In the post-war era of the 1950’s when this country was emerging from the straight-jacket of rationing and into the excess of the Swinging Sixties, the Mini was born to enormous acclaim and front wheel drive began its domination of the world of motor cars in the modern era.
Not The First
Of course, FWD has been around one way or another for almost as long as cars have, but it was the Mini that attracted massive public adulation. The beautiful Citroen Traction Avant in the image is an earlier example. The French motor was the world's first mass-produced front-wheel drive car with a steel monocoque body and there were others. Alfa Romeo developed the ‘33’ (unrelated to the other ‘33’ models) as a front wheel drive vehicle, an offering that resembled a smaller Guilia of the time, but sadly it never saw production. Had it been made it would have preceded the Mini by about five years.
Front-wheel drive dominates today’s automotive landscape, motivating everything from city cars, hatchbacks and crossovers to full-size SUVs. Post war, rear-wheel drive ruled and even today some car makers still have a preference for it. Certainly, dedicated drivers will tell you that they prefer RWD because they feel, not without some justification, that RWD makes for better, more balanced, handling and improved grip. Nevertheless, for the mass market front-wheel drive will do nicely.
Fuel economy was the first priority but that’s a tentative argument. In fact, it was simply packaging that promoted FWD to the masses. The decision to build the Mini was a prescient one as it turns out. Over the last sixty or so years it has allowed car makers to build vehicles that are smaller and lighter. This is why they have better economy, not necessarily because of any particular engineering technicality.
In a typical front-engine, rear-drive car the transmission tunnel tends to eat up a lot of interior space and that becomes a big issue on small cars that have limited cabin area. Eliminating the prop-shaft solved the problem at a stroke and also removed some weight from the motor. Similarly, by getting rid of a driving rear axle it allowed designers to get a bigger boot from a smaller space. It’s that simple.
Thanks to modern car-building technology, the switch to front-wheel drive coincided with the move away from ‘the body on a frame’ (that still feature on Morgan sports cars) assembly to lighter unibody construction, a change that dramatically cut the physical mass of cars. Today’s motors simply do not need to be heavy to be safe. Add to that the huge improvement in engine development coupled with the fact that engines are getting physically smaller and smaller thanks to turbo technology.
It is unlikely that FWD will ever have the same motoring kudos as RWD or even four-wheel drive which, for purists, remain the better driving systems, but the huge majority of car buyers couldn’t give a fig about that. All they want is a decent, economical car that will be reliable and eminently useable. As good fortune would have it, here at eCars247 we offer a wide selection of AA-inspected vehicles, many with front-wheel drive
. If other forms of drive are preferred then there is sure to be some rear-drivers and 4x4’s on offer too. The choice is yours.