The Mid-Engine Supercar: Chasing Ultimate Performance—Part I

The Mid-Engine Supercar: Chasing Ultimate Performance—Part I

Last week we explored the ascension and widening acceptance of modern supercars/hypercars at top-flight events such as The Quail, and supercar-specific venues like Exotics On Cannery Row. When conjuring up an image of such machines, a Bugatti Veyron or Chiron, McLaren Senna or 720S, Lamborghini Aventador or Huracan, Pagani Huayra or Zonda, Ferrari 488 or Pista, or something similar likely comes to mind.

Five decades ago, a mid-engine machine for the street—and even the racetrack—was a very radical concept, so how did today’s proliferation of mid-engine exotics come to be? What exactly are the flashpoint and roots of the mid-engine supercar movement? We will explore that question and more in a several part series of periodic blog posts, and in this first entry, we will go back to the very beginning of it all…

An Unexpected Source

The automotive world can thank a recalcitrant Enzo Ferrari (seen above in 1981) for the birth of the mid-engine supercar. Ever since creating the first model that bore his name in 1947, the “Old Man” firmly believed “the ox pulls the cart,” so engines remained up front for his endurance racers, F1 cars, and famed gran turismos. “Aerodynamics are for people who don’t know how to build good engines,” was how he explained it to the Le Mans-winning journalist Paul Frere in 1958.

But in January of that year, Enzo’s engineers and technicians started thinking otherwise when a 190 horsepower Cooper T43 Climax handily beat their 280 horsepower 246 F1 car at the Argentine Grand Prix. The English concern had been in Formula 1 for only a year, and that out-of-nowhere victory intrigued Ferrari’s chief engineer Carlo Chiti. Was the car responsible for the victory, or was it due to Stirling Moss, one of the era’s greatest drivers? At the next race, Chiti had his answer when Maurice Trintignant scored another Cooper victory. Up to that time, the long time F1 driver had only one win.

The front-engine Ferrari 246 F1 would go on to capture the title, but the handwriting was on the wall. “The Coopers’ results made us think their secret (was) their exceptional lightness,” Chiti recalled in Chiti Grand Prix. “We did not give much consideration to their road holding” until testing enlightened Chiti to the configuration’s superior handling and, as would be discovered later, better aerodynamics.

With front-engine Ferraris such as  the 250 SWB continually winning races, and Enzo's disdain for aerodynamics, the mid-engine configuration was a hard sell in the executive offices in Maranello.

Ferrari began campaigning a mid-engine F1 car in 1960, and would win the championship the following year with the mid-engine 156 F1. Maranello also tested a mid-engine endurance racer in 1961 (the Dino 246SP), which scored a victory in its second race. But Enzo relied on his front-engine Testa Rossa to win the FIA world championships because “Ferrari built and sold GTs with a front engine,” Chiti noted, “and…feared (a mid-engine) would disorient the public.”

Mid-Engine Flashpoint

Then, in late 1961, it no longer mattered to Chiti. Enzo unexpectedly fired him, fellow engineer Giotto Bizzarrini, sales manager Girolamo Gardini, and several others in an episode known as “The Purge,” “Walkout” or “Palace Revolt,” depending upon who was relating the incident. The renegades were soon out seeking backers to start a new company, and within weeks they had their men. Their new company, Automobili Turismo Sport (ATS) was incorporated on February 11, 1962, and Chiti could now create exactly what he wanted.

The result broke cover at 1963’s Geneva Auto Show. The ATS 2500 GT was the world’s first mid-engine supercar, and had handsome Allemano coachwork that was designed by former Bertone chief stylist Franco Scaglione, a 2467cc all-aluminum V8 mated to a five-speed gearbox, independent suspension front and rear, disc brakes, and a listed top speed of 150 mph. Undoubtedly the world’s most sophisticated road car at the time, the 2500 GT “has truly great performance,” Road & Track’s Griff Borgeson summed up, “performance that comes from brilliant design and not brute strength.”

The world’s first ever mid-engine supercar was this very machine, ATS 2500 GT chassis number 1001. It debuted at 1963’s Geneva Auto Show, and was the period’s most advanced road car.

While the promising ATS effort proved to be a flash in the pan, lasting barely two years, the mid-engine movement did not. Upstart constructor Alejandro De Tomaso debuted the curvaceous 4-cylinder Vallelunga at 1963’s Turin Auto Show, and would end up building approximately 55 over the next four years. As Vallelunga production sputtered to a start, coachbuilder Sergio Pininfarina picked up where Chiti left off, pushing on Enzo Ferrari to construct a mid-engine road car. “When he finally agreed,” Pininfarina told me, “(Ferrari) said ‘Okay, you make it not with a Ferrari (badge), but with a Dino.’ This was because the Dino was a less powerful car, and…less powerful meant less danger for the customers.”

The Floodgates Open

The 6-cylinder prototype Dino would wow crowds at 1965’s Paris Auto Show, and go into production the three years later as first the 206 GT, and later with 246 GT and GTS. But the mid-engine floodgates truly opened in March of 1966 when Lamborghini showed the landmark Miura at Geneva. Ferruccio’s company was then just three years old, and several months earlier at 1965’s Turin Auto Show had shown a semi-monocoque chassis with a transverse 3929cc V12 in unit with a five-speed gearbox.

Ferrari’s first mid-engine road car didn’t have the “Ferrari” name on it; instead it was badged “Dino,” the name coming from Enzo Ferrari’s son. Seen here are three 246 GTS Dinos that were made from 1972-1974.

What followed was a courtship worthy of Cinderella, as many Italian coachbuilders vied to design and build the body. Carrozzeria Bertone proved victorious, the slinky shape and avant-garde mechanicals making the otherworldly quoted top speed of 186 mph seem believable. In an era when most cars struggled to break 110, “Every rich and impatient man wanted one,” recalled Gianpaolo Dallara, the Miura’s father.

The car that truly put the mid-engine configuration on the map of most everyone was the sensational Lamborghini Miura that debuted in 1966.

Mid-engine supercars now came at a fast and furious pace. Alfa Romeo threw its hat in the ring in 1967 with its sensational (and exceedingly rare) Chiti-engineered tipo 33/2 Stradale that sported a 1995cc four cam V8 mated to a six-speed transmission, and De Tomaso followed up his diminutive Vallelunga with his company’s first supercar—the fierce looking, 150+ mph Mangusta that was powered by a Ford 289 (and later 302) V8. Ford was also in the mid-engine supercar game, building nearly 40 road-going versions of its domineering endurance racer, the GT40. At Shelby American, Carroll Shelby’s company that put Ford on the endurance racing map with the Cobra (and made the GT40 into a race winner), devised the mid-engine Lone Star to succeed the 427 Cobra in 1967, but it remained a one-off.

Perhaps the most remarkable exotic of the 1960s is one of the least known, and most coveted today. Alfa’s 33 Stradale debuted in 1967, and perhaps just 10 street versions were made over the next two years.

And that is where we will stop for today. Our next installment will cover the mid-engine supercar movement booms, its apogee, twilight and more!

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