Jensen FF 1966-71

This column looks at a rare species of Jensen which many would consider to be the jewel in the crown of Jensens' four decades worth of involvement in the motoring industry — the four-wheel drive FF, or "Ferguson Formula". By any definition, the FF was and still is an incredible motor car so it's hard to know where to begin when telling its story in a few pages.

The concept of all-wheel drive goes way back. Even as Dick and Alan Jensen were first starting out in the motor trade, Ettore Bugatti's son Jean was racing a four-wheel drive Type 53 in hillclimbs at Shelsley Walsh, not far from where the brothers lived. The concept was thirty years old even at that stage as the Dutch Spijker had claimed four-wheel drive as early as 1904.

The problem with those early systems was not in getting the engine to drive all the wheels but in getting this to happen reliably and without differential wind-up, so that the car would handle and steer normally while also giving the extra traction that four-wheel drive offered. The Bugatti system wasn't pursued — Jean crashed his car. A pair of four-wheel drive Millers which entered the Indianapolis 500 in 1932 failed to finish. What happened to the Spijker isn't clear but it hardly set the world on fire. Four-wheel drive, except for off-road or military use, didn't seem destined for the masses.

It took the eccentric genius of tractor millionaire Harry Ferguson to take up the challenge and pursue it to a workable conclusion when he decided in the 1950s that the pioneering four-wheel drive work of British racing driver Freddie Dixon was worthy of backing. Dixon, a highly regarded driver from the pre-war era, worked hard on the project in conjunction with Ferguson’s people but he was rather fond of the bottle and died before a workable system could be put into production.

Cripes, here's a bloke after Ocker's heart — Freddie Dixon getting into the turps after winning the British
Empire Trophy race at Brooklands in 1935. Despite a fondness for the laughing juice, Freddie went on to
help develop the Ferguson Formula, productionized in 1966 on the Jensen FF. For a motoring tippler
like Freddie, wouldn't four driving wheels be better than two? I'll drink to that. Thanks Brooklands.

Still, Ferguson had other good men working for him including former Aston Martin engineer Claude Hill and ex-Jaguar Le Mans driver Tony Rolt. Rolt was later to drive the Ferguson monoposto P99 racer, a successful car which demonstrated the effectiveness of four-wheel drive on the race-track. An adventurous sort, Rolt had been a POW at Colditz during the war and was involved in the building of the famous glider. Later he became a good friend of the Jensen brothers. So when the Ferguson Formula eventually appeared as the world's first commercially available full-time four-wheel drive system in the early 1960s, it was inevitable that one rather keen motorist by the name of Richard Jensen would start to turn his mind to the possibilities.

Jensens' car design was moving in new directions by that time. The 541R, with its twin or triple-carb 6-cylinder engine and manual gearbox, had given way in 1960 to the 541S with its broader body and, for the first time on a production Jensen, an automatic gearbox. The body was broader because the V8 was in sight and the first trial fittings of the 361ci Chrysler motor were made to this chassis. The trend was clearly onwards and upwards — to bigger cars, bigger engines, better transmissions, more power and more safety. Into this thinking had now crept a new possibility — four wheel drive — but it was to take many years of hard work, and ultimately some great disappointments, before the results would appear in a production Jensen motor car.

Alan Jensen was never in favour of the FF project. Of the two brothers, he was more the "businessman" of the company and many times he urged his brother to give up the FF because it seemed to be getting them nowhere. But Dick Jensen stuck to his guns and the company took out a licence for the exclusive use of the FF unit in cars of over 3 litres capacity. They didn't want to use the special Ferguson fluid drive — the Teramala transmission — which came with the FF unit, preferring to stay with the proven TorqueFlite gearbox which came with the Chrysler engines they were using on the C-V8. As a result, all sorts of knotty problems had to be solved before the Ferguson system could be made to fit the Jensen twin-tube chassis. The engine had to be mounted slightly off-centre and the drive-train angled to accommodate the FF unit, and the C-V8 chassis itself had to be modified to suit.

