This post is sponsored by this incredible limited edition Marcello Gandini Lamborghini Miura book which is available on Amazon.
I’d like to start with an apology about the title, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself but let’s try get past it and see can we move past it together. As you may or may not be aware Alec Issigonis and the Mini changed the way small cars were made after its release. If you drive a four cylinder front wheel drive car these days then take a look under the bonnet (or hood for the Americans reading) and you’ll most likely find a transverse engine. Whereas on a rear wheel car you a more likely to find a longitudinal engine.
PREFER TO WATCH THAN READ? NO PROBLEM, I’VE MADE A VIDEO VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE
TELL ME IN THE POLL AT THE BOTTOM WHICH ONE YOU PREFER. I KNOW EXCITING ISN’T IT
Now before you think I’m just making up words because your not James May and you’re not interested in asking questions such as “is your engine mounted transversely” when you’re at Clarkson’s pub quiz, let me put in simple terms what this means. A transverse engine, is one mounted sideways. There you are, you can read on if you want, but that’s the crux of the article.
I first learned about this major difference in engines while making a YouTube video earlier in the month about the history of the mini, which I’ll embed below purely because I need the views to pay for my food during lock down. Since then, I’ve also learned that the Mini wasn’t the first car to use this setup but it was the first one to popularise it. Below the aforementioned self-promotion you’ll find more about the history in written form.
The first transverse mounted engine was in 1899 in the Critchley Light made by the Daimler Company in Coventry. It was produced only as Daimler Germany had a few 4 horse power engines spare and shipped 50 of them to their Coventry plant. The engine was a rear mounted 1100cc engine and provided power using a simple belt with which the tension could be increased or decreased by moving the engine backwards or forwards.
The DKW F1
The first successful transverse engine car was the DKW F1, nicknamed the “Front” as it’s 600 cc engine was mounted at the front and drove the front wheels. In 1931 this was a very odd configuration but this 15 hp beast went on to sell 4,000 and was a 2+1 sports coupe, which offered what was perceived as advanced handling qualities at the time. DKW as an interesting side note would become Auto Union after the war, which these days is known as Audi.
During the war, the transverse engine was used for the same purpose as the Mini in that armored cars used it to save space in the cabin by the Soviet Union. So you could say that without the Soviet Union we wouldn’t have the Mini, you could happily say that but I wouldn’t and nor should you.
After World War Two, Saab used this configuration in their first car the Saab 92 in 1947. This leads me on to the use that would make it the default front-engine configuration of choice and why your Nissan Micra (March outside of the free world a.k.a Europe) has an engine mounted this way.
The British Motor Company set Alec Issigonis a task in the 50’s to come up with a car that was similar size to the then popular bubble cars such as the BMW Isetta and the Fiat 500 but with enough space inside to be a real family hatchback. This was a large task and Issigonis and his team pulled it off with some incredible feats of engineering. They built the gearbox directly into the engines sump and then fit the 848cc engine in a transverse position. Amazingly this meant that the engine and drivetrain would in total only take up 20% of the entire space within the car leaving plenty (relatively) of room for passengers and luggage.
The mini had proven that the transverse engine was the solution for front wheel drive cars going forward and became widely adopted over the years. Only a few years later Gian Paolo Dallara, Paolo Stanzani and Bob Wallace were eating ragu in Bolognese, they said “we must show the British Motor Company that we can build a better car than anyone, including those Leyland folk” while waving their hands around as violently as possible. That might be a prejudicial and stereotypical version of the events but either way they were working in their spare time on the P400 which would become the Miura.
In order to convince Ferruccio Lamborghini to produce the car they had to pull of all the stops and one of the things they did was to mount the V12 engine in a transverse position at the rear of the car effectively merging it with the transmission and differential. It worked and the Miura will always live in my heart as the ultimate fast Mini.