November 15, 2010

Citroën M35.

When Citroën launched the Xantia in 1993 it also launched a new slogan: “vous n’imaginez pas tout ce que Citroën peut faire pour vous.” Literally translated from French it meant “you can’t imagine what Citroën can do for you.” In 1969 the brand had a different approach to showcasing what it can do: it gave customers the opportunity to purchase and test a prototype, the M35.

If the image of a gaudy Japanese sedan entered your head after reading the name "M35", shake it out. The M35 was a rolling laboratory of future Citroën technology. Under the hood was a 49hp/50lb-ft 995cc monorotor Wankel engine developed by Comotor, the company founded by NSU and Citroën to build rotary engines. The 995cc ran with virtually no vibrations and with the help of the M35’s aerodynamic design powered the car from zero to 62mph in 19 seconds, topping out at a respectable 89mph. While the Wankel felt at home on the freeway its infamous lack of torque made driving up a hill a byzantine task. Nevertheless, the engine operated so quietly and revved so freely that Citroën found it necessarily to equip the tachometer with an audible alarm that went off when the engine got to its redline of 7000 rpm, though certain period road tests note that it was capable of reaching 8000 rpm.

The Wankel was bolted to a new four-speed manual transmission commanded through a dash-mounted shifter, the same setup found in the Dyane, the 2CV and the Ami 8, though the M35 had its own shift pattern that appears to have been designed in a house of mirrors. The front disk brakes were mounted inboard on the transmission while the rear had to settle for a pair of more conventional hub-mounted drums.

To complete the package Citroën mixed and matched DS and 2CV suspension bits to create a new version of its hydropneumatique suspension. By replacing the 2CV’s horizontal suspension bits with hydraulic ones, Citroën gave the M35 a 2CV suspension system modified to function with a DS/ID’s hydraulic system. With the addition of front seats designed to recline just above the occupant’s waistline the M35 shined as one of the most comfortable cars on the European market. The familiar Citroën monospoke steering wheel and the emergency brake located to the right of the steering column both came directly from the Ami 8’s parts bin, though the M35’s steering wheel was upholstered in vinyl, a feature not found on the Ami 8. The dashboard was not directly pulled from the Ami 8 but was put together using Ami 8 bits and pieces.

Few found the M35 entirely pleasant to look at. Citroën couldn’t be bothered with building it in-house so they outsourced it to French coachbuilder Heuliez. The M35 sat on an Ami 8 platform and the two looked similar from the B-pillar forward though modifications were made to the front end to fit a radiator, something the Ami’s air-cooled flat twin obviously did not need. Almost immediately past the B-pillar the roofline sloped towards the back, creating an odd fastback coupe shorter than the Ami 8. The latter’s gas tank proved insufficiently small compared to the Wankel’s astonishing thirst for fuel and Citroën fitted a larger 43 liter (11.3 gallons) tank to increase the M35’s autonomy.

The initial plan was to secretly provide the M35 to customers to avoid the bad publicity that potential failures would summon. Someone at Citroën realized how unlikely it was that the secret would remain one so the project was made public and Citroën announced it was taking orders for the car.

Not everyone could purchase an M35. The first setback was that it cost 14,000 francs in 1969, a hefty price to pay for a small, experimental car when one takes into account that a base model DS, the DSpécial, listed at 13,800 francs. The second setback was that Citroën engineered the whole operation as a way to test the M35 over several hundred thousand kilometers so if its owner drove it to the store and back once a week, it wouldn’t help their cause. Consequently, only customers who could prove they drove at least 30,000kms (18,641 miles) annually were considered. And the third setback was that Citroën was only going to produce 500 M35s.

The first cars were delivered in 1969. With the operation no longer a secret each car had “Prototype Citroën M35 No. X” written in white letters on the driver’s side fender (replace the X with the car’s serial number.) When the cars ran they were brilliant to drive but unfortunately for those who had paid DS money for an Ami 8 coupe the engine shared other Wankel engines’ tendency to self destruct prematurely; few got to 40,000 miles without a rebuild. Citroën was aware of potential issues with rotary engines and offered a two year powertrain warranty with roadside assistance on all M35s and a loaner car was available for owners should their car stay in the shop for a prolonged period of time. When dealers took the cars in for repair the service department took careful notes of what was repaired and sent them to Citroën headquarters.

In 1971 when the test period was over and Citroën got the data they were after they tried to buy back the cars at higher than market value in order to destroy them but there was no obligation on the owner’s part to sell them and about a third of the total production run survived. There is a catch: in the end Citroën ended up building 267 M35s, a number very short of the initial 500 planned. 6 were built in 1969, 212 in 1970 and 49 in 1971. The numbers written on the fender were reportedly adjusted to make it look like 500 were built and rumor has it that several cars bore “Prototype No. 1” When all is said and done most sources agree that fewer than 100 M35s are still around today.

