Not every rear-engined car has been a smash hit, but the six featured here all proved popular – and all these years later, are undisputed classics in their own right

Words: Paul Guinness

Rear-engined cars were still being made in healthy numbers in the 1950s and 60s, although Ford, BMC and most other major makers ignored any temptation to join that particular sector, preferring to leave such antics to Volkswagen, Renault, Fiat, NSU, Rootes and a handful of others. It’s perhaps why the prospect of owning a rear-engined classic can be seen as almost ‘oddball’ nowadays, despite the cult following enjoyed by models like the VW Beetle and Fiat 500.

Nevertheless, there are some advantages to having your classic’s engine bringing up the rear. For a start, many rear-engined motors are air-cooled, which means an end to overheating hassles, burst radiators and winter trips to Halfords to buy yet more antifreeze. Many rear-engined cars are also pretty simple and straightforward in their technology, which means home maintenance and DIY repairs are a realistic prospect for most of us. And last but certainly not least is the fact that rear-engined cars so often have a certain character and fun appeal that’s arguably lacking from plenty of more conventional models.

Why though, did rear-engined cars come about in the first place? One of the main advantages was the cost of production. Think back to the 1930s, when development of a new people’s car was well under way in Germany, designed to provide personal transport to the masses. What was to become known as the Volkswagen had to be ultra-simple and basic, produced down to a price. And so a rear-mounted engine seemed logical, and an air-cooled one at that. It was an uncomplicated flat-four design, needed no radiator and didn’t require a lengthy propshaft to mate it to the back axle. It would be easy and cheap to build.

For motorists too, a rear-engined layout had its plus points, including often-generous boot space at the front end. Rootes boasted about the Hillman Imp’s “extra compartment under the front bonnet, because the engine’s at the rear”. And having the weight of the engine over the driven wheels also brought advantages in harsh winter conditions; the sight of a Volkswagen stuck in snow in the 1960s was a rare one.

By the middle of the following decade, rear-engined cars were fast becoming a thing of the past. The Beetle was still around, but its popularity had waned; the Hillman Imp was shortly to be replaced by the Chrysler Sunbeam; and the Fiat 126 remained but was usurped by the front-engined 127 in the popularity stakes. On today’s classic scene, however, there’s no shortage of rear-engined temptations… including these all-time favourites.

Volkswagen Beetle

It would be churlish to start this section with any model other than the Beetle. By far the bestselling rear-engined car, the legendary VW’s appeal continues to grow, its role as a reliable, sensible and entertaining classic being as relevant today as ever. Even better, this is a machine that appeals across the generations, from the beach-loving 20-year-old surf dude to his eminently practical grandfather.

Production of the original Beetle began soon after the end of the Second World War, although it was understandably a further eight years before official imports of this German-built family car arrived in Britain, its air-cooled engine and deliberately utilitarian spec making it ideal for any buyers who appreciated no-frills dependability. It went on to become the world’s most successful car, helping Germany on its way to post-war prosperity in the process.

The Beetle had so many specification changes over the years that it makes for confusing reading. So, which version now offers the best value to today’s classic car enthusiast? If the emphasis is on affordability, there’s little to touch the Beetle 1200 of 1967-78, the entry-level model that offers all the Beetle advantages in the most affordable package. Or if you fancy a version with a bit more on offer, why not opt for the Beetle 1500 of 1966-70, one of the nicest-to-drive thanks to its extra power (44bhp), improved performance, front disc brakes for the first time and a smoother ride than most other Beetles.

Whichever type of Beetle you’re looking at, find as original an example as possible and check for chassis rot, rust in all the outer panels, poor quality glassfibre replacement wings and weak running boards. Buy a sound one, however, and you’ll soon be enjoying one of classic motoring’s ultimate legends.

Fiat 500

It’s an astonishing 65 years now since Fiat’s ‘Nuova’ 500 bounced onto Europe’s motoring scene, complementing the bigger 600 of 1955-on and sharing the same rear-engined layout as well as not dissimilar styling. The 500 was, however, much more diminutive thanks to an overall length of just a shade under ten feet. It was also – as you’d expect – rather less powerful, its 479cc (later upgraded to 499cc) two-cylinder air-cooled motor starting off in life with a meagre 13bhp.