However, by October 1965, a Jensen FF was on the stand at Earls Court. Whether it was capable of running at that stage is open to debate an old story makes the rounds about how there were strict instructions that the bonnet was not to be opened because there was no engine installed. However, newsreel footage of the event clearly shows the bonnet raised and the engine in place. At any rate, after the show work progressed rapidly and by early 1966 Chief Engineer Kevin Beattie was driving the car up and down the mountains of southern Europe, monitoring everything from the temperature of differentials to the cooling capacity of radiators, building up a bank of running data. Although he had opposed the FF project, Alan Jensen must have been pleased in the end to see the car on the road. Shortly before his death in 1994, he remembered the C-V8 FF with great pride. 

This is quite a rarity, one of the 15 Series III versions of the FF made in the closing months of 
1971. It was a basket case when found in the late 1980s. Fortunately, it received a ground-up 
restoration at the Jensen factory and now resides quite happily in the USA. VIN 130/327. My pic.

In February 1966, the arguments about the styling for the next big Jensen had come to a head. Against the wishes of the Jensen brothers and backed by holding company NORCROS, Beattie gained the dispensation he needed to go for a new Italian-designed shape. The Jensen brothers washed their hands in disgust, as did Chief Body Engineer Eric Neale, and so began a frantic program of work which continued until well into 1967 as a new steel-bodied version of the FF (as well as a C-V8 replacement, the Interceptor) were put into production. It was a very difficult period for all concerned, and such were the problems with the Interceptor that development of the FF was deliberately held back to ensure that, when the company flagship was released in volume, it would be as right as it could be. Although a couple of cars were prepared for Earls Court in October 1966, very few FFs were built in the first year of production. Those which were made were kept close to hand in case things went wrong.

As it turned out, the factory's concerns were well-founded. Not only did Jensens have to contend with all the kinds of shoddy materials and workmanship which plagued the Italian-built Interceptors. They also had to work through a range of engineering problems with the FF's front suspension — it took no less than four separate hub modifications before they were finally satisfied with the strength of the front axles. This was not achieved until 1969, by which time a large amount of goodwill had been exhausted on both sides of the consumer fence. If the term "development by owner" could be coined by a motoring magazine a few years later in connection with the Jensen-Healey, then it should apply no less to the FF, though this is usually glossed over in the tributes heaped upon the car more than 30 years later.

In its day, the FF was, nevertheless, a revolution in motoring. It could, as Alan Jensen recalled, be driven with impunity in the worst kinds of weather and on any kind of surface. One of the demonstrators was driven up a ski-slope in Switzerland by Autocar testers in 1968. The FF had the world's first production anti-lock brakes, a version of the Dunlop Maxaret developed for aircraft use (the Jensen brothers were friends of the engineer who designed the system for the RAF). If crude by today's standards, it was leading edge technology then, though if the truth be known Kevin Beattie never liked it and always preferred to have the Maxaret disconnected when he test-drove an FF. It was not an infallible device, and it could freeze up in cold weather. Many did fail in service, much to the factory's embarrassment, particularly as Dunlop couldn't always fix or replace them promptly.

Now here's a poser (that's poser, you idiots, not poseur). Why is this FF being driven hard through a
wash on a typical British summer day? Presumably to demonstrate its complete safety and stability
under all conditions. OK, then why is it wearing the licence plate from an Interceptor? Riddle me that,
Batman. Thanks Jensen, for giving us this ridiculous puzzle.

Things were looking brighter by 1969 when the Series II was released. This featured Girling brakes, a revised crash-padded dashboard, better seating, radial tyres and a range of other improvements throughout the specification. Most of the bugs had by then been ironed out but the price differential (about 30 per cent above the cost of the Interceptor) was a major impediment to sales, and few were built.

When the Interceptor III was released in 1971, a revised FF III was announced alongside it, though only for form's sake. It was simply the factory's way of using up the last of the uncompleted Series II chassis. So, with a change of wheels, seats and badges the final 15 FFs were completed in just three months and the four-wheel drive Jensen was no more. American car distributor Kjell Qvale now owned Jensen Motors and his priorities were with the export market. In the increasingly stringent world of finance and accountability which would characterize the running of Jensen Motors from then on, there would be no place for a car like the FF. It was tremendously expensive, fairly troublesome, a drain on resources and not much of a performer in the marketplace. Besides, it had the steering wheel at the wrong end of the dash. A LHD mockup was built, with a belt system driving a RHD steering column from the left side of the car, but the idea was not taken further.

