My association with rear-engined cars goes right back to my childhood in the 50's in Ireland. I was very interested in cars from an early age and most of the vehicles with which I'd had contact happened to have the engines in the rear. For example, an uncle owned a Goggomobil coupe, my school teacher had a new Renault Dauphine, and our nearest neighbour drove an NSU Prinz. My father did not have a car in the late 50's but was able to borrow a VW Beetle if the need was urgent.
In winter, these rear-engined cars were the only ones able to drive around without trouble because of the superior traction inherent to the design. The aircooled cars also avoided the problems encountered with water in the cooling system in freezing conditions. So, as a child and young person, I observed this and formed the opinion that RR (as rear engine, rear drive is known in Japan) was a more efficient engineering solution for the motor car.
For me, a car is rear-engined when the engine is positioned behind the driver. This can be in front of the rear axle (Matra Djet), on top of the rear axle (Tatra 613) or behind the rear axle (Hino Contessa).
After our family moved to Australia in 1963, I found far fewer rear-engined cars around. Australians had a preference for fairly large conventional and relatively unsophisticated cars such as Holdens, Ford Falcons and Chrysler Valiants. Nevertheless, cars such as the Renault R8/R10 and VW did reasonably well in a small sector of the market place.
To my great disappointment in Australia, we never saw the Simca 1000 range, Chevrolet Corvair, or the NSU Prinz 4. We did however see small numbers of Hillman Imps, Skoda 1000MBs, Fiat 500/600/850 and very small numbers of the Hino Contessa 1300.
From 1969 to date, I have owned examples of Renault 4CV and Dauphine/Gordini, Renault R8 and Gordini 1100, Renault Floride and Caravelle, Alpine Renault A110 1300G, Fiat 500, Autobianchi Bianchina, NSU Prinz 2, 3, 4L(privately imported) and Sports Prinz, Porsche 356B and 911T, Goggomobil T300, TS400 and Dart 400, Lightburn Zeta Sports, Vespa 400, Messerschmitt KR200, Trojan 200, VW 1200 and Hino Contessa 1300. As at 2004, I still own the Prinz 4L, Trojan 200, Bianchina and two Hino Contessas.
For me the best cars from this selection were the Renault R8, Alpine, VW, Fiat 500, Prinz 4, 911T and the Contessa, probably each for different reasons. Over many years, I carried out extensive restoration work on Renaults, restored the Porsche 911T from the ground up to almost new condition, rebuilt the Alpine and Trojan suspension, brakes and transmission and did lots of work on the other makes as well.
I have also been lucky enough to drive and enjoy rear-engined car owned by friends both in Australia and other countries. These include Matra Djet, Simca 1000, Chevrolet Corvair, BMW Farmobil, Fiat 126, 600, 850 and X19, Ferrari Mondial, 348 and Testarossa, Alpine Renault A310V6, GTA and GTA Turbo, Porsche 356B Carrera 2, 356A, 911S, Carrera 3.0, 3.2, 930 and Boxster S, Steyr Puch 700C and Haflinger, Lancia Stratos, Hillman Imp, Skoda 1000MB, S110 and S120 and Subaru 360.
I built a Renault R8 up for rally use in the 70's and campaigned it at a club level for several years. This taught me all about the dynamics of rear-engined cars in competition conditions and made me further appreciate the inherent advantages of the design. I also did some minor competition work with the Porsche 356B which showed remarkable performance and agility, especially with only 60 horsepower.
Although I had known about Hino Contessas for a long time, it was the chance acquisition of a sales brochure for a 1964 Contessa 900 in 1997 that made me realise how closely these cars were related to my beloved Renaults. I was fascinated and started to research Hino Contessa history, with a view to eventually acquiring one. I quickly realised that no Contessa 900s were officially sold new in Australia. Contessa 1300s fared little better, with 247 cars apparently being sold on the eastern seaboard only. So far, I have only located one survivor and it is beyond economical restoration. There were no Contessa 1300s sold new in Western Australia, where I live.
Then in 1998, I saw a 1967 Contessa 1300 sedan advertised for sale in New Zealand. The car had covered 56,000 miles from new and I imported it into Australia (at great expense) in the same year. The car was a good example, in running order, and had minimal rust and other problems. I must admit to some surprise as to how well the car drove. Having had the opportunity to drive Toyota Tiaras, Datsun Bluebirds, early Mazdas and Daihatsus, and with due respect to these cars, I was not expecting anything special. But special is what I got.
This car was an absolute delight in so many ways. It was quiet, smooth and cultivated, with superb steering and gearchange. Visibility - courtesy of the low window line, was particularly good. Compared to its Renault cousin - the seats were not as good and the drum brakes would not be as good at high speed, but in many other areas it was equally good and in some areas, such as the aforementioned gearchange and the low speed characteristics of the engine, the Hino was noticeably better.
The Hino also had the advantage of an hydraulically actuated clutch and a beautifully made Hitachi twin barrel carburettor - both of which helped with the exceptionally smooth progress. This was without doubt one of the nicest cars I had ever driven, and I was more convinced than ever that I would like to own a really good Contessa.
(Maurice. Davin, West Australia, 2004.7.17 (Original))