How The Birth Of The Front-Wheel Drive System Revolutionised Design Within The Automotive Industry
With the launch of the new MINI line last Friday, we can see how much the Mini has evolved over the course of its 59-year journey. Now, the new line of MINI’s are equipped with engines that is able to produce more than 190bhp, compared to only possessing 55bhp during its introductory period. While also boasting all the latest technologies that is available in the market, it still has its roots planted to the ground with its traditional rounded headlights, iconic body design and “go-kart” handling. It has grown from an economy-class car, to a premium-class car.
Do not be underwhelmed by its tiny figure. The Mini isn’t as what it seems to be. It played a very important role in the automotive industry. The backstory of this tiny yet influential car has helped the automotive industry achieve important milestones that enhanced the growth of this ever-expanding industry.
The Mini, originally produced by British Motor Cooperation (BMC) – now owned by BMW, was the car that influenced the vast majority of how front-wheel drive (FWD) cars are designed today. Produced in the year 1959, its main objective was “planning out a small economy car that was going to be cheap, comfortable and fuel-efficient” while overcoming the fuel shortage caused by the 1956 Suez Crisis. The design team, spearheaded by Sir Alec Issigonis – an engineer known for his front-wheel drive vehicle expertise, managed to revolutionize the automotive industry by producing a car that met the objectives stated above. Cramping up those three benefits into one small vehicle was possible due to its departure from the traditional longitudinal engine architecture. The Mini, implemented the transverse engine architecture. This architecture dissolved the need for a rear differential, allowing the rear part of the car floor to be flat, adding legroom and headroom.
Rear differential (Picture source: landcruisernw.com)
Before we dive further into this topic, what is FWD and how it became the ‘game changer’ in the automotive scene?
A FWD system simply means that the front wheels are the movers of the car, rather than the back wheels. Essentially, the available power generated from the engine is sent to the front wheels of the vehicle to provide the traction and force to make it move.
The Citroën Twelve, also known as the Citroën Traction Avant, was first introduced in 1934. It was advertised as being a “car of an entirely new conception”. It was also the car that revolutionized the design of a car. In which way, you might ask. Well, the Citroën Twelve was arguably the first, mass-produced car to implement the FWD system, a design that allowed car makers to save cost due to its cheaper design which in turn, allows consumers to spend less on a new car. The FWD system also increases fuel-efficiency when compared to a real-wheel drive (RWD) car.
Now that we have an overall view of the FWD system, how did it cause a paradigm shift in the automotive industry?
Prior to the invention of FWD, RWD cars required the engines to be mounted longitudinally. This type of placement forced car makers to produce comparatively large, bulky cars due to the large amount of space demand by the engine alone. This prohibited car manufacturers from fully optimizing the interior space of the car. Cars with FWD on the other hand, allowed car makers to place the engine in a transverse position, where the engine’s crankshaft axis is perpendicular to the direction of travel. This allowed them to design not only smaller cars, but also lighter, cheaper and comfortable vehicles but with sufficient interior space.
Transverse vs Longitudinal Engine placement (Picture source: allaboutdieselz.blogspot.com)
Sir Alec Issigonis decided to combine the whole drivetrain – engine, transmission, differential and drive axles into a single package, mounting it all at the front of the car, thus the term, ‘front-wheel drive’. Breaking away from tradition, the entire assembly was installed transversely, or rather, sideways compared to the traditional method – along the length the vehicle. This architecture increased energy efficiency of the car. One major factor that played a role in this is the lighter weight a FWD car possess. FWD helps cut down the car’s weight by eliminating the separate transmission and axle assemblies used in a RWD car. This, in turn helps the car get better gas mileage. This is also one of the reason as to why FWD is most commonly found in economy-type and lower-cost cars. A lighter car requires lesser force to move and thus, combustion power is lower and lesser fuel is burned for power generation. The absence of the rear differential also impacted the weight of the car.
Furthermore, with the engine placed up front, the signals received by the engine only have to travel a few feet. If the engine is in the back, however, the driver’s commands have to travel the entire length of the train – all the way from the front, where the driver is located, to the rear of the car, where the engine is located. This would add to the time and cost of moving and stopping the car, far outweighing any gains in efficiency.
Diagram of a FWD system with the engine transversely-mounted (Picture Source: Wikipedia.org)
The added benefits are that FWD system are generally cheaper to design, making it fall into the ‘economy’ category of vehicles. Various features were designed into the Mini’s interior to maximize its passenger and luggage space that was allowed by the transverse engine placement. Sliding windows allowed single-skin doors to be fitted, improving elbow room while also reducing costs.
Certainly, the FWD system boasted plenty of benefits to both manufacturers and consumers but the downside of this system is that the handling is less-optimal compared to a car fitted with a RWD system due to the weight being concentrated to the front of the vehicle. This, is also one of the main reasons why performance-heavy cars still utilize RWD systems.
Despite that, the benefits a FWD system possesses outweighs the negatives as consumers always look for cars that are cheaper, affordable, fuel-saving yet comfortable. Furthermore, the invention of active safety features such as electronic stability control (ESC), anti-lock braking system (ABS) and electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD) further supplemented the handling of FWD cars which in turn helped FWD cars acquire better traction and control, increasing safety of road users.
The Original Mini (Picture Source: allthecars.wordpress.com)
The very first Mini immediately became a design icon with celebrity-like appeal in the history of pop culture and motorsports. With its deeply human appeal in its looks, visceral driving experience and accessibility, the Mini was invented with the creative use of space, coupled with the thrilling go-kart driving feeling and a design that has left a lasting impression until today.
In the automotive scene, car makers will need to re-invent and tweak their models in order to reflect the needs and demands of the consumer market. When it is done right, the model evolves as time passes.
Sashi Ambi, Head of Corporate Communications of BMW Group Malaysia said, “The New MINI represents the latest and finest of the technological and design excellence of a car brand that has had an iconic and illustrious appeal that has been transcending generations since 1959”.
The original Mini, which was initially targeted at adults, although took a while to become a trend, managed to cast an engineering stone in history. It is not only known for the improvisation of the FWD system, but the car in general. It has certainly come a long way over its 59 years of existence.