How to spoil a car’s balance? Stick the fuel tank out back…

I recall once standing with Gordon Murray gazing in wonder at an Alfa Romeo 158 Alfetta. We had ooh-ed and aah-ed at the highly supercharged straight-eight engine, and gloried in its classically front-engined torpedo shape. But then Gordon murmured, “It’s amazing, isn’t it, how designers from this period could get so much right, but then compromise everything by overhanging all the fuel out the back in a clunking great tank like that”… indicating the car’s long, tapering tail with a swing of his foot. “It’s as if they just ignored the fundamental rules of physics. Stick that changeable mass out there and you’re giving yourself all kinds of handling problems – unbelievable…”

We strolled on: here sat a V16-cylinder Auto Union – fuel tank slap-bang amidships like any self-respecting modern performance car. “There you go,” I pointed out. “At least the Porsche Büro who designed this one knew what they were about.” Gordon ran his critical eye over the piece: “What kind of power did these things really have?” – “Oh, probably 550 horsepower but more to the point around 600lb ft torque.”

“Hmmm,” he pondered, “they had more faith in their drivers then than I’d ever dare. All that power and torque, five-inch wide tyre treads, and swing axles!” I could only counter with a weak, “Well what about Mercedes’ W25s – similar power, bags of torque, swing axles and an enormous tail tank as well.”