Still, that didn’t stop the 500 from being an eager little performer… relatively speaking. Okay, its on-paper performance figures were only marginally faster than a sloth’s, but that wasn’t the point. The little bambino thrived on high revs and hard work, and even with four adults on board (for which there was a surprising amount of room given its external dimensions) the 500 felt surprisingly nippy round town. This was aided by phenomenal manoeuvrability, its sharp steering and tiny turning circle making it ideal for the busy streets of Rome and Milan.

During a production run that lasted until well into the 70s, the Fiat 500 received various upgrades and minor power increases, but at no time was it in danger of losing its character, its charm or its utilitarian appeal. This was a basic machine in the extreme, and yet it’s still seen as one of the chicest modes of urban transport in the world.

Like so many utilitarian offerings (not least our own Mini), it didn’t take long for the 500 to come to the attention of fans of modified cars. The official Abarth conversions of the 1960s were the ultimate examples of this art, with heavily modified 500s entertaining the crowds by screaming their way around the racetracks of Europe. But even away from the Abarth tuning house, enthusiasts couldn’t get enough of Fiat 500 mods, and it didn’t take long for a virtual industry to be based around Turin’s most unlikely hero.

These days, a big proportion of classic 500s have been treated to the simplest form of extra power, which is to fit the 652cc engine and transmission from an air-cooled Fiat 126 – a relatively straightforward conversion and well worthwhile if originality isn’t your top priority. Then just fold back the sunroof, put your foot to the floor and go and have fun…

Hillman Imp

To say Rootes Group’s all-new rival to the Mini went against the latest trends of the time would be an understatement; the Hillman Imp‘s rear-engined layout being a surprise to many. The engine itself, however, was a joy – an all-alloy 875cc unit developing 37bhp in standard form and up to 51bhp in subsequent twin-carb guises, linked to a pretty slick four-speed manual gearbox. Even better, Britain’s amateur race and rally fans soon got to hear how easily this fabulous engine could be tuned and uprated, giving the Imp quite a reputation in competitive circles.

Just like BMC, Rootes wasn’t afraid to exploit badge engineering, which is why Hillman, Singer and Sunbeam versions of the Imp saloon were produced over the years, along with coupe, estate and (Commer) van models. Most desirable are arguably the Sunbeam Imp Sport and Sunbeam Stiletto, the latter combining the coupe’s fastback styling with the Sport’s twin-carb motor. And with just 10,000 made of each, these are also among the rarest versions on today’s scene.

Imp reliability and build quality went through various ups and downs during the model’s 13 years in production, but things were generally pretty well sorted in the end. Keep any Imp engine well maintained and regularly serviced and you should have few problems these days. In addition, your Imp will prove to be a highly entertaining classic, whether purely for summer show work or even as everyday transport; this is a small car with big capabilities.

The Imp was always overshadowed by the Mini, but that didn’t stop it remaining in production right through to 1976, by which time more than 440,000 had found buyers. These days it’s an affordable and hugely entertaining rear-engined classic, and one that deserves serious consideration.

Renault Dauphine

Renault had already enjoyed success in the rear-engined saloon market prior to the Dauphine, with its 4CV predecessor of 1947 sharing the same layout. The Dauphine brought the concept more up to date, however, combining modern and attractive styling with a pleasing driving style.

Launched in 1956 and running for more than ten years, the Dauphine was a huge success for Renault, with well over two million sold. It was even a relatively popular import in Britain, at a time when foreign cars held only a tiny share of the market, although its swing-axle rear end led to some interesting handling characteristics despite fitment of an anti-roll bar as standard.

Performance from its 845cc four-cylinder water-cooled engine was lively enough, while on board the Dauphine offered space for a family of four with ease. Anyone who craved a touch more power, meanwhile, could opt for the Gordini version.

