Story and photo by Bill Vance

If one were to date the birth of four-wheel drive, 1902 would be a good point because several significant events occurred that year on both sides of the Atlantic. In Amsterdam, Holland, the Spijker company built its Spyker car (they simplified the spelling for commercial reasons) fitted with an 8.7-litre, six-cylinder engine, and 4WD.

In the U.S., the Aultman Co. of Canton, Ohio, experimented with a 4WD steam truck. The Cotta Automobile Co. of Rockford, Illinois, built a light steam car with its engine in the middle and drive chains to all four wheels.

At about the same time an electric truck called the Columbia was built, probably in Hartford, Connecticut. It had an electric motor in each wheel, and even provided power steering by transmitting electric power to the “fifth wheel” on the front axle.

But these pioneering projects were preliminary to events that would happen in Clintonville, Wisconsin when blacksmith Otto Zachow obtained a franchise to sell Reo cars in 1904.

While demonstrating the car, Zachow slipped off the road, and accidentally discovered that the car had better traction in reverse. Why not, he reasoned, use front-wheel drive? Even better, why not four-wheel drive?

The ingenious blacksmith fabricated a 4WD system. A young local lawyer named Walter Olen helped Zachow patent his invention in 1908. They formed a business to build all-wheel drive machines.

Zachow, Olen, and another partner, William Besserdich, initially called it the Badger Four Wheel Drive Auto Co., but soon changed to the FWD Co. Their first car was a White steamer fitted with Zachow’s 4WD.

While the 4WD steamer was impressive at ploughing through snowdrifts, there were no buyers. The company then installed 4WD in a large gasoline-powered car nicknamed the Battleship. FWD offered a $1,000 prize to any car that could match the Battleship’s go-anywhere ability. There were no takers, nor were there any orders for the $4,500 machine.

Prospects were bleak until war clouds began gathering in Europe. The British army was interested in high-traction capability, and after conducting some tests on FWD vehicles, took two FWD trucks to England for further evaluation.

1926 FWD Truck
1926 FWD Truck. Click image to enlarge

Britain soon ordered 50 more 4WD trucks. That was FWD’s turning point. FWD and its competitor, the Thomas B. Jeffery Co. of Kenosha, Wisconsin (later Nash Motor Co.), manufacturer of the 4WD Quad, supplied thousands of 4WD military trucks for both the First World War and General Pershing’s U.S.-Mexican conflict.

War’s end almost killed the FWD Co., but it survived supplying parts for the many war-surplus FWD trucks now in civilian hands. It also made 4WD utility and construction trucks.

Another manufacturer of 4WD equipment was Marmon. After the death of the Marmon car, the Marmon-Herrington Co. of Indianapolis, began producing 4WD conversions for trucks, principally Fords. But it would take another war to really revive 4WD.

With conflict again threatening Europe in the late 1930s, the U.S. recognized that it would likely be drawn in. The army wanted a small, manoeuvrable, go-anywhere vehicle, and in 1940 drew up specifications for what became known as the Jeep. Its most important requirement was 4WD.

The American Bantam Car Co. of Butler, Pennsylvania won the bid, but it could not build the number required by the military so the job fell to Willys-Overland and Ford.

The Jeep proved so valuable during the war, and built up so much goodwill, that at war’s end Willys-Overland decided to eschew cars and concentrate on civilian Jeeps. It offered the regular Jeep, followed by a Jeep station wagon in 1946, and the sporty Jeepster convertible in 1948.

Staying with Jeeps was the best move the company could have made. Although Willys-Overland was later swallowed up, the Jeep’s popularity has not waned, and Jeep has become synonymous with 4WD.

Through the 1950s and ’60s 4WD was still viewed largely as suitable for utility, heavy duty, off-road use. It had been tried on racing cars, including Indianapolis and Formula 1, but had not dominated.

It was offered in the Jensen Motor Co.’s Interceptor FF passenger car model from 1966 to ’72 using a system developed by farm implement builder Harry Ferguson’s company, but the Jensen was very expensive and few were sold.

Then in 1977 Japan’s Subaru company offered an on-demand 4WD system in its cars. This was followed by American Motors with its 4WD Eagle, and Audi with its advanced Quattro system.

Four-wheel drive was given a big boost by the popularity of sport utility vehicles, of which the Jeep was the father, and is now gaining wide popularity in cars. It is so well integrated that there is no outward evidence of its presence, and so sophisticated it is totally transparent to drivers. Four-wheel drive, far from being something new, is almost as old as the car itself.

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