Some ideas about how to build cars are so good they’re obvious from the start.

Here’s an interesting thing about cars built in the U.S. before 1910. Almost all of them were mid engined. Which when you think about it from an engineering perspective - putting the engine in the middle of the chassis makes the most sense. The first Ford of 1903 had a mid located, transversely mounted engine. As did the first Cadillac. And the first Oldsmobile. And the first Buick. And the Reo, and the Waterless Knox too!

Le Système Panhard hadn’t gained traction yet in the U.S. - mounting the engine longitudinally at the front of the chassis was a mechanically perverse idea, the many advantages of which weren’t immediately apparent until cars and engines became much larger. Mounting the engine transversely in the middle of the car allowed for the the simplest, and most efficient transmission of power with the technology available at the time (drive shafts and bevel gears were - and still are - less efficient than a chain). Important stuff when most cars had under 10hp. It’s relatively easy to lay a large single or twin down horizontally under the floor boards - which is what most of these early American cars did, but when you get to four or more cylinders you run out of space.

Autocar, a redundantly named company that would go on to build some really scary trucks, was one of the first American companies to adopt shaft drive and a longitudinally mounted engine up front, although when this one was made engines were still relatively compact two cylinder units. Amongst cheaper cars like the R.E.O., the mid mounted engine persisted until the end of the first decade of last century. Ford’s popular model T helped convince manufacturers where to stick their engines. Up until that point, mid engined cars ruled the market place. Oldsmobile produced over 19,000 mid engined curved dash runabouts. You don’t generally think of “mid engined car” and “Oldsmobile” in the same sentence, but at one point they were the largest producers of such machines in the world.

Advertisement

In fact, odd as it may seem today, the mid engine layout was used predominantly by cheap, slow, economical cars up until relatively recently. After 1910 the layout had basically fallen out of favor for road going cars, only occasionally popping up in such freakish cars as the Heinkel bubble car or the Japanese Cony 360 light van (where the horizontally opposed air-cooled engine lived under the driver’s seat, as it did on the Waterless Knox made six decades earlier). Although mid engines remained popular for racing cars, they didn’t really gain their sporty connotations until Lamborghini and Ferrari picked up the layout for road going cars in the 1960s. At which point sticking the engine in the middle of the car became “revolutionary”. But of course it was an idea the merits of which were obvious from the beginning.

One more advantage of the mid engine layout is ably demonstrated by this 1903 Rambler: you can crank the engine from the driver’s seat.