DRIVEN FORD ZEPHYR 4X4 POLICE PROTOTYPE
Ford’s V6 engine teamed with Ferguson’s four-wheel drive would have given crooks a real run for their money.
It must have been a revelation to traffic officers in the late 1960s – who’d have been used to reining in Jaguar Mk2s and the Ford Zephyr’s more conventional rear-driven cousin on slippery bends – to have Jensen FF technology at their disposal.
Yet the two were odd companions. That’s definitely the sensation when you start sliding that enormous three-spoke wheel through your fingertips, because its extra set of walking boots definitely doesn’t feel like something you’d exploit on tighter turns.
Show it some black and white chevrons and this gentle giant slouches onto its Macpherson struts with a hint of tyre squeal. There’s a lot of body roll as 15ft 6in of Dagenham steel strides into the corner – but push a little further and that surefootedness is there. Where you might expect an apologetic helping of understeer and a shrug of a normal Zephyr’s broad shoulders this one just keeps on gripping, making all four of the Firestone R-510s work that crucial bit longer when you really need it. Ferguson Formula’s add-ons really do get stuck in when you ask them to – but you have to put your faith in its ability to deliver the goods when the rest of the Zephyr would rather you calmed down.
The Ford will actually take slippery smaller stretches of asphalt in its stride if you ask it nicely, but it’s out on wider, faster roads where it shines, especially at this time of year. The 3.0-litre V6, in particular, is a colleague any police driver would be happy to work with, with plenty of torque and a smooth delivery that doesn’t batter you with a harsh engine note.
Plant your foot into that vast cave of a footwell and it’s like prodding a sleepy gorilla that dwells at the other end with a stick. It lets out an almighty yawn as six cylinders stretch their legs and get to work, delivering the goods but in a way that feels smooth and unrushed. Ask it to put its back into it and there’s a gentle surge as the three-speed auto goes into kickdown and there’s a contented growl as the beast beneath the enormous bonnet flexes its muscles and heaves out a dollop of acceleration in one lunge. The torque all comes on song before 3000rpm – there’s a very Stateside feel to that V6.
It’s a great office to work in, provided you can resist the temptation of flicking the centre console-mounted switches to get the bells, lights and sirens blaring. Even with those chunky D-pillars there’s plenty of visibility, and the gift you get from the Zephyr’s bulk is masses of legroom for officers in the front.
All of the instruments are logically laid out and easy to see and use through the wheel and the controls, including that dash-mounted handbrake. In fact the only letdown once you’re sat down are the seats themselves – they’re comfortable, but there’s precious little in the way of side support. Hardly ideal in a police car that’s been uprated to grip hard and fast.
This Zephyr might not have been the most effective blues ‘n’ twos all-rounder – which probably explains why it never progressed further than the 22 development cars handed out to forces across the country – but it pioneered the familiar combination of four-wheel drive, anti-lock braking and a feisty engine 20 years before Ford itself reached the same solution with the Sierra Cosworth. All of today’s surefooted patrol cars owe a lot to this prototype.
History: How the Zephyr 4x4 won – and lost – the motorway patrol vote
Motorways were still a relatively new phenomenom for British motorists in the late 1960s – and the Home Office was fully aware that the cars being used by the nation’s police forces needed to evolve to match the conditions and the higher speeds.
It recognised that a high performance road car with a four-wheel drive system would be ideal for the task, and approached several manufacturers for help. While 4WD expertise wasn’t hard to find – Coventry-based Ferguson Formula had already implemented the technology successfully for Jensen in the 1966 FF – finding carmakers who were happy to allow their vehicles to be modified while retaining a warranty was trickier. Ford was the only one willing to work with the Home Office’s requirements, supplying 22 Zephyrs for development.
Our test car is the first of the batch, and went straight from Ford’s Dagenham factory in November 1968 to Ferguson’s works for five months.
Among the modifications was a revised inner front wing, while the top wishbone, coil springs and shock absorbers were Ford Mustang units supplied by Ford’s US division. A new engine support had to be fabricated to allow the Essex V6 to be raised and moved across the bonnet slightly to make room for a front axle differential unit. The transmission tunnel was also enlarged to accommodate the transfer box, to which the Dunlop Maxaret sensor for the ABS system was attached.
The Zephyr re-emerged the following April and was dispatched to the Transport Road Research Laboratories in Berkshire, where it was put through its paces on its test track and skidpan. A four-way hazard flasher was added after these tests – the first car in the world to receive the feature.
It was demonstrated to representatives of the police forces who’d originally requested the Home Office looked into such a car – and they loved it. After that, the 21 other development cars that Ferguson had been working on were handed over – with some pomp and ceremony – by former racing driver Tony Rolt, the company’s managing director.
While our test car also spent some limited time on active police duties the vast majority of its miles were carried out at TRRL’s test track, before being put into storage in 1974.
So why was the four-wheel drive Zephyr’s promising police career cut short? Blame Land Rover. Barely a year after the 4WD Z-car another surefooted contender arrived; the Range Rover offered similar performance from its 3.5-litre V8, but it was more practical, had a more commanding driving position and the added bonus of being able to head off the beaten track.
Perhaps unsurprisingly police forces flocked to Solihull’s new arrival and made it one of their favoured motorway hacks for the next two decades.
Ford provided 22 Zephyrs for Ferguson Formula to convert into 4x4 police cars, but while most served with forces across the UK this prototype spent the majority of its time on the test track.
Ford allowed its cars to be modified to Home Office requirements, and this was developed for high-speed duties.
There’s plenty of room in the interior and all the controls are logically laid out, but those vinyl seats don’t offer much support.
The 3.0-litre Essex V6 had to raised and remounted to accommodate the 4x4 and ABS components under the bonnet.
Three-speed automatic ’box feels smooth and unrushed.
Odometer shows very few miles, most on the test track.
Harry Ferguson Research put its stamp firmly on the Zephyr.
Production cars would have had much better labelling...