Bygone Brands - Ferguson

By: Cliff Chambers, Photography by: Peter Burn

Presented by

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From tractors to innovative four-wheel-drives...

From Unique Cars #307, Jan/Feb 2010 

Ferguson

If you live or were born in rural Australia, the mention of Harry Ferguson’s greatest contribution to agriculture and hobby farming will draw a smile.

The ‘grey Fergie’ tractor was manufactured from 1946-56 and more than half a million were made. They were exported by the thousands to outposts of the British Empire including Australia and New Zealand and, though out-moded now, can still be seen trundling across semi-rural paddocks with a harrow or slasher in tow.

With a hard metal seat and steering wheel to match, the little Vanguard-engined workhorse gave no clue to the technological genius displayed in other areas of its creator’s eventful life.

Harry Ferguson (real name George) was Irish and born in 1884, when the only self-propelled farm machines were clumsy and steam-powered.

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He became a mechanic and in 1909 was the first person in Ireland to fly an aircraft. After devising a three-point linkage that could transform a Model T into a tractor, Ferguson negotiated a lucrative arrangement with Ford that gave him the capital to begin developing his own line of agricultural equipment including the TE20 ‘Fergie’.

Following World War II, Harry moved to England and became interested in the concept of applying four-wheel drive to road-going motor vehicles. He encountered a group, including Le Mans Jaguar driver Tony Rolt, who had built a rudimentary all-wheel drive racing car – retrospectively named ‘R1’.

More than a decade later, R1’s heritage would be reflected in our featured Ferguson P99; a car used by the great Stirling Moss to accomplish a feat still unique in British motor sporting history.

However, the shadow of war-induced shortages ensured that the pragmatic Ferguson would focus on developing a system – or ‘formula’ – that could be adapted to everyday automotive use.

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In 1950, Harry Ferguson Research was established and work commenced on Project R2. This was a rear-engined chassis with a central differential that would come to characterise today’s all-wheel drive road cars.

The combination of a backbone frame and rear engine generated unacceptable levels of vibration and motivated former Aston-Martin engineer Claude Hill to completely revise the structure and configuration.

While work was proceeding on a 2.0-litre, flat-four engine of Hill’s own design, the front-engined R3 used a Jowett engine of similar size and horizontally-opposed layout. In place of the flimsy early chassis was a hefty steel floorpan that added weight but allowed the prototype to be trialled under a range of on and off-road conditions.

While his team was hard at work transforming this concept into a car that could actually be demonstrated to the world, Ferguson went in search of someone with the resources to build it in commercial volumes.

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While his stature as an industry figure was undeniable, Harry’s efforts were met with stone-walling indifference to a concept that could have massively reduced the risk of travelling on icy Northern Hemisphere roads. Perhaps, as was suggested by a former associate of Ferguson’s, these industry moguls were wary of anyone wily enough to win in a contest with the fearsome Henry Ford.

By 1955, Ferguson finally had a completed car ready for testing. It was designated R4 and came with a conservative four-door body, Jowett engine and fully-independent suspension. There seems to have been no independent testing of the car but British journalist Roger Fuller managed to elicit some driving impressions from BMC boss Sir Miles Thomas and deliver a detailed explanation of the ‘formula’s’ inner workings.

Accompanied by a cutaway sketch, Fuller described how a ‘turbine’ pump would hydraulically distribute drive from the front-mounted engine to each wheel and how, by reversing the direction of fluid flow, the car could be rapidly slowed with no chance of wheel locking or loss of control.

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No such secrecy greeted the next and final road-going Ferguson. Although Harry Ferguson had died in 1960, work at Ferguson Research progressed at an accelerated pace. The resulting R5 that emerged in 1961 was as revolutionary outside as it was under its innovative skin. In profile, the shape resembled a London taxi-cab yet the car was closer in concept to the Renault 16; a design that didn’t appear until four years later.

After almost a decade in development, the Ferguson 2.2-litre engine was ready for use and was displayed in two guises; a twin-carb version with 82kW and a supercharged variation with 123kW that could deliver a 175km/h top speed.The R5 was handed for evaluation to virtually anyone who wanted it and motoring magazines queued for their turn.

Among them was UK Motor, which found a world of difference between the complex R4 and (from a 2009 perspective) the almost-conventional R5 transmission and braking systems.

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In the R5, the complex hydraulics had been replaced by a system of driveshafts and centre differential, which distributed power to the wheels in accordance with available grip. Brakes were fitted with a modified version of the Maxaret anti-lock system developed by Dunlop to stop aircraft sliding off icy runways.

The only manufacturer to adopt Ferguson’s Formula was Jensen. In 1966 when the spectacular Interceptor range was released it included an FF version, identified by paired air-intakes slotted into the front mudguards.

Even for well-heeled Jensen customers the price difference between two and four-wheel drive cars was significant and only 320 were built.

Examples of all Ferguson’s prototypes still exist and are on display in various British museums. Ferguson Research survived until 1971 when, under the control of Tony Rolt, it was renamed FF Developments. 

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WE’VE GOT THE ONLY ONE! 

The P99 Ferguson ranks with the most significant competition cars of all time. Retained by the Ferguson family museum, the F1 prototype is kept in race-ready condition and appears frequently at historic events including the Goodwood Revival and Festival of Speed meetings.

In 1961, the P99 became the first 4WD car to race in a Grand Prix. However, its result in the British GP didn’t stand after Stirling Moss, who took over from original driver Jack Fairman, was excluded for qualifying in a different car.

A few months later, Moss proved that he and the 4WD Ferguson could be a winning combination; taking the Gold Cup event at Oulton Park. Immediately afterwards, 4WD cars were banned by Formula One.

In 1964, and fitted with a 2.5- litre engine, the P99 with Peter Westbury driving, easily won the British Hillclimb Championship.

 

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