When the conversation turns to the history of the first four-wheel-drive cars and trucks, things can get complicated. The first four-wheel-drive design or prototype is one thing. The first vehicle that looked and worked something like modern four-wheel-drive is another. And the surviving examples of some of the first four-wheel-drive cars and trucks are another thing entirely. To complicate matters further, automotive historians often differ in their interpretation of what qualifies a vehicle to be considered four-wheel-drive.
Beginnings: The First Four-Wheel-Drive Vehicles
We’re going to look at some of the earliest four-wheel-drive vehicles. More than a dozen early four-wheel-drive cars and trucks came and went long before the now-famous Jeep appeared. Some never made it past the drawing board, others existed only as prototypes, and some saw only a handful of production examples.
A few of the earliest four-wheel-drive cars and trucks did see mass production. Some of them are of great significance, while others can lay claim to being the first four-wheel-drive in one configuration or another.
Burstall and Hill Steam Coach
It’s generally agreed that the very first four-wheel-drive vehicle meant for roads was the 1824 Burstall and Hill Steam Coach. The steam coach used a steam engine to turn the rear axle. The rear axle spun a tooth-geared driveshaft that drove the front axle and wheels.
The Burstall and Hill Steam Coach produced a whopping 24 hp, but was heavy and reportedly rattled itself to pieces on the rough English roads. The steam engine mounted behind the rear axle which meant the front axle was “light” and likely had little tractive ability. Nonetheless, this design holds the distinction of being the first four-wheel-drive vehicle to be patented and built.
Diplock’s Locomotive & Traction Engine
Sometimes called out as the first four-wheel-drive vehicle and meant for use on all road surfaces, the locomotive designed by English inventor Brahma Joseph Diplock was patented in 1898. Diplock is also credited with inventing the Pedrail, a wheel-and-tread consisting of rubber shod feet connected to the wheel by ball-and-socket joints to the ends of sliding spokes.
By 1910, Diplock had abandoned his original Pedrail wheel concept and gone to a track system for his vehicle design which was patented in 1914. In the early stages of World War I, Diplock’s vehicle was demonstrated for the British Army and likely led to what we now know as the modern tracked tank.
One of the first — some would argue the very first — four-wheel-drive cars was the Twyford car which was designed and eventually built by mechanical engineer Robert E. Twyford of Brookville, Pennsylvania. Its patent was filed July 7, 1898; its official patent date is April 3, 1900. The Twyford Motor Company was created, a factory was built, and in 1904 the first Twyford car, a single-seat roadster, was ready to go.
Other models of Twyford’s car were planned, including a four-passenger rig and a delivery truck. However, only a handful of the roadsters were built, and soon Twyford closed its doors. A replica of the Twyford car can be seen in the Jefferson County History Center in Brookville, Pennsylvania.
Cotta-Mobile: The First Four-Wheel-Drive Gas-Powered Car
In our opinion, the Cotta-Mobile is the first gasoline-powered four-wheel-drive car. Although the Cotta-Mobile design patent was filed on January 17, 1900, and its patent date is July 3, 1900, by some time in 1901, Charles Cotta was already driving his invention. Perhaps the most striking part of the Cotta-Mobile is that Cotta, who was self-taught, built it all from handmade parts in a small machine shop.
The Cotta-Mobile used a center-mounted gearbox that drove chains to spin the front and rear axles. A precursor to the modern triangulated trailing arm system for the rear axle can be seen in the chassis design. It also featured a rudimentary four-wheel-steering system using chains to turn the axles, but the front and rear wheels were not independent of each other.
Within a few years, with no major investors to move forward, Cotta sold his patents to the Four Wheel Drive Wagon Co. (FWD) of Clintonville, Wisconsin. Cotta would soon form Cotta Transmissions, a company that, ironically, would sell transmissions to FWD. Cotta Transmission Company still exists today and is a major supplier of heavy-duty transmissions for industrial applications.
Spyker 60-HP Car
The Spyker 60-HP four-wheel-drive car was crafted in an automotive style easily recognized today as a car rather than a carriage. The Spyker 60-HP lays claim to the first F4 (front-engine, four-wheel-drive) car layout, the first four-wheel-drive racecar title, the first shaft-driven four-wheel-drive car, and the first four-wheel-drive with four-wheel brakes. The brainchild of Dutch brothers Hendrik Jan and Jacobus Spijker, the Spyker car sported a 6-cylinder gasoline engine designed and built by Belgian engineer Joseph Valentin Laviolette.
Laviolette also designed the transmission that divided the power between the front and rear axles. The flywheel featured a cone-clutch that sent power to a separate gearbox with a differential to split power between the front and rear driveshafts. A prototype Spyker 60-HP debuted in 1903, and the car saw limited production until 1907. An extraordinary example of a restored Spyker 60-HP can be found at the Louwman Museum located in The Hauge, Netherlands.
The Evolution: Other Early Four-Wheel-Drive Cars
Several more four-wheel-drive car designs came out just after the turn of the century though some never left the drawing board. Charles Van Winkle of Farmington, California, filed a patent for a chain-driven four-wheel-drive car in 1904 and built one the next year. Van Winkle sold the patent to the Stockton Four Wheel Drive Auto Company, but the car never saw production.
Bakersfield, California residents Morton Magie and Charles Winters patented a shaft-driven four-wheel-drive vehicle in 1907 that also featured four-wheel steering. The Road Runner Auto Company that Magie and Winters formed would close without building a single car.