Many aspects of the M35 made it to regular production. The rotary engine was strangely deemed satisfactory and a dual rotor version of it was used in the GS Birotor in 1974; the gearbox used in the M35 was the GS 1015’s gearbox (albeit with a normal shift pattern); certain suspension bits found their way into the GS line when it came out in 1970 and the seats that reclined just above the waist were found in none other than the SM.

Exterior shots of the M35:

The M35's 995cc Wankel engine:

The M35’s interior; note the seats:

Below: this diagram of the M35’s hydropneumatique system from a 1969 issue of Auto-Journal clearly illustrates the mix of 2CV and DS parts used. The engine-driven high pressure pump used to circulate the LHM fluid is visible as well. Ride height was adjustable thanks to a lever placed between the front seats.

The M35’s shift pattern:

Note: with the exception of the first photo and the shift pattern we did not take any of the above photos and do not take credit for them. The first photo was scanned out of a period magazine for Ran When Parked and the diagram of the shift pattern was made by Ran When Parked.

November 4, 2010

Moderately Priced Mid-Engined Cars

Automotive manufacturers have understood the advantages of placing a car's engine in the middle (or, behind the driver and ahead of the rear wheels) for some time. By placing the engine there, the weight balance of the car can be made much more even over the front and rear axles. This allows (in most cases) for superior handling over front-engined cars, which tend to understeer, or rear-engined cars, which tend to oversteer. Auto Union grand prix cars from the '30s, designed by Ferdinand Porsche, were some of the earliest examples of this configuration. At the time, it was considered somewhat unstable, but the greater advantages of mid-engined design were continually explored, perfected, and adopted in particular on racing cars by nearly all manufacturers. It was not until the 1960s that mass-production of a mid-engined road car would really begin.

Not all mid-engined cars have to be outlandishly expensive supercars like Ferraris or Lamborghinis. There are a few examples of these well balanced sporting cars that the "average Joe" can afford to purchase and enjoy, even as a starter classic. So, we have prepared a list of some moderately priced mid engined cars for the masses which can be had for under $20,000. Granted, in the long run, some can end up costing you much more, but let us start with the most affordable:

Toyota MR2 (1984-2007)

The Toyota MR2 has the great advantage of being affordable, fun, and reliable though to be honest, they're not exactly the most desirable of the lot here. Honestly, most people don't dream of some day owning a Toyota over say, a Porsche, Lotus, or nearly anything Italian. Nevertheless, they're a good starter sports car or easy-to-run weekend runabout.
The original MR2 of 1984 featured crisp styling as boxy as one could expect from a 1980s design. The car was designed in cooperation with Lotus and it's not surprising considering the car's light weight and excellent handling. Initially, a 1.6 L DOHC four-cylinder engine was mounted transversely behind the passenger compartment. While it wasn't exactly the most powerful engine in the world, it was quick and eager to rev.
By 1986, an optional T-top roof configuration was made available, adding some appeal to those desiring an open air experience. These early MR2s can be had for just a few thousand dollars (or less if they're an abused example in need of some care). Beware though - they are getting old and they are made in Japan - rust can be an issue.

In 1989, the MR2 went through a complete redesign with a more rounded and organic body. The car weighed a few hundred pounds more than its predecessor, though it also became more powerful, and even a 200hp turbocharged variant was available. Again, the T-top was offered. These Turbo models obviously cost a bit more even today, though finding a decent example for under $10,000 is not at all unheard of.

Finally, the last of the MR2s, the Spyder, marked a rather drastic change in direction from the previous two generations. Another complete redesign made the sporting Toyota a full roadster for the first time. The very successful Mazda Miata must have left them wanting a piece of the market. The "new" MR2 also lost the pop-up headlights of past models and also, several hundred pounds over the last generation. Once again, the model was light and very nimble, though only a 1.8 L four-cylinder was available, and alas, no turbo. To many, these are the best of the MR2s and since production stopped in 2007, they can be purchased quite cheaply from roughly $8,000 to $15,000.

Fiat X1/9 (1972-1989)

The Fiat X1/9 was a rather radical departure for the company known for its small economy cars and classic Italianate roadsters. The crispy body was styled by Bertone and the basic drivetrain was that of a Fiat 128 moved to the back. While initially, the X1/9 weighed in at roughly 2000lbs, the anemic 1.3 L four-cylinder was hardly a powerplant for a sports car, producing a wheezing 75hp and virtually nothing in terms of torque.
The car did have the advantage of a fairly stiff body, a removable top, and of course, good handling. Furthermore, it also had some luggage capacity, which is typically at a premium on mid-engined cars. Granted, I wouldn't choose one to take on a cross-country camping trip, but some weekend luggage would fit.
As Federal crash-test regulations increased, so did the bumper size as well as weight. Smog equipment further taxed the engine and decreased it to a down-right poor 63hp. By 1979, a larger 1.5L engine was fitted and added a little much-needed power. Fiat left the US market in 1982, and the X1/9 was marketed as a Bertone until 1987. World-wide production and sales of the car ceased in 1989.

