For most of my automotive life I have been a rear-wheel- drive guy. I knew that all-wheel drive or front-wheel drive provided better traction but, having grown up in New England where snow lay on the ground for at least four or five months of the year, I reckoned rear-wheel drive was just more fun. Doing donuts in a deserted supermarket car park on a Sunday morning, after a Saturday night snowfall, was way more fun than snowboarding or skiing. It’s why I chose the McLaren P1 over the Porsche 918. Hanging the tail out is one of driving’s greatest pleasures. I was well into adulthood before I got near a front-wheel-drive vehicle.
In America back then, front-wheel drive was more for economy and practicality than anything else. The first post-war American car to feature front drive was the #1966-Oldsmobile-Toronado
, and what an impressive debut it was. At a time when Italian manufacturers said you could never put more than 225bhp into the front wheels because of torque steer, the Toronado’s 7-litre V8 had 375bhp. And the fact it was the fastest stock car at the 1966 Pikes Peak Hillclimb helped to seal the deal.
This radical automobile made me want to learn more. I set out to find myself the last great American front-wheel-drive car: the #Cord-810
from 1936 or 1937. It, too, had a V8 engine. In stock form it made 125bhp but you could have it with a supercharger. I found myself a #1937-Cord-812
, naturally aspirated. It was transformed with modern radial tyres, feeling and driving more like a car from the 1960s than the 1930s. The electric pre-selector gearbox is mounted in front of the engine so there’s a flat floor, freeing up more passenger room in the cabin.
What killed it, besides gearbox problems, was that American cars at this price range were huge. This was the first ‘personal-size’ luxury car, and you seemed to get a lot more car for your money if you went the traditional route.
My next front-driver was a #1972-Citroen-SM
, Motor Trend’s Car of the Year. Rumour says the editor got fired because Citroën didn’t take out huge full-page ads logging its accomplishments like American carmakers did. Every enthusiast should drive an SM before they die. It has sleek aerodynamics, oleopneumatic suspension, quick power steering and the finest five-speed gearbox I have ever used. Driving in the rain was especially pleasurable because when you hit the brakes the rear end would go down rather than the front end, like a speedboat slowing down in the water. And the unique aerodynamics made the windscreen wipers almost superfluous.
The excellence of this car made me check on Citroën’s earlier offerings. I soon acquired a #1971-Citroen-DS21
, the most comfortable car in the world. And a #1949-Citroen-Traction-Avant-15-Six
, its six-cylinder engine better for today’s roads. Another great front-drive French car is the #Panhard-PL17
. It’s way more fun to drive than a Beetle, with only two cylinders but almost twice the power (60bhp for the Tigre model against 36 in a VW) from just 850cc. It weighs 1830lb [830kg], has a Cd of just 0.26 and can do nearly 90mph. It’s always more fun to drive slow cars fast. By far the strangest front-wheel-drive vehicle I have is a 1911 Christie fire engine. At the turn of the last century, fire engines were still horse-drawn because fire departments didn’t like combustion engines, considering them less reliable than horses. Walter Christie’s first pumper, built in 1899, was a horse-drawn unit.
As engines gained favour, Christie came up with a two-wheel tractor with a 20-litre, four-cylinder engine and a two-speed gearbox to take the place of horses while pulling the same pumpers. It was much cheaper to operate than a team of horses because you didn’t have to feed the engine when it wasn’t running.
Christie built about 800 of these until the early 1920s, when purpose-built fire engines finally took over. My strangest front-wheel-drive encounter happened recently, when I went skid-plate racing. If you’ve never heard of skid-plate racing – invented by a man named Robert Rice, aka Mayhem – don’t feel bad. Neither had I. You start with any legal front-drive vehicle, remove the rear tyres and weld a skid plate to the rear end. You’re dragging and sliding your rear end around corners, and it’s harder than it looks. Above 40mph it gets extremely tricky because you’re constantly steering and countersteering.
In the first ten minutes I spun at least six times. When you come to a corner and feel the tail coming round, there’s almost nothing you can do. Unlike losing an early 911 in a corner, which happens so quickly you don’t realise it, this happens so slowly that you’re laughing the whole time as you try to save yourself. Who knew front-wheel drives could be so much fun?