Front Wheel Drive

The story of  pioneers of the front wheel drive motorcar
Part Two, The Experimental Years. 1925 to 1932.
As with all fundamental ideas, no one person invented front wheel drive for cars and no one person turned it from an idea to the dominant means of transmitting powers to the road that it is today.
An experimental FWD car the Stanhope.
Various methods where tried to get the drive to the front wheels, particularly on the three wheeled cars, one British experimenter,Harry Stanhope used belts and chains, but the system that was adopted by most designers, were variations of the system first used on the 1899  De Dion-Bouton voiturette to drive the rear axle. This consisted of a final drive assembly mounted on the chassis and shafts  universally jointed at both ends, to each of the driven wheels.
In the United States, in 1925 Harry Miller a successful designer of racing cars at this time, made a front wheel drive racing car using the complete De Dion arrangement using a beam axle linking the front wheels. He went on design the first Cord cars.Front wheel drive "Miller Special
In England, G.T Smith-Clarke at the Alvis company experimented with front wheel drive starting in 1925 and in France J.A Gregoire  developed the Tracta sports car starting in 1926. They both used independent front suspension,  this was to be the preferred layout for almost  all front wheel drive cars, while “ Conventional” cars mostly carried on using beam front axles and 1/2 elliptic springs for the next fifteen to twenty years.


The Alvis Car & Engineering Company was formed in 1919, Captain G.T. Smith-Clarke joined the company as chief engineer in 1922. He developed the companies existing models, which were in every way conventional and by 1925 had designed and developed a very unconventional car, the Alvis  12/75. It had independent suspension on all wheels, using two 1/4 elliptic springs for each wheel, mounted as leading links at the rear and as transverse links at the front like wishbones, front wheel drive with the brakes mounted inboard each side of the final drive assembly. Fitted with a modified version of the 1 1/2 litre engine used in the companies  12/50 model, in  supercharged form it produced 100 bhp and the car was capable of 85 mph. Weighting only 9.5cwt (483 kg) it was a lively performer. Two cars were entered for the Le Mans 24 hour race in 1928, taking first and second place in their class.Alvis 12/75 2-Seater Sports
In 1926 they  produced another front wheel drive car, It was design to comply with the 1 1/2litre Grand Prix formula of that year and was fitted with a supercharged straight-eight engine that produced 125 bhp. The car was not a success.
 The 12/75 was sold from 1928 until 1930 but only 155 purchasers were found, Disappointing even for a small producer like Alvis. During and after the withdrawal of the 12/75, Alvis carried on producing conventional cars.

There where two reasons for the poor sales of the 12/75, complexity and handling. It was a very complex car for it’s day and this was at a time when cars required much more regular attention to keep it serviceable than today, also the handling was considered poor for a sporting car.This was considered to be due to it’s long wheelbase and low centre of gravity, but was probable due to the long wheelbase, but also poor weight distribution and transmission  shortcomings.
One convention of that period that Smith-Clarke adhered to as did most of the pioneers of front wheel drive was that of mounting all of the machinery within the wheelbase of the car, thereby missing many of the  advantages of the front  wheel drive layout. These will be explained later as will the transmission shortcomings.As you can see in the picture  on this page, the car had a long bonnet.This was necessary because of the layout of the final drive, gearbox and engine, in that order located from the front wheels backwards, taking up a lot of space making a long wheelbase necessary to get the passengers in.
Alvis 12/75 Sports Saloon>

Jean Albert Gregiore

The Tracta car emerged out of the enthusiasm of two Frenchmen, Jean Albert Gregiore  a garage owner from Versailles and Pierre Fenaille a wealthy client. Both where motor sports enthusiast and competed in various events, Fenaille in the unusual manner of being driven by his chauffeur. He suggested that they build their own car to enter in motor races, Fenaille providing the finance and Gregiore the expertise.
Jean Albert Gregiore and  Pierre Fenaille
Fenaille being interested in novel concepts of engineering suggested they make the car with front wheel drive. From that suggestion, Gregiore’s long connection with front wheel drive cars and transmission technology began. The car that they devised had the main components in a similar configuration as the Alvis, but the one front brake was located in an even more difficult place to service, between the gearbox and the final drive. Also the independent front suspension system was by sliding pillars, as still used on Morgan cars. They christened the car the “Tracta Gephi”, and the car first ran in the summer of 1926. Tracta Gephi
The car was long and low, with the minimum of ground clearance. J.A. Gregiore described the road holding as exceptional, compared to the sports cars of the period he had driven. He was at first worried that the drive would lock up while cornering as was predicted by conventional automobile engineers. They considered front wheel drive dangerous at that time, but after testing the car he had complete confidence in the system, using the car to compete in rallies and hill climbs. What did happen when cornering was that the transmission “kicked” and  “Snatched”, an unpleasant phenomenon that also caused excessive wear in the transmission and steering gear, presumably the same affect that led to the Alvis 12/75 being labelled as difficult to handle.
To explain this phenomenon I can no better than Quote J.A.Gregiore’s own words.
“It is easy to explain this.  In a cardan joint, when the driven shaft forms an angle with the driving shaft and the latter turns at constant speed, the velocity of the, driven shaft is irregular, sometimes turning faster and sometimes slower than the driving shaft.  Therefore at each revolution when the front wheels are turned for steering, alternate acceleration and deceleration is imparted to them.  This then produces a spasmodic movement which is felt in the steering.  In 1690 the British engineer Hooke described this phenomenon kinematically and showed that, to transmit movement correctly via cardan joints, it will suffice to use two, which are set at right angles were the axes of the driving and driven shafts meet.It is therefore necessary to use a Hooke joint within the pivot of each of the driven front wheels”.
A 1928 Tracta showing the transmission