While the earlier cars are a little better looking and lighter, later cars do have advantages in terms of a little more passenger space and better rust-proofing. Being Italian and from the '70s, rust is naturally a major concern when purchasing an X1/9. It's not hard to tune one to respectable performance provided local laws allow it. Fortunately parts are readily available as about 160,000 were made and it utilizes many standard Fiat parts. Finding a decent example may be difficult, but should only cost you well under $10,000. Be prepared though - it's Italian, and it will break.

Lancia Montecarlo / Scorpion (1975-1982)

The Montecarlo (or Scorpion to the US market) was originally intended as a big-brother to the Fiat X1/9. The Scorpion / Montecarlo, however, is larger and perhaps most importantly, more powerful. Unfortunately, the Scorpion was very short-lived in the US market (sold in only 1976-77), though a few Montecarlos have been imported. Unlike the 2.0L European counterpart, the US Scorpions were only sold with a 1.7L four-cylinder offering only 80hp. Still, the Pininfarina styled body is aesthetically more pleasing to many over the Bertone X1/9 and the weight nearly the same.
One unique feature of the Lancia design is the large retracting canvass roof. Though not all Montecarlos had this feature, all Scorpions did. Naturally, being Italian, build quality was always questionable, but you can't deny that the cars certainly have that Mediterranean flair.

As I'm sure one could expect, reliability and rust are the biggest problems with the Scorpion. Furthermore, these cars were notorious for easily locking the front brakes and creating a rather scary situation for the driver. It wasn't until after US sales stopped that Lancia simply removed the brake booster as a quick solution.
The Scorpion is a rather rare beast here in the States as only 1800 were made for the American market. If you find one, it's important to make sure the car has been well taken care of and is properly sorted out. If not, you could be in for the nightmare of your life. In spite of the car's relative rarity, prices vary considerably. A fixer-upper could run you only a few thousand - a restored example around $20,000 or more.

Porsche 914 (1969-1976)

Here at RWP, we're no strangers to the Porsche 914. In this writer's humble opinion, having grown up with these, it is one of the most under-rated sports cars ever made. The styling may take some getting used to for some, but the 914 seems to fit very well with the rest of the classic Porsche stable. The bodies were assembled by Karmann and were fitted originally fitted with either a VW-sourced "Type-4" engine, or Porsche's classic flat-6. When the 914 was introduced, it was largely applauded for its spaciousness, two trunks, removable hard top, and superb handling. If you opted for the 1.7 L flat-four engine, however, you'd be less than impressed with the performance. The 914-6, on the other hand, was fitted with the same 110 hp 2.0L flat-six as an early 911. The problem though, was the rather high price which fell just short of a 911T at the time. Not much of an "entry-level" Porsche in those respects.
By 1971, Porsche saw that the 914-6 was too costly and opted to drop it from the line. In 1973, a 95 hp (100hp outside of the US) 2.0L variant of the VW engine was offered and gave the car a good balance of performance and price. The base-model was uprated to a 75 hp 1.8L as well. These would be the first mass-produced cars with electronic fuel injection. The 914 was never really a "cheap" car, and lower-cost competition from Fiat, Datsun, and Triumph, for example, made the 914 rather hard to sell.
By 1975, big Federal bumpers and smog equipment did their best to kill the 914 like so many other imports. Sales dropped along with power (the '75 and '76 cars all had the 2.0 but were de-tuned for emissions) and the 914 ceased production.

Many 914s have been tastelessly and poorly modified to American V8s and/or fitted with body kits and other gaudy accessories. These should probably be avoided. 914s were often abused over their lifetime and a good, rust-free example can be tricky to find, but they're out there if you look - Porsche built nearly 119,000 of them. It's easy to hot-rod a VW engine and most 914s are old enough to get around emissions regulations. A '73 or '74 model is probably the most desirable, as they have a better shift linkage, smaller bumpers, and decent power. There are some well done 6-cylinder conversions as well. Expect to pay $10,00 to $18,000 for a nice 4-cylinder and an original 914-6 may run well over $20k. They're very reliable and VW parts keep running costs down, but be warned, anything with a Porsche part number is pricey.

