The first Four Wheel Drive at the PPHC

The ideal traction getter on the road up to the summit,  either on the dirt,  or now on the pavement is All Wheel Drive or Four Wheel Drive. Most people think of the invading, 1980s  “Group B” rally cars bringing the AWD Audi Quattro and Michelle Mouton to Pikes Peak as the early pioneers of four tire traction on the hill climb.  Bill Milliken was actually the first and the story of his race car started way back in the 1930s.

FWD Auto Company and Harry Miller

The story of the FWD-Miller race car is covered in depth in a wonderful book by Griffith Borgeson.   There really isn’t a short way to explain the history of Harry Miller and his racing machines. Cars built by Miller won the INDY 500 nine times and cars with his engines add three additional wins. The Miller race cars started winning Indy in 1926.  Floyd Clymer and W. Charles would be the first to drive a Miller race cars at Pikes Peak in 1925.

The Four Wheel Drive Auto Company (FWD) started in 1909 in Clintonville Wisconsin.  The company’s claim to fame was building the first four wheel drive commercial trucks.  Their trucks were an important part of the allies success in WW1 and WW2.  The company still builds trucks today, under the Seagrave Fire Apparatus name in Clintonville.

To find out more about the history of the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company  you can check out their museum site below.

The two companies joined efforts in 1931 to build two FWD race cars. The cars were ready for the 1932 Indianapolis 500. Over the next five years the two cars competed at Indy with the best finish in 1936 with Mauri Rose driving. The FWD Company tucked their race car away for storage in 1937. The second Miller car was raced in Europe for a short time before the engine blew up at a race, with Adolf Hilter nearby in the viewing stand (!)

Bill Milliken at Pikes Peak

William F Milliken Jr was an aerospace engineer, automotive engineer and a racecar driver. Check out his book ” Equations of Motion” for more details.

He first raced Pikes Peak in 1947 with a Bugatti 35A placing 6th. Knowing of the FWD Company’s Miller race car that had been in storage since 1937, he made a deal with them to race the car at the 1948 PPHC.

Newspaper article from 9-1-48
FWD SPL. with Harrison radiator

By this time Fred Offenhuaser had taken over the Miller engine program and the engine at Pikes Peak was listed as a Miller-Offy 225. The car was still sponsored by the FWD Company but the race prep and mechanical changes handled by Bill Milliken and his crew. An odd note was the Harrison radiator that was on the car when it showed up at the first practice date. Few pictures are available, it was only on it for the morning of the first day and was determined not to help with cooling issues. Another odd feature with it being an Indy car from the 30s, was the starting system. Indy cars of that period (1930s)  did not carry batteries and were started by a battery cart. The FWD Special at Pikes Peak had to have the 24 Volt batteries strapped in the riding mechanics floor area. Not really an issue by 1948 there wasn’t any riding mechanics. You just would not want to crash and have 24 volt batteries on your lap.

Most of the pictures from the race week seem to always includes lots of curious folks checking out the FWD car and Bill himself. Even with the car being a prewar build, the craftsmanship and 4wd technology was the talk of the town in 1948.

The car was an older race car and that being said, it was a chore to maintain and being a limited build, one of two built, parts availability was scarce . The team was told by the FWD Company to run the center differential unlocked and the car handled, not much better then the rear wheel drives at the race. The car was already twice as heavy,  as most of the other race cars and down on horsepower too. On the last day of practice the team decided to try the car out with the center differential locked.  Bill’s trip up the course was the fastest by far, for the FWD team and the car handled wonderfully . Unfortunately the advise given by the FWD Company was correct, the aluminum housing on the transfer case could not handle the additional stress and cracked near the top splitting gears and finishing any attempt at running on race day.

Part of spread sheet used at PPHC

All was not lost, the race was intended to be a fact finding mission for Bill and the

FWD Company. The team took copious notes on just about everything you could think of on the car.  The amount of detail Bill put in the reports about Pikes Peak is amazing and available in his book “Equations of Motion”.  The data from the PPHC would help the team to continue racing at Mt. Equinox, Watkins Glen, Niagara Falls Speed Trials, Glenwood  Hill Climb and many other races over the next few years.

They only raced this car once at Pikes Peak , but it was the first four wheel drive at the Peak and the knowledge learned in 1948 helped the FWD Company and Bill Milliken for many years.

The FWD Special still lives !!!

Check out part two for what happened next.


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