FRONT WHEEL DRIVE REVOLUTION FOR 08

If the modern American concept of front wheel drive vehicles were to have a cornerstone it would be J. Walter Christie. His revolutionary racing cars built between 1904 and 1908 were to serve as inspiration for a latter generation of American innovators such as Harry Miller and Cornelius van Ranst whose work in turn served as the foundation for the modern generation of front wheel drive automobiles.
Numerous European companies, such as Latil of France in 1898, had featured this configuration prior so the concept was not exactly new when Christie introduced his first vehicle. What were new were his approach and his practical application that resulted in patents issued in the United States, Russia, and Austria and in numerous other European countries.
In an effort to prove the validity and soundness of his theories, he turned to the racing circuit. The initial version, a vehicle he tested on Ormond Beach in Florida in January of 1904, represented a dramatic departure from current automotive technology.
Mounted transversely was a four-cylinder 30 horsepower engine with the crankshaft serving as the front axle. Flywheels coupled to the crank ends by leather-faced clutches and telescoping universal joints drove the front wheels.
The success in testing as well as in limited racing inspired the creation of numerous improved models. Most notable was a 1907, 19,881 cc V-4 version which was the first American vehicle ever entered in a French Grand Prix. The year previous increasing notoriety prompted construction of a 2300 pound touring car prototype with a 50 horsepower four cylinder engine, on a 100-inch wheelbase but it was determined that the resources of Christie and his company, Direct Action Motor Company, should be focused on racing.
Another deviation from racing came in 1909 with the construction of an overhead valve four-cylinder prototype model rated at 18 horsepower. This and two additional models were designed and tested as taxis in New York City but once again racing was given priority and this project was still born.
Unfortunately, racing failed to provide the revenue required for experimentation as well as production. Christie resolved this with the development, patent, and production of a tractor unit for conversion of horse drawn fire equipment to self propelled. In 1912, the Front Drive Motor Company was formed for production of these units and the Christie front wheel drive vehicles soon became just another forgotten chapter from the formative years of the American auto industry.
An interesting footnote to the Christie taxi chapter has to do with another stillborn effort to produce a similar taxi. With talent such as Herb Snow, an engineer on the Cord L-29 project, and the extensive experience of Checker in the specialized construction of vehicles for use as taxis the experimental Model D produced in 1945 and tested extensively in the Racine, Wisconsin should have been a success. Even with positive results from these tests and plans for fourteen different body configurations, the company abruptly dropped the program in an effort to focus its limited resources on the production of a new, conventional powered taxi.
The next stage in the evolution of American built front wheel drive vehicles came from the creative genius of Harry Miller. However, before construction of the revolutionary Miller 122 racer in 1924, he had established a lengthy and enviable record of innovation in automotive related technologies.
In 1909, shortly before his 34th birthday, he received a patent for an improved carburetor. The sale of the subsequent carburetor company and its assets funded additional experimentation.
In 1913, he established the Master Carburetor Company and was soon dominating the field of supplying carburetors designed specifically for use in racing. The development of similar equipment designed for aeronautical and marine use, lightweight pistons for high performance use, intake manifolds and the formation of the Harry A Miller Manufacturing Company machine shop followed.
In 1915, Miller added engine design and construction to his repertoire. Construction of complete chassis followed and by 1920, Miller was the premier builder of racecars in America. Attesting to his dominance in this field are the statistics; the Indianapolis 500 starting field of 1923 was 46 percent Miller built vehicles and by 1925, it was 73 percent.
As impressive as the Miller creations were it was the front wheel drive model 122 of 1924 that stood the automotive world on its ear. Removal of the driveline through the cockpit allowed for seat placement nine inches lower than contemporary racers. Reduced radiator height furthered the low rakish appearance.
