months ago

Ditto. Lots of sites review new cars, but only the Autopian features weird Torch content like this.

ScottyB
ScottyB
10 months ago

It’s so Pintoesque it has to be part of the same program, perhaps very early on before a more conventional drivetrain was locked in. Then after Ford was sure it was a no-go, they leaked it to the publications like Popular Science that they knew would take the bait, hook, line and sinker, to generate interest in their upcoming new subcompact. My take at least, as I don’t see how Ford could have could have still been on the fence about the rear-wheel drive one year before the cars went into production, it’s just not possible. Nor is a third model between Pinto and Maverick plausible, and even if it were, it would have had to have had a horse-themed name.

Fun find, I don’t think I’d seen this one, and I live for this stuff.

Last edited 10 months ago by ScottyB
Jack Trade
Jack Trade
10 months ago
Reply to  ScottyB

Your take brings to mind the Mustang prototypes of the early ’60s, specifically the Mustang II concept that Ford put out in 1963 to nudge everyone’s expectations toward what was actually coming out, instead of what people were expecting, a mid-engined 2-seater sportscar with no roof.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
10 months ago

Certainly the VW Beetle rode herd on the compact car range throughout the 60s and was clearly a target for Ford’s new small car, but I’ve got to believe the fast closing little doggies from the Land of the Rising Sun were just as big an influence on the decision to go with a traditional layout.

Last edited 10 months ago by Canopysaurus
Eggsalad
Eggsalad
10 months ago

It seems like it was pretty clear to everyone (except VW/Porsche) by 1968 that forthcoming automotive emissions requirements were going to be the death of air-cooled engines in the USA. That’s why I find this Ford contemplation of building an air-cooled car at this point truly bizarre and shocking.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
10 months ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

VW was well aware, also. The Beetle’s extensive 1968 updates and the more heavily reworked Super Beetle in 1971 were intended as temporary stopgaps until they could get a suitable new car on the market.

Even then, though, emissions wasn’t the concern, Porsche had no trouble keeping their H6s in compliance well into the 1990s, it was more about refinement – water cooled Japanese compacts were quieter, smoother, and had better heating and were gunning hard for VW in North America

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
10 months ago

Definitely a lot of the Phoenix styling wound up in the Pinto, but I’m also getting a strong EXP vibe from the overall proportions and two-seater configuration. Even the “frog-eye” look of the EXP with a strongly downward-sloping hood between the large headlight pods is there.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
10 months ago
Reply to  UnseenCat

Thought the exact same thing. This is just a more 70s coke bottle rendering of the sharp 80s creases we’d eventually see.

I know they weren’t the best cars but I loved them as kid – so odd that Ford would make a 2 seater sport coupe that it made pre-Autopian Jack happy.

OverlandingSprinter
OverlandingSprinter
10 months ago

“rugged, lightweight cast iron”

We’ll, one of those adjectives is correct. Unless the materials compared are lead or depleted uranium.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
10 months ago

Thank you.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
10 months ago

Well for equal strength aluminum and cast iron are about tied for weight. For equal stiffness they are tied for volume. For lowish power engines, stiffness is more important.

Lokki
Lokki
10 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

For lowish power engines, stiffness is more important.”

That’s what she said…

Dsa Lkjh
Dsa Lkjh
10 months ago

I spent yesterday lugging around a small but massive lump of tungsten. It’s more dense than depleted uranium and much less likely to get you arrested.

Great for crankshaft counterweights when cost is less important than volume.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
10 months ago

I wonder if the final nail in the coffin for the rear-engine Phoenix was Ford deciding they wanted wagon and panel van variants? This rear-engine layout could work very well for the coupe or sedan layout, but if Ford was planning on an inline four powering the thing, that’d make wagon and panel van variants impractical to package, and it doesn’t make sense to develop two different cars for the same market segment.

Though it would’ve been amusing if Ford designed the platform so the engine could go in either the rear for sporty RWD coupes and sedans OR in the front for FWD wagons and panel vans… OR both for enterprising hot-rodders with dreams of twin-engine AWD racing glory!

