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We take our offroading seriously, and as true enthusiasts we love to know everything there is to know about this wonderful sport. That’s why, over the next four posts, we’re going to take an in-depth look into the history of the four-wheel drive vehicle, from its origins in the 1800s up to the high-tech rigs that we use thoday. Surprisingly, 4WD technology has been around since the steam age, but not as we know it today.  

  • In this first article, we’ll explore the origins of the technology up to the start of the Second World War.
  • In Part 2, we’ll look at the massive developments that were made during the Second World War and the post war years, when consumer 4WDs started to become commonplace.
  • In Part 3, we’ll take a break from the history for a bit, and look at the technology itself—how it works and what some of the jargon really means.
  • Part 4 will deal with the 1970s up to the present day, looking at some of the most recent developments and exploring what the future of offroading might hold.

Part 1 – The Origins of Four-Wheel Drive

Way back in the depths of time, long before the internet was invented (imagine that!), engineers and inventors would often work in isolation, and in secrecy. The isolation was often unavoidable, a lack communications networks meant that two inventors might work concurrently on similar projects, totally oblivious that elsewhere someone had the same great plans.

The secrecy, however, was often very much necessary, as it meant that an inventor could get a concept patented before anyone else stole their idea. Therefore the early years of four-wheel drive technology are decidedly murky, especially when it come to exact dates and details.  

An Agricultural Ancestry

What we do know is that four-wheel drive systems were first designed for much heavier machinery than passenger cars. Most sources agree that the first ever patent submitted for a four-wheel drive system was by one Bramah Joseph Diplock, a British engineer, in 1893. His system was designed for use on a steam-powered traction engine (an early predecessor of the tractor), which was built in the following years, but exactly when is unknown.

A 25 year old engineer from Germany designed and produced the next known 4WD vehicle for the 1900 World Expo in Paris. Ferdinand Porsche (whose surname you may have come across in the automotive world!) invented and built a vehicle which had an electric motor on each of its four wheels. While this was a 4WD, it was actually an ‘IWD’, but that’s a technicality we’ll deal with in the third part of this series. With the batteries alone weighing almost two tons, the vehicle wasn’t a commercial success, but with a bit of tweaking to the original design, the first ‘Lohner-Porsche’ was produced a couple of years later, the world’s first petroleum-electric hybrid.

The Lohner Porsche Hybrid
The Lohner Porsche Hybrid

The first people to make the inspired decision to fit an internal combustion engine with four-wheel drive were a pair of the Dutch brothers, the Spijkers. In 1902, they invented the first full-time mechanical four-wheel drive vehicle, a stunning race car called the ‘Spyker 60HP’. This model also had the honour of being the first ever car with four-wheel braking and a six cylinder engine.  

The Spiker 60HP - A Thing of Beauty
The Spiker 60HP – A Thing of Beauty

The Spiker success sparked a series of other manufacturers to produce four-wheel drives, but overall they remained the preserve of larger agricultural and military vehicle, namely trucks and equipment for hauling heavy artillery.

The Caldwell brothers, hailing from Auburn, Sydney, advanced four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering technology greatly throughout the first decade of the century. In the meantime the American companies ‘FWD’ and the Oshkosh Corporation started up, while Mercedes and Citroen began building large 4WD trucks in Europe.

WW1 and the Interwar Years

The First World War saw massive advancements in technology of all sorts, and many new 4WD variants were produced. These four-wheel drive trucks were for military use, and the most successful of them  was the American-made ‘Jeffrey Quad’, which was used extensively, especially by the French Army.

US Marines ride a Jeffrey Quad, 1916-17
US Marines ride a Jeffrey Quad, 1916-17

After the war, as armies worldwide continued their research and development, people began to realise that a smaller, lightweight four-wheel drive vehicle could be extremely useful for carrying personnel over rough terrain. The vehicle would be ideal for reconnaissance and delivering messages quickly, so it would have to be light and fast, but also able to deal with challenging offroad conditions.

Scaling Down the Technology

The Germans were responsible for large leaps in the sophistication of the four-wheel drive system in the 1920s, with Mercedes and BMW leading the way globally in research and development. The Japanese, however, were the first to develop a four-wheel drive that resembles what we use today, with a prototype of a full-time 4WD ‘sedan’ in 1934. The stately Mitsubishi PX-33, however, never made it to production.

The Mitsubishi PX-33 Prototype
The Mitsubishi PX-33 Prototype

The rush was on though, and over the next few years several 4WD passenger vehicles began to emerge all over the globe. It was the Japanese again who got in next, with the ‘Kurogane Type 95’ in 1936, lauded as the first ever four-wheel drive passenger vehicle to be mass produced.

The following year the Russians launched the GAZ-61 which could reach a top speed of 100km/h. This vehicle would go on to be used by high ranking Army officials throughout the impending years of global conflict.

The Speedy Soviet Gaz-61
The Speedy Soviet Gaz-61

Those years, and the advancements in four-wheel drive technology that they brought about, are the subject of the next article in the series. As we’ll see, the Second World War was when 4WD vehicles as we know them today really came to be.

We look forward to seeing you there.