Two things once defined American cars.
They were almost always rear-wheel-drive – even the economy cars – and they sometimes could be had with V8 engines. Or at least they fit.
The Pontiac Tempest was one such. Add a 389 and it became the 1964 GTO.
Slide one into a Vega or Pinto . . . even a Chevette.
Their (usually) high prices. Not many Americans could afford an E-Type Jag, Mercedes SL or a Ferrari Daytona. But many could afford a Camaro.
Almost anyone could afford a Nova.
And either – plus many others – could give an E-Type or Daytona a run for the money . . . for a lot less money.
And then it all went away. Or at least, mostly. Vengeful oil cartels made gas impossibly expensive . Government termagants (of both sexes) made gas mileage expensive via heavy fines for cars that didn’t deliver it. This changed the landscape almost overnight – and seemingly forever. Those who lived through it will remember – and shudder.
Rear drive and V8s gave way to front-drive and small fours – maybe a small six, if you paid extra. A big V8 wasn’t offered and wouldn’t fit anyway – not without serious welding – because the engine bay was meant for a tiny and sideways-mounted engine. A V8 engine was much too long. Even if you managed to knuckle-bust one in there, there was no room left for the transmission – which in a front-drive car is likewise mounted sideways (it’s called “transversely”) and combined with the drive axles, packaged together into something called a transaxle.
Not, as Seinfeld likes to say, that there’s anything wrong with that.
The FWD layout takes up less space overall – leaving more space inside the car for passengers. It is cheaper to manufacture – and it gets the weight of the drivetrain over the driven wheels, which aids traction. Pulling the car rather than pushing it helps on that score as well. It’s the reason why Citroen called its first front-drive car, the 1934 Traction Avant, just that.
But FWD is also the broccoli of car design. It may be good for you – and good in snow – but a ribeye is better for you.
And rear-drive is the ribeye you’ve been craving.
It’s the right way to burn rubber, obviously. A FWD burnout is always clumsy because the wheels you’re trying to steer the car with are skittering and bouncing all over the road as they try to put the power to the road.
There’s also a limit to how much power the wheels that steer the car can take before they fly off the car. It is why there have been very few truly powerful FWD cars. To keep things from breaking, the power must be limited or dialed back electronically or some of it shunted to the rear wheels through an all-wheel-drive system.
But now you can’t do a burnout at all – which is no fun, even if the car is powerful.
And besides, you still have most of the weight of the drivetrain over the front wheels – which messes up the balance. FWD is nose heavy, tail-light; cars of this type are prone to understeer, which is to driving fun what broccoli is to dinner.
It is also why almost all race cars and serious high-performance cars are based on a rear-drive layout. You can steer with the rear wheels – using the accelerator. Countersteering with the front wheels – via the steering wheel.
It’s what car people crave.
American cars – and SUVs, even – are returning to the rear-drive layout. The Ford Explorer is one such that was rear-drive in its heyday, transitioned to a FWD layout but is now – at last – rear-drive again for 2020.
Ford plans to expand on this, too.
There is a hopeful rumor that Lincoln – Ford’s luxury division – is going to go back to the RWD layout as well.
Chrysler’s cars (and their Dodge-badged cousins) are all rear-drive, which probably accounts for their rampant popularity, despite aging designs. The 2020 Chrysler 300 and Charger sedans are ten years old, basically – but thjat is why people love them.
Rear drive also thrives among American trucks – which remain the most popular and profitable vehicles on the road. In fact, the only reason there still is an American car industry is because of big trucks. They subsidize the FWD (and electric car) loss leaders – which are manufactured mainly to keep the government termagants off the car industry’s back.
None of these trucks has ever been front-wheel-drive.
All of them have always offered V8s.
Some of these trucks are quicker than the European exotics of not-so-long ago.
Speaking of Corvette.
The new mid-engined one that just made its debut casts a heavy shadow. Its pushrod, two-valve V8 – which still drives the rear wheels – makes 490 horsepower in standard trim (more is available) for a base price of $58,900 – which is just a bit more than half the price of a new Porsche 911 with a 443 hp six with four valves, overhead cams plus turbos.
There are also the survivors, like Ford’s Mustang – which somehow made it intact through the dreary ’80s and ’90s. Its survival encouraged the revival of Camaro – which had been down for the count – and the Dodge Challenger, now available in Redeye form with almost 800 supercharged horsepower – all of them searing the asphalt via the rear wheels, as the Motor Gods intended.
And for a relatively accessible $72,745.
The good times – the American times – are back.
Enjoy ’em while they last . . . .
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