Editorial: A Brief History of Front Wheel Drive

front wheel drive

Start. In the beginning was the Cugnot artillery tractor. More than one version of the three-wheeled front-wheel-drive (FWD) steamer came off the drawing boards in …


In the beginning was the Cugnot artillery tractor. More than one version of the three-wheeled front-wheel-drive (FWD) steamer came off the drawing boards in the second half of the eighteenth century. The apocryphal story goes to the affect that it plowed off the outside of a corner and into a wall. And thus front wheel drive and understeer have been forever linked.

The United States Enters the Fray.

Fast forward to the opening years of the twentieth century and a ‘difficult to get along with’ designer-inventor, John Walter Christie, created a series of technological-dead-end transverse-engined FWD monsters that were raced at fairgrounds across the United States. Seven is the generally accepted number of Christie’s FWD racers – of which none are known to have survived.

front wheel drive

In the 1920s, a Kansas City businessman, Ben F. Gregory, built ten or so front wheel drive cars immediately after WW I. These cars had longitudinal mounted engines with a transmission in the nose connected to the differential in the front. Gregory employed a novel solution to allow power and steering to take place on the same axle, he adapted a de Dion tube to the front end.

In the mid 1920s, Harry Miller was approached by the board track driver extraordinaire, Jimmy Murphey, and his mechanic, Riley Brett, to build a FWD board track ‘killer’. Miller suggested a transverse engine layout, but Murphey and Brett wanted a longitudinal layout to minimize the car’s frontal area. That’s what Miller did and the Miller FWD cleaned up the competition on board tracks. Miller used Ben Gregory’s de Dion front suspension in the process. Miller’s design was the basis of the Cord L29, cleaned up by C. W. van Ranst.

What’s interesting is that Miller and Gregory worked with Christie during WW I, and Riley Brett had experience building cars in Kansas City at the end of WW I. Unfortunately, beyond those superficial connections, no real ties have been proven to exist between those men.

Up to this point FWD had been hampered by the lack of a solution to the odd pulsating motion that universal joints are subjected to when deflected at large angles. This normally isn’t a problem on non-steering wheels (or on a propshaft) since the vertical motion of suspension travel is generally less than that of the horizontal angles necessary for steering (especially on a road car).

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Effect of angular displacement on universal joint. From Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:UJoint1.png

 Back to France.

All roads lead to France at this juncture, even though constant velocity (CV) joints were beginning to be developed elsewhere. A firm known as Tracta was founded to build cars that demonstrated a new, easily manufactured, CV joint. It was developed by Jean-Albert Gregorie (odd there’s another ‘Gregory’ in the mix). This joint was picked up by the German firm, NAG and used in other cars, such as the Adler Trumpf. DKW also took interest in the joint and applied it to their two stroke transverse FWD ‘kleinwagen’ car. Other CV joints, such as Rzeppa (Ford) and Weiss (Bendix) were available at the same time, but Germany and France were the innovators, and the Citroen Traction Avant was recognized as something of a breakthrough.

Across the Channel.

In the mid 1950s, the automotive designer, Alex Issigonis, found himself back at Morris, now part of BMC. His brief was to lay out three new cars and work was well underway on the first two when the Suez crisis intervened. As a result of the resulting charge towards small cars, Issignois was approached by the chairman of BMC, Leonard Lord, to develop a ‘proper’ small car unlike the “bloody bubble cars”. That dovetailed neatly with Issigonis’ thinking. He’d wanted to do another small car after his well received design of the Morris Minor.

The thinking for third proposal was to maximize passenger space. Issigonis started drawing and calculating space in one of his ubiquitous sketch pads. The idea for the original Mini was to stuff five people and their gear in 10 feet of car (along with engine, transmission, differential, wheel wells, suspension, and all the other bits needed to make the car roadworthy). This constraint of the car’s length led to the two-box design that went against prevailing styling idioms.

Issigonis had previously experimented with transverse front wheel drive on a modified Morris Minor. But no one up to that point had attempted to mass produce a transverse FWD vehicle.

Issigonis utilized a Hardy-Spicer Birfield joint (a license built Rzeppa), that was being used in submarines, to send power to the front wheels. Another issue was the potential intrusion of the wheel wells on passenger space. The solution to this was sourcing a 10 inch wheel and leaning on Dunlop to build a suitably sized tire.

The suspension had to accommodate the space restrictions and the potential for the payload to equal the unladen weight of the car. Coil or leaf springs wouldn’t work and the hoped for Hydrolastic suspension wasn’t yet far enough along for a production vehicle. Instead, the initial production vehicles utilized specially developed rubber cone springs and shock absorbers. Eventually the Hydrolastic suspension was incorporated in production.

The Mini took awhile to become hip, targeted initially at adults, it took those adult’s children (British Baby Boomers) to turn it into a hit. And the Mini became the future.


The Mini started the trend towards FWD ubiquity, the FIAT 128 added momentum. While Audi and GM (Toronado and Eldorado) still used a longitudinal engine mounting, more and more manufacturers migrated to transverse FWD layouts. This was to the detriment of long standing rear-engined rear wheel drive vehicles like the FIAT 500/600/850, Renault 4CV, Chevy Corvair, and Volkswagen entire lineup.

In time all major entry and mid-market manufacturers relied on FWD for he bulk of their offerings. Significantly Mercedes-Benz and BMW did not (and while Audi and Subaru offer all-wheel-drive, those offerings are derivatives of FWD antecedents).

What Will BMW Do?


