I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to pester Ford’s archive department for interesting bits of weirdness that may be lurking in their voluminous stacks of records. One of the things I asked the dedicated archivists to look out for would be any rear-engined Ford experiments, and they came up with something really interesting and strange for me to share with all of you, fellow lovers of strange things. Even better, this one has some pretty unexpected Volkswagen Beetle overtones, too, but with a much, much weirder layout.
Of the big three American automakers, Ford may have shown the least interest in rear-engine designs. GM had their Corvairs, Chrysler had all those Simcas they made overseas, but Ford didn’t really mess with back porch engines, even in their European divisions.
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t do some interesting experiments! In the 1930s, streamlined, rear-engine designs were something like electric cars are today—the general consensus was that rear-engined streamliners represented the future, somehow, and lots of people and companies were developing them, or at least experimenting, Ford included.
Along with the higher-profile Lincoln Zephyr rear-engine designs from Tom Tjaarda, Ford was looking into small, entry-level cars with rear engines, the niche that rear-engined cars would eventually find their most enduring foothold.
While many of Ford’s rear-engine experiments may have been designed to simply confuse competition and send them down wasteful paths, there were some fascinating Ford developments that were also dead ends.
One of these, shown in the November/December 1971 issue of Special Interest Autos, is a really radical design, a transverse rear engine setup with, strangest of all, this barrel-shaped radiator:
According to the article, this transverse 60 horsepower, flathead V8 drivetrain was from an experimental car called the 92-A, which, while drivable, never really panned out.
The bizarre radiator design was said to be “more efficient per pound of copper than the conventional flat radiator,” but the difficult packaging design made it too impractical.
What I really want to talk about, though, is I think even stranger. It’s the car that was applied for patent under Henry Ford’s own name in 1934 (patent granted in 1936), and looked like this:
Just for reference, this is Erwin Komeda’s design for the Porsche Type 60 (KdF/future VW Beetle) design in 1934:
See? Everybody was designing Beetles back in the 1930s.
Ford’s take on the small, streamlined, rear-engined car had some pretty huge differences, though. See if you can spot them in this patent drawing of the chassis:
See what’s going on there? That’s a rear-engine, front-wheel drive layout, by far the least-used layout in automotive history.
That’s not all, though—if you look carefully, you can see there’s a steering setup for the rear wheels as well, making this a rear-engined, front-wheel drive car with four-wheel steering. I don’t think there’s ever been another car that fit that particular set of descriptive words.
The patent justifies the unusual design by explaining that the rear-engine/front drive setup allows the drivetrain to sit atop the rear axle, not too far in front, which would impede passenger space, and not too far out back, which would make the car too long. A transverse setup could have solved this problem as well, but the engineering really wasn’t ready for that in 1934, and a setup with the engine over a transaxle was mentioned in the patent and rejected as being too tall.
Regarding the four-wheel steering, the patent describes how this setup was chosen in an attempt to, effectively, combat the oversteering handling that’s been an issue with rear-engine cars forever.
Ford’s patent describes how the front wheels handle 60 per cent of the steering, and the remaining 40 per cent helping to give a tighter turning radius (which could also help preserve luggage space up front, since the wheel wells wouldn’t need to be quite as huge to accomodate tight turns) as well as the anti-oversteer part, described as
“…the rear end of the car…prevented from swinging in towards the object away from which the front end of the car is being steered.”
That’s a pretty sophisticated solution to oversteering!
The similarities of the body design to the Beetle seem striking, but you have to remember that that sort of general look and design was all over the place in that era. Tatra, Skoda, Josef Ganz, NSU, Adler, Paul Jaray, Porsche, Tjaarda, all sorts of people and companies were experimenting with rear-engined streamlined cars at the time, and certainly Ford was aware of this, and wanted to experiment themselves.
Of course, the car was never actually built, as far as we know, and certainly never made it to production, nor was it likely ever intended to.
It’s also interesting to note that the patent is just called MOTOR VEHICLE BRAKE, as part of the patent does cover a four-wheel simultaneous braking setup. I think when the car that braking setup is on is a rear-V8-engined, FWD car with four-wheel steering and streamlined body, though, that’s burying the lede.