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The 1910 FWD Badger Car in Clintonville Wisconsin

The Badger and F.W.D. Four-Wheel Drive Automobiles

Machinists Otto Zachow and his brother-in-law, William Besserdich, both of Clintonville, Wisconsin, designed a front drive axle with steerable hubs containing universal joints possibly as early as 1906. The axle was followed up with a transfer case and driveshafts suitable for a four-wheel drive vehicle. During the summer of 1907 patent applications (the patent drawings can be seen below) were filed for both devices and then the pair went to work to built the first car. By 1908, they had tested a steam-powered four-wheel drive car that was a success other than issues with its power plant.

Zachow and Besserdich then built a second gasoline-powered prototype that turned out to be a complete success. With a working vehicle, the next step was to find financial backing that was eventually arranged with Dr. W.H. Finney, and the three incorporated the endeavor late in 1908. The first car nicknamed the Battleship, powered by a 55-60 h.p. Continental four-cylinder engine is reported to have been built in 1910 and can be seen in the lead photo above at the Ward House in Clintonville (it has survived).

  • A 1911 FWD Test Car in Clintonville Wisconsin
  •                                A test car being given a workout through a mud hole and up a bank.

Dr. Finney soon withdrew his financial support, which was replaced by Walter A. Olen, who became the President of the Company. The Badger name was dropped and the cars that followed were renamed the Four Wheel Drive Automobile. The name was next shortened to the F.W.D. and between 1910 and 1911 the company  built at least six of the four-cylinder 45 h.p. 134-inch w.b. machines.

  • A 1911 FWD Test Car in Clintonville Wisconsin
  •             The test car with a more refined gas tank mounting, and with a toolbox and fenders added.

After building the small run of cars, F.W.D. decided that a better market for its product might be in the emerging trucking field. At about the same time, the company found out about a cross-country test that the Army was going to run to test the feasibility of using trucks for some of its needs. It has been reported that F.W.D. was able to arrange for Army Captain A. E. Williams to come to the factory for a test drive of one of the cars.

As a result of Williams visit, the Army purchased one of the F.W.D. chassis’ for the test. With a body mounted on the back, it was named the Scout Car. It proved the benefits of all-wheel drive by outperforming the other three two-wheel drive trucks in the tortuous 1,500-mile test early in 1912. Captain Williams can be seen in the passenger seat of the F.W.D. test truck below. 

  • The Scout Car FWD Car on the Army 1500 mile test
  •                                          The “Scout Car” on a 1,500-mile test by the Army in 1912.

After the Army test, The Automobile reported in its May 9, 1912 issue that Captain Williams was heading to Sparta, Wisconsin for summer maneuvers and further testing of the trucks. There the Scout Car joined two of the recently finished new F.W.D. Truck models for a test in the field under conditions similar to those encountered during a war.

The summer test was favorable, and the Army soon purchased more of the trucks. With the outbreak of World War I just around the corner both the F.W.D. Truck and the Four-Wheel-Drive Jeffery Quad, built in Kenosha, Wisconsin, would prove the worth of the vehicles in the conflict.

  • fwd6
  •                       The transfer case patent drawing above and the steerable front drive axle below.


17 responses to “The Badger and F.W.D. Four-Wheel Drive Automobiles

  1. I would have thought our hero Mr.Christie was first with front wheel drive patents, but perhaps there is a technical diference.

  2. I suppose that we could argue that the first front wheel drive vehicle dates back to Nicholas Cugnot, 1769, but the first practical front wheel drive dates back to 1897 with a car built by Krieger, Paris. Later front wheel drive cars include the very successful Lohner-Porsche built in Vienna and exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition, 1900, and the Jeantaud built in Paris in 1905. All these later cars used electric or petrol/electric as motive power to drive the wheels. The Lohner-Porsche patents also include a four wheel drive car built in 1900. Later developments using this L-P hub motor principal were buses, trucks and a “road train” which used a huge tractor mounted generator to provide power for an electric motor in each wheel of up to a dozen trailers hooked up to the leading tractor unit, thus giving an all-wheel-drive heavy haulage system. The quality of the Lohner-Porche engineering is superb.

