Four-wheel drive vehicles have been around longer than you may realize; there were experiments by Joseph Diplock in 1893, and the first real car Ferdinand Porsche engineered, the 1900 Lohner-Porsche Mixed Hybrid, was a 4WD hybrid electric car. When we think of mass-produced 4WD passenger cars, though, most people assume the iconic Willys Jeep was first. This actually doesn’t seem to be true, as Willys was beaten to the punch by a funny little Japanese car called the Kurogane Type 95.
Let’s just take a minute to go over our parameters and timeline here, so everything is nice and legal. We’re talking about passenger cars with four-wheel drive, not trucks, and built in real quantities, not experimental one-offs.
WWII provided the main impetus for these sorts of vehicles to exist at all, since the war created a lot of demand for mass-produced off-road passenger cars. That’s why we see the Willys/Ford Jeep coming into existence in 1941, right around the official U.S. entry into the war, and we see before that the Russian GAZ-61, from 1938, since Russia was dealing with close-by Nazi threats years before America got involved in the war.
Over in Japan, there was a bit of a head start on the fighting, as Imperial Japan was involved in a war with China starting in 1937, prompting their need for 4x4 passenger transport a bit before most of the other countries involved in WWII.
The result of this need was the Kurogane Type 95, the first mass-produced 4x4 passenger-carrying vehicle.
The idea for the car actually came as far back as 1934, when the need for some sort of vehicle for rough-terrain reconnaissance, message delivery, and so on was realized. Kurogane (the company name means black metal, which is pretty, you know, metal) was a maker of motorcycles, which is why the engine of the Type 95 seems so much like a motorcycle engine: It was one.
The engine was an air-cooled V-twin of 1300cc, making 33 horsepower. In the colder parts of China the vehicle was expected to operate in, the inability to freeze up was a huge advantage, and even in warmer climates finding cooling water wasn’t always easy, so air-cooling was very appealing.
The Type 95 had a narrow ladder frame chassis, a solid rear axle with semi-elliptical leaf springs, and a front suspension with coils and a double-wishbone independent suspension setup, which seems surprisingly advanced for the era.
Less impressive was the fact that it only had rear brakes, and those were just drums. The rear wheels were normally powered, with the front wheels engaging via a transfer case and universal joints when needed.
You can see some good technical details and shots of the engine in this Russian video featuring a very dilapidated but still running Type 95:
It’s an impressive little car, no question. It is quite little, seating only three and being small enough that it could be carried by some Japanese aircraft and gliders for transport. That third rear seat, by the way, looks like a comfy armchair thanks to those big padded sides:
I have to admit I love the look of this little brute; the stubby yet curvy body paired with the gigantic wheels make it look a bit like Donald Duck’s famous car. The ovoid grille is an especially whimsical-seeming touch for something that was, essentially, a machine of war.
Over 4,700 Type 95s were built between 1936 and 1944, including some pickup truck variants; it’s surprising how little attention this car gets compared to the Jeep, as it was really doing much the same things the Jeep did, just years before. It even sort of resembles the 1940 Bantam Reconnaissance Car that was the Jeep’s direct predecessor.
There’s only four known left around: one in Japan, one in Russia, one in America, and a 1939 one was found in a repair shop in Kyoto in 2013, which was then restored.
These are fascinating little cars, and just the thing to tell your Jeep-obsessed friends about when it seems like they just won’t shut up.