When the FF was finally dropped from the catalogue, no-one seemed to notice or care that the "world's safest car" — it won the Don Safety Trophy in 1966 and was Car magazine's Car of the Year in 1967 — had succumbed to the greatest leveller of all, the dictates of the buying public. It would not be until 1978 that something approaching the FF would again appear with the release of the first of the tremendously-successful versions of the Audi Quattro.

Today, it's a different matter to the car enthusiast. FFs are rare and prized, and any FF is a collector's item. Many have wandered a long way from their old stamping grounds and FFs are now to be found in Australia, New Zealand and especially Sweden, where they were eagerly sought after in the 1970s for their ability to cope with the icy Scandinavian conditions. Despite the RHD configuration, a few have wound up in the United States as well. Unfortunately, like all steel Jensens, they can rust abominably and many of them are in poor shape now. If they really had stainless steel roofs, as the early advertising blurbs would have had you believe, things would have been only marginally better.

The basic specification of the FFs does not vary through the different series. They all have high-compression 383ci Chrysler V8 engines (B, C, D or E-series) and TorqueFlite automatic transmissions. There are no other variants but, as many enthusiasts would know, British Jensen fan Dave Horton did have the factory turn a perfectly ordinary Series II into something which is now known as the FF/SP/Convertible. As the name implies, it's had a top-chop and a 440 Six-Pack transplant. Whether that's your "cup of tea" is for you to decide. Other FF "convertibles" also exist, the result of latter-day changes to suit individual tastes.

The first FFs had Italian-made bodies but the number which were built in Turin is not known accurately. Eleven builds are known with certainty and the first of these may be distinguished fairly easily by the wooden fillets to their door panels, as on some of the concurrent Vignale-built Interceptors. After that, it gets a bit harder to tell what’s what because Jensens began building FFs using a stock of the Italian-made panels before branching out and using a mix of Italian and English metalwork. But that’s for the specialists to worry about.

In broad terms, the numbers built were as follows:

SERIES CHASSIS PREFIX YEARS MADE NUMBER BUILT
I 119 1966–1969 195
II 127 1969–1971 110
III 130 1971 15
    TOTAL 320

Most FFs stayed in Britain because of the factory's strong fears about letting them get away from specialist repair facilities. In fact, there was a deliberate policy of not selling them to the United States at all. When actor Tony Curtis tried to buy one in 1970, Sales Director Dick Graves steered him politely in the direction of an Interceptor instead. One new FF did go to the States but that was as a test vehicle for General Motors. The car is now in Australia. Another was sold second-hand to Kaiser Jeep in 1969, again for evaluation purposes, and a third was sold to Porsche in Germany. The full market breakdown was as follows:

DESTINATION NUMBER SOLD
Mainland UK 298
Ireland (inc. NI) 8
Channel Islands 7
Switzerland 3
West Germany 2
Australia 1
USA 1
TOTAL 320

The problems with production in the early years were reflected quite clearly in the annual build figures which look like so:

CALENDAR YEAR SERIES I SERIES II SERIES III TOTALS
1966 2     2
1967 22     22
1968 66     66
1969 105 6   111
1970   70   70
1971   34 15 49
TOTALS 195 110 15 320

FFs were always for the well-to-do, and what else would you expect? You could buy a couple of small houses in the Midlands for the same money. Nevertheless, there was a long waiting list and whether you jumped the queue depended on who you were and what impact your ownership of the car might have had for the factory.

Among the celebrity buyers, FFs seem to have struck a chord with rock drummers (if that’s not to mix metaphors). Cream’s Ginger Baker had three, one of which he wrecked in the Sahara desert. Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham bought two second-hand before moving on to new Interceptors and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience had another which may have been used by Hendrix in London shortly before his death in 1970. Appropriately enough, it was painted Metallic Purple.


You lucky people! Fancy finding a web page with pictures of not one but two FF IIIs! This is number 319,
the ex Joe Bamford car, repainted for him early on in this striking colour, "Excavator Yellow". Now the
prized possession of Jensen enthusiast Duncan Clarke, the car is shown here on the stand of The Jensen
Club at the NEC Sportscar Show in Birmingham, 29 April 2001. My great pic.

