A History of the Invention of Four Wheel Drive for Students at Automotive Service Technician School

auto mechanic careers

Sometimes, fine-tuning things to make them perfect can take a really, really long time. Back in the early 1900s, cars were largely based around two-wheel drive, where the rear wheels would propel the car forward while the front wheels would help steer it. This resulted in problems for drivers, as they’d have trouble getting their cars out of treacherous and/or muddy terrain. Enter four-wheel drive: giving torque to four axle ends from two of the car’s axles, it would need time to truly take off, but it’s a technology that has now become very commonplace among car manufacturers and buyers.

Here’s how four-wheel drive—or 4×4—came to be.

Humble Beginnings in the Late 1800s

Students in automotive service technician school might be surprised to learn that the history of 4-wheel drive goes back quite far. The concept of four-wheel drive was patented in 1893 by British engineer Bramah Joseph Diplock, and Ferdinand Porsche’s Lohner-Porsche hybrid vehicle was built six years later—though despite being the first-ever hybrid car, it was extremely heavy and too expensive for many consumers.

However, the 1903 Spyker 60 H.P. is often credited as the first four-wheel drive vehicle. The first of its kind with four-wheel braking and a six-cylinder engine, the car was made for the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, and is currently on display at the Louwman Museum in The Hague, Netherlands.

Four-wheel drive vehicles have been known for being able to drive in treacherous conditions
Four-wheel drive vehicles have been known for being able to drive in treacherous conditions

The Four Wheel Drive Company, and WWI

Further attempts to advance four-wheel drive would be made in subsequent years, including designs made by the Pennsylvania-based Twyford Company in 1905. That said, a game-changer came in the form of Otto Zachow and William Besserdich’s development of the first mass-produced four-wheel drive vehicles. Built in 1908, their car—known as the “Battleship”—was the centrepiece of the duo’s Four Wheel Drive Company (FWD). The Wisconsin-based company’s vehicle came equipped with double Y constant-velocity joints to steer with, making the car’s four-wheel drive capability possible.

However, four-wheel drive would start truly rising to prominence during the First World War. When the United States Military ordered trucks with four-wheel drive capability, more than 16,000 model B trucks would be produced and shipped out for the war, and bought by the American army—with about half of them being made by FWD. If it weren’t for the FWD Company and the cars’ usage during the war, who knows how many four-wheel drive cars professionals with auto mechanic careers would get to work on.

The 1980s and Beyond—What Those Pursuing Auto Mechanic Careers Need to Know

Despite their usage in both World Wars (with WWII featuring the frequent use of the Willys MB and Ford GPW Jeeps) and auto manufacturers like Subaru and Mitsubishi introducing their own 4x4s in subsequent decades, it arguably wouldn’t be until the beginning of the ‘80s that four-wheel drive would truly achieve popularity again in North America.

The rise of AMC’s Eagle crossover would leave other AWD vehicles in the dust
The rise of AMC’s Eagle crossover would leave other AWD vehicles in the dust

American Motors Corporation (AMC) introduced the Eagle; a four-wheel drive passenger car that was the only one of its kind made in the U.S. during that time. Known retrospectively as one of the first-ever crossover vehicles, the Eagle combined 4×4 capability with a comfortable, family-friendly ride. Nearly 200,000 of them would be produced.
As the years went by, 4x4s would become increasingly commonplace, with companies like Subaru frequently tinkering with the torque split of their cars to develop their all-wheel drive systems, and other manufacturers releasing models of their own.

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