To overcome this problem Fenaille suggested to create a constant velocity joint in each front wheel hub, by using an enclosed double universal joint. This idea was developed to become the “Tracta Joint”. The promotion and licensed use of the “Tracta Joint” became the primary purpose of the Societe Anonymedes AutomobilesTracta  after 1932.
It was the recognition of this weakness in simple front wheel drive arrangements, and the provision of a solution for others to use, that was Gregiore and Fenaille’s great contribution to the advance in the use of front wheel drive.
J A Gregiore designed an 11cv 6 cylinder car for Donnet in 1932. Only four prototypes were produced, one being show at the Paris Salon of 1932, before Donnet went into liquidation.
He then worked with Lucian Chennard to design two cars for Chennard and Walcker. They where of advanced design but were not a commercial success. In 1937 he designed the Amilcar "Compound", produced by Hotchkiss from 1938 to the Second World War, by which time 681 examples had been made. It was constructed using another of Gregiore's idea's, a cast Alpax (light alloy) chassis frame. Other advanced features were, rack and pinion steering, and all independent suspension. But the car had it's bad points, cable brakes and gearchange linkage, also a side valve engine. The latter still common at this time, although a overhead valve version came later.Amilcar "Compound"
During the Second World War he secretly worked with his design team at his works at Asnieres on a small car the Aluminium "Francais-Gregiore". It had a chassis-body frame of light alloy, front wheel drive, an air-cooled flat twin engine and independent suspension on all wheels. A four-seat car weighting only 880 pounds, it could make 60 mph and 70 mpg. This design was to form the basis of the 1950 "Dyna" Panhard.
The "Tracta Joint", was extensively used in wheeled military vehicles during the Second World War by most of the major combatants, the largest user being Willy in the USA, who fitted them to a quarter of a million jeeps.
Aluminium "Francais-Gregiore"
In 1950 another Hotchkiss car the "Hotchkiss-Gregiore", was produced. Again with an alloy chassis and body. With independent suspension on all four wheels and fitted with a water cooled flat four engine of 2 litres, ahead of the front axle, it was fast, with a top speed of 94mph, but the car was expensive and only 250 examples were made by 1954. In 1956 Gregiore produced a two seat convertible with a 2.2 litre supercharged flat four engine producing 130bhp, and as in the case of the cars mentioned previously front wheel drive. All of ten cars made were fitted with bodies designed and built by Henri Chapron.


Errett Lobban Cord was born in 1894 He worked his way up from being a used-car salesman in 1920 to the position of president and chief stockholder of the Auburn and Duesenberg car companies in the United States by 1926. The 1920's where a boom time and Cord decided to add yet another exotic model to his range. This time it would bear the name Cord.
Cord L-29
He commissioned the racing car builder Harry Miller to design a front wheel drive car. Miller assisted by Cornelius Van Ranst another designer with some front wheel drive experience produced a design using existing Auburn components, adapted to the front wheel drive layout as first used by Miller on his 1924 racing car. The result was the 1929 Cord L-29. At the very front the L-29 had a tubular axle beam ahead of the final drive unit, which was itself ahead of the three-speed gearbox and behind the gearbox was the engine. This was a modified Auburn 298.6-cubic-inch straight eight, producing 125 horsepower. The whole assembly being very long, resulting in a very long car. The front brakes were mounted on ether side of the final drive unit, inboard of the drive shafts to the front wheels. I don't have details of the drive shaft components, only that "Premium Cardon constant-velocity joints", were fitted. The front axle was mounted on Quarter elliptic springs, with a dead axle and half-elliptic springs at the rear.
The car was not a success, due to various factors. Traction was poor due to the layout creating a rear weight bias. (Designers had not yet learned of the true advantages of front wheel drive, a compact power train and a weight bias over driving wheels.) Another factor was the lack of durability of the drive shaft that needed replacement frequently. Being a new concept didn't help, when it was dropped in 1932, only five thousand and ten examples had been produced.
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