Almost as soon as the four-wheel automobile was invented, mechanics, tinkerers, and engineers began trying to find a way to make all four wheels pull the car. Early attempts weren't particularly successful.
The biggest problem was the joint between the axle shaft and the hub of the wheels that did the steering. Transmitting large amounts of rotational power across constantly varying angles was a new and unsolved problem. The tumbling rod joints that were common in the late 1800s for farm and industrial use were not strong enough for the power, speed, and hostile working environment imposed on them by the automobile. Chain drive had been tried and was still being experimented with, but successful four-wheel drive was waiting for the inventor of an effective steering joint.
Machinist and blacksmith Otto Zachow and his brother-in-law William Besserdich were the inventors the problem had been waiting for. In 1906, Zachow became an agent for REO Motor Car Co. and brought the first car to Clintonville, Wisconsin. He discovered firsthand the challenges the roads of rural Wisconsin presented to automobiles. In the summer the car fought axle-deep mud, and in the winter it battled snowdrifts taller than the windshield. Four-wheel drive was clearly needed.
As daunting as the problem was, Zachow knew that transmitting power to the steered wheels was only part of the challenge. The joint also had to be protected from mud, sand, and snow as well as carry the weight of the vehicle. In 1907, Zachow and Besserdich applied for a patent on an axle that employed a unique "double Y" universal joint that transmitted the power and was mounted inside a ball and socket that carried the weight and protected the double Y from the elements. Of all the efforts to solve the problem, none was as simple and effective as Zachow and Besserdich's invention.
They formed the Badger Four Wheel Drive Auto Co. in 1909 for building four-wheel-drive touring cars. But the market for touring cars wasn't nearly as strong as the market for trucks. In 1910, after building only seven cars, they changed the name to the Four Wheel Drive Auto Co. (later abbreviated to FWD) and set their sights on the commercial vehicle market.
Flood of Orders
At about that time, the U.S. Army was investigating how to replace horse power with trucks, and FWD entered its models in several Army trials. The company submitted two prototype trucks: a 1Β½-ton Model G and a three-ton Model B. The Model B gave an outstanding performance, but the U.S. Government placed no large orders. With World War I looming in Europe, FWD saw an opportunity and sent two trucks to England for testing. Allied governments were so impressed with the Model B that they placed an initial order for 50 trucks, followed by a standing order for 200 trucks a month for the foreseeable future.
In 1916, the U.S. Army placed its first large order. With the United States' entry into World War I in April 1917, U.S. Government orders for FWD trucks surged. For a company that had built only about 25 vehicles in its four years of existence, the orders were overwhelming. Demand for the Model B was so high that FWD contracted with Premier Motor Corp., the Mitchell Motor Car Co., International Harvester, and the Kissel Motor Corp. to build the trucks under license.
In 1917, the Army estimated it would need 50,000 trucks a year, but when the war ended in November 1918, the estimate suddenly dropped to zero. Of the 15,000 trucks that FWD handed over to the government, more than 2,000 never left the United States. They were declared surplus after the war and were shipped to storage centers in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Fort Monroe, Virginia. These trucks were turned over to the Agriculture Department, which then distributed them to states and municipalities for use in road building and maintenance. Each state was allotted a minimum of two trucks, with one state reportedly receiving 48.
Sent to Massachusetts
The FWD model B featured here is one of the surplus trucks that was sent to Massachusetts. The Model B is owned by James Cordes and was restored by his grandson Matt Cordes. When Mr. Cordes bought the truck through an ad in Hemmings Motor News in 1973, the FWD had three coats of paint"olive green, blue over that, and red on top. "I wanted an FWD because I became an FWD dealer in 1968. I sold new trucks and came to respect how they were made," explained Mr. Cordes.
In military garb the truck had hard-rubber tires and kerosene lamps for lighting. Before turning to civilian duty, the hard-rubber tires were replaced with pneumatics, and the truck was fitted with a battery, headlights, and taillights. FWD trucks were outfitted in several styles for the military. Some were ammunition carriers, some were troop carriers, and some were used as prime movers. The Cordes truck had been fitted with a troop carrier box.
The troop carrier box has holes to mount the frames for canvas seats and rectangular holes in the tailgate that serve as footholds when the gate is down. It originally would have had bows and a canvas top. A pipe ran from the engine compartment to a hole in the front panel to provide some warm air for the passengers.
Curiously, all of the bed panels are ash except for the right side, which is yellow pine. The box was made of mismatched wood because of the furious pace of assembly in 1918. The boxes were built out of whatever was available. "These are the original side panels," said Mr. Cordes. "They aren't perfect, and that's how I can tell they are original. If they had been replaced, they would be in a lot better shape." Rob Burden restored the woodwork.
With a top speed of only 16 mph these trucks weren't fast, but they were sturdy and dependable, which made them great for plowing snow. Mr. Cordes' truck was used as a snowplow in Massachusetts for years. It was stored inside until sometime around World War II when it was retired and sold to a salvage yard.
"It was taken apart not long after I got it, but the restoration job wasn't finished then," said Mr. Cordes. "It sat in pieces for 30 years, but it was still all there when Matt took over" in about 2006.
"I'm a mechanic for my grandfather's trucking company," said Matt. "Putting the FWD back together was a fill-in job. I got to work on it when I wasn't busy working on modern trucks in the shop." Matt finished the FWD in 2011.
The truck was in good mechanical condition when Matt started working on it. It didn't show much wear except for the wheel bearings. The left rear still had roller bearings, but Matt replaced them with modern tapered rollers like those on the other wheels.
"It got painted these colors because my grandfather likes green," explained Matt. "I picked out about six colors that I thought would look good on an old truck, and he was the final judge."
It took more than 30 years for the Cordeses to bring it back to life, but the Model B runs great and doesn't look bad for an old truck that was dragged out of a salvage yard. t
James Cordes can be reached by mail at 10100 Sedroc Industrial Drive SW, Byron Center, MI 49315 or by phone at 616-877-9935.
by Patrick Ertel