X-ray spec: Ferguson - Novi

Despite scoring Formula One’s only win for four-wheel drive, this British company’s system appeared better suited to Indianapolis. By Keith Howard.

Funded by Harry Ferguson, but inspired by Freddie Dixon and Tony Rolt, Ferguson Research Ltd. spent a fruitless 15 years after WWII trying to promote its four-wheel drive vision to an apathetic motor industry. Then in 1960 it decided on the not unfamiliar marketing strategy of building a racing car to prove the technology and wake up the dozers in car company boardrooms.

With its transmission layout dictating a front-mounted engine, the resulting P99 Formula One car looked an anachronism even before it was built. But on the track in 1961 it proved moderately successful, scoring the only win for a 4WD F1 car, when Stirling Moss, who loved driving it, took it to victory in the non-championship Gold Cup at Oulton Park.

It was Moss again who, on a trip to the US, suggested to Andy Granatelli that he use Ferguson’s 4WD system for his Novi-engined Indycars. So in mid-1963, Granatelli invited Ferguson to ship the P99 over to the Brickyard for a test. Fitted with what Motoring News later described as “very tired” 2.5-litre Coventry-Climax engine, it lapped at over 140mph. Sufficiently impressed, Granatelli commissioned Ferguson to build him a car for next years Indy 500 — but not until December, which gave Ferguson less than four months to design and build it. Luckily in anticiaption of the order, work had already started.

Unsurprisingly, given the time constraint, the resulting P104 followed the same basic layout as the P99, but required uprated components throughout to cope with the supercharged Novi’s claimed 743bhp power output. In charge of the transmission design was Derek Gardner, before his famous years at Tyrrell, who talks about the car overleaf.

With the most powerful engine in the field and the means to deploy it through four wheels rather than two, Granatelli’s Studebaker/STP car number 9 was reckoned by some to be a dark horse for the 1964 race. But Bobby Unser, who drove it, and also comments over the page, recalls no opportunity for shakedown testing prior to Indianapolis, and despite two weeks of pre-race practice, was only able to qualify the car in 22nd place at 154.86mph almost 4mph adrift of pole-sitter JIm Clark. In the race, Unser was forced to retire on the second lap having become embroiled in the notorious accident and subsequent fireball that claimed the lives of Eddie Sachs and Dave MacDonald.

For 1965, Granatelli built a lightweight version of the car, still using the Ferguson transmission. Unser was delighted with it, but the car was badly damaged in practice, as a result of which he had to revert to the Ferguson chassis. Although his qualifying speed was almost the same margin adrift of A J Foyt’s Lotus-Ford as the previous year, 157.46mph was good enough to secure eighth on the gird. The car ran well in the race, often in the top 10, but retired little more than a third of the way through, when an oil fitting failed on lap 69.

Encouraged by the performance of the lightweight version of the car, Granatelli continued to have faith in 4WD’s potential. In 1967 he switched to Pratt & Whitney gas turbine power and almost won the race. For ’68 he commissioned the Type 56 gas turbine car from Lotus again insisting that it used Ferguson 4WD components. As the previous year, a strong showing — this time by two Lotus cars and one from Granatelli — was marred by unreliability.

Thereafter, governing body USAC effectively outlawed gas turbine engines, and four-wheel drive along with it. So a Ferguson-equipped 4WD car never did prevail at Indianapolis. But having your technology sidelined by the rulebook is, at least in some people’s estimation, a victory in itself.

X-Ray Spec: Ferguson-Novi

A puzzle about this drawing is that it appears to show the engine inlet feeding the centrifugal Paxton supercharger being derived downstream of the front-mounted water radiator — hardly a recipe for maximum power or careful charge temperature control, particularly in an engine from which the intercooler had been removed to save weight. A cutaway published in Motoring News may provide the solution, in the form of what appears to be a reinforced flexible tube running forward from the inlet, over the top of the radiator and into the cool airstream entering the nose.

“The only item in the transmission I didn’t design was the clutch,” says Derek Gardner. “It was a 15-plate device housed in a chamber with a secret mix of paraffin and oil. It was a tiny device, as I remember, not much larger than the palm of your hand. From the start of the race it would slip all the way to the first corner. We were not allowed to change anything about it: the attitude was, if you do it this way you’ll be alright, change it and you’re doomed. So that was a design given.”

The gearbox was a four-speed unit, “a big deal in those days,” says Unser. “A two-speed transmission was common for the period — the lower ratio for starting and the higher ratio for the rest of the race.”

Not everyone believed the Novi’s power claims, but Unser dispels any doubt: “The Novi had over 800bhp when we finished with it, and that wasn’t BS, that was real horsepower. All the guys who got passed by it knew it! I discovered that using more rpm made the engine last longer— a giant breakthrough. I listened to it and could tell it wasn’t a happy engine: it was being under-revved, bogging it down. So I talked Granatelli into lowering the gearing considerably. I think we went to maybe 11,000rpm. We found the engine note changed completely: no longer was it making that terrible droning. We also got better mileage, more torque at the wheels and the engine life was way better. Testing at Phoenix the car was so much faster.”

Gardner backs this up with independent evidence: “Years later I saw a Novi engine on a test bed. Although it was a case of ‘Now you see it, now you don’t’, and the dynamometer was far too small for the engine, I actually saw where the claimed 743hp came from. It was certainly the most powerful engine at Indianapolis in those days.”

Unfortunately, the move to higher engine revs came at the end of the Novi’s years, a consequence, as Unser sees it, of Andy Granatelli’s obsession with Indianapolis. “He ran once a year — a sad deal. What do you learn from that? Not nearly enough. He was so cranked up on Indy that he couldn’t see anything else. He told me if I’d drive for him at Indy I’d have a car for all the races, we’d get serious about it and race hard. I knew there were tracks where, with the light car, I’d have been untouchable. But eventually I saw he didn’t want to do these other races, and that’s the reason I ultimately left him. You just couldn’t get him to do it.”

“Four-wheel drive was a distinct advantage,” insists Unser, “but Ferguson built the chassis too heavy. If I remember right it weighed about 2500lb with fuel, and that was way too much. That was one big negative to the car, and one that Granatelli tried to hide. That’s not to say it wasn’t fast around the corners because Lord knows it was. Even though we gained in weight, it was still much better than rear-wheel drive. The next year Granatelli built a light version and that car was disgustingly better. You just went around the racetrack faster whether you liked it or not. Vince Granatelli built it and saved an awful lot of weight — 500lb or something like that. If I’d been able to choose any car to race that year, that is probably the car I’d have picked. It was just so much easier to drive.”

Although Gardner concedes that the total weight of P104 exceeded the quoted 2000lb — “I think a figure of 2200-2300lb would be more accurate” — Ferguson was proud of the car’s packaging. “It was a very compact piece of equipment. The wheelbase was 100 inches which, considering the size and complexity of everything, was a wonderful shoehorning job. There were arguments about whether we should use a rear-engine layout, but there was no real attempt to come up with an alternative design. Everything fitted very nicely together and to try something utterly new in the timescale would have been totally wrong.”

When the car was profiled in Motoring News prior to its departure for the States, it was with strong hints that the centre differential contained a new development. It did. “Hitherto the differential had been of the bevel gear type,” recalls Gardner, “but we had come up with a design which used smaller gears on one side than the other so that you got a torque split within the confines of the centre differential. We felt that we could get quite a variation in torque split with this method. We didn’t invent the gear — it was known as the Humpage, a lovely term — and I think it had a naval origin. It was used on the P99 first and then the Indy car. It gave a fixed torque split: a figure of 40/60 front/rear comes to mind.”