Four-wheel drive is common on many of the cars we drive today.
It’s rooted in military vehicles and has descended through off-roaders to the present day where the focus lies more in on-road performance than off-road prowess. Here, we chart the landmark cars in the evolution of four-wheel drive, arranged in chronological order:
Spyker 60HP (1903)
The Spyker 60HP is a notable car for many reasons, but prime among these are its use of four-wheel drive for the first time in a passenger car. This was employed to help the car on the rough roads it would endure on the Paris to Madridrace that it was built for. Unfortunately, the car was not finished in time for the race and only made it out of the factory in December 1903.
Power for the 60HP came from the first six-cylinder petrol engine to be used in a passenger car and the Spyker was also the first to adopt linked brakes on all four wheels. Netherlands-based Spyker didn’t persist with its four-wheel drive experiment, though it did enjoy some success in long-distance endurance races that were popular in the early part of the 20th century.
Marmon was not the first to offer all-wheel drive vehicles, but it takes its place in the history of the system’s development for offering it to a much wider audience. Until the Marmon-Herrington, four-wheel drive was only used by military vehicles, but the US firm spotted a gap for lighter vehicles.
Using a Ford ½-ton truck chassis, it quickly became popular with the US Army and the burgeoning oil business opening up across America. Marmon-Herrington continues as a company today and still specialises in drivetrain systems and all-wheel drive conversions.
It’s impossible to talk about the development of four-wheel drive without mentioning Jeep. Even if the company didn’t come up with the definitive blueprint for the car that made its name, this accolade going to Bantam, it was Ford and Willys that went on to make the Jeep in huge numbers for the Second World War effort.
Before the war ended, Jeep was planning a non-military version called the CJ, which stands for Civilian Jeep. The resulting CJ-2 was a limited run to test the waters, while the CJ-2A went on to become a huge hit. It used up reserves of war surplus parts to start with, but soon gained a stronger back axle and three-speed transmission, though it stuck with the 2.2-litre Go-Devil four-cylinder engine.
Land Rover (1948)
The original Land Rover did more than any other car in the UK to make four-wheel drive accessible to normal drivers. Its designer Maurice Wilks (1904-1963) was inspired by an ex-army Jeep he used on his farm but reckoned he could do better. The outcome was a car with sturdy steel chassis and lightweight aluminium body because it was cheap and available.
The four-wheel drive system used solid axles front and back, while it could be used in rear-wheel drive mode on the road. A lever next to the gear stick lets you swap between high and low ratios, while another lever engages four-wheel drive in high ratio. Power came from a Rover-supplied 1.6-litre petrol engine in the early cars, while bigger engines and a longer wheelbase added a modicum of refinement to later versions.
Toyota Land Cruiser (1951)
Similar to Land Rover, Toyota took its inspiration for the first Land Cruiser from the American military Jeep. The 1951 BJ was designed by stripping the Jeep and copying much of its design. It worked and the BJ and FJ models proved very tough. Toyota then decided on the Land Cruiser name to make the car appear a more equal rival to the British Land Rover.
The all-wheel drive system for the early Land Cruiser models was very simple, with a three-speed gearbox and no low-range transfer for the early BJ versions. Power came from a 3.4-litre six-cylinder engine, or a 3.7-litre unit in the FJ, which gave the Land Cruiser a more rounded drive than the car that inspired it. The Japanese National Police Agency said it would only order Land Cruisers for its use if they could scale Mount Fuji, Japan’s most famous mountain. It did and the police ordered 289 straight away.
Named after an Austrian breed of horses, the Haflinger was another 4x4 with its roots in the military field. What makes it important in the development of four-wheel drive is its central backbone chassis. This allowed the swing axles to have superb articulation so they stayed in contact with the ground for better traction.
To do this, the 22bhp0.6-litre engine was mounted at the back of the car under the load floor, helping to give the Haflinger a low centre of gravity. Around 16,000 Haflingers were produced up to 1975, with 7000 sold to various armies. Its low weight, carrying capacity and permanent four-wheel drive made it popular in Alpine regions where the Haflinger was often used with a snow plough attachment.
