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1906 American 1-Ton 4x4 - Backward Glances

Posted in Features on May 1, 2013 Comment (0)
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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.

Here’s what a 106-year-old 4x4 looks like—more like a horse-drawn wagon than a truck. That’s pretty typical of the era. It was likely a combination of “visual comfort” for buyers in a transitional period and lack of experience on the best layouts.

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.

The engine came from the Beilfuss Motor Company of Lansing, Michigan, and it appears the production Americans used them also. Beilfuss isn’t a household name today but it was a player in the early 1900s and the engines were found in a sizeable number of cars and trucks, as well as for stationary and marine use. Beilfuss’ trademark was horizontally opposed engines, both air- and water-cooled. This one is the 192ci model, which was made in power ratings from 14 to 20hp and weighed 350 pounds. It isn’t known exactly which this one is. Production American 1-tons advertised 20hp. Coffman has never driven the truck over 5 to 10 mph, but remarked, “It isn’t overpowered.”

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.

The pilot station is on the right, as were many early automobiles in this era. Other than the steering wheel, the controls are completely incomprehensible to the modern driver. On top of the steering wheel are the throttle and spark advance levers. The lever under the steering wheel is the two-speed shift lever, the back position being low and forward high. The big lever in the foreground is an engine starting handle. If you yank hard enough on that, it will start the engine, from the driver’s seat no less! The outermost of the three pedals is the brake. One of the two inner ones is the reverse pedal, which applies a band to make the planetaries go in reverse. The other is the clutch. A secondary engine hand crank protrudes from under the seat but its low position makes it a knuckle-buster.
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The Details
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

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