As with all Miller’s the car was more than just streamlined style. The series 122 and the 91 that followed, in rear as well as front-wheel drive configuration, established numerous records including 180.9 miles per hour on a closed course in 1930.
For those serious about winning a Miller was the only option – if one could afford it. In 1927, the price for a Miller rear wheel drive was $10000 dollars, front wheel drive was an additional $5000 dollars.
The success of the Miller and the subsequent publicity sparked frenzy in the research and development of front-wheel drive among numerous manufacturers and innovators. It also resulted in a barrage of requests for a Miller built passenger car.
In the summer of 1923 announcement was made that plans for such a vehicle had been initiated. Following was another announcement stating, “…there will be no production this year as Miller will devote all his time to racing.”
Miller addressed the subject again in 1928. In collaboration with Leo Goossen and Fred Offenhauser, he began initial design work on a spectacular automobile. The resultant convertible speedster featured four-wheel drive, a specially designed 310-c.i.d. V8 engine and sporty styling that exuded speed. Upon completion Phillip Chancellor, a wealthy Santa Barbara sportsman who had commissioned the car for an undisclosed amount took delivery.
The second speedster built to order for William Burden, a U.S. diplomat, featured a modified version of the Miller front-wheel drive used in his racecars. Under the hood was a supercharged 303-c.i.d. V16 engine. However, there was an inherent flaw in that the steering that functioned well on the left leaning turns of the track proved difficult in open road and city driving conditions.
Miller refocused his attention to what he did best – build cars that went very fast on the track. However, other manufacturers saw merit in the idea of producing a front wheel driven automobile built on the principles established by Christie and Miller.
E.L. Cord had built an empire by seizing upon new ideas as well as fresh ways to market old ones. His intuitive sense of timing for a product coupled with the boldness of a high stakes gambler often elevated good products, such as the Auburn Automobile Company, Duesenberg, Incorporated, and Stinson Aviation, to the status of legend.
In the early months of 1927, he initiated development of a practical front-wheel drive system based upon Miller patents and designs utilizing the resources of Auburn. As consultants for the project Harry Miller himself, as well as Cornelius van Ranst, another leading engineer in the development of racing and other high performance machines, was hired.
Initial work was in the Miller shops in Los Angeles but as construction of a viable prototype neared completion, there was a transfer to the Duesenberg facility in Indianapolis, Indiana. The first version, test driven by Cord himself, suffered from fatal frame twisting which sprung the doors. The creation of the industries first “X” frame designed by Herb Snow rectified this flaw.
Testing of the improved model with hand built body included a high-speed run from Auburn, Indiana to Beverly Hills, California. Cord continued his hands on approach to the project by driving the vehicle on one leg of the trip and evaluating the copious notes compiled at its completion.
On September 1, 1929 the all-new Cord L-29, designed to sell in the price niche just above the high end Auburn as direct competition for Cadillac and Packard made its debut. As with the Miller racers, the front-wheel drive configuration allowed for a lower stance than competitive models. As a result the production Cords were low slung and stylish but when coupled with custom coach work such as that of the coupe built by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky and displayed at the prestigious Concours d’ Elegance of Monaco the L-29 became rolling sculpture.
However, Cord was not the only front-wheel drive American built automobile to debut in 1929. Through a complicated and at times comedic series of events, the Moon Company of St. Louis introduced the Ruxton that year.
The Ruxton was the brainchild of William Muller, an experimental engineer at the Edward G. Budd Manufacturing Company. With approval from management, Muller initiated construction and testing of a prototype. The result was a beautiful automobile that featured a custom-built body designed by Joseph Ledwinka and a Studebaker built six-cylinder engine.
Archie Andrews, a swashbuckling entrepreneurial type who held several board directorships including one at Budd and another at Hupp Motor Car Corporation, took great interest in the project and tried to sell Hupp on the idea of producing the revolutionary vehicle. When negotiations for production collapsed, Andrews founded New Era Motors, Inc. to produce the car himself.