British advertising of the Dauphine focused on its all-round practicality. Back in 1962, Renault boasted that the Dauphine was ‘the car that’s ALL car’. The French maker even went on to claim that the Dauphine was ‘the sparkling car with the bright-steel reputation’ – a rather ironic statement, given the Dauphine’s later reputation for premature rusting. Survivors are a rare sight in the UK these days, although around £8000–12,000 should be enough to secure an excellent example that’s ready to enjoy.

Porsche 930 Turbo

At the opposite end of the market to the other rear-engined classics featured here is, of course, Porsche’s long-running 911. But for the ultimate thrills, we need to look to the 911 Turbo – the fastest, most exciting car ever to feature a rear-mounted motor.

Originally launched in 1975, the 911 Turbo quickly became a supercar icon, a reputation it still holds today. Even the earliest versions were pushing out 260bhp when new, boasting top speeds in excess of 150mph – and all from a 3.0-litre flat-six air-cooled engine mounted behind the back axle. The 911 Turbo’s styling also stood out thanks its massively wide wheelarches to accommodate the equally wide tyres (50-section P7s on eight-inch rear rims), while the large rear spoiler – usually known as the whale-tail on these early models – also helped to ensure it was instantly recognisable.

The Turbo was the most powerful 911 the world had seen, which meant some rather hairy moments when piloted by the inexperienced. By 1977, it was boasting a 3.3-litre powerplant (still attached to only four gears) and a monstrous 300bhp. Headline-grabbing figures like a 160mph top speed and 0-100mph time of just twelve seconds helped ensure the 911 Turbo’s reputation was set in stone: this was a supercar for the serious enthusiast.

The sales success of the 911 Turbo meant that it qualified for FIA Group 4 competition by 1976, with a number of examples participating in Le Mans and other races – including some epic battles with the BMW 3.0 CSL ‘Batmobile’. The wilder Porsche 935, a more highly tuned car in FIA Group 5 and created from the 2.1-litre RSR Turbo of 1974, was campaigned in ’76 by the factory, winning Le Mans three years later.

Skoda Estelle and Skoda Rapid

If, as the saying goes, every dog has its day, the once-derided Skoda Estelle’s time really has come. Those of us who were around at the time will recall how the Estelle was once laughed at by all but those in the know. And that’s why 30-odd years ago, it was possible to pick up a tatty but MoT’d example for less than fifty quid. But times have changed, and it’s now not unusual to see a genuinely excellent Estelle – or its two-door coupe sibling, the Rapid – selling for £3000–5000.

What’s changed? For starters, Skoda’s image has; no longer is this a brand that’s the laughing stock of Europe. But there’s more to it than that. Thanks to neglect and the kind of low values that previously made any restoration work economically unviable, the Estelle has become one of those cars that you don’t still see in every town. The worst examples have long since been scrapped, making any decent Estelle an unusual sight now… and values are heading upwards as a result.

So, what do you get for your money? If it’s a later model (which it’s likely to be), you’ll find the Estelle a willing little performer, with acceptable handling thanks to its various suspension mods – deemed necessary from 1979, after the British motoring press suggested the Estelle was dangerous when cornering at speed. You also get plenty of room for a family of four, a large boot up front, comfortable seats, an impressively smooth ride and usefully affordable running costs thanks to decent economy and cheap parts.

All Estelles were four-door saloons, all coming with a tried and trusted water-cooled four-cylinder engine, in sizes ranging from 1046cc to 1289cc. The Rapid, which arrived in 1984, was essentially a two-door fastback version, replacing the old S110R and sharing the same rear-engined layout. Known as the Rapid 130 thanks to its 1.3-litre powerplant (developing 58bhp initially, rising to 62bhp on later fuel-injected models), the sporty Skoda was joined by a convertible version in 1985, badged as the Rapid Cabriolet and converted here in the UK by specialists LDD Ltd of Kent.

Contemporary road tests of the Rapid often likened it to a cut-price Porsche 911, with journalists marvelling at how one of Britain’s cheapest models could be a genuinely entertaining driver’s car. And all these years later, it’s lost none of its appeal.