I know (I know) some of you are probably screaming “oh bollocks” at such a statement- but it inspired me to write about a much unknown supernova of the British automotive monarch, especially here, Stateside- the ultra-rare Jensen FF. Think of it as a tip of the hat to you, our ZH reader and commenter; one, who just may be on to something.
For the rest of us, its Sunday, lets brace ourselves for the week ahead. A lot of things are happening in the financial and automotive world. GM is promising its first round of good news in almost two years; and Chrysler is setting to whet our lust for all things red and Italian with an Alfa Romeo-based SUV, the first of what I’m sure will be many shared technology/platform, co-branded concoctions from the barely breathing Fiat-Chrysler.
Some think the Alfa-based SUV will become the new Aspen, named after the tacky Durango re-badge of recent years, and the horrible leisure suit of a sedan from the 1970’s. Unfortunately, for the Aspen name, it’s a case of- “if you disliked me then, you’d really hate me now.” Lets hope the Italians force the issue and come-up with a better name for, well, just what we need- another SUV.
Nothing like sticking to the age-old adage that SUVs generally have fatter profit margins than any other type of production car… Thought I don’t know how true this is anymore with less people buying them due to consumption concerns; from a marketing perspective, nothing “bangs-them-out” better than the SUV. Pardon the old car business jargon – but it’s true and I’m digressing.
But back to British history, and proof that some of our readers are the savviest around. Back to the FF. Did you know that Britain’s 1966 Jensen FF was the first production car to have all-wheel-drive? And among the first to incorporate Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock brakes? It had Italian coachwork by Vignale and body design by Touring Superleggera as well as an American, Chrysler Mopar 383-cube V8 and TourqueFlite transmission too? And the one piece that brought-on all the magic, the crowning jewel, the all-wheel-drive system was indeed a British invention!
Yes, the British Jensen FF was the Nostradamus of what would become the future of the automobile business and the modern road car today- a combination of Italian style and craftsmanship, proven American power, and great ol’ English hand-built engineering among the first real “world cars” (from a literal standpoint anyway).
The genesis of the Jensen FF dates back to the 1930’s, as hill climb rallies and races eschewed efforts to produce four-wheel-drive vehicles to provide better traction. Four is better than two right?
While the theory of all four wheels distributing power to the ground may sound simple enough, it’s actually a big engineering accomplishment that is just now coming to the forefront of vehicle manufacturing. The biggest feat is overcoming the differentials of torque distribution, making all four wheels turn at different velocities as the car goes around turns, accelerates or comes to a stop. There are many unique AWD systems, varying by manufacturer today, each working differently to distribute power, providing a driving experience that is sure, comfortable and safe. But this was hardly ever always the case.
Bugatti, Miller, Porsche and Spyker are just some of the names that tried their hand at what is today, all-wheel-drive- but any successful application by any of the mentioned (in business or not) came much, much later.
The first all wheel drive actually produced in numbers was the 1966 Jensen FF. The “FF” stood for Ferguson Formula, “Ferguson” being Ferguson Research Limited, a British engineering and racing company- they invented the first all wheel drive transfer systems. If you’ve never seen a Jenson FF, you’re not alone. Not many people have, as they were never officially imported stateside and only 320 were built between 1966 and 1971. But perhaps you’ve seen a Jensen Interceptor? They look similar, but the FF is some five inches longer and sports distinctive twin cooling slats/vents on the front fenders, where the traditional Interceptor only had one.
The death spiral for the Jensen FF had a lot to do with the 1) dwindling commercial success of the Jensen company itself 2) the 30% premium the FF was over it’s lesser sibling, the Interceptor and alas 3) the finicky nature of all the British all-wheel-drive wizardry, which was highly temperamental and could not be adapted for use on a left-hand drive car, i.e. for sale and use in most of the driving world. It simply wasn’t feasible for the FF, with shafts, boxes and other bits and trinkets getting in the way.
The Dunlop Maxaret ABS system, derived from aircraft applications, frequently too froze-up at any given time. Quirky too, like the British.
When they were working, people loved the Jensen FF; though many will attest, they broke often, and like many British wares of that time, sympathy had to be exercised every mile along the way. But it did produce what was an unflappable road going car in all conditions, with the all-wheel-drive 67% rear/33% front power split.
But really, who really cares now? It’s all history.
While the Germans and Japanese will have you believing anti-lock brakes and all-wheel-drive were of their own pioneering, with Audi’s Quattro system, Subaru’s application of all-wheel-drive in every vehicle they make, and Mercedes-Benz’s development of ABS brakes back in the late sixties and seventies; it’s not true, the British were the first to successfully pull both off, but not in mass quantities, again, just 320 being built in three series, through 1971.
Perhaps the Germans and the Japanese just were able to make them all work better, en mass, and over time and trial too, of course.
Another interesting British car, the Jaguar E-Type (XKE in America) is not only regarded as one of the most beautiful designs to ever some to fruition, but also one of the best sellers for England and the Jaguar brand. Today, they’re worth a pretty penny, and collectors and drivers admire them on many accords.
They’d be by far the most valuable, and expensive cars on the road today if it just for one thing. They made too many. But that’s another story, maybe for another time.
(The British, while they seem to get it right, first. Their timing can use a little work.)
Have a happy week ahead, our most valuable ZH reader. And we can never have too many of you.
For more information on the Jensen “hand built cars” in particular, look up Richard Calver, he writes the history books on them.