Golfer Jack Nicklaus bought one, Jensens' contract designer Bill Towns bought the only known experimental chassis and James S. Rusbridger, who worked for MI6, owned two FFs. Jensens can therefore claim to have had a real-life counterpart to James Bond and his Aston Martin, though of course this was not something they could use in their publicity at the time. In later life, Rusbridger became a well-known consultant on security matters. Big company directors liked FFs, too: one business took delivery of three identical FFs on the one day, all of them White with Red trim, consecutively numbered and registered.

Speaking of colours, have a look at the vast array of paints served up on these cars: 

PAINT MADE PAINT MADE PAINT MADE PAINT MADE
Crystal Blue 41 Charcoal Grey 7 Pimpernel 3 Le Mans Blue 1
White 33 Conifer Green 7 Mango 3 Primrose 1
Mist Grey 28 Brazilia 7 Royal Flag Blue 2 Yellow 1
Metallic Quartz 26 Royal Blue 6 Reno Red 2 Berkeley Brown 1
Stratosphere Blue 20 Reef Blue 6 Ming Blue 2 Metallic Blue 1
Metallic Fawn 16 Beluga 6 Magenta 1 Cadogan Brown 1
California Sage 16 Flag Red 6 Mediterranean Blue 1 Caribbean Aqua 1
Silver Grey 10 Cerise 4 Metallic Charcoal 1 Claret 1
Regal Red 9 Black 4 Metallic Purple 1 Dark Blue 1
Metallic Peat 9 Moorland Peat 4 Orange 1 Frisco Blue 1
Cassis 9 Pistachio 4 Pastel Grey 1 Deep Carriage Green 1
Crimson 8 Tangerine 4 Garnet 1 TOTAL 320

And here’s how the cars were trimmed:

LEATHER No. TRIMMED LEATHER No. TRIMMED LEATHER No. TRIMMED
Black 111 Green 4 Grey Green 1
Beige 101 Mocha 2 Light Blue 1
Blue 33 Dark Blue 2 Brown 1
Red 32 Olive 2 White Gold 1
Tan 14 Steel Blue 1    
Grey 14     TOTAL 320

It is hard to say on balance how the majority of buyers, most of whom were business types, viewed their FFs. It would be safest to say that they loved the cars when they were running well but hated them with a vengeance when they started to give trouble, as they so often did in the early years. Resale value wasn't very good either and buyers' attitudes were conditioned largely by what they figured they were getting for their money. Those who bought an FF in the expectation of getting a fully-sorted motor car of the highest quality and refinement were often sorely disappointed. Those who appreciated it for what it represented in a technological sense, and who could put up with the developmental and build troubles, found in the FF one of the all-time greats of the motoring world. Sadly, they were largely outnumbered by those in the other category.

Perhaps because of their specialty nature, FFs seem to have survived pretty well. I like to keep tabs on where they are and I have recent fates for about a third of the production run. But that means there are still a lot more unaccounted for, so if anyone can help me update the record, I'd appreciate it. Contact me in the usual way — tfmuch@bigpond.com.

This is FF 210, pictured at Cropredy Bridge Garage on 21 April 2001. It's as rotten as they come —
staying together by force of rust, I suppose. Nothing's impossible to fix — it just takes time and costs 
bucket-loads of money. My pic.

I might put in a plug here for British FF guru Ulric Woodhams, a chap with more than a passing interest in these cars. In fact, he’s written three books covering the model in great detail. You can find out more about them by emailing Ulric on jensen@ulric.plus.com, or have a look at his website http://www.thejensenff.com/index.htm.

For those who like digging into these sorts of things, the details of all 320 FFs are listed in my Jensen chassis databook, if you can find one. As a bonus, the book covers each of the other 18,650 or so two-wheel drive Jensen cars built since 1935, so it’s well worth a look if you're serious about Jensen history. 

To buy a four volume set of my books, go here.

 

 

This first edition of this article was prepared in 1991 for publication in the Australian Jensen club magazine. It was revised for republication in other club magazines around the world during the 1990s. This text is an update prepared in line with information available after 2000.

19912016 Richard Calver

 

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