Have you ever wondered where four wheel drive or 4x4 vehicles came from? How they were built? What was the original purpose? Well this article is going to guide you through the entire history of 4x4s.

1898 – THE BEGINNING

The humble 4x4 started in France when manufacture Latil began making front wheel drive vehicles and then making the natural shift to 4x4s before the turn of the century. The first 4x4s were tractors and gun tractors.

1900 – 1910

A lot happened during this time frame – the first battery powered vehicle is brought out with a battery powering each wheel. This was later expanded to a petrol engine driving a dynamo and electric motors to power the wheels but it was too expensive and didn’t take off.

The Spyker was built, making the first full-time four wheel drive car to be created. Caldwell Vale 4x4 trucks were created by Felix and Norman Caldwell, introducing trucks with four wheel drive and four wheel steering.

1911 – 1920

The Four Wheel Drive Auto Co (FWD) was launched and started selling 4x4 vehicles. During World War One there was a huge increase in the amount of four wheel drive, all-terrain vehicles being manufactured. Jeffery Quad started producing 4x4 trucks, the Big Lizzie was launched in 1915 and the first Oshkosh four wheel drive truck was made.

1921 – 1930

French car maker Citroen started to create half-tracks designed for crossing the desert. In December 1922 the half-tracks began to trek across the Sahara Desert.

AEC start to manufacture all-wheel drive trucks alongside FWD, these were largely military vehicles that took the parts and bodies left of the FWD trucks left in WW1.

1931 – 1940

The Citroen-Haardt expedition began to follow part of Marco Polo’s route from Beirut to Beijing using their half-track trucks. 

Miller and Dodge start building 4WD vehicles – Miller specialising in racing cars while Dodge were creating trucks. A Prototype PX-33 was made for the Japanese government by Mitsubishi, but it did not go into production. GAZ 61 launched the first Russian 4x4 to be build. In 1940 the first Jeep specification was issued.

1941 – 1950

This is the decade where 4x4s really took off with 2,700 early Jeeps being built by Bantam as ‘light 4x4’. Ford and Willys-Overland built 700,000 General Purpose vehicles specifically for WWII.

In 1948 the iconic Series 1 Land Rover was released and Ford created the first of their F-Series vehicles. These are both models that are still produced today, albeit updated in terms of both engines, technologies and styling.

The first amphibious Jeep ‘Half Safe’ – or Ford GPA – crossed the Atlantic ocean in 1950, a very impressive feat even in modern times.

1951 – 1960

Toyota launched the first LandCruiser – another model that is still seen on the roads today. Northwester Auto Parts Company started to produce 4x4 conversion units to convert standard drive vehicles into four wheel drive.

Two Land Rovers made the overland journey from London to Singapore, taking off road trails as well as highways. In 1959 the Haflinger was manufactured by Steyr-Daimler-Puch, which was a small four wheel drive vehicle that could be lifted by 4 men, making it easy to navigate across all terrain.

1961 – 1970

The Ferguson Project 99 win the Oulton Park Gold Cup race in ’61 using a Ferguson 4WD system. A Bluebird 4WD set the world land speed record (at the time) to 403mph in ’64. Jensen FF all-wheel drive road car was put in production using the Ferguson Formula 4WD system.

Range Rover was released in ’70 as the world’s first luxury 4x4. This is where the tide started to change and more people began using 4x4s as their everyday domestic vehicles.

1971 – 1980

Man went to the moon in 1971 but they weren’t alone, they took the Lunar Roving Vehicle which – of course- was a 4x4. This vehicle is still on the moon to this day.

Subaru brought out the Leone L-series, a four wheel drive passenger car. Among this range of vehicles was the first Subaru Forester – a range that will go on to be one of the best 4x4s available. AMC bring out their Eagle 4x4, which saw the manufacturer receive the large increase in sales they needed to stay in business.

Mitsubishi Motors released the Triton, now known as the L200. It was discontinued under the initial name before being launched in 1982 as the Mighty Max where it was sold in the USA.

1981 – 1990

One of the most iconic military 4x4s of all time Humvee (or Hummer) was released in ’81 – a dedicated military vehicle designed to conquer a wide range of different terrains.

Audi inject a new lease of life into rallying with their Quattro 4WD rally car, a car that made other manufacturers think twice about the way in which their off-road vehicles were being made. Among these manufacturers was Porsche who released a prototype Porsche 911 AWD – this vehicle later went on to win the Paris Dakar rally in ’84. In ’86 Porsche came back even stronger and the 911 AWD took 1st, 2nd, and 6th in the Paris Dakar rally.

1991 – 2000

4x4s became the car to have for many families and wannabe adventurers. Improvements were made across a wide range of manufactures, improving handling, suspension and power delivery by their 4WD systems.

Many luxury SUVs were brought onto the market by a wide range of manufacturers – many different types of models were available, from station wagons to light trucks, but all were 4WD capable. This saw a much wider audience purchasing these for domestic and suburban use.

In 1996 Subaru began experimenting with the traditional all-wheel drive layout, moving the typical 90/10 torque split to 80/20 in 1996. This saw greater control of the vehicle in a wide range of conditions and allows for much greater pulling capabilities.

2001 – 2010

Subaru continued to develop their unique AWD system, managing to create a 60/40 torque split which can be seen in the late 90s, early 00s Forester models. This was improved upon further in 2002 with the Impreza 2.5WRX which features a 45/55 torque split – something that was previously unheard of.

The focus of many manufacturers is to create a more fuel efficient vehicle, this is largely down to the increasing price of fuel and the type of driving these vehicles tend to do. SUV sales continue to soar as people are seeing them as a safe family car.

2011 – PRESENT

Subaru crease the Boxer engine, which sits lower and delivers a truly equal 50/50 torque split, providing dynamic and equal power to all wheels. This is put in all the vehicles they manufacture, driving Subaru forward from the competition and saw the Forester claiming the title of “Best 4x4 of the Year 2014”.

PHEV - IS THIS THE FUTURE OF 4 X 4?

What does the future hold? We’ll have to wait and see, these are exciting times ahead! Keep up to date with all the latest 4x4 updates with Nathaniel Cars, we’re the authorised dealer of Mitsubishi and MG vehicles.