Today, it’s almost impossible to visit an automotive forum without reading endless complaints about now-ubiquitous front-wheel drive, but before about 1970, FWD was considered exotic hardware with a decidedly racy image.
As early as 1904, Walter Christie had created a series of four-cylinder, front-drive race cars, one of which set a speed record of 113 mph (188 km/h), a staggering figure for that time. Despite such performance, FWD failed to make much impression on automakers or race builders and the concept lay fallow for more than a decade. In 1923, racing driver Jimmy Murphy commissioned famed race builder Harry Miller to build him a front-drive version of the successful Miller 122 racer. Murphy died in a crash in 1924, before the new car was finished, but Miller completed it anyway. The results were promising enough that he decided to build several more front-drive 122s as well.
The principal appeal of front-wheel drive for race cars was packaging. Because FWD required no propeller shaft, it allowed the driver to sit lower in the body, which in turn allowed the body to be lower, reducing frontal area (and thus aerodynamic drag) and lowering the center of gravity. As a result, the front-drive Millers were faster and cornered better than most rear-drive competitors of comparable power. Some drivers considered the front-wheel-drive cars more predictable and forgiving to boot, although that was not a universally held opinion.
In 1925, the American Automobile Association (AAA) issued a new formula that limited engine displacement to 91.5 cu. in. (1,500 cc). In response, Harry Miller developed the 91 cu. in. (1,495 cc) Miller 91, which was available in both front- and rear-drive versions. A front-drive Miller came in second in the 1925 Indianapolis 500 and similar cars won it outright in 1928 and 1929. Despite an another AAA formula change, Harry Hartz and Billy Arnold won again in 1930 with a modified front-drive Miller 91 powered by a 150 cu. in. (2,463 cc) engine.
The performance of the front-wheel-drive Millers naturally drew great interest from the auto industry. In 1925, Packard bought the second front-drive Miller 122 for evaluation purposes and in 1927, Auburn president Errett Lobban Cord hired Harry Miller and engineer Cornelius Van Ranst to develop a FWD production car, which became the Cord L-29. By 1930, there were also front-wheel-drive cars from Ruxton and Gardner.
In the late twenties, racing driver Tommy Milton became a consultant for Packard. Milton was well acquainted with both the Miller cars and the work of C.W. Van Ranst, who had also built the front-wheel-drive Detroit Special that Milton drove in the 1927 Indy 500. In June 1930, Milton persuaded Alvan Macauley and Jesse Vincent to hire Van Ranst to develop a FWD car for Packard, powered by a brand-new V-12 engine.
THE VAN RANST V-12
Since Cadillac had just announced its Sixteen and Twelve a few months before Packard hired Van Ranst, one might assume the project was intended as a sophisticated new Packard flagship. Macauley, however, had other ideas. While Packard was undoubtedly concerned with the Cadillac V-16, Macauley was also looking hungrily at the LaSalle, Cadillac’s companion make. Introduced in 1927, the LaSalle had sold very well in its first few seasons, providing a welcome boost to Cadillac’s volume. Macauley wanted a new Packard that would sell in the $1,700-$2,000 range, which would undercut the LaSalle and make the new model competitive with the senior Buicks. Since Packard had dropped its last six-cylinder model in 1928, this would mean an all-new car.
Van Ranst somehow convinced Macauley and the Packard board that a front-wheel-drive, V-12 car could actually be built for less money than a conventional rear-drive chassis with a small six or eight. It must have a remarkable selling job; Macauley, who was by no means a credulous man, was well aware that Harry Miller charged 50% more for his front-drive racers than for their rear-drive counterparts. Van Ranst argued that using FWD would allow the new model to offer as much interior space as Packard’s standard cars on a shorter, simpler chassis that would — at least in theory — offset the extra cost of the FWD transaxle.
As for the V-12, Van Ranst rationalized it as the best way to provide the displacement and power the car would require in a package compact enough to fit the FWD layout while still offering the smoothness expected of a Packard. The fact that a 12-cylinder engine would also provide an obvious competitive advantage in a field dominated by eight-cylinder rivals probably didn’t hurt either. (Interestingly, Buick was thinking along similar lines. Buick engineers experimented with their own V-12 in 1931, although the division’s financial problems during the early thirties meant that nothing came of the project.)
The prototype, developed by Packard engineers Edward and Frank Storey under Van Ranst’s direction, was exceptionally sophisticated, featuring not only front-wheel drive, but also a De Dion front axle (a beam axle with a fixed differential) and hydraulic brakes, which wouldn’t be offered on standard Packards until 1937. The V-12 itself was a relatively compact, high-revving engine with an unusual 67-degree bank angle — wider than the optimal 60 degrees to allow space for zero-lash valve adjusters. Contrary to the normal practice of the period, the V-12 was nearly ‘square,’ with a bore of 3.38 inches (85.7 mm) and a stroke of 3.5 inches (88.9 mm), giving a displacement of 376 cu. in. (6,157 cc). That was smaller than the straight eight in Packard’s contemporary DeLuxe Eight, but bigger than any contemporary Buick or LaSalle engine.
The new V-12 was impressively smooth and quite powerful, producing 150 hp (112 kW) at 3,600 rpm. By comparison, Packard’s 385 cu. in. (6,306 cc) eight mustered only 106 hp (79 kW), the LaSalle’s 353 cu. in. (5,791 cc) V-8 had 115 hp (86 kW), and the 345 cu. in. (5,649 cc) Buick Series 90 engine boasted a mere 104 hp (78 kW). Proving grounds testing found the V-12 prototype capable of more than 110 mph (176 km/h), very hot stuff for any production car of the early thirties.
The Van Ranst car’s Achilles heel was its four-speed transaxle. This had no relationship to the four-speed gearbox standard Packards had used since the 1929 Sixth Series, which had an extra low gear for steep hills; the FWD transaxle was basically a two-speed gearbox and a two-speed differential in a single case, controlled by a common linkage. Although the transaxle benefited from Van Ranst’s experience at Cord — having designed the L-29, Van Ranst was acutely aware of its shortcomings — the unit proved to be unacceptably fragile in ways not simple or cheap to rectify.
The transaxle problems served to cement Macauley’s growing realization that the FWD car’s original price target had been hopelessly unrealistic. By the spring of 1931, it was clear that to break even, the new model would have to sell in the same price range as the Custom Eight — hardly the cheaper, higher-volume car Packard needed.
The Packard board decided enough was enough and authorized the development of a simpler alternative, the Light Eight, with a smaller but still basically conventional rear-drive chassis. Van Ranst’s prototype was eventually shelved and was nearly scrapped in 1935, but it narrowly escaped the crusher and is now in private hands. (It still survives today.)
Although the FWD project was dead, that October, Macauley paid Milton and Van Ranst $10,000 for all rights to the V-12 engine. This was not simply a termination or severance fee; the V-12 had been in most respects the most successful and least troublesome aspect of the FWD project and Macauley saw no reason to discard it when other uses could be found for it.