Workshop Manuel explains - why are the fastest car mid-engined?

Workshop Manuel explains - why are the fastest car mid-engined?

Ferrari, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Koenigsegg, McLaren and countless other supercar and hypercar manufacturers have copied one basic design trend when building their mind-bogglingly fast cars: they stick the engine behind the driver. But, when most cars leave the engine up front, why would you move it? 

Marty discovered how well mid-engined cars handle when he built up his Toyota MR2 for the $10,000 MR Battle. While the 90s JDM legend wasn't great to work on its handling was next-level, even for a bloke used to Subaru all-wheel-drive grip.

The reason behind MR being used in gun go-fast cars is twofold: packaging and weight distribution. Race car designers in the late 1950s realised you could sit a driver lower in the chassis and get better weight distribution if you put the engine behind the driver. This means faster cornering, more stability, better aerodynamics, and even better vision for the driver.

While Ferrari laughed off the "tiny cars from England" Cooper were the first team to run a successful mid-engined car in Formula One, starting in 1957. After they won the F1 World Championship in 1959 every other team quickly changed over to a mid-engined layout, and you can clearly see the benefits when comparing the '58 model Ferrari to the '59 model T51 Cooper below.  

In 1961 the Bonnet Djet (later sold by French marque Matra) was the first mid-engined road car to popularise the concept that had taken the race car market by storm. However it used basic Renault underpinnings and wasn't really a supercar, more a quirkly low-powered sports car. 

By the mid-1960s the mid-engined revolution was underway in racing, with Ford's GT40 and Ferrari's 250LM leading the way, and influencing road car design in the process as manufacturers had to build road-going examples of their race cars to make the track-only versions legal (that's call 'homologation', kids). 

Lamborghini's 1966 Miura is often regarded as the first modern mid-engined supercar, with a transverse (sideways) mounted V12 behind the driver. Within a few years every Italian manufacturer was making an MR-format sportscar or supercar, with even Ferrari joining in by 1973 with its Berlinetta Boxer model.

Interestingly, it was a much cheaper Italian car that inspired the MR2. In the late 1970s Fiat came out with the X1/9 sports car as a fun-oriented lightweight small car designed to be sold at a cheap price point. 

So, if mid-engined cars work so exceptionally well for supercars and race cars, why aren't there more MR sports cars? Firstly, the cost to develop them are considerably higher than conventional FF or FR cars, and this is a primary concern for car manufacturers who are actually in the business of making money. Also, an MR vehicle typically offers poorer rearward visibility and on-road practicality than a comparable FR car.  

However, if going ridiculously fast is a key concern then there are huge benefits to the MR platform as evidenced by Chevrolet moving the Corvette from a front-engined to a mid-engined platform after more than 50 years as a legendary FR sports car.

1 comment

  • Jason "Moose" Lange

    This is NOT a typical internet comment “correcting” you… It’s done in a very loving manner, both because I love you both… And my love for the little Italian mid-engined two seater the X1/9. I’ve owned 2 of them… My first ever car back in 1989 was a metallic brown 1978 Fiat X1/9 1300cc 4 speed carbie model. I didn’t even know how to drive stick when I bought it… But I learned very quickly…. The car didn’t last me too long… But I loved it so much… So a few years later… I bought another one, but this time, I bought a beautiful BLAAAACK 1981 With a 1500cc 5 speed EFI. Now what you need to know is I’m a 6’5"or 196cm Canadian (I moved here in 1999 so this was all back in Canada) I had difficulty fitting in the car with the targa roof on, I even had to buy a smaller diameter Momo steering wheel just to be able to actually drive the car because b standard steering wheel was impossible to turn because it was pinned up against my leg, while the roof was on. With the roof off, I could sit differently and even though my head stuck out about a foot above the windshield… It fit like a glove… It was seriously like driving a go-kart for me… In fact I used to drive it to the go-kart track…lol.

    This was a long winded way of bringing up the fact that the Fiat X1/9 was released in 1973… Which I would call the early 70s as opposed to what you stated was the late 70s…. And it was definitely the inspiration for the AW11 MR2… The X1/9 was penned by the legendary designer Marcello Gandini who was working at Bertone design, he was the same man who penned the Lamborghini Miura and the Lamborghini Countach…

    I’ve always loved small mid-engined Italian sports cars… And while the two X1/9s were the only ones I owned… Really, they were the only ones I could afford. My passion for Wedge shaped cars of the 70s and 80s continues today with my collection of 3 Subaru Vortex XT’s. Very similar in shape to both the X1/9 and the AW11 MR2… Just a little larger being a “4 seater” and the engine is in the wrong place…

    It’s great to see a former automotive love of mine in one of your articles… One day I’d love to pick up another Iscunonove… (Iscunonove is Italian for X1/9)

    Great article guys

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