When Otto Zachow's truck slid into a Wisconsin ravine early in 1906, he and his brother-in-law, William Besserdich, decided the only way to get it out was to go in reverse.
But as he watched two tires spin and the other two wheels do nothing, Zachow got an idea: Make all four wheels move at once.
By 1908, Zachow, a blacksmith and car dealer in Clintonville, Wisc., had built a passenger car propelled by both the front and rear wheels, providing much better traction on steep and muddy country roads. After building a few passenger cars, he and Besserdich began to build trucks using the same principle.
While much of the engineering work took place in 1907, they were awarded U.S. Patent No. 882,986 for a four-wheel-drive system on March 24, 1908.
They formed Four Wheel Drive Auto Co., known earlier as the Badger Four Wheel Drive Automobile Co., in 1912, and production of the Model B began. It was powered by a four-cylinder Wisconsin engine with 56 hp.
Zachow and Besserdich continued to improve the system's design, and while it proved successful, they struggled to secure adequate funding to continue production.
Under the counsel of Walter A. Olen, a Clintonville, Wisc., attorney, the company was reorganized, funds raised, and the emphasis switched from manufacturing automobiles to trucks.
In 1914, with the start of World War I, they sold 50 trucks to Great Britain. After the United States entered the war, they sold 3,750 to the U.S. Army.
The Chamber of Commerce in Oshkosh, Wisc., offered assistance in 1917 if they relocated to the city and formed a new company. That business became known as the Oshkosh Motor Truck Co.
Olen, who became president of Four Wheel Drive Auto Co. and remained president until his retirement in 1944, is credited with the company's success. The company merged with fire truck maker Seagrave in 1963.
Today, Oshkosh produces specialty trucks for fire departments and the military, as well as access equipment.