Featured: Get To Know The Innovative Sales Failure That Was The Four-Wheel Drive Jensen FF

Get To Know The Innovative Sales Failure That Was The Four-Wheel Drive Jensen FF

By Will_Broadhead
November 21, 2018

Photography by Will Broadhead

Pub quiz time: what was the first non all-terrain production car to feature four-wheel drive? Audi Quattro? AMC Eagle? Subaru Leone perhaps? You can keep your Vorsprung durch Technik in this case, this was progress through technology put into practice across the channel, the efforts of a British manufacturer that had become a liquidated soup by the time Audi delivered their first Quattro systems to showrooms. In 1966, ten years before it ceased trading altogether, Jensen Motors released the FF. It was somewhat of a mongrel of a design aesthetically speaking, but one that not only bought four-wheel drive to the roads, but ABS as well.

To the untrained eye, the FF is easily mistaken for the more famous Jensen Interceptor, the two models sharing the Italian lines drawn by Carrozzeria Touring, with one or two subtle differences to distinguish them aside from badging, such as the twin air vents that appeared on the FF’s front wings.

They differed from each other more significantly in terms of popularity. While the rear-wheel drive Interceptor went on to sell some six and a half thousand units, FF production dispatched just 320 cars across its five-year lifespan. This was largely due to “quirks” in the FF’s design that made it all but impossible to build them in left-hand drive configuration. Both prop shafts protruded into the left-hand seat space, and as you can imagine there was a complete lack of room for the steering gear and brake servo on that side of the vehicle. This limited the car’s sales potential massively, as Jensen’s principal markets shifted overseas towards the start of the 1970s. It was expensive too, some 30% pricier than other GT cars from more prestigious manufacturers at the time.

For all of the lack of foresight though, and despite less-than-impressive sale figures, the FF was and remains a good car, though perhaps not a great one. The 6.3 liters of Chrysler V8 wedged into the front of the machine was never going to win awards for beauty, but this is a solid power plant, developing 330hp to translate to the road through the Jensen’s automatic ‘box. The transmission leaves something to be desired (namely an ability to shift it on your own), but the powertrain was potent enough to tease 140mph out of the machine, which was some 20mph faster than a Jaguar XJ6. The motor still feels reasonably sharp these days, and while it’s never going to accelerate in the fashion that pins your eyes back into your skull, as a touring machine with a torquey-enough V8, it’s a pleasure to cruise about in.

Then of course there is the four-wheel drive aspect, designed by Ferguson Research and giving the Jensen its FF (Ferguson Formula) designation. Up to that point, such a system had only been seen on all-terrain vehicles and various one-offs or race cars like the Ferguson P99 and BRM P67 F1 machines. The Ferguson system for the street was designed to deliver a 33:67 split of power between front and rear wheels respectively, a ratio that was thought to give absolutely perfect roadholding abilities. It was said that you could take the car on a skid pad and struggle to get it to misbehave, if you could even manage to upset it at all. Adding to its element of safety and security was the Dunlop Maxaret ABS, the mechanical system had achieved noteworthiness in the aviation world and although not as good as the electronic systems that started to appear in later decades, its addition to the Jensen FF alongside the four-wheel drive technology lead to Sports Illustrated declaring the FF as being the safest car in the world. What they know about automotive safety is beyond me, but you get the point.

The thing is though, when we talk about cars, as important as safety is, it’s just a little, well, dull. It’s necessary and should be celebrated, but it doesn’t capture the imagination in the same way that speed and style can. Thankfully, for the most part, the FF manages to adequately deliver on those fronts. I say “mostly” because this car, just like the Interceptor, is one of those odd beasts that changes character depending on which angle you view it from.

For example, the front end looks great: bold and striking, every inch a muscle car. The rear of the machine delivers as well, the great expanse of curved glass that protrudes from the somewhat bulbous haunches, but then there’s that bit in the middle where it all goes a bit Reliant Scimitar. Sacrilege to say, maybe, but I’m just not a fan. Luckily, it all goes right again on the inside, the luxury humidor of an interior with the leather-clad clock binnacles and sumptuous wooden steering wheel, all enjoyed from wonderfully comfortable seats.

So, a classic success story, or an innovative design that failed to deliver? The arguments for both sides of the coin are compelling and, just like the exterior styling, depend on which side you’re viewing the facts from. But isn’t that a great thing? Even after a day in the company of the FF, on loan thanks to my friends at The Classic Motor Hub, I’m still undecided as to if I would want to own one or not, and that speaks volumes in its own way because cars that you immediately accept or reject never ask you to study them as much as the so-called middle-grounders like this Jensen. I’d love to hear your opinions on this landmark of engineering design that seems to have been more or less buried under the likes of AWD and 4WD cars that came later but won more races—what’s your take on the FF?

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Brad Nelson
Brad Nelson
3 years ago

As a Mopar fan the mythical (to me) Jensen Interceptor was always a joy to see in person or pictures. And when first learning of the FF doubly so (circa 1980 as a coming of age petrolhead). Reading about the fact they put the standard passenger 383 (6.3l) in it when I was driving a Plymouth Road Runner with all the HP goodies just baffled me. But I dreamed of touring around the UK in an FF on a snowy winter day without a care save for what road to take. It’s probably best to happily not meet this hero and have that dream ruined.

Mark Willenbrock
Mark Willenbrock
4 years ago

By the standards of the day, the FF was an absolute revelation. On 60’s tyres, here was a machine that could use all of its performance, all of the time. Nothing came close on the road in everyday conditions in northern Europe. Styling is subjective, but in the flesh the FF and Interceptor look (and sound) wonderful to me. The Chrysler V8 had similar power to the Maserati and Aston V8s, and Jaguar’s V12, but was simpler, cheap to maintain and reliable. Perhaps only the live rear axle and leaf springs let it down.

Tosh Brice
Tosh Brice
4 years ago

I can’t see this car see these cars otherwise than through the wide eyes of a besmitten boy of maybe ten years old, visiting the Motor Show at Earls Court (London 🧐) in short trousers (pants) and being allowed through the gate onto the fenced stand by the indulgent attendant. If they had still been on the market when I was old enough to buy one, then maybe (like the salesman’s welcome to boy in the Porsche 911 ad) his small investment of kindness would have paid off.

Chad C.
Chad C.
4 years ago

Great article and I like the car. However, there are many Vintage GTs of similar value that I down before this one.

* A manual E-Type
* Ferrari 400
* Fiat Dino 246
* Alfa 2600 Sprint Coupe

Based on the above five examples, I guess I’m not a big horsepower/Cubic Inches kinda guy. If I were, I’d get a big block Vette for this kind of money & overall appeal. 70 more hp, & painful acceleration…
As for the FF’s technological innovations, it’s less important to me to have been the first and more important to have been the best. Who buys a Ferrari Dino because of its innovative Dinoplex electronic ignition? The “Vintage” ABS on my Alfa Milano was hardly a selling point for me… That said, the guy who buys the FF is likely the guy who already has at least five other vintage GT cars in his collection. If I had two FFs, I’d trade both of them for an early DBS.
Like the author, I’d jump at the chance to borrow this car for a day.

Mark Willenbrock
Mark Willenbrock
4 years ago
Reply to  Chad C.

Some lovely cars in your list, but only the Ferrari 400 is a real competitor, and the FF predates the 400 by years; back in the day, Ferraris were all manual. Even a 365GT4 2+2 is a very different animal.