Ford Bronco (1965)
Long before the Range Rover pushed the 4x4 upmarket, the Ford Bronco started this upward movement by offering drivers something more than just a rugged pick-up or de-militarised off-roader. The first-generation Bronco had a bespoke chassis and all came with four-wheel drive. This included a shift-on-the-fly Dana transfer case to swap between rear- and all-wheel drive. There were also locking hubs at the front for more serious off-road work.
The first Broncos could only be bought with a 170cu in (2.8-litre) inline six-cylinder motor, but from 1966 a 289cu in (4.7-litre) V8 gave the Bronco the punch to match its aspirations. Even so, Ford still insisted on only offering a three-speed column shift gearbox until it relented in 1973 with a three-speed auto ’box. The Bronco nameplate disappeared in 1996 after five model generations, but an all-new Bronco is set to arrive on our roads later in 2020.
Jensen Interceptor FF (1968)
The FF in this Jensen’s name refers to its Ferguson Formula four-wheel drive system. Ferguson had already developed all-wheel drive for agricultural vehicles and also a Formula 1 car, the P99 raced in 1961. That experiment proved unsuccessful, but the Jensen was a different prospect and aimed at the very wealthy looking for the ultimate GT car.
Jensen sold 320 FFs, but what held it back from greater success was the four-wheel drive transfer case jutted into the left-hand front passenger space. This made offering a left-hand drive version all but impossible and cut off the all-important US market. It was a bitter blow as the FF was a superb car as the first non-SUV 4x4 to go on general sale. It was also the first production car offered with ABS anti-lock brakes.
Range Rover (1970)
Blending the ideas of the Jensen FF and Ford Bronco, the original Range Rover quickly established itself as the upmarket 4x4 to own. Even with a smaller engine than either of these cars, it offered strong performance in an era when 12mpg consumption wasn’t a concern for its Rover 3.5-litre V8 motor. More important was the cushy ride over any surface and airy, comfy cabin.
The four-wheel drive system was less sophisticated and came from the Land Rover with live axles and high and low ratios. Permanent four-wheel drive was a feature for the Range Rover and it also came with coil springs for its suspension, giving that supple ride and superb axle articulation for supreme off-road driving.
Subaru Leone (1972)
The Leone was launched by Subaru in 1971, but it wasn’t until 1972 that it was available with the four-wheel drive that was to become the Japanese firm’s calling card. There was no nod to off-roading here and instead the Leone’s all-wheel drive system was aimed squarely at making the car safer to drive in all conditions.
The first-generation Leone made do with four- or five-speed manual or three-speed automatic gearboxes. For the 1979 second-generation version, a high and low ratio transfer ’box was added and Subaru hit pay dirt in the USA where the car rapidly found favour. It was also immortalised as a radio-controlled model with the Tamiya Brat pick-up version.
AMC Eagle (1979)
Before AMC was swallowed up by Chrysler in 1987, it was an innovative firm that had to duck and dive to keep up with the Big Three. One of its ideas was the Eagle. A rival to the Subaru Leone, the Eagle was a compact estate car with the unusual for the period feature of four-wheel drive. A raised ride height gave the Eagle decent off-road ability and a range of four- and six-cylinder engines balanced performance with economy.
The four-wheel drive package was devised by FF Developments, the same company responsible for the Jensen FF. There was no low ratio, but a viscous coupling gave quiet running and seamless division of power to whichever axle had the greater traction. In the end, though, the AMC Eagle was a car ahead of its time and didn’t sell in the numbers it deserved, shifting 37,429 units over eight years.
Audi Quattro (1980)
The world may have seen several four-wheel drive passenger cars by 1980, but it hadn’t expected a full-on all-wheel drive performance car. From the moment the Audi Quattro hit the road, it was a revelation, beating cars with more power and bigger price tags, though its launch price of £14,500 in 1980 was far from cheap.
