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After a couple centuries, front drive caught on with a bang


This story originally appeared in 100 Events That Made the Industry, an Automotive News special issue published on June 26, 1996.

You could say that Nicholas Joseph Cugnot was up front with his ideas. The forward-thinking 18th-century Frenchman is credited with building the first front-wheel-drive vehicle in 1769, two decades before the French Revolution. And in the process, Cugnot began engineering a revolution in the United States.

In 1978, a couple of centuries after Cugnot rolled out his steam-driven tractor, fwd took the U.S. auto industry by storm.

Fwd vehicles, in which power from the engine is directed to the front wheels so the vehicle is 'pulled' rather than 'pushed' down the road, have been developed in the United States since the early 1900s.

Engineer Walter Christie broke ground with his cars in the opening decade of the century; race driver Jimmy Murphy and builder Harry Miller popularized fwd in the 1920s; and Erret Lobban Cord sold limited numbers of his fwd L-29, 810 and 812 models in the 1930s. General Motors introduced its first fwd models, the Oldsmobile Toronado and the Cadillac Eldorado, in the 1960s.

But the fwd revolution in the United States didn't be-gin until the 1970s when, fed up with fuel shortages and gas guzzlers, consumers demanded smaller, more fuel-efficient cars.

Chrysler started the revolution when it began selling its Dodge Omni/Plymouth Horizon subcompacts in January 1978. GM rolled out its 1980 fwd X-car compacts, the Chevrolet Citation, Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark, in spring 1979.

'With the exception of just a very few models, almost everything now is front-drive,' said Jack Martin, a past president and current director of the Society of Automotive Historians. During the last two decades, the percentage of fwd cars built in the United States has soared from 1.1 percent in 1975 to 85.9 percent in 1995.

Much like Volkswagen's Rabbit (which entered the U.S. market in 1975) and the Honda Civic (which arrived here in 1973), the Omni/Horizon and the X cars had transverse-mounted engines and fwd.

Those features helped the makers reach their goals: smaller, inexpensive cars with roomy interiors and high fuel economy.

For GM, the move to compact fwd cars was another step in the corporation's downsizing program.

Robert Dorn, retired Cadillac chief engineer, said: 'If you think back to the '70s when we had the fuel crisis, General Motors responded with the original Seville (introduced as a downsized 1976 model in 1975), and then resizing what we call the B-C (full-sized) cars in 1977 and our A-body (mid-sized) cars in 1978.

'We had,' said Dorn, 'pretty much run through the preponderant amount of our product line -at least the large-volume stuff in those days. We found how small we could make the cars and how lightweight we could make them. .*.*. In order to make significantly smaller cars, we had to get into the fwd revolution.'

GM's A cars received fwd in the 1982 model year. They were the Chevrolet Celebrity, Pontiac 6000, Oldsmobile Ciera and Buick Century. The automaker's C cars (Olds Ninety Eight, Buick Electra and Cadillac DeVille) received fwd when they were downsized again, in the 1985 model year.

The Buick LeSabre and Oldsmobile Eighty Eight, which had been rwd B cars, went fwd in the 1986 model year.

Ford Motor Co. joined the fwd movement in the 1981 model year, when the Ford Escort and Mercury Lynx were introduced.

American Motors' foray into fwd came through its venture with Renault. The Alliance subcompact debuted Sept. 22, 1982, as a 1983 model.

Front-drive pluses

  • More interior space. Elimination of the driveshaft, large rear axle and complicated rear suspension allow for a flat floor, more backseat space, larger trunk.

  • Better traction, stability and control on snowy, icy and wet roads because of the greater weight on the driving wheels and because the driving wheels are steerable.

  • Less overall weight.

  • Better stability in crosswinds because the center of gravity is farther forward and closer to the center of aerodynamic pressure..

  • Better handling because fwd pulls the vehicle through curves.

  • Quieter, more comfortable ride.

The Omni/Horizon gave Chrysler Corp. the distinction of producing the first U.S.-built fwd subcompacts and, according to John Withrow, retired Chrysler Corp. executive vice president of product development, a boost in production capability that led to Chrysler's introduction of the fwd minivan in 1983 as a 1984 model.

'We were looking for an inexpensive, high-fuel-economy small car, and fwd provides most of those attributes,' Withrow said of the Omni/Horizon development.

Although the U.S. fwd revolution didn't begin until 1978, front-drive in the United States goes back to the early days of the auto industry, as noted in articles by Jan Norbye and Roger Huntington and in Norbye's The Complete Handbook of Front Wheel Drive Cars.

George Selden's 1879 application for a patent on a self-propelled vehicle was based on an fwd design. The vehicle was not built until after the turn of the century, a few years before Henry Ford broke the Selden patent in 1911.

Beginning in 1902, Christie built fwd vehicles that used a transversely mounted four-cylinder engine. Some of his designs were successes at the race track and inspired another inventor, Ben Gregory.

Gregory further improved fwd car engineering in the early 1920s. He started a company to market his cars in 1922, but the company soon failed, and Gregory's patents were acquired by Miller who, with the backing of racing star Murphy, developed a fwd racing car for Indian

Murphy died in a crash in 1924, but Miller completed the fwd racer and entered it in the 1925 Indianapolis 500. The car finished second. After the strong finish, fwd cars achieved success at Indy for 25 years and attracted the attention of larger automakers.

The late 1920s saw the popularity of fwd grow. In the United States, Cord and Ruxton were among the most popular fwd makers. Cord rolled out the L-29, designed to fit between the Auburn and Duesenberg lines, in 1930. About the same time, William Muller designed his Ruxton fwd prototype. A victim of the Depression, Muller halted production after about 500 cars. Cord stopped building L-29s in 1932, after about 4,000 units. Cord's second fwd effort was the coffin-nosed 810, launched in 1935, followed by the 812 a year later. Production, never more than 1,500 units a year, ended in 1937 when Cord sold out to stockholders.

In Europe, drivers placed a premium on cars with superior handling to negotiate the narrow, winding roads. Front-wheel drive proved to be a good way to meet those needs, and the drive system was popularized in the 1920s and 1930s by automakers including Adler, Audi, Citroen and DKW.

Led by British Motor Corp.'s Morris Mini-Minor, small, fwd economy cars blossomed in Europe in the late 1950s and the 1960s. The boom spread to America when VW sent its fwd Dasher to the United States in 1974 and the fwd Rabbit a year later.

In Japan, Honda was first, starting with the mini fwd N-360 in 1966. Honda entered the U.S. market with the fwd N-600 in 1969. But Honda's U.S. success began when it sent its fwd Civic here in 1973.

What does the future hold for fwd?

Martin of the Society of Automotive Historians said: 'I don't see the manufacturers wanting to convert back, because I think their production costs and design factors and everything are less with front-drive than they were with the rear.'

Chrysler's Withrow said: 'I think this is the way of the future, as well as the past. Fwd cars have become much more refined. The other thing that has happened is that the performance has gone up to fairly large V-6 engines, which gives you that quietness and smoothness.'

Cadillac's Dorn said: 'The real question is what happens to the luxury market. We clearly thought this was the right direction, specifically because of the North American market. But it's still a tossup since Mercedes and BMW and so forth have not really jumped in there.'

So, more than 200 years after Cugnot's invention and nearly 20 years since the revolution in the United States, fwd is thriving, which is more than can be said for Cugnot's original machine. That vehicle's useful life ended in 1770 when it crashed into a stone wall during a test drive. *

Tom Fetters is an Automotive News copy editor.


This story originally appeared in 100 Events That Made the Industry, an Automotive News special issue published on June 26, 1996.

You can reach Tom Fetters at

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