On mid-engined coupés

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I cannot really recall which was the first mid-engined coupé I saw, but the fibreglass Porsche 904 was probably the first I drove and on which I became convinced that this was the best layout for a sports car. Back in 1954 Porsche had built the RS Spyder with its four-cam engine mounted just ahead of the rear axle and the whole layout had looked right, but one felt that Porsche were fortunate in having a transverse flat-four engine that would fit into the scheme of things. It was some years later, in the sixties, that thoughts of mid-engined sports cars with large engines began to emerge, and Ferrari built the 250LM coupé, with the 3-litre V12 engine between the cockpit and the rear axle, and Eric Broadley’s prototype Lola coupé, with a Ford V8 in the right place convinced everyone that this was the layout for sports/racing cars, and eventually one hoped, for race-bred road-going sports cars.

The mid-engined theme progressed rapidly once the racing fraternity were convinced of the idea and the 7-litre J-type Ford, the Chaparral 2D, the Ferrari 512S and the Porsche 917 took the mid-engined coupé theme to its ultimate. Offshoots of all this into the production sports-car world have been slow to materialise, although Lotus with the Europa, Matra with the 530, and VW-Porsche have production lines of mid-engined coupés in the middle class, and Ferrari have the Dino, Lamborghini the Miura and De Tomaso the Mangusta in the exotic class, while Ford made a limited number of GT40 coupés.

Almost every manufacturer of note has built experimental mid-engined coupés, some being very practical and usable, like the Rover BS with its 3 1/2-litre V8 engine, others being experimental test-beds like the Mercedes-Benz C111 with its four-rotor Wankel engine, and many more have been show cars or styling exercises. General Motors built the very interesting Astro 11, Holden in Australia built a research vehicle called the Hurricane, the Japanese Nissan firm built one, and Maserati have now joined in. There is no doubt that research departments the world over are investigating the mid-engined layout for a road-going sports car, and many of them have bought Lotus Europas to see how Chapman does it, but as yet it is only the specialist firms who have progressed into production lines.

It was too much to hope that an F-type Jaguar V12 might appear as the car of the seventies, with a mid-engine layout, and even if the Mercedes-Benz C111 goes into production it is unlikely to be in more than limited numbers, like the old 300SL gull-wing coupé. Citroën, who are as advanced as anyone in their thinking, have retained the front-engine layout for the SM which must be their car of the seventies.

Recently Ford of Europe, which means the brighter elements of Britain and Germany, announced a mid-engined coupé called the GT70, which may fizzle out or it may be the first step of a big revolution, which could lead to a derivative of the prototype being manufactured the way the Ford Capri is being built at present. The GT70 prototype was built around a number of standard Ford components, as described in the February issue of Motor Sport, in a similar way to that which the Rover engineers did when they built the BS coupé. Having driven quite a number of mid-engined coupés, and ridden as passenger in many more, I was pleased to take the opportunity of keeping up to date by spending a morning driving the Ford GT70 round the Boreham test track.

While all the mid-engined coupés, with the exception of the De Tomaso Mangusta, have had the same basic feel of control and stability, they have all been vastly different in conception. The Wankel-engined Mercedes-Benz was technically the most exciting, but it suffered from no torque whatsoever under 2,500 r.p.m. and a rather horrid mechanical linkage from the gear-lever to the ZF gearbox stuck out the back. The Ford GT40 was the most exhilarating and produced the highest standard of road-holding, steering, ride and handling, its great iron lump of V8 engine doing the job but being depressingly dull. An LM Ferrari provided 7,000 r.p.m. like a turbine and the sort of noises that only a Ferrari can produce, but was a pure racing car, and the Lamborghini Miura needs sorting out with a season of racing. Driving the compact little Ford GT70, with its 2.4-litre V6 Taunus engine was very reminiscent of its big brother, the GT40, for it had the same solid, rugged feel that gave the impression it would stand up to any amount of hard usage. At the moment Ford are building six prototypes, one for engineering evaluation, one for styling evaluation, one for competition use (in rallies), one for demonstration purposes, the existing prototype which I drove, and a spare car. When everyone has done their damnedest with these six prototypes the situation will be reviewed and either the whole project will be thrown on the rubbish heap, a limited run of, say, 1,000 will be made, or it could revolutionise the mass-produced sporting world and take over from the Capri in five years’ time.

Although the people at Lotus do not think so, the mid-engined coupé is still something of a novelty to the man in the street, but there is no reason why he should not be able to buy a good, safe, advanced sports car in the seventies in the same way as he has been buying MG-Bs, Spridgets, TRs and E-types over the past decade. Anyone who has driven a Lotus Europa must agree that it makes the handling of the Elan almost obsolete, yet even now when you drive an Elan you wonder why all small sports are not designed to be so safe and controllable. From the practical usage point of view the mid-engined layout poses certain problems, but Rover overcame most of them with their BS coupé and I wonder if Sir Donald Stokes ever looked closely at the Rover, for it could have been in production by now, at about £3,500 and a yearly output of 1,500 to 2,000.

Using the conventional layout of engine and gearbox, as taken from the Grand Prix world, there are two snags, firstly the engine protrudes into the living quarters and secondly the gearbox is so far away, at the extreme rear, that the linkage between it and a centrally-placed gearlever is a nightmare. (Drive a Europa and find out for yourself.) Rover had the V8 round the other way, with the gearbox just behind the seats so that there were no linkage problems. The Ford GT70 has problems in controlling its ZF gearbox. With the Rover layout the engine is over the rear axle and there is room in the cockpit for a third seat or luggage room. De Tomaso provided luggage room in the Mangusta with a vast compartment in the nose, with fuel, spare wheel, battery, etc., all being in the tail, but without carrying lead-filled luggage the front wheels were nearly off the ground!

So many people are building mid-engined coupés, either as one-off prototypes or small production specials, that the day cannot be far off when all production sports cars conform to this layout, and then no doubt I shall be looking for the next step forward. Among the many intriguing projects that have appeared briefly on the horizon have been the road-equipped Lola T70, the coupé McLaren, the Montiverdi with its American V8 under the driver’s armpit, various road-equipped Turin Motor Show specials such as the Bizzarrini and the Bertone Carobo, the London-built McLaren-based Ikenga, the GKN-inspired Rover V8-powered Lotus 47, and many more. As we are already well into 1971 I feel time is getting short.—D. S. J.

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