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

The Monteverdi Hai was built in the most unusual of locations (Switzerland), and featured startling Fissore coachwork. Outside of the balkiness of its gearbox, it is one very invigorating drive.

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

Last week’s post covered the early history of Mid-Engine Supercar, from their inception with the very first (ATS 2500 GT) and the flashpoint for everything that has followed (Lamborghini’s Miura). This week we investigate the boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the mid-engine supercar’s unexpected decline in the middle of the decade.

Ascension & Apogee

Mid-engine supercars appeared at an increased rate in the first half of the 1970s. Germany’s Mercedes-Benz teased a move in the mid-engine direction with its Wankel-powered C111 prototypes of 1969 and 1970, and in 1972 BMW showed the E25 Turbo that would eventually inspire the M1 of the late 1970s.

Iso’s venture into mid-engine arena came in 1972 with this wild looking machine. The Varedo was named after the town on the outskirts of Milan where the company had its factory, and the car featured a Ford 351 Cleveland and 5-speed transmission.

Switzerland was probably the last place one expected to see mid-engine car production, but Peter Monteverdi’s small concern startled everyone in 1970 with its audacious Hai 450 SS. Under that taut Carrozzeria Fissore skin was a mighty Chrysler 426 Hemi V8 and 5-speed transaxle, and enough oomph to power the Hai to 175 mph. While Monteverdi planned to produce 50, just two were made in the 1970s. Still, that was one more than Ferrari and Maserati competitor Iso built of their radical Varedo that debuted in 1972. It used a Ford 351 Cleveland that was mated to a ZF 5-speed transmission, and clothed in an exotic Ercole Spada-designed shape.

Across the Atlantic, Chevrolet had many thinking a mid-engine Corvette was coming with a series of intriguing prototypes such as the XP-880 (1968) and the XP-882 that brought the house down at 1970’s New York Auto Show. Getting much closer to production was American Motors’ 160-mph AMX/3 that debuted in 1970 with a striking body designed at AMC, a 390 V8, an Oto-Melara 4-speed gearbox, and a sophisticated chassis and independent suspension that was the work of former Ferrari, Iso and ATS engineer, Giotto Bizzarrini.

The AMX/3’s sleek shape came from the AMC design studios, and is a striking, well-proportioned machine.

One reason only six AMX/3s were made was De Tomaso revealed its Mangusta successor at the same time. The Pantera had a taut design by Carrozzeria Ghia’s chief stylist Tom Tjaarda, a 351 Cleveland V8, ZF- 5-speed transaxle, and the backing of Ford, which planned to sell Panteras at its Lincoln-Mercury dealers. The car suffered from initial teething problems, but ended up being properly sorted to become the best selling mid-engine supercar until Ferrari’s magnificent 355 three decades later.

Also producing a decidedly wedgy mid-engine missile was Lancia. Carrozzeria Bertone’s prototype Stratos Zero wowed crowds at 1970’s Turin Auto Show, but it was strictly a concept car powered by a mid-mounted 1.6-liter engine. That was enough to intrigue Lancia’s competition director Cesare Florio, and a year later at Turin Bertone debuted an entirely different Stratos, this time powered by a 2.4-liter Ferrari V6. It was properly developed and went on sale in 1974, and would win three consecutive world rally championships.

The “Big Three” to the Fore

The De Tomaso Pantera was the death-knell for the AMX/3. Its debut startled AMC, and with the Pantera having Ford backing, AMC management didn’t have the courage to put the AMX/3 into production.

But it was Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini that were dominating the decade’s mid-engine headlines. Nineteen-seventy one was a watershed year, as both Maserati and Lamborghini debuted mid-engine machines at the Geneva Auto Show with the Bora and LP500 Countach, respectively. Ferrari followed up several months later at Turin with its 365 GT/4 BB that became known as the Berlinetta Boxer.

The Bora was a complete break from the past for Maserati, and came not too long after France’s Citroen took over the revered Italian firm. That buyout came as great relief for Maserati chief engineer Giulio Alfieri, for he remembered having “the sensation of being alone” in trying to figure out America’s (and elsewhere) complex homologation laws.

This otherworldly machine is the prototype Lancia Stratos Zero that was shown by Carrozzeria Bertone at 1970’s Turin Auto Show. It remained a one-off, but served as the spark that led to the production Stratos HF.

Being aligned with a company that made several hundred thousand cars per year versus several hundred, allowed the talented engineer to focus on engineering new models. “Marketplace pressure said it was the moment of the (mid-engine) car,” Alfieri recalled. “If we didn’t do that, it would demonstrate we weren’t in line with the times.”

As examined in detail in our July 20 2018 blog entry, the Bora had monocoque construction and packed a 300+ horsepower 4.7 or 4.9-liter V8 behind the driver, and went into production late in 1971. “The Miura was great in its day,” was how Road & Track’s May 1973 road test put it, “but the Bora far surpasses it in comfort and quietness while approaching its performance level.”

Lamborghini’s Countach had a much longer gestation period. Former company chief engineer Paolo Stanzani told me one of the major hurdles in creating the Countach was making the car’s mechanicals “as compact as possible, so as not to hinder the line of the car. Everything had to be new, and especially innovative.” The 3929cc V12 was thus mounted longitudinally for superior directional stability, and Stanzani also designed a new sump and engine block.

The Lancia Stratos HF debuted in 1971 and, after proper development of the design and mechanicals, went into production in 1974. This particular example was a gray-market import into the U.S. in the late 1970s (when this photo was taken), hence the small front and rear bumpers.

The Countach had an all-new chassis made of welded tubes and steel panels, and the coachwork remained as dramatic and otherworldly as the LP500 prototype. Indeed, the Lamborghini would soon become the poster child for the modern supercar.

Ferrari’s glorious 365 GT4 BB became known as the “Berlinetta Boxer,” and was in the hands of clients a year before the Countach. Coachbuilder Sergio Pininfarina said it was the sales success of the 206 and 246 Dino (discussed in last week’s blog entry), and the model’s rave reviews that caused Enzo Ferrari’s reluctance to a mid-engine 12-cylinder road car to crumble.

As Pininfarina recalled, “One day Mr. Ferrari told me, ‘Instead of the V12 I am trying to make a flat-12. This I consider the future of our cars”—something the engine would remain for two-plus decades. Boxers began leaving Maranello in 1973 and, like the Countach, Ferrari’s ultimate was constantly updated, and would remain in production into the 1980s.

Lamborghini’s LP400 Countach was the poster child of exotic cars, mid-engine or not. It’s claimed top speed was 196 mph, and with those looks who would doubt it?

Twilight of the Goddesses?

When deliveries began on Ferrari, Maserati and Lamborghini’s latest mid-engine marvels, the world was an entirely different place than the one in which they had been conceived. Labor strikes hampered development and production, and shifting public attitudes in Europe and elsewhere quashed the widespread enthusiasm that greeted the Miura, Mangusta and others.

Then, in October 1973 the first oil crisis hit, and the supercar manufacturers struggled to survive. Focus on engineering all but disappeared, and for the next several years the mid-engine movement only saw updates of existing models. “Have we arrived at a crossroads?” the prestigious annual Automobile Year queried at the time. “Are we experiencing…the twilight of these goddesses we persist in adoring, come hell or high water?”

The Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer had classic Pininfarina curves, and refined surface treatments. The Boxer was Ferrari’s first production car to sport a 12-cylinder engine mounted in the middle.

The industry’s eventual answer to that question was a resounding “no,” though that response took nearly a decade to appear. And fittingly, the world’s performance leader was the company that answered.

In our next installment, that resounding response, four valves and turbos come to the fore, and more…


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