Detroit — Should a car be pushed along by its rear wheels or pulled by the front wheels? Grest debates raged over that question from the earliest days of the automobile.
George Sheldon's famed patent, which stymied America's auto industry in the late 1800s before being revoked, was based on a front- drive design. In the early 1900s the Front Wheel Drive Auto Company sold a model called the Badger. After that came the front- drive Tracta, Alvis, Audi, B.S.A., and Citroen in the 1920s and '30s.
In 1960, Alec Issigonis, later Sic Alec, created Britain's Austin-Morris Mini , recognized as the forerunner of the modern front-drive automobile.
Now, from out of the murky past of debate and dissension, front-wheel drive moves into the modern era. No doubt its time has come. A forecast by Arthur Andersen & Co. on US automotive-industry trends for the 1980s indicates that about half of all the cars produced in the United States in 1985 will have front drive, climbing to three-quarters by 1990.
Because it eliminates the bulky transmission tunnel required with rear drive, front drive permits efficient interior packaging in small cars. Combined with a small transversely mounted engine, front drive reportedly results in savings of 150 pounds for a subcompact car, 200 pounds for a compact, and 250 pounds for a full-size car.
There is a cost penalty, however, which is said to range from $100 to $150 per car. Nonetheless, automakers are willing to pay it to reduce car bulk and weight and help gain fuel economy.
As with large V-8 engines, the price of energy and fuel is forcing downsizing and weight reduction of Detroit's transmissions and drive trains. They are becoming not only smaller and lighter, but are assuming shapes and designs quite foreign, until now, to American automobiles.
There's been nothing like it since the automatic transmission moved into high gear in the marketplace in the post-World War Ii era of cheap fuel and comfortable big cars.
An example of the trend: Ford Motor Company's new subcompact cars, the Ford Escort and Mercury Lynx, feature a patented three- speed automatic transaxle, designated the ATX, that carries 4-cylinder-engine power to the front wheels.
Sources at Ford say the company is all but committed in going 100 percent front-wheel drive on its car lines by the mid-'80s. The compact-size Fairmont/Zephyr series is expected to switch by the 1983 1/2 model year, followed by the larger lines in 1984 and '85. The new downsized models are expected to feature new automatic-overdrive transmissions with V-6 engines.
GM, which already sells a number of fwd models, including the Cadillac Eldorado and Seville, Oldsmobile Toronado, Buick Riviera, and its compact X-body cars, adds more next May when the J-body is introduced to replace the Chevrolet Monza and Pontiac Sunbird. Cadillac will have its version as well.
Oldsmobile and Buick versions will follow in the 1982-model season.
Indicating that the automatic is essential to its plans for the future, GM came out with an automatic overdrive transmission for its 81-model cars. The four-speed unit can be coupleted to both V-8 and V-6 engines.
With front-drive Omni/Horizon and the much-heralded K-cars, Aries and Reliant , on the street, Chrysler Corporation plans other front-drive models as well.
Included are an upscale edition of the K- car, called Super K with a Chrysler nameplate, in 1982; a four-seat, '82-model, sporty model derived from the K-car and aimed at the Chevrolet Camaro and Pontiac Firebird market; and a stretched version of the K-car in 1983.
Buyers studying the new Renault 18i now being sold by American Motors dealers are apt to notice the untraditional placement of the engine in the front-drive car. Usually the engine is situated transversely, or crosswise, in the compartment. In the 18i, however, it is situated fore and aft.
"It is part of the total design of the car," says Phillippe Vendt, general manager of Renault's engineering group in Detroit. "It is not a decision made without considering the whole package."
Other small-car manufacturers in Europe and Japan have fore-and-aft front-drive engines emerging as well, but US engineers so far are sticking to the crosswise-engine design.
Clearly, front-wheel drive is still causing debate in the automobile business , but not so much as in the ea rly years when the push-or-pull controversy raged.