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The FWD Auto Company … the men behind our 4x4s


The Badger Four-Wheel Drive Auto Company was founded in Clintonville, Wisconsin in 1909. The name was changed to the Four-Wheel Drive Auto Company in 1910, and in 1958 to the FWD Corporation.


Company founders Otto Zachow and William Besserdich were established owners of a machine shop in Clintonville when Otto developed the first simple and effective design for transferring power to all four wheels of an automobile. Patents were secured and money was raised locally to organise the company, but with production difficulties and delays nearly forced its closure.

With the help and guidance of Clintonville attorney Walter A. Olen, the company was reorganised, funds raised, and the emphasis switched from manufacturing automobiles to trucks.

In 1912 the U.S. Army set up a test for the latest trucks as replacements for mules and wagons, it gave the company its first major publicity event, and the outbreak of World War I opened new markets in Europe and the United States for their products.


The 1912 truck trials were dreamt up by a progressive military leader, Captain Alexander E. Williams. He persuaded Quartermaster General James B. Aleshire into approving an elaborate test in off-road military convoy conditions.

He went to visit the factories of Aldcn Sampson, Ford, Garford, Mack and White.

The first two trucks to be purchased for such experimental purposes were a 1 1/4-ton Aldcn Sampson and a 1 1/2-ton White. Then Captain Williams noticed a small ad in a newspaper that would eventually lead to one of the most poignant success stories in truck development and production.

What Captain Williams discovered was a fledgling vehicle builder located in a small Wisconsin town named Clintonville. Ottow Zachow and his brother-in-law, William Besserdich, had patented the first double-Y universal joint encased in a drop-forced ball-and-socket, which was the basis for their four -wheel-drive concept. Other earlier designs using chain had failed or were so limited in steering capability they were essentially useless in any road conditions.


test fwd truck

Captain Williams took a train to Clintonville and was given a ride in the second vehicle that the Four Wheel Drive (FWD) Auto Company had built. It was a large touring car later transformed into truck configuration. The all-important test drive, which included driving through plowed fields, mud holes and sand pits and even up the steps of the local Lutheran church, so impressed Captain Williams that he purchased an FWD car for approx. $1,900. It was then equipped with an army escort wagon box for military use.



Wisconsin has been called the ” badger state.” and the Badger Four Wheel Drive Auto Company of Clintonville, Wisconsin, revolutionised motor vehicle design over one century ago. The Badger name had been dropped and the company became known as FWD company. FWD trucks of World War I, along with Nash Quads, made a very significant impact transporting soldiers and materials in a widespread theatre of war at a time when there were very few paved roads and four-wheel drive was essential to slog through the mud and snow of Europe.”

Four-wheel-drive trucks had been built before those manufactured by FWD, but aside from the Jeffery Quad (Nash Quad), earlier designs were very crude, inefficient and flimsy.


Even though all the trucks involved in the tests had broken down at various points and had to be repaired along the way, Captain Williams proved that such vehicles could be used in the back country in poor ground situations.

A second test from Dubuque, Iowa, to Sparta, Wisconsin, using the same trucks along with the repaired Sampson, plus a Kelly-Springfield, Kato, Mack, Packard and a Graham, involved supplying a provisional regiment during the long practice march. All were two-wheel-drive except the FWD and the Kato. 
Captain Williams proved that trucks could be very useful to the Army, provided certain design deficiencies were overcome. The primary trouble was that all the trucks were required to amble along at the speed of the marching infantrymen, which was about 3 to 4 mph. This tended to overheat almost every motor. The three trucks that were selected out of the whole group for further use were the Mack, White and FWD. The Kato, although four-wheel-drive, had major power distribution problems due to inadequate transmission/transfer design. Although the rest of the “Army grey beards,” as Automobile Topics Magazine called them, were still uncertain of moving forward with mechanization, Captain Williams had broken the ice and opened a few minds to new ideas. 
As war exploded across Europe in 1914, it soon became clear that mechanization would become a major factor in the new century. The first momentous turn of events occurred when General Gallienis famous “taxi-corps” army saved Paris in the first Battle of the Marne, out-running the approaching German infantry by using every available motor vehicle to arrive ahead of the enemy. Some 12,000 taxis and sundry vehicles hurried 4,985 troops 28 miles in that all-important battle. This should have been a wake-up call for the U.S. military, but somehow it was overlooked.




The FWD Co. also developed a mechanical PTO to power a cog & ratchet system allowing lifting of tipper bodies attached to their 4×4 trucks.


After the war the company moved into new products including highway building and maintenance equipment, earth-moving machinery, and fire trucks. World War II once more brought increased markets and prosperity to the company. The company entered the nuclear age in the 50’s by producing the Teracruzer, built to tow and launch nuclear missies from hidden positions in the most inhospitable landscapes.

In more recent years the company has changed hands and in 2009 operates as a subsidiary of the Corsta Corporation of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Four Wheel Drive Foundation still maintains a museum in Clintonville, USA displaying the companies historic ground breaking vehicles.



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2 thoughts on “The FWD Auto Company … the men behind our 4x4s

    1. Hi,
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