The flat-six is a wonderful engine configuration. It combines the joys of six-cylinder noise with the lowest possible centre of gravity and compact design. You can even mount it behind a car’s rear axle, as one German car maker is quite keen to point out.
Outside of Porsche’s side of Stuttgart, though, options for flat-six laughs are thin on the ground. If you don’t want a Porsche, we’ve pulled together a handful of other options from history’s pages, some of which you can pick up as classifieds bargains…
Built in 1900 to take advantage of the ‘flat’ engine’s natural balance and low centre of gravity, the Wilson-Pilcher car came with either four or six cylinders. Each water-cooled cylinder was actually a separate component that could be switched out if it developed a fault.
At 678.7cc per cylinder, the fours stood at 2715cc and the sixes measured almost 4.1 litres. No six-cylinder versions are known to have survived, and just one four-pot version is in a private collection somewhere.
You know a car is retro when even the press photography was in black & white. We found this shot in amongst a heap of monochrome options. Known in Japan as the Alcyone (al-SIGH-o-knee, apparently) SVX, this was Subaru’s attempt to take-on the Germans with a luxury performance coupe. The body was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro and Subaru kept the original concept’s odd ‘window within a window’ arrangement.
Launched in 1991 it had a 3.3-litre flat-six from the EG family, linked to a four-speed automatic transmission. It put 231bhp on the table courtesy of multi-point injection and advanced features like platinum spark plugs. A shooting brake version called the Amadeus was also designed, but early sales of the coupe weren’t what Subaru was hoping for and the roomier project was cancelled.
The Tucker Sedan, or more officially the Tucker 48, was a glorious-looking post-war saloon that was arguably ahead of its time. It was part of a wave of new models that sprang up in the late 1940s as the ‘big three’ automakers, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, struggled with ranges that hadn’t been updated since 1941.
Although the company was quickly ruined by suspicious (and totally baseless) claims that it was involved with high-value fraud, it managed to produce 51 examples of the flat-six-powered 48, nicknamed the Tucker Torpedo. After bespoke engine designs failed, Tucker used a 5.5-litre Air Cooled Motors flat-six with 166bhp. Let’s be honest, though, you’d buy this one for the looks alone, if it wasn’t for the fact that surviving cars are worth well into seven figures.
Another retro flat-six starlet is the Chevrolet Corvair. It was sort of America’s Beetle; the only American-designed and mass-produced car to use a rear-fixed, air-cooled engine. That said, it was much more advanced. Interestingly, the Corvair was one of the few American cars of the era to use a significant percentage of aluminium engine components. It even had independent suspension at every corner (for the second generation) and a proper ‘unibody’ chassis, making it surprisingly modern for a 1960s machine.
The first flat-six it used coughed up just 80bhp. By 1965 that had risen to a much healthier 180bhp thanks to turbocharging in the Corsa engine. It was built as a coupe, a convertible, a four-door saloon, an estate, two variants of van and a pickup truck.
We’re well aware that we could have gone for a 3.0-litre version of the deeply pretty Legacy or even the farm-friendly Outback, but where’s the adventure in the expected route? The Tribeca was a bizarre design, largely out of step with Subaru’s other cars and, well, it wasn’t what you’d call a looker. It had a piggy central grille/snout joined by what, in my head at least, looks like an aristocratic moustache.
Its unburstable engines were gems, with the UK only ever getting the earlier 3.0-litre unit but other markets also adding the later 3.6-litre upgrade, as well as a 2007 facelift that made it look a lot less like a farm animal but that also sucked every drop of character out of it. Nonetheless, the EZ engines helped make it a real pleasure to own.
Okay, so we’re cheating a bit because the Lykan HyperSport uses a Porsche-based engine, but it’s different enough to qualify. The ultra-exclusive supercar, built only seven times with one of those going to the Abu Dhabi police, was fitted with a 3.7-litre flat-six with two turbos, developed by none other than Porsche tuning specialist Ruf.
W Motors claims a top speed of 245mph – do try not to crash at that speed – and a 0-62mph sprint time of 2.8 seconds. Output from the mid-engined beast is said to be 780bhp, with 708lb ft of muscle all heading to the rear wheels.
Finally, if you like your mile-munchers to ride on a couple fewer wheels, there are still flat-six options. Honda’s Gold Wing is the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles. Built initially as a flat-four cruiser with plenty of weight but a low centre of gravity, it was massively changed and upgraded during its second generation until it became the wide-bodied monster whose silhouette quickly gained icon status.
The definitive fourth-generation version arrived in 1987, bringing six cylinders with it for the first time. It was so perfect for its job, and became so successful in the face of all of its challengers, that Honda simply left it in production for a full 13 years. There may never have been a smoother motorbike engine than the Gold Wing’s flat-six, which made it perfect for long, low-vibration days in the saddle. It even had air suspension as far back as the early 1980s.