BMW has announced that they are planning on building a sub-compact (B-class) BMW-badged FWD car in addition to any of their potential ‘Project i’ cars. Why would BMW do this? The logical explanation is that emissions and fuel economy requirements in world markets require a lightweight anchor for more extravagant offerings (X5 M, 760Li, etc). To build a premium sub-compact packaging becomes paramount and the subsequent choices are FWD or rear-engined, RWD. There may be engineering reasons for choosing FWD over the alternative, but history shows that rear-engine RWD cars died when the transverse FWD layout took over.

While this new FWD BMW will be available in Europe, it’s uncertain that BMW NA will want it. This represents the potential dilution of the brand image in the North American market. And, historically, Americans have rejected premium small cars. (There are a couple of exceptions and cars like potential ‘Project i’ vehicles may have an impact here.) However, the CAFE targets of 35 MPG are looming and we’re seeing BMW’s migration to smaller, high-tech, turbocharged motors as a result. The question for BMW NA is can they make the CAFE target without the entry level FWD car. I believe that they’ll do everything in their power to meet the CAFE goal without importing a premium FWD model.

19 responses to “Editorial: A Brief History of Front Wheel Drive”

  1. Doug says:

    This article’s title was horrifying, being the first thing I saw on the site. Great article, though, Hugo.

    I didn’t quite understand the joint speed graph. It seems like the angle would be that between the two shafts; if the input angle were 30 deg with respect to the output shaft, what’s the output shaft angle in respect to? Are these angles in the same plane?

  2. The horror….. the horror…

  3. atr_hugo says:

    Doug – those wild oscillations are the varying output speed at the end of the shafts. Here’s how Gregorie describes the affect in his book, “Best Wheel Forward”, “In a cardan joint [U-joint], when the driven shaft forms an angle with the driving shaft and the latter turns at a constant speed, the velocity of the driven shaft is irregular turning faster and sometimes slower than the driving shaft. Therefore at each revolution when the front wheels are turned for steering, alternate acceleration and deceleration is imparted to them. This then produces a spasmodic movement which is felt in the steering.” Spasmodic being the key word. ; -)

    One company I completely failed to mention (and maybe one of the best historical examples of doing FWD well) is Saab. I can’t believe I completely left them out of the article (and the Renault 2CV to boot!). If you ever get the chance to meet Erik Carlsson, do it!

    There is a well written book (reasonably inexpensive) on front wheel drive by Jan Norbye called, “The Complete Handbook of Front Wheel Drive Cars”. It’s 30 years old now, but gets the early years and a layman’s read on the engineering pretty much right. Norbye even found Ben F. Gregory’s post WW II FWD creations and passed judgment on them (not kind judgment either ; -). There is a late 1940s Gregory sedan at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville (it was loaned to the Petersen Museum in LA for awhile – don’t know where it’s at now – and it didn’t have an engine in it last time I saw it). There is also a late 1940s Gregory FWD two seat roadster with a Porsche boxer motor in it, last seen in Independence, MO. The owner/restorer passed away last year and I haven’t seen it since.

    • Doug says:

      But modern FWD cars don’t have that effect… so far as I can tell. A doubling of speed would be pretty noticeable. Although actually, don’t they have 2 universal joints? If the same joint type (eg, CV) were oriented 90 degrees apart (rotationally) then they would tend to cancel each other out and only the middle shaft would oscillate.

      Audi has some other unique tricks for its AWD / FWD cars which work very well, though I don’t entirely understand them.

      • atr_hugo says:

        CV joints address the issue found in U-joints. There’s a great *.gif on the Wiki for CV joints showing a Rzeppa CV joint in motion and it’s obvious why it works better than a U-joint.

        In retrospect I should have been more clear in saying the CV joints are the enabling technology for FWD. W/o CV joints FWD would be a ‘non-starter’ (which would be OK for a lot of BMW fans. ; -)

    • Doug says:

      ah Hah! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_joint
      see Double Cardan Shaft

      I don’t know the contributions of Saab and Renault to FWD.

  4. atr_hugo says:

    Oh one more thing – BMW has built at least two prototype FWD cars in the distant past (and who knows how many in the recent past ; -). Both historical cars utilized motorrad engines. The first was pretty much a development mule started in 1922 and abandoned in 1927 (the purchase of Dixi occurred afterwards). The other was a pretty little post-WW II effort labeled as a 513. A 513 may still exist in private hands somewhere in Europe (not sure if BMW has recovered it).

  5. atr_hugo says:

    Oh and the article was written before ‘scott27’ wrote his ‘never mind’ piece regarding a BMW badged FWD car on his German Car Zone channel. ; -)

  6. plaxico says:

    mcnabbs traded to d.c.,bmw is going FWD and today im ecspecting favre to announce is retiring……..worlds gone mad

  7. tom says:

    good job

  8. Josh says:

    Not a single mention of SAAB, which has had front wheel drive since 1949 and the model 92?

  9. X5SoB says:

    I think it’s funny, Jalopnik lifted this, pretty much unmolested. Seems BMWBLOG is on their radar.

  10. Faisal says:

    Thanks for the article. Would have loved some more technical details on how they work

  11. John Plante says:

    Very early on into the 1900’s many makes front wheel driven vehicles were produced, a lot of them were so called fore-carriage style, adapting horse driven vehicles to motorised using a fifth wheel system. The city of Hartford Ct. had an Amoskeag steam fire engine equipped with one that I saw myself in the 1960’s, that was still being used as a standby pumper in emergencies. .the rig was named “Jumbo” and was quite famous. One make was made in the old Burnside rifle building in Providence R.I. I think it was an Alco. I wish that there was more available information about them. They were quite a sight.

  12. John Plante says:

    In my previous not I forgot to mention the Austrian Porsche-Loehner front wheel drive gas over electric cars and trucks with the electric motors built into the front wheels. A few American vehicles were built using those Austrian patents.

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