Ferguson Research R5

Ten years ago, The Independent ran a story on where the Ferguson R5 is now housed, in the Coventry Transport Museum. Here's what the curator, Steve Bagley, had to say about it: "If you put the Ferguson on display, you would have to make a big effort to explain why it's significant… We have to be a bit hard-nosed, you know."

And so it sits in storage. Like the GMC Centaur a few days ago, the R5 gave us a Nostradamus-like look at the future of the automobile. With the R5, however, all of the ingredients were in the right places—hell, if Subaru suddenly claimed it was a long-lost ancestor, it'd be believable.

Embarrassingly, this is the first time in nearly a year that I've mentioned Ferguson Research, the company started by Irish four-wheel drive pioneer (and, originally, tractor expert) Harry Ferguson. His contributions to the world of motoring are nothing short of momentous, because as much as we all ogle over priceless Porsches and the world's finest Ferraris, his application of four-wheel-drive in a road car has meaning even today.

Finished in 1965, the car was a road-ready prototype designed to demonstrate the advantages of having four driven wheels in a normal passenger vehicle. Of course, these days you can't throw a boot without hitting an all-wheel-drive vehicle. And the idea of giving grandma a car four driven wheels for a Saturday Trader Joe's trip started with the R5.

Its four-wheel drive was just the start. Ferguson Research, the entity Harry Ferguson founded to continue four-wheel-drive research and create well-engineered prototypes was rooted in the idea of making roads safer, so the R5 was packed with unheard-of features in period, including power windows, hatchback body style, and disc brakes.

With its chunky crosshair grille, it may look like a 1965 Dodge Caliber, yes (not to mention a shockingly accurate prediction at cars like the Caliber), but to get the whole thing to work required an ingenious solution to driving all four wheels, as Autocar says in a period road test: 

"To drive the central differential, a chain takes the power from the three-speed gearbox, the engine-gearbox unit being installed above the front-wheel-drive differential. Actually, the whole engine is ahead of the front diff, which resides beneath the bell-housing. The output shaft of the gearbox thus comes conveniently above the patent Ferguson differential. The chain coupling the two is enclosed, and the shafts from the differential emerge from the casing to take power fore and aft."

In addition, Ferguson added a torque converter to the manual transmission, which seems to have worked much like our modern launch control systems: the fluid drive allowed for starts in top (third) gear, or in second for faster acceleration. Drivers would depress the clutch pedal, select the gear, and hit the gas when they wanted to make a rapid getaway. Yes, Ferguson even included a lower speed for snow, mud, and other messy situations.

I know what you're thinking: "The car could only be better if it had a flat-four engine." 

Guess what? 

Developed in-house, its 2,212-cc flat-four engine made 111 horsepower, offering a top speed of an impressive 165 km/h (102 mph). The Autocar road test even mentioned that Ferguson had tried both Weber carburetors and a supercharger. Yum.

Impressed, it was named in that article (links below) as what must be "the safest car ever built." An amazing first stab at what a four-wheel-drive family car could look like, it's just a shame that motorists were never able to purchase one for themselves.

Sources