If you’re on this site, chances are you are a fan of all things 4×4. But do you know anything about the early days of four-wheel-drive systems? This month, Jake Venter discusses the first automobiles that ventured off the beaten track.
There’s a good chance that the first vehicle ever built specifically for off-road use spent most of its brief life in what used to be called South West Africa. In 1907, the Mercedes company built a four-wheel-driven and four-wheel-steering truck for the secretary of state at the German colonial office, Bernhard Dernburg. He needed such a vehicle to travel to various towns in the area.
The company built only one, and sent it to SWA where it became known as the Dernburg-wagen. It was initially successful, but the high maintenance needed to keep the sand out proved its downfall.
However, this was not the first four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Lohner-Porsche exhibited at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris was the first practical four-wheel-drive vehicle, but it did not have the ground clearance to go off road. It was a petrol/electric car designed by Ferdinand Porsche of VW Beetle fame.
The centre of each of the four wheels contained an electric motor powered by a pack of lead-acid batteries. The latter was kept in a good state of charge by an on-board petrol engine. The batteries alone weighed 1800kg, though, so its hill climbing and cornering abilities weren’t great.
By 1906, more than 300 Lohner-Porsches had been sold, making them the first successful petrol/electric vehicles. The hub motors were only fitted to the front wheels on cars and the rear wheels on trucks, but some buses featured hub motors on all four wheels.
The next four-wheel-drive car was built by the Spyker company of Amsterdam in 1903, and it was also the first car with a six-cylinder engine, and one of the first with four-wheel brakes. The car is now in a museum in the Netherlands, and the name has recently been revived for a Dutch sports car.
The First World War gave four-wheel drive a major boost because the Four Wheel Drive company made thousands of trucks with this form of drive under the FWD nameplate, for both the British and American armies. After the war, thousands of these vehicles were sold to industries that needed go-anywhere capability, and the influx served to make 4WD systems popular.
Between the two world wars, a number of German companies produced 4×4 vehicles, ostensibly for hunting, but really for the wehrmacht. When the war broke out, the army asked various German companies to produce a unified design. This meant that nearly identical 4WD vehicles were built by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Stoewer and Hanomag, incorporating most of the features that today can be found on a Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen or a Unimog.
In the US, the Marmon-Herrington company began producing 4WD conversions for trucks, concentrating mainly on Fords. The same company also supplied components to an interesting South African development for the war effort.
In 1938 the prime minister, Gen Jan Smuts, could see that a war was inevitable and the government initiated the local production of what became known as the Marmon-Herrington armoured car. This was basically a four-wheel-drive light tank.
The chassis and engines were procured from Ford in Canada, the 4WD drivetrain from Marmon-Herrington in the US and steel from the South African Iron and Steel Corporation. The final product was assembled by the Dorman Long company.
The first units featured 2WD, but the Mark II and later models were fitted with 4WD. A total of 5746 units were built and some survived as late as the early 1990s, being used by the Greek army on some of the Aegean islands.
The Second World War also saw the creation of the Jeep. In 1940, the US army wanted a small go-anywhere vehicle and asked for tenders. Willys-Overland, Ford and the American Bantam Car Company sent prototypes for evaluation.
The Bantam version showed the most promise, but the engine was too small, so Willys and Ford were allowed to modify their versions after seeing the Bantam. Willys got the final contract to build what became known as the Jeep. However, their production capacity was limited with the result that Ford was also asked to build to the Willys design.
By the time the war ended, more than 600 000 Jeeps had been delivered at an average cost of $300. Ford promptly lost interest, but Willys-Overland, which had produced the largest number, registered the Jeep name and started to produce them for civil use.
Many models evolved from the original design. Today there is a very comprehensive range of Jeeps, but the basic go-anywhere ability has not been lost.
The Jeep is by far the most significant 4×4 in history. It has been built under licence or copied by many organisations.
Initially, most of these non-Willys versions looked very much like Jeeps, but the models that survived developed their own body style and mechanical layout. A short list of early Jeep-like vehicles would include Delahaye and Hotchkiss in France, Fiat and Alfa Romeo in Italy, Mahindra in India and Kia in Korea. The Russian and Chinese versions were built under a number of different nameplates.