Albert-Paul Bucciali was livid. Sometime after the Allied forces invaded Normandy and fought their way across France, he got an up close look at the little Jeep that everybody was talking about. While he appreciated what it could – and did – do for his country, one look underneath the Willys- and Ford-built light reconnaissance vehicles led him to spend the next 35 years in court defending his claim that he’d invented the Jeep and that he was owed a sizable fortune for doing so.
If Bucciali didn’t actually invent modern front-wheel drive, as he often claimed to have done, he at the very least made some pioneering advancements in sending power through the steerable wheels at a time when other inventors and carmakers were just starting to see the potential of such a system. Other than filing a series of French and U.S. patents for the system, though, he never fully capitalized on it and left behind just a handful of prototypes when he and his brother shut down the Freres Bucciali venture in the early Thirties.
The two later went on to experiment with a four-wheel-drive sports coupe and a 12-wheel-drive armored fighting vehicle before Albert-Paul Bucciali settled on building gas generators toward the end of the decade. After the war and his brother’s death, Bucciali went on to experiment with helicopters and gas turbine engines before developing a semi-automatic transmission for Cotal.
That he never capitalized on his many patents, however, seemed to have stuck in Bucciali’s craw in his latter years. He accused Jean-Albert Gregoire, Tracta, and Citroen of stealing his ideas and claiming the glory and commercial success he believed was owed to him for inventing front-wheel drive. He contended that Renault built its automatic transmission on the principles he established with Cotal, and argued that Panhard et Levassor’s eight-wheeled EBR derived from the armored fighting vehicle work he and his brother did
But those claims all paled in comparison to his campaign to be credited as the father of the Jeep. While one would have expected he’d have cited the four-wheel-drive sport coupe that he and his brother developed, he instead looked at the Willys nameplate on the Jeeps he inspected and built his case upon the fact that Willys was one of several American companies to review one of his TAV30 prototypes in early 1930 while considering his pitch to license the front-wheel-drive system.
According to Griffith Borgeson, who visited Bucciali for a story in Automobile Quarterly in the late Seventies, the inventor pointed to one design in particular, US1837106, as “the patent upon which the whole issue depends.” That patent, filed in September 1928 and granted in December 1931, describes Bucciali’s TAV front-wheel-drive system. It includes a number of innovations, including drum brake linings integrated with the wheels, electrically actuated brakes, and a “parallelogramic” independent front suspension, but for the purposes of Bucciali’s argument, it also includes claims for inventing the spherical casing for a universal joint that permits the steering of a pair of driven wheels.
Bucciali suspected that, even though Willys brass passed on licensing Bucciali’s patent, they also filed away the design until the time came, a decade later, to design and build a light four-wheel-drive reconnaissance vehicle. Then, underhandedly, those same Willys executives and engineers re-constructed Bucciali’s design, slapped it under the front of the Jeep, won lucrative defense production contracts, and went on to build a civilian version with the potential for making millions upon millions of dollars.