Inventors and engineers had long been intrigued by the idea of front wheels driving a vehicle, imagined in the same manner as horse-drawn carts —in which horses pulled, rather than pushed —the advantages seemed obvious. Placing the weight of an engine over the drive wheels improved traction, while combining the engine, transmission, and final drive in one unit afforded a more compact chassis layout with improved space efficiency.
Though simple in concept, the mechanism necessary to transmit power to the front wheels must also steer the vehicle, which perplexed early developers. Solutions were both complex and expensive. Meanwhile, having the engine power the rear wheels was uncomplicated, so pushing a vehicle, rather than pulling, became the norm for production motor vehicles.
Credit for transferring front-wheel drive from theory to execution goes to Frenchman Nicholas Cugnot, who, in 1769, built a three-wheeled steam-powered carriage. His design pulled goods over the rough and tumble streets of Paris. More than 100 years later, the first gasoline-powered car to use front-wheel drive appears to have been the Lepape. A story unto itself, the Lepape was described in Voitures a Petrole in 1897, and in Petroleum Motor Cars, the English version, one year later. Others were to follow in Europe, a few of which met tremendous success. Those engineers were not alone in experimenting—several Americans were working on it at the same time.
The 1877 Selden, designed by George B. Selden (though in concept only, as one was not constructed until 1902), is considered one of the earliest front-wheel-drive cars in the U.S. It featured a gasoline engine mounted on the front axle that drove those wheels through spur gears. This was followed by the Barrows three-wheeler, built in Willimantic, Connecticut, in 1895; the electric-powered vehicle had a single drive wheel in front. That same year, the electric Morris-Salom competed in Chicago’s legendary Times Herald race. Then, in 1898, Adams-Farwell of Dubuque, Iowa, built an experimental three-cylinder rotary engine (not the same as the much-later Wankel-type) car with front-wheel drive, while a gasoline front-driver called the Pennington Raft was displayed at London’s Crystal Palace by its American promoter E. J. Pennington. (See HCC #193, October 2020.)
Other early marques included the (circa) 1900 Auto Fore-Carriage of New York City; a 1901 Phelps Steam Carriage built in New Brunswick, New Jersey; the 1901 Tractobile Steam Carriage from Carlisle, Pennsylvania; electric broughams built by Healey & Co. of New York circa 1904; and the 1905-’07 Cantono Electric, made in New York City.
The most significant developer of front-wheel drive in America was Walter Christie, who first filed patents in 1904. An engineer known for designing military gun turrets, Christie created a design that featured a four-cylinder engine placed transversely up front with the transmission behind the engine and very short universal (U)-jointed shafts driving the front wheels.
In 1905 he founded the Christie Direct Action Motor Car Company, initially to build taxis. Instead, Christie built seven front-drive race cars powered by two- and four-cylinder engines, as well as V-4s and V-8s, all of his own design. Although the cars had more than 70 percent of their weight over the drive wheels and were known to be beasts to drive, Christie had some racing success.