Wrong-Wheel Drive: Five Important, Unique, And Downright Odd Classic FWD Cars
Ask almost any “car enthusiast” or track-day-bro about drivetrain configuration and they’ll tell you that any car worth buying will send its power to the road through the rear wheels. There is no room for alternatives. Except perhaps an Audi Quattro, they might offer.
Talk to these all-knowing oracles a little longer and they’ll tell you front-wheel drive is wrong, all wrong! Except of course if its a hot hatch, they’ll say, like a Golf GTI. Or maybe a 205 GTi. There are a lot of exceptions to these hard and fast rules it seems…
Driving dynamics aside, in the real world FWD is immensely practical and economical. The absence of a driveshaft running through the cabin allows for a more flexible internal layout, and front-driven cars can have more predictable handling and can offer better all weather grip without the expense and complexity of all wheel drive. In the relatively brief history of motoring there have been a few remarkable front-wheel drive cars, and also a few baffling ones. Let’s take a look at a few of each.
Cord L29 & 810/812
Cord was a short-lived American automaker, trading for less than ten years. However in that brief time they accomplished a number of interesting innovations that were ahead of their time. The Cord L29 was launched in 1929, and became the first front-wheel drive car to be built in the US. The advent of the constant velocity joint allowed a new era of flexibility in drivetrains, and the engine was placed longitudinally but backwards, with the flywheel and the gearbox mounted in front. You can see from the photographs how the bell housing for the differential was incorporated into the Dusenberg-esque styling of the car.
The successor to the L29, the Cord 810/812 was launched in 1936, and featured streamlined moderne styling, concealed headlights, a supercharger, front-wheel drive, and even the option of a semi-automatic transmission. Cord was easily 40 years ahead of their time, but sadly all these innovations were in fact the death knell of the company. The unproven technologies were temperamental and difficult to maintain and frustrated customers eventually turned their backs on the manufacturer. Cord was liquidated in 1937.
Swedish aircraft manufacturer Svenska Aeroplan AB built their first car, the SAAB 92, in 1949. Designed by a group of aircraft engineers, some of whom didn’t even have driver’s licenses, the 92 was conceived in a vacuum, away from the preconceptions and conventions of the rest of the motoring world. The result was a quirky teardrop-shaped car that had a small two cylinder, two stroke engine, a freewheeling transmission, and, you guessed it, front-wheel drive.
The 92 was a roaring sales success in Sweden and it spurred SAAB to build a performance version, the 93, soon after. Many doubted the potential of a front-wheel drive racing car, but at the hands of Erik Carlsson in the late-‘50s, the 93 and Carlsson (“Mr. SAAB”) would win the 1000 Lakes, the Swedish Rally, and Rallye Deutschland. The 93, and the later 96, earned reputations as giant killers, and served to prove that front-driven cars could be not only lots of fun, but also extremely competitive on rally stages. Except when it ended up on its roof, as Carlsson-på-taket often did! And yet some people still think the Mini was the first to trounce its rally competition without a center driveshaft…
According to my untrained European eyes, American cars are always rear-driven, capable of rolling burnouts and dramatic fishtailing in movie car chases powered by wonderfully loud and aggressive V8s. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of my favorite pieces of Detroit Iron, the muscular Oldsmobile Toronado, was in fact wrong-wheel drive.
The Toronado sat on GM’s “E” platform, which it shared with the rear-driven Buick Riviera and the front-driven Cadillac Eldorado. Oldsmobile had developed the Unitized Power Package which sought to fit a big-block engine and FWD transaxle in the same engine bay as the typical RWD layout cars. The absence of a driveshaft tunnel in the cabin meant the Toronado could have a bench seat upfront, all the while maintaining a low roof line. The packaging of the car meant it could offer the space and comfort of a full-size sedan with the sleek looks of a coupe, something that is very much in vogue again today I think.
Oldsmobile ran an ad campaign subtly hinting at the potential of front-wheel drive and it was seemingly very effective, as the Toronado sold well despite its quirks. Along with its cousin the Cadillac Eldorado, it began an era of front-driven full-size sedans that prioritized interior comfort over driving dynamics.
Lancia Thema 8.32
While the idea of swapping a Ferrari V8 into a boxy saloon car certainly seems like the sleeper car of our dreams, we can’t help but think that Lancia could have gone about this a little differently. Consider, for example, the latest Alfa Romeo Giulia, another basically-Ferrari-powered super saloon. The Giulia was specifically designed to be rear-driven, it is a thoroughbred Alfa, whereas the Thema was more of a parts-bin-raid Frankenstein.
The power plant was plucked from the much-maligned Ferrari Mondial and assembled by the motorcycle manufacturer Ducati. The motor was then mounted transversely and powered the front wheels, and thus the Thema 8.32 was born. Typical Germanic numeric nomenclature follows the very Italian-sounding “Thema,” wherein the “8” refers to the number of cylinders and the “32” refers to the number of valves in the Thema 8.32.
Despite its bizarre transverse mounted V8, the 8.32 could reach 60mph in 6.8 seconds, which placed it in the same leagues as the 190E Cosworth and the M535i of its day. Its sleeper status cemented its position as a cult classic, and though I think we can agree they’re a bit homely, it’s an interesting piece of history nonetheless.
The beating heart of the SM is a sonorous Maserati V6. This, combined with the elegant exterior styling and opulent interior, makes it arguably the ultimate GT car in the eyes of many. And yet bizarrely, the power is delivered through the front wheels, unlike any other notable grand tourer.
Much of the SM’s character comes from its unusual drivetrain (along with its innovative hydraulic systems of course) and in fact its pleasing profile is somewhat of a side effect of this configuration: its rear track is narrower than the front, meaning the body tapers from the nose to the tail, making it a visual antithesis of its muscular contemporaries, including the Toronado of course.