  3. Hooray, a pro Wisconsin thread! We take four wheel drive so for granted these days, but Wisconsin was truly a pioneer in this field. Being a “newbie” here, I’m not sure if Oshkosh trucks have been mentioned, but has an equally impressive history, that continues to this day. Regarding F.W.D. trucks, one may want to look up a woman named Luella Bates. Luella Bates was a test driver for F.W.D. from 1918-1922 , and was an incredible woman. In a time when women didn’t do things like that, she proved it could be done, and played an important role in women in trucking.
    When looking at old pictures of roads in the early part of the last century, and seeing the types of cars that slogged though that stuff, and then think of the modern 4 wheel drives that barrel down 6 lane interstates now, it’s just crazy.

  4. Check out archives for FWD trucks being tested in Washington D. C.

    Wisconsin has some good motoring history. Two and four wheels…

  5. I think the Spyker 60HP car from Amsterdam, Holland was the worlds first 4 wheel drive car which could really used. It was worlds first 6 cyl. car too. All in 1903, and the car survived in the Louwman museum the Hague Holland.
    Kind Regards from
    Hein Klop

  6. I did not now that my great grandfather did this. My grandfater nam was Shirly Milton Besserdick. Im trying to find out more info?

    • Hi Lee…first off we are cousins as William is also my Great Grandpa. My grandma is Faye Besserdich Pernot and was half sister to Shirl. It is amazing what our great grandpa accomplished and not just with FWD and inventing the four wheel drive mechanism but with also starting Oshkosh Truck too!! There is so much information, photos and documents that has come to light in the past year that I would love to share with you. It is truly amazing that William was responsible for starting 2 major truck companies and has not, I feel, received the credit he is due. Please feel free to contact me as I would love to share more about our great grandpa with you!

  7. I have a picture of a 1907 Christe which used a front wheel drive and a cross mounted engine.( also known as Eat West) installation. also looking for info on a FWD vehicle chassis number 20999 as used by the British in WW1.

  8. Hey Guys,
    I have a really cool 1947 FWD 3-door COE in excellent complete condition, even has the dog house. I have looked and looked and I can’t find any information or pictures. It had belonged to the Dept. of Interior as a power line truck. I am in west central New Mexico so truck is virtually rust free. It has a Waukashaw 6 cyl. engine that runs good, but wheel cylinders are stuck. Can anyone point me to a place to get more information? Thank you.

  9. Correction: The steam Badger and the Gas Badger (later known as the Battleship) are one in the same car. I can say that having studied hundreds of images at the FWD archive and seeing (and driving ) the Battleship in current times. The steam powerplant was removed and the Continental replaced it. Badger also outside sourced a body., making it a fully formed automobile. It’s still a glorious car!

    The image shown above of the test car climbing the hill was taken in the winter of 1911. Captain A.E. Williams was making the rounds of car manufacturers on a research trip for the Army… who owned just a handful of trucks at that point. He was taken for a “wild ride in the countryside” by FWD’s test driver and that convinced him the Army needed four-wheel drive. As a result, the Army purchased a stripped down touring car chassis, one of the last of the seven FWD made, added an escort wagon box and called it a truck. Early the next year, it participated in a 1,500 mile test convoy a showed the value of four-wheel drive. That test car in the image is none other than the Nancy Hank, a car still in the FWD museum. After FWD’s focus switched to trucks, the Nancy Hank (nobody remembers why it had that name) was used as a parts truck until the early 1960s.

    The Spyker was not the first 4×4 car, but probably the first practical one. Too bad only one was built. Otto Zachow took a lot of design cues from it after reading about it in a copy of Scientific American and patented the first steerable front axle in the US. There were also the Cotta, and the Twyford cars, as well as the Van Winkle. All of which predated the Badger. Twyford predated Spyker, but used platform axles and up to about 7 cars were built. Cotta also predated Spyker but was a very light chain drive car. Numbers produced was low, perhaps as many as 10. Cotta went on to form Cotta transmissions, ironically used in the FWD trucks. The actual first 4×4 was the 1824 (that’s Eighteen-Twenty-Four) Burstall and Hill steam coach, though the four-wheel drive was mostly incidental.

    As to the FWD/Oshkosh connection, Bill Besserdich left FWD to help form Oshkosh with another ex-pat from there. Many say Besserdich, the B-in-Law of Zachow, was the true engineering brains behind the FWD and he went a long way towards proving that when developing the first Oshkosh, “Old Betsy.” Neither Besserdich nor Zachow were long with FWD. Walter Olen took the company into the big leagues and it soon outpaced the two country blacksmiths. Olen was a bit of a hard-nose and could be tough to work for but he made FWD a success.

      • Not sure how to do that without posting my contact info for all the world to see. Since I write regularly for Four Wheeler magazine, you might try writing to me via the editor there, or thru my book publisher, Octane Press.

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