At the turn of the 20th century, there were as many four-wheel-drive designs as there were four-wheel drives. Many never made it past the paper stage. A few got to prototype stage and most of these never went beyond a few years in production. A very few survived to be successful but not the one we are covering here. The American Motor Truck Company of Battle Creek, Michigan, went farther than most and built a line of 4x4 trucks starting in 1906 and sold a small number before fading away in 1912.
In the early days, the problem of steering a drive axle had not been fully solved. American presented a unique way to combine chains with four-wheel drive. It wasn't the first time chain-drive and four-wheel drive had been combined, though. Charles Cotta's '00 to '03 chain-drive 4x4 car, the Cottamobile, had a four-chain system with a central differential system, where the American had two chains with differentials in the axles. Both makes were four-wheel steer.
Why chain drive? In the early part of the 20th century it was very common. It was particularly common in trucks because it allowed for ultra-low gearing, something very necessary with the low-power engines of the day, and high load capacity. Finding a fully enclosed axle that could carry a heavy load and have low enough gearing wasn't easy in those days.
American went into business as a truck maker and built four-wheel-drive, four-wheel-steer trucks in 1-, 2-, 3-, 5- and 10-ton capacities They were powered by centrally mounted Beilfuss two- and four-cylinder horizontally opposed engines from 20 to 60hp. The transmissions were two-speed Champions that used a planetary gear. The chains were driven off a transverse central shaft and ran to a sprocket on the axle. The axle and springs were mounted on a platform, much like a horse wagon uses, and the axle pivoted inside the sprocket in a universal joint-like affair that had about 35 degrees maximum angularity. If this doesn't make sense, look at some of the pics. A 1911 brochure hints that the front and rear steering of the production trucks could be steered independently or together. The steering apparatus mounted in the center of the truck.
Very little is known about the American Motor Truck Company beyond that the trucks were built in Battle Creek, Michigan until about 1910, when production was moved to Detroit. The truck design was patented by Charles A. Hider, of Baldwin, Indiana, in 1903 and presumably he was involved in the company. There were several other truck companies using the "American" moniker, including a better known one in New York that was in business concurrently with the Michigan gang.
The truck seen here is owned by the noted and very notable car collector, Wayne Coffman, who has owned it since 1992. It's in running condition. The truck's detailed history is unclear but it's thought to be Hider's prototype truck. It's a 1-ton but differs in many respects to the production American 1-tons shown in period literature. Hider's widow donated the truck to the Henry Ford Museum in 1937 and it resided there until 1985. When the Henry Ford Museum had it on display, they called it a "1909 5-ton." Clearly it's not 5-ton and research shows it's not a 1909 model either. With Coffman's approval, we're going to call it a 1906 for lack of better information. It might have been built even earlier. It's thought to be the only American 4x4 truck still in existence.
Vehicle: 1906 American 1-ton 4x4
Owner: Wayne Coffman
Estimated value: $15,000-$20,000
Engine: 196ci Beilfuss 2-cyl, horizontally opposed
Power (hp): 14-20
Bore & stroke (in): 5 x 5
Transmission: 2-spd, Champion planetary
Transfer case: none, integral with trans
Front axle: chain drive, platform
Rear axle: chain drive, platform
Tires: 2.5 x 34, solid rubber
Wheelbase (in): 102
Top speed (mph): 15