In the previous instalment of our miniseries, we left the story of the 4x4s history shortly after the World War II, the first time when four-wheel-drive cars were truly mass-produced. The rudimentary, military-based machines of that time, though, were miles away from what today’s 4x4s can do. The transformation from basically single-purpose off-road vehicles to the universal, mass-market 4×4 models of today was still many decades in the future. Although first attempts appeared much sooner, it took until the 1980s before four-wheel-drive proved its advantages on normal roads and the boom of all-purpose 4x4s started.
Single-purpose 4×4 vehicles, designed primarily with off-road use in mind, no matter if they were pickup trucks of classic off-roaders going in the footsteps of original Jeep, typically used a body-on-frame construction. In fact, the orthodox ones use it to this day. The massive frame is the main supporting member, to which the engine, transmission, axles and body itself are attached. This design offers many advantages. For example, it allows for great variability of drivetrain options and using various body types or superstructures.
In off-road use, the frame is also indispensable. It allows for great body flex and axle articulation, without the body suffering. On the other hand, it comes with many disadvantages on the road, like being heavy and bulky – which is also true about the traditional 4×4 system with three massive differentials. If you really want to use the four-wheel-drive on the road, you need to put it into an unibody design. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? One would even think that it’s strange that no one thought of that sooner.
In fact, many did, but the problem was always the same. Money. Unibody 4x4s were usually so expensive and the target audience so small, that there was no way to pay for development. The problem is that unibody has to be designed for all possible driveline configurations from the onset, causing huge development cost and small margin for errors (or fixing them).
Besides that, it was necessary to develop a universally useable and mechanically strong, yet compact design of the driveline – and one that would work with transversely-mounted engines as well. The 4x4s were waiting for the opportunity and for the big player on the global market who would be able to finance both development and marketing. In the end, it was Volkswagen who became the pioneer, using the technology from the VW Iltis military vehicle in the Audi Quattro rallying legend.
However, it was a long way from the end of World War II to the fire-spitting Group B monsters – and further still to the point where four-wheel-drive became a part of mass-market cars. It would be a mistake not to look at milestones of the 4×4 development, at least at a glance. Many unique and interesting cars were created in those 40 years, together with many a legendary name that’s with us until today.
To begin, let’s go back to the post-war times and military vehicles. After the war, the world was full of decommissioned military Jeeps. Seeing their capabilities, many people recognized the potential of a 4×4 off-road vehicle in various uses – and automakers did, too. This led to the development of first commercially available, mass-produced off-road vehicles. The Jeep CJ-2A, introduced in 1945, wasn’t much more than a civilian version of the Willys, but it was the first step that led to the brand being recognized as synonymous with off-roaders around the world.
A year later, Dodge used similar recipe with the Power Wagon, based directly on the WC-series cars manufactured during the war, capturing the market for 4×4 trucks. The first real newcomer, and another big name to be associated with 4×4 for decades to come, appeared in 1948. The Land Rover, even though it was clearly inspired by the Jeep, was the first purpose-built civilian off-roader, even offering the “power take-off” feature to be able to support farm machinery and thus serve as a replacement for a tractor.
Still, 4x4s of the post-war period were still far away from true road cars. They were slow, cumbersome and uncomfortable, making their use limited to situations where travelling on the roads could be considered a secondary task. This was soon to change, though.
Jeep was once again the first one to lead the way, with the introduction of Wagoneer in 1963. It was the first 4×4 to come with independent front suspension and even automatic transmission. Even more important, though, was a estate-like bodywork with comfortable interior, equipped and finished like a regular passenger car of the time. By most standards, Wagoneer could even be considered luxurious and became quite popular with the wealthy people in USA for use at their summer homes and ranches. Soon after, other American manufacturers came up with their own off-roaders – the International Scout, Ford Bronco, Chevrolet Blazer and Dodge Ramcharger. Around the same time, Land Rover came with its own take of luxury off-roader, the Range Rover.
These cars were a huge step forward in making the 4×4 useable in a daily-driven road car. While they still made a lot of compromises on the road, they were much more refined than the Jeeps and Land Rovers of the post-war era. Even so, the gap between them and “normal” passenger cars remained huge.
One of the first brands to try and close the gap was Jensen, which went even further then expected. Rather than just moving a step and fitting a four-wheel-drive into some saloon or estate car, Jensen decided to go all-out and make theirs a GT coupe. The Jensen FF was based on the stylish Interceptor and, like Interceptor, used high-powered V8 big block engines from Chrysler. The difference was that FF (short for Formula Fergusson, after the 4x4s creator) used full-time all-wheel-drive system, distributing power roughly 60/40 between the front and rear axles. The high price and questionable reliability caused the FF to sell poorly, but it still was a precursor of the things to come.
Meanwhile, a small Japanese brand found its niche in making 4×4 available to those who didn’t want a hardcore off-roader and couldn’t afford the super-expensive Jensen. In 1972, Subaru introduced the four-wheel-drive version of its Leone estate car. Soon, it became popular with farmers and other who needed a 4×4 capability in a car suitable for regular road use as well. It was a huge step in the right direction, but it still took years for others to jump on the bandwagon.
To make it to the mainstream, 4×4 needed a bigger name to enter the scene. That came in late 1970s, when Jörg Bensinger, Audi’s chassis engineer, noticed that Volkswagen Iltis, a small military off-road vehicle, was faster than any high-performance Audis during the winter testing in Scandinavia. This made him think about a new approach to the all-wheel-drive – something that Jensen tried but never really succeeded in, namely using 4×4 not just to improve off-road capabilities, but also the speed and handling on the slippery roads.
His idea led to development of Audi’s first 4×4 car, the Quattro. Based on contemporary Audi Coupé, the sleek two-door combined attractive looks with unique dynamics of the all-wheel-drive car. This alone would probably be enough to make the brand interesting, but the real impact came when Quattro went rallying. It’s several evolutions, culminating with mighty short-wheelbase Sport Quattro S1 E2 scored countless victories in the legendary Group B era of WRC, driven by big names like Walter Röhrl, Stig Blomqvist or Michele Mouton.
The Quattro’s edge over competitors didn’t last for long, as everyone else got inspired by it and started using 4×4 as well. Soon, with introduction of cars like Lancia Delta S4, Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 or Ford RS200, the Group B was full of all-wheel-drive cars.
The rest, as they say, is history. When the public was exposed to Quattro’s 4×4 both on the road and on the rally tracks, the all-wheel-drive became the thing to have, the hit of the times. Soon, most automakers both in Europe and abroad started offering their own 4×4 models. Lancia took its rally expertise to the road with the Delta HF Integrale, while Peugeot offered the rally-derived 4×4 in the 405 saloon. Ford came up with sporty Sierra XR4x4, BMW introduced its 325ix, while Volkswagen followed suit of its sister brand and offered four-wheel-drive in its Golf Rally in late 1980s.
In following decades, various 4×4 systems made its way into mainstream cars and became more and more ubiquitous. That, together with differences between various systems that are in use today, is a story for another day, though. Stay tuned!