Lotus Europa (1966-1975)

You could say that this is the one that started it all, in terms of mid-engined road cars. The Europa was the first "mass-produced" production car to have the engine in the middle (if you consider less than 10,000 units "mass"). Like earlier Lotus designs, the Europa used a steel back-bone chassis with a fiberglass composite body. Say what you will about the styling (some love it, I personally hate it), but it was certainly aerodynamic with a drag coefficient of 0.29. This, combined with a curb weight under 1,500lbs made for a very nimble car.
Power was sourced from the Renault 16's 1.5L four-cylinder and 4-speed gearbox and tuned to a respectable 82hp. in 1968, the S2 variant was introduced with several refinements over the original design. These are probably the most desirable of the early cars. Finally the 1.5L Lotus Twin-Cam engine became available in 1971 along with a change in the body. The rear "flying buttresses" were carved out a bit to make it easier to see out of the incredibly tiny car.

As far as practicality goes, there essentially is none with this Lotus. It's very small, hand-made in England and therefore likely to have build quality issues, and probably the most unsafe of this entire lot of cars. That being said, they're incredible fun. Values for these cars are rising, particularly for an early example or a Twin-Cam. Watch out for typical electrical gremlins and poor fiberglass repair that could literally leave the body coming apart at the seams. Lotus made relatively few of these, but they're still out there for $10,000 to $20,000+ if you can find them.

Lotus Esprit (non-V8s 1976-1996)

Lotus again employed the proven fiberglass body over steel backbone chassis design for the Esprit. The wedge-like design of the Esprit was also becoming somewhat of a Lotus trait in the era, referencing some of their racing cars' shapes. Like most of these early Lotus models, it has a bit of a kit-car feel to it, which some may not like. Regardless, the Esprit was another great "driver's car" in terms of its road holding and feel.
The earliest examples of the Esprit were powered by Lotus' own 2.0L "Torqueless Wonder" power plant driving the wheels through a Citroen SM transaxle. As you'd probably expect, these are the slowest of the Esprits, and probably the most prone to quality issues. The S2 had various improvements over its predecessor, though the engine remained the same. In 1981, a lightly re-worked Esprit, the S3, was equipped with a more powerful 2.2L Lotus-built engine. A turbocharged version also hit the market, finally adding some much needed "real" power.

In 1987, a less angular and stronger body was fitted to the Esprit. These cars mark the transition to the "modern" Esprits. Various trims and engine specifications were available throughout the 1990s and it actually seemed as if the design was finally coming into its own and shedding the 'kit car' image. Beginning in 1996, a turbocharged, all-aluminum, 350 hp V8 developed by Lotus found its way into the car. These are the fastest of the Esprits, but also the most expensive. In terms of being an "affordable" mid-engined car, they're a little too far off the chart.
Like anything, condition is a large factor in price with these cars. You can find an earlier model for around $10,000 or so, but unless you're willing to spend a lot on repairs, you may be better off finding a later S3 model that's been well taken care of. These can be had for under $20,000, but a really nice one can be significantly more. V8 models are usually well over $25,000.

Porsche 986 Boxster (1996-2004)

It hardly seems like it was so long ago that the Boxster was automotive industry front-page news. Porsche was having a hard time financially, and the 986 marked the beginning of a new era in Porsche's history. The completely new design was a significant departure from the line-up preceding it, which were cars all based on designs dating back to the 1970s or earlier. Porsche was no stranger to water-cooling by this period (924, 928, 944, 968, etc.) but this was the first time the company used it on typical flat-6 engine layout.
Everything about the Boxster was new, including the very method in which Porsche produced the car. To keep costs under control and therefore make the model a success, the Germans actually hired Toyota to advise them on production processes and parts sharing. The Boxster shared much in common with the 996 series '911' including styling cues such as the unique headlights. Perhaps realizing that their last attempt at an entry-level mid-engined car (the 914) was rather distant from the classic Porsche shape, the Boxster bore more than a passing resemblance to the legendary 550 Spyder.
At its debut, the Boxster could be purchased for just under $40,000 - a relative bargain compared to a 911 and even more so when one considers the arguably superior handling over its big brother. Granted, power wasn't as great - the 986's engine was initially a 200 hp 2.5L - but overall, the whole package was just what Porsche needed to revive the company. Boxsters sold faster than they could be built.
Some criticized the Boxster for being a little too cheaply built, particularly in interior quality. Early cars had issues with engine failures due to production flaws and as a result Porsche instituted a massive recall program. Most of these cars had entirely new engines fitted under warranty and are trouble free.

In addition to great handling and a full roadster layout, the Boxster, like the 914, has two trunks and therefore a considerable amount of luggage space for a car of this type. Like all Porsches, year-to-year changes are numerous, but perhaps most important is the fitment of a more powerful 2.7 L engine in 2000. Boxsters are perhaps the most common Porsches on the road today. Fortunately for those wishing to own one, prices of used models are fairly low. Certainly some have been abused, but a decent late-90s example can be had for a very resonable $10,000 or even less. Later models and "S" spec cars may run closer to $20k and a second-generation "987" series will be higher still.

Photos are not the property of RWP and we do not claim credit for them