In quick succession Andrews provided Muller with the resources to build a production prototype utilizing a Continental built, 100 horsepower straight eight engine and began searching for a manufacturer to license for production. Peerless, Gardner, and Marmon all declined. In November of 1929, Moon announced it would soon begin production of the stylish, front-wheel drive Ruxton.
What might have been can only be guessed as production never progressed further than hit and miss, the result more of corporate intrigue than actual deficiencies in the vehicle.
In a deft move, Andrews had gained controlling interest in Moon in exchange for the Ruxton design and patent rights and appointed Muller as president. During the same period, Andrews negotiated a complicated deal with the Kissel brothers of Hartford, Wisconsin, for the production of transmissions and final drive assemblies.
Meanwhile the questionable take over of Moon and its subsequent control had reached the courts in a series of suits and countersuits. By late November of 1930, as a result, Moon, Kissel and the Ruxton were no more.
With production designed to accentuate the front differential, a relatively strong dealer network, stability of management and dependable performance provided by a Lycoming (another Cord company) 298.6 c.i.d, 125 horsepower, eight cylinder engine the Cord overshadowed the Ruxton in all aspects. A personal friendship between Walter Murphy of the prestigious Walter Murphy Company and E.L. Cord that resulted in outstanding custom versions further ensured the Cord would enjoy world wide recognition as a fine automobile.
A variety of sketches, plans and even the construction of numerous prototypes, including a V12 version, provide clear indication the company was optimistic for the future of the Cord. However, the harsh economic conditions of the Great Depression were not conducive to the sale of a vehicle with a base price of $2395 or one that needed service by qualified technicians to be kept in prime operating condition.
In December of 1931, the final 157 vehicles rolled from the factory as 1932 models. Four years later as the E.L. Cord empire was beginning to stumble a new generation of Cord was introduced – the legendary “coffin nose” 810 and 812.
The original concept had been to bolster Auburn sales by introducing a “baby Duesenberg.” As planning progressed, the decision to give the new automobile a lower stance by resurrecting and improving the earlier Cord front-wheel drive system was made.
The timeless styling of Gordon Buehrig, a Lycoming built 125 horsepower V8 and electric assist shifting placed the car years ahead of the competition. Even today, almost seventy years since the last one rolled from the factory, the Cord is one of the most recognizable automobiles in American automotive history.
From its inception, the second generation Cord was doomed. Once the styling and mechanics of the vehicle were agreed upon only fifteen weeks remained available to build vehicles for the November 1936 automobile shows.
While the initial Cord had undergone extensive testing before production the new generation 810 and, for 1937, 812 series were rushed with the result being numerous bugs and kinks, most notably in the rather complicated electric solenoid shifting mechanisms. In turn, this spawned rumors of unreliability.
The introduction of a super charger option for the Lycoming V8 in 1937 boosted performance through an increase in horsepower to 170 but did little to alleviate persistent rumors or increase sales. However, the greatest obstacle was the once mighty Cord automotive empire was now moribund.
On August 7, 1937, after cessation of Auburn and Duesenberg production the final Cord rolled from the factory. However, unlike many orphans the final generation of Cord proved to be timeless.
With the demise of the Cord, the concept of front-wheel drive would languish for decades in the American auto industry. Today we have come full circle and under the hood of most American built passenger cars as well as the replacement for the station wagon, the mini van, can be found the ghost of the Cord, of the Miller and of the Christie.

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jimhinckleysamerica

Jim Hinckley's America is a grand adventure on the back roads and two lane highways. It is an odyssey seasoned with fascinating people, and memory making discoveries. As made evident by the publication of fourteen books on subjects as diverse as diverse as Ghost Towns of the Southwest, The Illustrated History of the Checker Cab Manufacturing Company, Travel Route 66, Backroads of Arizona, and The Route 66 Encyclopedia, I enjoy sharing adventures and helping people plan for their own memory making journeys.

Thank you, shared adventures are the best adventures.

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