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.