Driving the Fantastic, Four-Wheel Drive 1965 Ford Mustang
“Too bad it isn’t raining.” Olivier Cerf is eager to break the golden rule in classic car motoring. Usually anything wetter than a lawn sprinkler would prevent me from driving anyone else’s 1965 A-code Ford Mustang, but in this case, I can't help but think Olivier is right. His Tampa Bay Automobile Museum has the only prototype four-wheel-drive pony car known to exist. While it’s likely one of the most valuable original ’65 coupes around, demonstrating its full value means driving it when you wouldn't dare take out lesser classic cars. To understand how this American icon became so unique, we have to start in Britain. RELATED: See Photos of the 1965 Ford Mustang Shelby GT350
Harry Ferguson made his fortune in the tractor business, but the innovative engineer also had a vision for safer cars. Along with collaborating partners who were also keen on four-wheel-drive, he decided to prove the technology on the racetrack. With Stirling Moss at the wheel, the Ferguson P99 won the very wet 1961 International Gold Cup at Oulton Park. It was the only Grand Prix race the P99 completed, and the record stands as the only four-wheel-drive victory in F1 history.
Ferguson passed away in 1960, but the victory at the damp Gold Cup showed his technology was still very valuable. So his namesake Ferguson Research carried the torch. In late 1964, while Americans were lining up at their local Ford dealerships to order a Mustang, two (possibly three) coupes where snuck out the back door and sent over to the Ferguson shop in the UK.
The same Ferguson Formula viscous-coupling center differential proven on the racetrack was then installed in a brand new blue coupe. To clear a path for the front driveshaft and differential, the transmission was rotated a few degrees, the oil pan was modified, and a few places on the chassis were strengthened.
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This Mustang was not only a testbed for four-wheel-drive, but also Ferguson Research added Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock brakes adapted from aircraft technology. Four-wheel drive and ABS in a time when we were still using bias-ply tires made this truly a space-age coupe.
There were few Mustangs in the UK at this time, and so presence of the Ferguson Research cars would attract a crowd (this blue one had 4WD and the second car retained rear-wheel drive for comparison.) But more than just drawing attention in England, there might have been a more strategic reason for utilizing the very American coupe. It has been said that Ferguson sent this blue Mustang back to the USA to show Americans the benefit of four-wheel-drive on one of their own cars.
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The added expense of the Ferguson system, American pride, or likely a little bit of both resulted in no takers from all of the major US manufacturers.
The 4WD Mustang went back to the UK. It was used as a showcase for Ferguson Formula technology. It helped inspire other projects including a few Ford Zephyr police demonstrators and found limited production in the Jenson FF (Ferguson Formula). The Mustang was retired to the Ferguson Family Museum on the Isle of Wight, and remained there until 2007. The Cerf family acquired it in 2009.
Today, the prototype is complete but in well-used condition. Years as a testbed means the body gaps are not concours worthy, but there's no major damage or rust. Basically it just looks like your uncle’s old Mustang.
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The same goes for the interior, where the blue is aged, but it doesn't feel as old as a half-century. There is now a large Smith's tachometer mounted in the middle. It undoubtedly provided the technicians with invaluable information in the 60s, but today it serves as a little reminder that this American pony has some British blood in its veins.
Buying a car that spent most of its life at an engineering firm seems to have its privileges. The A-code 289 V8 fires up with the kind of quickness that would make owners of much younger Mustangs jealous.
Anyone who has driven a ’65 knows is exactly how this one exits a parking lot. The automatic transmission clicks into drive like a ratchet wrench; the steering has a few degrees of play but gets grippy quickly; and the suspension has a few squeaks when it finds a little bump.
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The differential has a 37/63 front/rear power divide so it can retain a rear wheel drive feeling in most situations, but tight corners reveal this car’s unique nature. At lower speeds, turning through an intersections require a little more driver attention. A regular Mustang will happily right itself towards the end of a bend. But with the front wheels constantly being powered, this coupe feels a bit like a pickup locked in 4x4 hi mode. The Ferguson Mustang needs to be guided all the way through the corner or the powered front end might try to dash for the curb.
The real advantage of this system comes in performance driving. With over a third of the power constantly going to the front, you instantly feel the front wheels pulling the rear ones around a sharp corner. The test drive was kept to suburban roads, but it was obvious that it would take a lot to break the rear end loose, if it could be done at all. It seems worth coming back to the Tampa Bay museum to take Olivier up on his offer to test this Mustang on wet roads.
This is a truly unique and valuable car, but it is tough to play the “what if” game had it reached large-scale production. Would we be telling the rally legend of the 4WD Fords instead of the Ur-Quattro? Would university professors in Vermont be driving ’66 Mustangs instead of old Subarus? Would James Caan ever had to have suffered Cathy Bates in Misery?
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The luxury of historical perspective let’s us know it was not the right time for the Ferguson Mustang. America was interested in providing more power to the wheels during this era, and not interested in powering more wheels.
Instead, the car best fits in the USA as a prototype in Tampa Bay. It has found a home in a museum that celebrates interesting engineering and one-off automobiles like this one. Plus, there’s enough tropical thunderstorms down there to let this traction-happy Mustang prove its worth any time of year.
Photo Credit: Myles Kornblatt, Tampa Bay Automobile Museum (last image)