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Ferguson Climax P99.

Benson Chiu ��2010 Courtesy of RM/Benson Chiu/RM Auctions

The Formula One racing season gets under way this weekend, but the technology employed this year, while dazzling as always, isn't significantly different or potentially game-changing, which wasn't the case half a century ago when the Ferguson Climax P99 arrived on the scene inspired by an engineer better known for designing farm tractors.

At first glance, the Ferguson didn't look revolutionary, or agricultural for that matter. It was a typical low-slung aluminum cigar tube with a by-then-passé front-mounted engine, but a closer look revealed the tricks it had up its sleeve - four-wheel-drive and an antilock-braking system.

Back in 1961

As events go, the launch of the Pampers disposable diaper wasn't epoch-altering but it did change forever the way babies were, well, changed.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated as U.S. President.

One of motor racing's great tragedies was played out in a flash of Ferrari crimson at Monza when German star Wolfgang von Trips crashed his car into the crowd, killing himself and 15 spectators.

Movie goers in 1961 had a choice of some great flicks that included West Side Story, The Guns of Navarone, 101 Dalmatians, Breakfast at Tiffany's and El Cid.

It wasn't the first racing car to power all four wheels; the Spyker of 1902 appears to hold that honour, while Bugatti built four-wheel-drive hill-climbers and American Harry Miller Indy racers in the 1930s.

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And in the late 1940s Porsche created the Cisitalia for an Italian industrialist with a driver-selectable two- or all-wheel-drive. Much like today's F1 drivers, who can change their rear wing configuration to alter handling characteristics, the Cisitalia "pilote" was expected to engage AWD when he needed additional accelerative capability out of a corner.

The cash-strapped Cisitalia failed to qualify for the only Grand Prix it was entered in and the Ferguson fared only a little better, although it did win the Oulton Park Gold Cup race of 1961 with Sir Stirling Moss behind the wheel, becoming the only AWD car to win a Formula One event. And, incidentally, the last front-engined F1 car to win.

It was later successful as a hill-climb racer - known as "Fergie" after its tractor antecedents - before being retired to a museum in 1968.

It was offered for sale by the Ferguson family at last fall's Automobiles of London sale by Canadian-based RM Auctions, but failed to change hands despite a bid of ₤410,000 ($655,500).

Despite its brief F1 career, the Ferguson P99 did accomplish what its designers had intended, which was raising awareness of AWD's potential. And a number of AWD racing cars followed - from Lotus, Matra, BRM and McLaren in F1 and the Andy Granatelli Novi and later turbine cars in the Indy 500 - based on the Ferguson design. Formula One doesn't currently allow AWD, which is perhaps too bad when you consider how beneficial powering the front wheels employing the KERS electric drive system might prove.

The Ferguson was also the first F1 car to employ antilock brakes, Dunlop's Maxaret system, which had been developed for aircraft use. Moss preferred to use his own seat-of-the-pants braking "sensors" and switched it off. Such "anti-skid" systems were later adopted by F1 as the electronics age gained ground and then later banned.

Behind Project 99 was Irish inventor Harry Ferguson (born in 1884) who'd made his fortune in the agricultural field but decided in the early 1950s to champion the cause of AWD for passenger vehicles.

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Ferguson was Ireland's first aviator, flying a homebuilt aircraft in 1909 and went on to create The Belfast Plough (to be drawn by a Model T Ford tractor conversion) and then the hydraulically adjustable three-point linkage that allows implements to be attached to a tractor rather than towed - still almost universally employed.

He went on to design very successful tractors and merged his company with Canada's Massey Harris in 1953, creating what would become Massey Ferguson. He sold his shares a year later to concentrate on Harry Ferguson Research Ltd., which was developing an AWD system with centre differential - again virtually the standard - and spent the 1950s promoting it to the British car industry by building a number of prototype road cars.

The P99 racer was created as an AWD test bed and promotional tool, roles it performed successfully. But Ferguson wouldn't live to see it run (he died suddenly in late 1960) or see his AWD technology find a place in the automotive universe, first in the Chrysler V-8-engined Jensen Interceptor FF of the mid-1960s and later in road-going and competition vehicles.

Project 99 came together in just about a year, and following the practice of the day, was based on a tubular space-frame, but with the engine up front, although rear engine designs were by then proving the way to go. Putting it in the traditional spot in the AWD P99 provided near perfect balance, however. The engine was originally a 2.5-litre, 243-hp, Coventry Climax twin-cam four with a five-speed gearbox that sent power to the centre differential and from there to differentials at each end.

The first challenge it faced was a change in F1 allowing maximum engine displacement of just 1.5 litres, which provided less power (about 150 hp with the Climax) to propel the weight and mechanical drag of the AWD system.

But this was England remember, where it often rains, and the P99 showed well in its first F1 debut at a sopping-wet Aintree where Stirling Moss took it over from Jack Fairman after his Lotus retired.

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A mechanical fault sidelined it, but Moss was impressed enough to be behind the P99's wheel again that September at a rainy Oulton Park where his brilliance aided by Harry Ferguson's AWD traction gave the car its first and only F1 win.

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