None of this mattered. The Quattro was an instant hit and Audi backed it up with a world rally campaign, though it took till 1983 to sort many of the niggles with overheating and understeer on stages. The reason the Quattro was so good was its mechanical centre differential that let the driver choose the split of power between the front and rear wheels. In 1987, Audi swapped to a Torsen torque-sensing centre differential to simplify the process.
Fiat Panda 4x4 (1983)
If the Audi Quattro made four-wheel drive desirable, the Fiat Panda made it accessible to all. Fiat looked to Austrian firm Steyr-Puch for the gearbox, clutch, back axle and differential and even the propshaft. All of this was fitted into a beefed-up Panda body and one of the world’s most unexpected and enduring classics was born, with prices on the up.
Fiat kept things simple and affordable in the Panda 4x4 by not using a high-low transfer ’box. Instead, first gear was very low to give excellent off-road climbing and hill descending skill, while the upper four gears allowed for normal on-road driving.
Porsche 959 (1987)
The 959 was a typically Porsche riposte to the mid-1980s supercar war against Ferrari. Where the Italian firm offered the fire-breathing 288GTO, Porsche came up with the svelte 959. Alongside twin sequential turbochargers for its 444bhp 2.8-litre flat-six engine, Porsche fitted a gearbox with five normal ratios and a ‘Gelande’ off-road gear.
Four-wheel drive was taken care of with the Porsche-Steuer Kupplung (PSK) system. It could alter the division of power between front and rear axles, sending as much as 80% of the engine’s grunt to the back wheels when needed. A dash display told the driver how much power was being sent to which axle.
Subaru Impreza Turbo (1992)
Subaru was already established as a company noted for its all-wheel drive cars when it launched the Impreza Turbo. In an instant, it went from being a worthy Japanese car maker to cult icon. Here was an £18,000 four-door saloon or estate that could hit 60mph from rest in 5.9 seconds and it soon had rallying pedigree to back it up. In 1995, Colin McRae won the WRC Driver’s Championship and Subaru couldn’t build the Turbo quickly enough.
Underpinning all of this were a viscous centre coupling and limited slip rear differential to give superb traction. Along with a close-ratio gearbox and quick-witted steering, it made the Impreza Turbo a revelation on any road, and the object of many a car thief’s attention to the point where the police had to acquire Turbos just to keep up.
Lamborghini Diablo VT (1993)
The Diablo VT was the first major upgrade for Lamborghini’s supercar and it came with four-wheel drive to harness the V12 motor’s 492bhp. VT stood for Viscous Traction and referred to the viscous centre differential. It was borrowed from the LM002 off-roader model and allowed power to be split between the front and rear axles, sending as much as 25% to the front to help tame the Diablo’s reputation for on-edge handling.
The VT’s four-wheel drive necessitated a move to smaller front wheels, swapping from 245 to 235/40 ZR17 rubber. In 1995, Lamborghini added the VT Roadster to the range with a carbonfibre targa roof panel. Power also increased to 530bhp in 1998 as the Diablo matured into a much better supercar.
Audi TT (1999)
Audi probably didn’t need four-wheel drive for the TT to be a show-stopper when it was launched in 1999. On looks alone, it sold by the lorry load, but with the added bonus of Quattro on the boot lid of most versions it also gripped and handled in a way that took the fight to the Porsche Boxster.
Audi used the same four-wheel drive system as found in the Volkswagen Golf Mk4, which the TT was based on. This uses a Haldex electro-hydraulic set-up that only sends power to the rear wheels when the fronts begin to lose traction. A standard differential at the back takes care of dividing the power between left and right wheels.
Tesla Model S (2014)
Tesla’s Model S was revolutionary when it arrived in 2012, yet has become a familiar sight. Even so, it’s an important marker in the development of four-wheel drive as it brought this drive system to the world in an EV with its dual motor version in 2014. To achieve this, Tesla used two electric motors, one each for the front and rear pairs of wheels.
At launch, Tesla said the Dual Drive Model S offered a slightly better battery range along with stronger performance. In the P100D model, 0-60mph comes in 2.5 seconds thanks to its aptly named Ludicrous Mode. From 2019, Tesla made four-wheel drive standard for all Model S derivatives.
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