The history of four-wheel drive vehicles is nearly as long as the history of the motorcar, and in the course of that history, few women have stood out as much as Miss Luella Bates of the United States.
In 1908 Otto Zachow, an American inventor, made a steam-powered four-wheel drive vehicle. He went on to form the Badger Four Wheel Drive Automobile Company in Clintonville, Wisconsin. With the name changed to the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company (FWD), the company became the world’s largest producer of four-wheel drive vehicles. Success in a military trial meant the company focused on petrol-powered four-wheel drive cargo-carrying trucks. The trial took place in 1911, with the US Army inviting truck companies to supply a vehicle to drive from Washington DC to Indianapolis, Indiana – a distance of 1500 miles. The FWD entry completed the journey in 49 days at the respectable average speed (for 1911) of 1.27 miles per hour on terrible roads. During World War I, 15,000 four-wheel drive trucks were made by the company.
In order to meet the wartime demand, and with many men enlisted in the forces, FWD employed women in most roles in the factory. In 1918, a young woman working in production called Luella Bates became a test driver. After the war, male workers replaced most of the women, but Luella stayed on as a test and demonstrator driver for the company.
Luella was a massive publicity success for FWD and went to the New York Motor Show in 1920, generating huge interest, including a full-page newspaper story. She demonstrated the ability of the trucks to work successfully in a city environment and became the first licensed female truck driver.
The company sent Luella on three tours of the United States with an advertising campaign built around the fact that the trucks were easy to steer and maintain, as proved by a young woman. Miss Bates became as famous as the pioneer aviators of the time. On one of her tours, Luella defied Oklahoma police and took her truck, loaded with meat for a packing plant, across a flooded river. Her courage and the ability of the truck made news headlines and the company sold ten trucks as a result of that one act.
Luella Bates continued her demonstration trips with the Model B and new fire trucks until she left the company in 1922. Born in 1897, Luella died in 1985.
The FWD Company continued on and prospered in many forms with subsidiary companies in Canada and Britain. The company still has a plant in Clintonville, Wisconsin, and produces specialty vehicles including Seagrave Fire Appliances.
Luella’s great grand-daughter, the actress Ashley Hinshaw, has spoken of her desire to eventually have a movie made about this tough, talented and charismatic woman who was a pioneer not only for the 4X4 industry, but for women in the workplace as well.
Words: Greg Rose