By on November 27, 2017


With reader feedback always on my mind, perhaps an overview of commonly used terms in the car design trade is needed.

Let’s discuss the dash-to-axle: a notion that’s (probably) been a car design staple since Edsel Ford’s vision for an European-inspired flagship — one which added 7 inches to the hood of a mere luxury car.

Simply defined, dash-to-axle is the distance measured from the dashboard to the front axle.

More correctly stated, it’s the distance between the cowl (the thing where dashboards and many crucial body structures originate) and the front axle’s centerline. Longer dash to axle distances connotes a more prestigious vehicle, hence why Edsel Ford demanded such for his Euro-homage Continental.

But the long dash-to-axle lost relevance as pre-war turned post-war: running boards and long, separate fenders made way for efficient Ponton forms, and compact mainstream engines made far more power than the upper-echelon monstrosities of a decade prior. The pointlessness worsens: the space saving front-wheel drive genius of the original Mini made its way into flat floored, family-friendly vehicles by the 1980s. As cab-forward design pushes space efficiency further, why on earth isn’t dash-to-axle an antiquated design metric relegated to the dustbin?

Because people have wants alongside their needs, and designers must understand why every manufacturer (at some point) has a crisis of conscience that translates into the need for a halo vehicle.  When that happens (and if a rear/mid-engine chassis isn’t planned) a longer dash-to-axle implies a more prestigious vehicle with rear-wheel drive and a more powerful engine. The Toyota 2000GT is my favorite example of a long dash-to-axle from a branding perspective. 

No disrespect to the similarly-excellent Datsun 240Z/Fairlady, but the 2000GT is how dash-to-axle gets your country’s (not just Toyota’s) automotive mojo going. And history is littered with brands needing a serious boost via long dash-to-axle. Think 1992 Dodge Viper against a fleet of Dodge Dynastys. Or the one-off, luxo brand enhancing 2004 Maybach Excelero and the current Rolls Royce Wraith, which is (very) loosely based on the BMW 7 Series.

Same story, different decades: just wait for China to make “their” 2000GT for a global stage. 

Sticking with Toyota, perhaps its other fantastic expression of a deliciously long dash-to-axle needs further investigation. Check out its flagship sedan, the Toyota Century.

Considering the East Asian markets’ generally tight space constraints, the Century’s decadence compared to the Crown Eight from which it came from is obvious. The second-generation Century was based on the Crown Majesta, and while the eyeball might deceive, the Century likely has a longer dash-to-axle than the downmarket-ish Majesta.

Just released recently, the third-generation Century is certainly, luxuriously rear-wheel drive… but is it devilishly obvious with such a short dash-to-axle?

Since the Century officially went to a conventional dash-to-axle measurement, is the prestigious notion of a longer dash-to-axle on the verge of extinction? Is Rolls-Royce next?

Off to you, Best and Brightest.

[Image: Shutterstock user crwpitman]

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24 Comments on “Vellum Venom: Dash-to-Axle, Defined...”

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    The PLC’s of the early to mid 70’s are wonderful examples of adding distance to the ‘dash to axle’ distance to create an illusion of style, prestige and power.

    Nothing felt more luxurious than piloting a Mark IV with a cowl long enough to land a helicopter on.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams


      And then contrast that with the late-70s and early 80s Ford models. The wheelbases were set at 114 and 117 inches for the Panther products. The dash-to-axle ratio seemed grander on the Lincoln models, but most of the hood length was added via pronounced front overhang.

      Somehow, the heavy overhang look worked a bit better for the ’79-’85 GM E-bodies, and they were longitude-FWD, too.

    • 0 avatar

      The Mark IV and V had a fantastic Dash to Axle, but it was visually masked by the long overhangs, especially after 5mph bumpers were installed.

  • avatar

    Same visual effect was achieved in the transition from Falcon to Mustang.

    The Falcon was for your dowdy aunt and the Mustang was for movers and shakers. :-)

  • avatar

    The dash was never the dashboard. That’s the instrument panel.

    The dash is also known as the firewall, the vertical steel panel that separates the engine from the passenger compartment. In carriage and buggy days, it was a panel that dashed off the horse exhaust and kept the passengers clean (sort of).

    When I was in design school, one of the more important design relationships was the axle to the A-pillar. In other words, it was important that the A-pillar, at least the visual impression of the A-pillar, intersect the front axle. The current Century pictured shows this well.

    Relatively small movement of the A-pillar rearward relative to the axle centerline makes a large difference in the perception of the car, more so than measuring the axle to dash.

