Classic Cars: Four-Wheel Drive – Safety in the Winter

As I write this article, my driveway is covered in ice and snow. It’s on days like today that I miss my old Range Rover. Even though it was practical in inclement weather and you can’t beat that beautiful wood and leather interior, I got rid of the old girl because it was a bore to drive. That’s perhaps the biggest problem with most four-wheel drive SUVs. They are usually rather weak in the handling department. On top of that, you pay a premium to purchase them and keep on supporting their fuel-drinking habit. But, truth be told, when it’s white outside, they are the most beautiful beasts on the highway.

It was many years ago, say before 1950, that very few people owned four-wheel drive vehicles. Actually, until right after World War II, when the Kaiser Jeep decided to market the military Jeep for civilian use. For the record, the first Jeep ads were actually aimed at the rural farmers and their needs. Jeep sales took off, and other models were introduced.

This success did not go unnoticed by the British Rover Car Company. Rover designed a car that looked quite similar to the little American Jeep, and called it the Land Rover. The rest is history. Eventually, the Jeep morphed into a more civilized model that was called the Jeep Wagoneer, and again Rover followed the Yanks with a new luxury model called the Range Rover. It can be said that American Motors and Jeep invented the luxury SUV as we now know it.

Four-wheel drive is certainly not new. The idea and system was invented in 1893 by an English engineer. In 1899, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche invented a four-wheel drive vehicle that had an electric motor in the hub of each wheel that was powered by an onboard gasoline generator. This Lohner-Porsche, as it was called, was perhaps not only the world’s first four-wheel drive vehicle, but the world’s first hybrid. However, Porsche’s invention was used as a military transporter and not sold to the public. The first true four wheel car was built soon after and it was called a Spyker, a 60 horsepower car designed to race in the mountains of Europe.

Speaking of racing and snow, one cannot fail to mention the most famous car rally in the world, the Monte-Carlo Rally that takes place every year around mid-January through the French Alps. Way before the popularity of four-wheel drive cars, racers were driving this course in two-wheel drive cars at breakneck speed through winter conditions that would even keep Santa Claus home on Christmas Eve. To many, it was pure madness to see these race drivers drifting sideways around curves like drunken madmen on roads that were slick with sheet ice and snow. Some of the surprise winners in the days before four-wheel drive were the little Mini Coopers, along with Saabs and Citroens. These modest cars’ secret of success was that they were all front-wheel drive vehicles, which had more grip in the snow than competitors’ rear-wheel drive cars. It wasn’t until Audi eventually introduced its four-wheel drive Quattro model that everyone soon converted to this type of go-in-the- snow 4WD system.

Most two-wheel drive cars today are front-wheel drive, and they are as good in the snow as those early rally cars mentioned above. When two-wheel drive cars are fitted with snow tires on all four wheels, they can be excellent in snowy conditions. The Bridgestone Tire Company once invited me to test drive a front-wheel drive car fitted with Bridgestone Blizzak snow tires on an indoor hockey rink. I could barely walk to the car. I drove the car at modest speed on the ice and it accelerated, handled and stopped as if it were on dry concrete. Truly amazing and food for thought.

One of the benefits of snow is the beauty of the Hamptons landscape. So when the sun finally melts whatever ice is on the roads, go for a spin. Oops, not really! Happy holidays to all.

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