Automotive engineers have long debated whether it’s simpler and more practical to send power to a car’s rear wheels or its front ones.

At the turn of the 20th century, however, there was no question front-wheel drive (FWD) was a radical concept impossible to engineer. Thankfully, a handful of enthusiasts persevered and proved FWD’s potential, unknowingly laying out the foundation of the car of the future—that is, the cars we drive today.

Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot, a French inventor, was experimenting with steam-powered contraptions for transporting cannons and heavy equipment for the French Army when he came up with the three-wheeled fardier à vapeur – or steam cart – in 1771.

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Cugnot’s steam cart had a dual-handle bar for steering and room for four passengers

Its instability and limited top speed of 2.25 mph (3 km/h) stopped it from really catching on. But the vehicle, powered by a boiler mounted just ahead of the cart that drove the single front wheel, was arguably the first front-wheel drive vehicle, as well as perhaps the first-ever car.

In 1883, Count Jules-Albert de Dion and Georges Bouton of France unveiled their first “autocar,” a smaller, four-wheeled steam-powered vehicle that, like Cugnot’s, featured rear-wheel steering and a front-mounted boiler driving the front wheels via belts.

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Georges Bouton and fellow engineer Charles Terpadoux test-driving the De Dion Bouton et Trapadoux steam car

It was a step forward—even though it looked like a horse-less carriage going backwards.

De Dion-Bouton went on to release more advanced steam cars, and then internal combustion- engined vehicles, but these were equipped with rear-wheel drive (RWD) and more conventional front-wheel steering.

By the turn of the 20th century, RWD had become the template for automotive design, especially with the debut of the mass-produced RWD Ford Model T in 1908.

That didn’t stop entrepreneur Walter Christie from going against the norm and, in 1905, creating his own radical new front-wheel drive car. His 60-horsepower Christie, built in New York City, was powered by four cylinders placed in a row over and parallel to the front axle. This was, at the time, an all-new concept: previous cars had the propulsion system either in front of or behind the front drive axle.

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The Christie, as it appeared in 1905. With its giant cylinders protruding from a mechanical amalgam at the front
end and its artillery-cannon wheels, its appearance was uncanny, even then.

Christie raced his car across the U.S. and Europe in an effort to prove his innovative FWD design, but ran into mechanical issues and a crash that nearly claimed his life. He next applied the design to a New York taxicab prototype. At the time Christie’s design was regarded as too ‘unconventional,’ and at a price of $2,600 per car in 1909 – about $65,000 today – far too costly.

During the First and Second World War, Christie proposed numerous tank designs, but like his car concepts, most were rejected. Sadly, Christie eventually died penniless in 1944, without ever realizing his tranverse-engine FWD design would in fact lay the foundation for the car of the future.

Despite skepticism from engineers and the public alike, front-wheel drive cars continued to occasionally crop up well into the mid-1930s.

It wasn’t until 1928 that anyone was able to actually buy a FWD car; that year, Alvis, a British engine manufacturer, released the 12/75, a supercharged FWD roadster—the world’s first production FWD car. The Cord L29 became the first FWD car to be sold in America in 1929, followed by the similar Ruxton Model C months later.

But back in France, an entire storm of front-wheel drive – or traction avant – cars was brewing.

At the 1931 Paris Auto Show, brothers Albert and Angelo Bucciali revealed the TAV Double Huit prototype they’d been working on since the early ’20s, a low-slung sport-luxury sedan featuring a unique transaxle FWD system powered by a twin-straight-8 (or V-16) engine. (‘TAV’ actually stood for traction avant.)

Though the insane powerplant was eventually swapped out for a Voisin V-12, Bucciali, alongside other automakers, had proved FWD could be practical, offer impressive traction and handle powerful engines like their RWD counterparts. Less than a dozen TAV-12s were actually built, due to the high cost and complexity of its FWD system.

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1932 TAV-12 “Fleche d’Or”. The long hood and low-profile suspension were typical characteristics of front-wheel drive cars of
the early ’30s.

Two years later, Citroën released their own FWD car, the Traction Avant or 7CV. It featured a unibody construction, which made it fairly light and considerably smaller than contemporary separate-frame-and-body cars.

Early FWD cars were, without doubt, graceful-looking machines, but most were fitted with too-long hoods, needed to accommodate the transmission mounted in front or behind the front axle.

Citroën’s front-wheel drive 2CV, which debuted in 1948, was even cheaper and easier to run than its FWD predecessors, and turned out to be so popular, it was kept in production until 1990.

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A 1979 Citroen 2CV. In its 42-year lifespan, Citroën built close to four million 2CVs.

Arguably, it was Citroën that brought FWD to the masses, in a car that compromised little in design and cost. It was certainly a giant leap forward—but the front-wheel drive layout still wasn’t there in terms of practicality and efficiency.

When fuel costs in Britain started rising in the 1950s, British Motor Corporation (later acquired by British Leyland) started planning out a small economy car that was going to be cheap, comfortable and fuel-efficient: the Mini.

They hired on Sir Alec Issigonis, an engineer known for his front-wheel drive vehicle expertise, to head the design.

Issigonis decided to combine the whole drivetrain – engine, transmission, differential and drive axles – into a single package, mounting it all at the front of the car. Breaking away from tradition, the entire assembly was installed transversely – sideways – rather than along the length the vehicle.

Issigonis was unknowingly using a front-wheel drive arrangement nearly identical to the one Walter Christie was ridiculed for fifty years prior.

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A cutaway of the Mini, emphasizing the revolutionary transverse-engine design. (dovepublishing.co.uk)

Following BMC’s release of the Mini Mk.I in 1959, Issigonis’ effort, and the effort of all the front-wheel-drive pioneers that preceded him, had finally paid off.

The Mini’s transverse-engine architecture was brilliantly simple, and offered several benefits: since there was no longer a need for a rear differential, for example, the floor was now flat, adding legroom and headroom.

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Minis racing on the Silverstone track in 1965, proving FWD cars could be both practical and fun to drive. (dovepublishing.co.uk)

With a top speed of 72 mph (116 km/h) the Mini wasn’t particularly fast, but it was light; because it was powered by an 848 cc engine, it wasn’t too front-heavy, and it handled considerably better than its FWD predecessors.

Without doubt, the Mini cast its own engineering stone in history – not only for the front-wheel drive car, but the car in general. It has certainly come a long way over the course of its 250-year evolution.

Top photo: the 1905 Christie automobile was one of the first FWD cars of the early 19th century. (steampunkvehicles.com)