FWD Seagrave Model B: One Of The First Successful 4x4 Trucks
Four-wheel drive goes back a lot farther than many realize, but most of the earliest designs were one-offs or in very low production. The 1910-1920 period is when engineers began perfecting the technology and a number of 4x4s went into large-scale production. Some makes would be short-lived; others would have an era and fade away. Only a very few of those founding fathers of four-wheel drive would last into modern times. FWD Seagrave is one that lasted.
One of the earliest and most successful production 4x4s was the FWD Model B, a 3-ton truck that was in production from 1912 to well into the ’20s, but it was sold refurbished up to at least 1939. Not only did it become a benchmark and cornerstone product for the FWD Corporation, it became a benchmark in the growth and development of four-wheel drive in general.
This Model G 1 1/2-ton 4x4 underwent the U.S. Army endurance test in 1912, competing against mule-drawn wagons supplying an Army regiment. This was one of FWD's first prototype trucks, and it still exists in the Four-Wheel Drive Foundation Museum in Clintonville, Wisconsin. After it was used in the test, it was refurbished and sold to John Payne Transfer Lines, a Wisconsin trucking outfit. FWD reacquired the truck in 1960. It was similar to the 3-ton and virtually the same in some ways, but it differed from the 3-ton Model B in having a smaller 318ci engine, a lighter transfer case, lighter springs and a smaller fuel tank. In 1915, this truck was listed at $3,600.
FWD began in 1909 as the Badger Four Wheel Drive Auto Company, the year prior having developed a four-wheel-drive touring car. As we wrote about in the June ’12 issue of Four Wheeler, the FWD touring cars were fine vehicles but the market was not ready for them. The drivetrain hardware about doubled the price of the car versus a similarly equipped 4x2, so they didn't sell well. Some of that had to do with newbies running the marketing, but when Walter A. Olin took the company public, renamed it the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company, and switched to the construction of commercial trucks, its products became a founding force in four-wheel drive.
When it was clear in 1911 that the 4x4 cars weren't taking off, design work started on 1 1/2-ton (Model G) and 3-ton (Model B) trucks. Prototypes were ready just in time to take part in a U.S. Army field test in July 1912. A Provisional Regiment was made up of elements from several Army units and marched from Dubuque, Iowa, to Sparta, Wisconsin (about 150 miles away). A small fleet of trucks competed against mule-drawn wagons in keeping the units supplied. Many of the trucks were 4x2s, and there were only three large capacity 4x4s on the trip: the FWDs and a Kato. The Kato came from the Four Traction Auto Company, of Mankato, Minnesota, which had incorporated in 1908 and built a small number of four-wheel-drive vehicles into 1912 but would be gone by 1913.
This ’16 Model B was built for the British Army and used a cargo/personnel body. The brass-shelled radiator shown here was used late into 1916, replaced by a stronger three-piece unit. The wood-spoke 6x36 wheels were also replaced beginning in 1916 with solid-cast wheels. Many of the military trucks were equipped with an acetylene spotlight like this one. The right-hand drive was not just for the Brits. Most Model Bs were right-hand drive, as the American auto industry had not yet decided which side of the car to drive from.
The test was a mixed bag in the Army's horse-centric eyes. While the trucks could outperform the mules in most cases, reliability issues plagued some of them, and when changes of route took them off established roads, most of the overloaded trucks floundered. The FWD 3-ton was reportedly often relieved of hauling duties and dispatched as a rescue rig for mired trucks. As in a previous cross-country test a few months earlier, the value of four-wheel drive was highlighted.
While the Dubuque-Sparta maneuvers left the Army with a favorable impression of FWD trucks, it did not result in a big order. Army brass was still biting their nails in indecision. In the meantime, FWD started production of Model G, Model B and Model M (5-6 ton) trucks and began selling them commercially. When the World War I broke out in 1914, the French, British, and Russians were desperate for motor transport. In 1915, FWD began selling trucks, mostly Model Bs, to these European governments to fill shortfalls in their national wartime production. The Model B was particularly well liked by all who used them, and production increased exponentially.
This B-1917 is painted in WWI camo and mounts an ammunition box. This truck would have hauled shells to artillery units on the front. This truck is in the Four-Wheel Drive Foundation museum and reputed to be an actual veteran of WWI. By the time this truck was made, it had adopted the heavy cast radiator and solid wheels that weighed 450 pounds each.
In March 1916, irregular troops commanded by Mexican revolutionary Francisco "Pancho" Villa crossed the border and raided a small town in New Mexico to steal guns and supplies. Army units were moved to the border, and a nearly yearlong campaign ensued. The Punitive Expedition to capture Villa became the U.S. Army's first motorized campaign and FWD 4x4s played a big part in that nearly roadless desert. It was a mission failure because the cunning Villa eluded capture, but the Army learned the rudiments of motor vehicle operations in a military environment. The Army had almost no trucks prior to the event and few trained drivers or mechanics. Civilian drivers were hired and gave soldiers OJT. These GI's became the core of the newly formed Motor Transport Corps. This event provided the turning point for the U.S. Army's conversion to motorized transport and was useful experience when the U.S. entered World War I later in 1917.