Ernest Rosenberger began building a four-wheel-drive car in 1907 under different brand names (Four Traction, Mankato, and Kato) in Mankato, Minnesota, with production running until 1913. The Michigan car was a four-wheel-drive brass-era automobile produced from 1903 to 1908 by the Michigan Automobile Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
The Daimler Dernburg-Wagen four-wheel-drive car is significant because it featured four-wheel-drive and four-wheel-steering. The four-wheel-drive system concept was likely in the mind of Paul Daimler as early as 1903. However, the first and only Dernburg-Wagen was built by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in 1907.
Powered by a 35 hp 4-cylinder 6.8L engine, the Dernburg-Wagen featured a permanent four-wheel-drive system. A shaft connected the engine to the central gearbox (with four forward and one reverse gear) using prop shafts to transfer power to the front and rear axles. Bevel-geared differentials split and sent power to the wheels.
The Dernburg-Wagen was built specifically for the then Secretary of State of the Colonial Office, Bernhard Dernburg who drove it for the following year in German South-West Africa (today’s Namibia). It was next given to the police in German South-West Africa, logging about 6,000 miles as a transport vehicle. The Dernburg-Wagen remained in Africa during World War I, after which it seems to have disappeared.
Early Four-Wheel-Drive Trucks
In the early 1900s, a few companies began producing four-wheel-drive trucks primarily for commercial purposes. One of those was the Duplex Power Car Company. Its ¾-ton Model B, powered by a 14 hp 2-cylinder engine, was introduced in 1906 and continued in production until 1909. The four-wheel-drive Duplex Power Car had differentials atop solid beam axles with shafts going to toothed ring gears at the wheels.
The first Walter Truck Company truck was built in 1909 and that led to its four-wheel-drive truck in 1911. The Walter four-wheel-drive truck used a spur-and-ring gear axle design much like the Duplex. Walter continued to build heavy-duty trucks for several industries for decades. It exists today as Kovatch Mobile Equipment Corporation (KME), building specialized vehicles such as snowplows and fuel delivery trucks.
The Thomas B. Jeffrey Company debuted a four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer, 2-ton truck called the Quad in 1914. Quads were in the hands of American, British, French, and Russian armed forces during World War I.
The Jeffrey Quad featured a double-gear reduction (43.2:1) four-speed transmission, auto-locking mechanical front and rear differentials, and half-shafts connected to a U-joint above the steering knuckle with a spur gear on the end of the shaft to spin the wheels. Sold to Nash in 1916, the four-wheel-drive truck became the Nash Quad and continued to be used in World War I. Post-war demand dwindled, and production ended in 1928.
Some of the most famous early four-wheel-drives are the vehicles built by the company Otto Zachow, his brother-in-law William Besserdich, and Walter Olen created. Operating under the name Badger Four Wheel Drive Auto Company and based in Clintonville, Wisconsin, they built and tested a steam-powered four-wheel-drive car. In 1909 the steam engine was replaced by a 45 hp Continental 4-cylinder gasoline engine and an attractive red body was added.
Nicknamed the “Battleship” because of its formidable performance on the backroads around Clintonville, the internal-combustion-powered touring car featured the first four-wheel-drive system with a lockable center differential and an integrated steering front driving axle.
Zachow and Besserdich patented their Power Applying Mechanism (center differential) and the first double-Y universal joint encased in a ball and socket. The four-wheel-drive touring car concept saw limited production, but by 1910 the company was having financial difficulties.
The newly restructured Four Wheel Drive Auto Company (FWD) headed up by Walter Olen sold a few cars, but by 1911 decided to focus its attention on the growing demand for four-wheel-drive trucks. The Army took one of the FWD four-wheel-drive touring cars and replaced the rear of the body with a flatbed.
Later dubbed the Scout Car, it outperformed the other vehicles in the test during an eight-week, 1,500-mile test drive. The die was set, and the company soon became one of the U.S. Army’s busiest four-wheel-drive truck suppliers, delivering thousands of its Model B four-wheel-drive trucks by the end of World War I. The company continues today as Seagrave and manufactures fire engines.
Oshkosh Motor Company
The Oshkosh Motor Truck Company was founded in 1917 by two FWD ex-pats, William Besserdich and Bernhard Mosling. Their first four-wheel-drive truck was nicknamed “Old Betsy” and, not surprisingly, featured an automatic locking center differential. When it debuted in 1918, the Oshkosh Model A was considered one of the most advanced production four-wheel-drive trucks in the world.
Oshkosh would build trucks ranging from 1- to 3-ton capacities into the 1920s, but later begin concentrating on large specialized four-wheel-drive trucks such as heavy equipment transporters. The company exists today as a leader in specialty vehicles for fire, emergency, and defense purposes.
More Four-Wheel-Drive Firsts
There are other early four-wheel-drive cars and trucks that we don’t have a lot of detailed information about, such as the electric four-wheel-drive trucks with independent four-wheel-steering made by the Couple Gear Freight Company beginning in 1904. The American Motor Truck Company founded in 1906 built some four-wheel-drive trucks but is nearly forgotten.
Then there are the popular first Marmon-Herrington four-wheel-drive conversions to Ford ½-ton pickup trucks that began in the 1930s. And, of course, there are several four-wheel-drive vehicles and concepts which led up to the ¼-ton utility vehicle that would become known as the Jeep. But those are another story.
Check out other early 4x4s if you need a classic four-wheel-drive fix right now.