    That said, I like cars with a long axle to dash measurement. Skimp on the back seat, but make sure the hood is long enough.

  • avatar

    Bring back the straight eights and V-16s and all will be right in the luxury car world.

    • 0 avatar

      Or just set back the engine.

      A little anomality: I had a Jeep YJ Wrangler with the unappreciated Four. Now, you need to know the history of the Wrangler: It was an upgraded CJ, which was upgraded in 1972 with the new owners, AMC, to take the boat-anchor Rambler Sixes in place of the Go-Devil Willys four.

      To fit the relatively-enormous iron lunk, AMC had to strech the CJ-5 chassis two inches. When the CJ-7 came out, the stretch was incorporated; the frame further stretched and splayed towards the rear.

      And the YJ kept that, with some modifications. Thing was, it wasn’t NEEDED for the new AMC four. Didn’t matter, though – the designers jammed it up against the firewall; and in instaallation, the WHOLE of that engine was behind the rear axle. And not by a little.

      And the handling was transformed. Nobody claimed the YJ or TJ was a road car; but, honestly, compared to Ford Torinos of twenty years earlier…it truly was. I did more than a little highway commuting on that rig…it was noisy and drafty, but handling was never an issue.

      Engine behind the axle.

  • avatar
    S2k Chris

    My S2000 has a pretty generous D-t-A but I don’t think anyone is impressed.

  • avatar

    The shortening and upright profile is ruining that new Century. Look at the old one, how the C-pillar and rear wheel are aligned, with a nice long trunk afterward.

    In the new one, the C-pillar continues way past the rear wheels, with a short and stumpy trunk.

  • avatar

    The 4-Series has a long dta, I think.

  • avatar

    Dash-to-axle is an expression I haven’t heard in a long time. I’m not sure it’s really relevant anymore.

    • 0 avatar

      Thing is, the concept of “DLO fairlure”, or not having clean window openings, came out of shortening the dash-to-axle ratio as well as moving the greenhouse further over the rear axle. The door and window openings no longer fit neatly between the fenders, so they need visual tricks like plastic panels and windows that don’t open or open all the way in order to work.

  • avatar

    The designers at AMC apparently were well aware of this. Through the 1960s and ‘70s the company’s Ambassador and Classic/Rebel/Matador were basically the same car. For model year 1970, for example, the Ambassador was marketed as a full-size car while the Rebel was marketed as a mid-size. Indeed, the Ambassador was several inches longer in both wheelbase and overall length but the extra length was all ahead of the firewall. From the firewall back they were exactly the same car. The passanger compartment split the difference between full- and mid-size making the Ambassador slightly less roomy than other full-size cars while the Rebel/Matador was slightly roomier than other intermediates. The Ambassador would have more impressive front end styling which accenuated the longer hood.

  • avatar

    This is very informative, Sajeev.

    In related terminology, could you explain the term “close-coupled” as in “close-coupled coupe”? (I’ve never heard of a close-coupled sedan.)

  • avatar

    Couple refers to the distance between the H-points (roughly the hip joints) of the front and rear seat occupants. Move the occupants closer together, and they are more closely coupled. Hence the term.

    Like a lot of body engineering terms, this came from the carriage building trade, in the 18th century.

    In the car industry, the F word is never used. Cars have thermal events at times. Hence the term “firewall” is also never used. Dash panel, the correct name, or engine compartment separation plane, are the preferred terms.

  • avatar

    Interesting article. Dash-to-axle is one of many design elements that suggests luxury on a car. A straight upper character line that is preferably parallel to the lower character line is another. Also, having the rear wheels in front of the C pillar coupled with a long rear overhang drive it more to the point. These are reserved for the signature models though and not for the mass segment offerings.

    I hope that these design cues still live on not just in the luxury segment. However, its future looks bleak as more designers today make the vehicle more egg-shaped and droopy-nosed to fit the cabin-forward design that is inherent to the front-wheel drive platform.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    I’ve noticed this design element for a long time. Back in the 80’s I noticed how many FWD GMs had a DTA that put the base of the A-pillar directly over the center of the front wheel, creating that LOOOOONG front overhang.
    Recently, you can see how FWD cars have adapted. Almost every FWD Mazda made today has a decidedly un-FWD-like DTA, which contributes mightily to their sporty flair. But take a look at that trunk and back seat- on a modern Mazda they barely exist. Mazda has sacrificed practicality for style, and is laughing all the way to the bank.

  • avatar

    I recall the Chrysler LH cars as being cab forward designs. The 1966 Toronado is Cab Rearward!

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