Along with the 2-ton Nash Quad, the 3-ton FWD Model B became a standard military 4x4 truck for the U.S. Army in WWI. Only about 20 percent of the trucks were four-wheel-drive, but the 4x4s were more often on the front lines. The demand for Model Bs was so great that FWD licensed Kissel, Premier, and Mitchell to build them for military service. Some 16,000 model B trucks were built for World War I, about half by FWD and the rest divided among the other manufacturers.
The Wisconsin Model A engines used a "free-breathing" crossflow head with a 1 1/4-inch Stromberg updraft carb. Known as the "T-Head," the big Wisconsin four had a racing history. It was also mounted in the legendary Stutz Bearcat. With a larger carb, it make about 60 hp in the Stutz and spun up to a whopping 1,600 rpm. The Bearcat was one of the hot rods of the early 1900s and more than a few cheap surplus FWD T-Heads found their way into Bearcats. A downdraft carb, a better magneto, and an electric start were developed for these engines, enabling the Model B to be a viable truck well into the ’30s. With the downdraft, the engine was rated at 55 hp at 1,350 rpm.
After the war, a cash-strapped American government drastically cut the size of the military, leaving huge stockpiles of motor vehicles that were dumped on the market at bargain prices. This was right at a point where truck sales were ramping up, but a market flooded with surplus trucks killed sales of new trucks, and a good many companies died in that 1918 to 1925 period. FWD might have been one of those companies but an innovative idea kept them alive until the new truck markets ramped back up.
FWD began buying up all the surplus Model B trucks they could lay their hands on, refurbishing them and offering them as "virtually new" trucks at bargain prices. This continued well into the ’30s, and along the way they developed upgrades that modernized the trucks. These upgrades were added to the refurbished trucks optionally or could be purchased as kits for an existing Model B owner. Among the upgrades were high-speed gearing that allowed 25-plus mph speeds versus the plodding 14 mph of the original truck. Pneumatic tires were one of the larger upgrades, as well as kits to increase the power of the Wisconsin T-Head engine. Cab kits were popular, as were a variety of specialty bodies. Earl Halliburton bought a batch of surplus FWD trucks in 1919 for use on the oilfields and used them for 30 years. Halliburton became a FWD convert and still has a couple of the original Model Bs.
In 1937, the Model B was very much the same bare-bone rig as it had been originally, albeit with some obvious upgrades. The big 8x40-inch diamond-tread Goodyears are just one. With the optional 7.35:1 final-drive ratio (8.90:1 was standard, with 10.15:1 and 12.05:1 also optional) the trucks were as fast as any 3-tonner needed to be in the ’30s. The rear suspension had also changed from a platform-type to semi-elliptic.
The Model B was one of FWD most enduring products. We found sales brochures for the refurbished Model Bs dated 1939, and besides the pneumatic tires, high-speed gears, and engine power upgrades, they were the same basic truck as had been offered in 1914. You could still order Model B parts in the ’80s, and there were still a few parts in stock into the ’90s.
Of course, FWD marched on with many new models over the years and played a big part in the nation's trucking industry. They are still in business as FWD Seagrave, building Seagrave fire trucks, a company they purchased in 1963. They haven't built FWD badged trucks since the ’90s but have said that if the market demanded it, they could once again build FWD branded trucks.
Vehicle: FWD Model B-1918
Engine: 389ci 4-cyl Wisconsin
Power (hp): 50 @ 1,300 rpm (brake- 36.1 ALAM)
Torque (lb-ft): 222 @ 1,200 rpm
Bore & stroke (in): 4.75 x 5.5
Comp. ratio: 4:1
Transfer case: Single-spd, full-time, 2.06:1 ratio
Front axle: FWD, full-floating
Rear axle: FWD, full-floating
Axle ratio: 4.30:1
Tires: 6x36 solid rubber (cast-iron wheels)
Wheelbase (in): 124
GVW (lb): 14,510
Curb weight (lb): 7,308
Fuel capacity (gal): 30
Min. grd. clearance (in): 9.68
The Halliburton Oil Well Cementing Company bought a fleet of surplus FWD Model B trucks in 1919 for oil well service. A variety of equipment was mounted, including the cement pumper seen here. These trucks served into the ’50s, and the company's founder, Earl Halliburton, became a loyal FWD customer. Halliburton retained two of these trucks, this one being truck number 28 seen here around 1956. They have been kept operational, and this truck was re-restored in the mid-2000s and has been on display at Halliburton's Duncan, Oklahoma, office complex.
The Model B used a mid-mounted transmission/transfer case assembly, with the Hele-Shaw wet clutch on the engine at the front of the chassis connected by a driveshaft. It had three speeds in the gearbox with a single-speed transfer case with a 2.06:1 stepdown and a lockable center diff. The lever marked "10" is the one used to lock the diff, and you had to climb out to do it.