“There is no use trying,” said Alice. “One can’t believe impossible things.” I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
The first four-wheel drive car in Formula One, the Ferguson P99, was indisputably the most successful of all the 4WD cars introduced to the racetrack before 4WD was ultimately outlawed in 1982. Surprisingly, its designer had made his name (and fortune) designing and building tractors and ploughs. Tortoise-like tractors and flying Formula One cars may seem worlds apart but the mastermind behind the Ferguson P99 wasn’t the only innovator to go from tractors to the track. Lamborghini had started out as a mechanic, then after World War Two had gone into business building tractors in Italy before moving on to designing his celebrated sports cars. His counterpart in Great Britain was Harry Ferguson.
Harry Ferguson, the son of an Irish farmer, was born on November 4, 1884. As a teenager he had joined his brother’s car and bicycle repair business as an apprentice, but promptly started making and racing his own cars and motor cycles, eventually he struck out on his own with a garage in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is best known for his innovations with ploughs and tractors, believing that improving food production was the best way to raise living standards. In 1943 he stated, “Agriculture should have been the first industry to be modernised, not the last.”
In addition, he pushed the limits in the air and became the first Irishman to build and fly his own airplane. He researched aircraft design by visiting aviation events, inspecting and measuring planes, as well as reading everything he could find on aircraft design. The inaugural flight of his wood and fabric monoplane was on December 31, 1909, in which he managed to keep his airplane aloft for 130 yards before landing it without harm.
Ferguson’s last ambition was to construct a safe family car with a 4WD system and, in 1950, he united with racing drivers Fred Dixon and Tony Rolt to start a new company, Harry Ferguson Research Ltd. Fred Dixon had come into contact with Ferguson during the 1930’s when he had been considering constructing an all-wheel drive car to attempt a land speed record. Due to World War Two this project never eventuated. Tony Rolt was a talented young driver who would win Le Mans in 1953.
The car they designed, the R5, was far ahead of any other car of its time. Having four-wheel drive, anti-lock and disc brakes, electric windows, and a hatchback boot it was the forerunner of the modern car! Three prototypes of the R5 were built in 1959, including one that had a supercharged flat-four engine that was able to reach 100 miles per hour in testing.
For more information on the Ferguson R5 Road test in 1966, click here.
The Ferguson P99
To help generate manufacture interest in the R5, Ferguson audaciously decided to construct a Formula One racing car to display the potential advantages and reliability of his new 4WD drive mechanism. He hired ex-Aston Martin chief engineer and designer Claude Hill to help further develop the car, the Ferguson P99, with its cutting-edge four-wheel drive.
It was necessary for the P99 to have a front mounted engine because of the importance of spreading the weight evenly between the front and the rear of the car, unlike the rest of the grid which now universally had rear mounted engines. The car was also slightly heavier than its rivals because of the extra mechanical systems needed to actuate both the front and the rear wheels. If it hadn’t been for Ferguson’s mechanical aptitude and innovative skills the car would have been even more ungainly as he managed to restrict its weight by using magnesium alloys for the different casings.
There was also a change in rules for the 1961 F1 season which resulted in engine size being reduced from 2.5 litres to only 1.5 litres, which further disadvantaged the P99 due to its heavier weight. The change in engine capacity was additionally complicated by the lack of a suitable British engine. The British teams had vigorously argued against the decrease in engine size, eventually embarking on the 1961 season employing a modified version of an old four cylinder Climax engine (the FPF) while Ferrari had streaked ahead with their development of a powerful V6 1.5 litre engine. It wasn’t until October 1961 that Coventry’s new 1.5 L FWMV V8 was ready for the race track.
As well as its revolutionary 4WD the car was also fitted with Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock brakes, however, not all the drivers were impressed with these. They could be very unpredictable and when they were activated the relief valve fed directly into the master pump, which resulted in the brake pedal being driven back toward the driver.
The whole project took less than a year to complete, but sadly Harry Ferguson died in October, 1960 and never got to see his revolutionary car in action. It was thought that the cars advantages in the wet would outweigh its outdated front mounted engine and increased weight causing everyone to desire a rainy day that would suitably display the cars unique capability. The car’s first appearance was on July 8th at the 1961 British Empire Trophy at Silverstone. The race had started off wet but unfortunately a crash on lap 2 led to its early retirement.
1961 British Grand Prix
The 1961 British Grand Prix was held on July 15th, at the 3 mile Aintree Circuit near Liverpool, which had first hosted a Formula One race in 1955. Rob Walker Racing had entered the experimental Ferguson P99 where it was driven by Jack Fairman, an endurance sports car racer, development driver for Connaught and occasional Formula One racer.
The car handled reasonably well in the torrential rain that affected both qualifying and the race start. Fairman’s teammate, Sterling Moss, took over the car on Lap 44 after the brakes on his Lotus failed following a spin off the circuit while fighting for the lead with Wolfgang von Trips in his Ferrari. Moss was working his way back up through the field when unfortunately he was black flagged, on Lap 57, because the car had been push started in the pits earlier during the race.
To view the Brian Tregilas photo collection from the 1961 British Grand Prix, click here.
1961 International Gold Cup
The 1961 International Gold Cup was held on September 23 at the hilly circuit of Oulton Park. It was a glorious English summer day – crisp, a steady drizzle and a sodden track – ideal conditions to show off the Ferguson’s traction advantage. The P99 was again entered by the Rob Walker Racing Team but this time it was being driven by Stirling Moss. Moss managed to qualify the P99 2nd on the grid, next to Jack Brabham in his Cooper-Climax, and by the conclusion of the race Moss was 46 seconds ahead of Brabham to give the 4WD its only Formula One success.
Moss later said, “As far as the Fergie is concerned, it’s a car that would be wonderful to keep at the back of your garage and if it’s raining on race day you’d take that out and when it’s dry you’d use another one. In its day, when it was wet, that car was unbeatable, absolutely unbeatable.”
It was both the first and the last victory for a Formula One four-wheel drive as well as having the distinction of being the last car with a front mounted engine to win a Formula One race. Subsequently, Moss stated that it was one of his favourite cars from that era to drive.
Hill Climb Racing
In 1964, Peter Westbury drove the Ferguson P99 to win the British Hillclimb Championship. The car continued to be competitive for several years before it was eventually retired in 1968. The distinctive sleek blue car with its dazzling white stripes still makes regular appearances at the Goodwood Revival and Festival of Speed much to the delight of its devotee’s.
Ferguson went on to supply their 4WD transmission to sundry Indycar and F1 stables, with BRM using it on their Formula One prospect, the BRM P67, in 1964. The following year Jenson Motors made the Jenson Interceptor FF (FF standing for Ferguson Formula), which was the first use of 4WD in a car not intended for off-road use. Finally, there was a flood of four-wheel drive vehicles introduced at the 1969 Formula One British Grand Prix with three of the four outfits using the Ferguson Formula for their 4WD mechanism. Ferguson was unquestionably an innovator ahead of his time.