Last edited 10 months ago by Austin Vail
Nlpnt
Nlpnt
10 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

Given the launch timeline – 2-door “sedan” in October 1970, “Runabout” hatchback in January 1971 a few months into the model year, wagon not until spring 1972 – I pretty strongly suspect only the trunk coupe and hatchback with the same profile were part of the original design brief, and the wagon a result of the self-styled “Wagonmaster” Ford getting caught flat-footed with the initial popularity of the Chevy Vega Kammback leading to a crash program that got the Pinto wagon out just in time for the first ones to still have the skinny bumpers.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
10 months ago
Reply to  Nlpnt

I think that had more to do with the Pinto’s heavily accelerated 25 month development timeline from initial proposal to full production, it was something of a miracle to get even one body style ready and tooled up in that time

Last edited 10 months ago by Ranwhenparked
Cool Dave
Cool Dave
10 months ago

Interesting, I’d wager based on the comparison to the Beetle that they were toying with the idea of building their own version but the simple packaging of what became the production Pinto won out.

Lokki
Lokki
10 months ago
Reply to  Cool Dave

I think you’re right. Ford was looking for a way forward – even without the oil shock (unforeseen at the time)- the ever increasing sales of small imported cars (mostly VW’s at that moment) showed that a small car was the logical move. Obviously GM thought the same thing, hence the Vega.

GM though in typical GM fashion made “the great leap forward” in design but in typical GM fashion half-assed the build resulting in very expensive long-term damage to the company.

Ford, in typical Ford fashion (until the Taurus anyhow) half-assed the design, putting a pretty body on what was essentially 1930’s technology from what they had in the parts bin. A new design with a rear engine? That would also require a new transmission and a lot of expense. This was not the Ford way. And while the Pinto may not have made Ford look like an engineering leader it wasn’t going to sink the company*.

As to which company had the right approach for the time? Well, the Vega went away in a terrible stink and was followed by the Chevette, which was if anything even cruder than the Pinto.

*Except for the whole exploding gas tank thing, but how was an accountant supposed to know that saving $7 there was a bad thing? Geez you would have to be a freakin’ engineer to have seen that coming…

Last edited 10 months ago by Lokki
Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
10 months ago
Reply to  Lokki

The gas tank thing is kind of a myth, though. Ford’s memo wasn’t about the Pinto specifically, it was an analysis of what the NHTSA’s proposed rear impact fuel system integrity standard would cost the entire auto industry to meet, vs the aggregate lives saved, which was calculated using NHTSA’s own dollar value per life that the agency also used internally when weighing new regulations.

At the time Ford started development work on the Pinto, there was no standard for fuel systems in rear impacts, it had been left out of the first phase of FMVSS implemented in January 1968, but everyone knew NHTSA was going to do something eventually, just not what.

1 year later, in January 1969, NHTSA proposed a 20mph moving barrier standard, which Ford publicly supported, and the Pinto development team was ordered to meet. However, in August 1970, just as the Pinto was getting ready to start production, NHTSA scrapped that proposal and instead proposed a 20mph fixed barrier test, which was much tougher to meet, and would have been mandated within 18 months, to be followed by an even stricter 30mph fixed barrier test later in the decade. The Pinto had been designed around the original proposal, and Ford was going to have to do extensive re-engineering of a brand-new car that hadn’t even technically gone on sale yet. So, Ford took the number of different vehicle designs and vehicle platforms manufactured in the United States by all domestic automakers, and calculated what the fixed barrier standard would cost the industry to meet vs what the safety impact would be, and, at the same time, announced that all their cars would voluntarily meet the 20mph moving barrier standard by 1973 regardless of whether NHTSA took any action. The memo wasn’t about what it would cost Ford for the Pinto, it was about what it would cost Ford, GM, Chrysler, American Motors, Checker, IHC, Avanti, etc on all their models.

Statistically, Pintos were no more prone to fires after rear end collisions than any other small car on the market at the same time, although small cars in general were more prone to fires than larger vehicles, and the fuel tank arrangement was considered standard industry practice. The crash testing NHTSA did later on in response to public pressure was done at 35mph, beyond even their proposed 30mph stretch goal, so well in excess of what any car was mandated to withstand at the time, basically in order to guarantee a fire result.

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