Auto manufacturers love to test the public's reaction to "dream" cars, which they call "cars of the future." These generally have science-fiction styling and, rarely, a new technical wrinkle or two, but the wheels are almost invariably mounted in the age-old rectangular pattern, and the differences between them and models of the past are more illusory than real. Now comes the world's most famous coachmaker with what he terms an "idea" car. (He says, "I did not design her as a stunt.") Its wheel arrangement would cause astonished comment in Indiana or Indonesia.
Although it is still more than a year away from perfection, four companies, including two U.S. firms, have evinced more than a publicity man's interest in the car and there is great likelihood that it, unlike its predecessors, will be mass-produced.
The coachmaker is Italy's ebullient Pinin Farina, whose plant, located on the outskirts of Turin in north Italy, is the very model of a modern factory. Clean as a hospital, bright as a flower stall, elegant as a Paris boutique, it employs 1,000 workers and turns out 50 gemlike automobiles a day. At heart a custom coach builder for wealthy clients, Farina has managed to adapt his specialized talents to the simplified demands of the great automobile companies. He designed the new Peugeot 404, which will be introduced in this country this month, the trim little Austin A-40, the 1953 Nash-Healey and the Cadillac Starlight. It was his influence which led to the shift from the vertical to the horizontal grille after the war and he introduced the smart broken line at the rear window now used in many mass-produced European cars.
His new car is called, simply, "X." Miss X is like no other car on the road, for she has one driving wheel in the rear, one for steering in front and for stability two side wheels positioned where a normal car's rear driving wheels would be.
X was shaped in the wind tunnel of Turin's Polytechnical Institute, where Farina engineers were studying the aerodynamic shapes most suitable to motor car design. They soon realized that the shape they were looking for could not be adapted to the body configuration of the normal auto. The best solution, they concluded, is a variation on the rhomboid, where the body is widest at the sides, narrowing toward the front. A rhomboid car is not a new idea, but earlier designs had failed because the side wheels were placed in dead center, forcing the passengers to sit in isolated pairs front and rear.
Farina's men moved the side wheels farther back, enabling the passengers to sit normally. The engine is in the rear, on the right side, where its weight is balanced by the driver's in the left front seat.
Most important, the wheel pattern permits superior streamlining, as the bullet-nosed X car attests. Fitted with an ordinary four-cylinder 1,089-cc. Fiat engine, it can reach a top speed of 85 mph, while conventional cars so powered can do only 70. At lower speeds, the streamlining yields gas savings up to 40%.
The wiggle is out
Farina points to other benefits, among them a surprisingly stable performance on snow and ice. Since there is no need for a differential, there is no loss of traction due to the sliding of the driving wheel in the rear. "When you start on an icy road with an ordinary car," he says, "it wiggles. Ours doesn't." Last month wintry snows covered the roads around Turin, and the company hustled Miss X out for a road test. Said Farina's son Sergio: "We were worried, but the test was marvelous."
Another advantage of the rhomboid shape is the near elimination of torsion stress which occurs in turns on a conventional car. This permits construction of a lighter, cheaper shell. Finally, the single front wheel, operating like a tricycle, makes parking easier in constricted spaces.