The History Of AWD Muscle Cars Trades Burnouts For Big Block V8s And Bigger Traction
Muscle cars and smoke-filled burnouts go hand-in-hand, which may help explain why it took so long for all-wheel drive to join the party. AWD muscle cars are notoriously absent from the history of high performance, both in Detroit and across either ocean, but over the course of the past 15 years they've become more of a presence in American showrooms.
Surprisingly, the roots of AWD muscle cars mix a familiar face from the big block world with a seldom-heard automotive innovator that would stand alone for nearly three decades. Ending the AWD drought would be a family of cars built by the very same company that made the original four-wheel muscle machine's mechanical heart beat, briefly reviving what was all too short a season for V8 performance enthusiasts.
The earliest example of a traditional muscle car that was able to drive both the front and rear axles was the Jensen FF. This uncommon speedster offered the kind of mixed heritage that was all too common among small-volume European automakers. Rather than develop its own drivetrains, Jensen had elected to turn to Chrysler's reliable big block V8s—specifically, the 383 cubic inch motor that played a key role in motivating so many Mopars as they engaged in quarter mile battle across the Atlantic.
Jensen had already used the 383 cid unit under the hood of its popular Interceptor, so when the time came to bring forth the all-wheel drive FF muscle car it made sense to stick with it. For the most part, the FF resembled a somewhat extended version of the Interceptor, which made sense given that the two cars shared the same platform.
Aside from the super-sizing, the key difference between the two vehicles was the inclusion of a Ferguson four-wheel drive system (with the FF's name being an abbreviation of 'Ferguson Formula). This was an entirely novel proposition when the car debuted in 1966, as its 330 horsepower engine was given a fighting chance for traction as compared to the rear-wheel drive Interceptor (or Dodge Charger, Plymouth Roadrunner, or any other Mopar muscle car that shared the same engine and 727 automatic transmission).
The FF was more about straight-line speed and comfortable cruising than it was sporty handling, but with a 33:67 torque split front and rear it delivered a level of grip that was unheard of at the time among muscle machines. Unfortunately for Jensen the design of the four-wheel drive system took up significant space on the left, or 'passenger' side of the British car, which meant it was impossible to configure it for left-hand drive markets like America. This would spike FF sales and lead to only 320 or so models ever being built during its short lifespan.
Mopar Gets Involved, Again
When Dodge revived the Charger nameplate for 2006, the new sedan wouldn’t just reintroduce Mopar fans to one of its most storied models—it would also eventually revive the concept of four-wheel drive muscle. In a twist of fate that feels almost scripted, it would once again be a Chrysler V8 that would break the AWD ice on the performance car market.
Early on the Charger R/T had been given the option of AWD, which when paired with its 368 horsepower, 5.7-liter V8 engine made for a formidable four-seasons package. The system itself was developed by BorgWarner, and offered real-time torque management that, like the FF, prioritized delivery to the rear wheels in order to preserve handling while maximizing grip.
The Charger wasn't the only model to benefit from V8 power and AWD traction. Other cars built on the same LX platform, including the Dodge Magnum wagon and the Chrysler 300 C sedan, would also benefit from the same system. Although the Magnum would be phased out by 2009, the remainder of the LX cars continued to offer all-wheel drive through 2014.
Once the Pentastar put a stop to its AWD muscle car program there were very few options left for fans of big power and four-wheel traction. A number of European luxury brands had moved heavily into the four-wheel drive space over the same period of time—with cars like the BMW 550i xDrive, the Jaguar F-Type R, and the Audi S4 all offering, at various stages of their development, a combination of AWD and a V8 engine—but these were high-dollar machines out of reach of most of the traditional muscle car crowd.
A lone survivor on the domestic side was another unlikely four-door performance car: the Ford Taurus SHO. Unlike the first few versions of the SHO, the third-generation model featured full-size proportions and serious firepower under the hood thanks to its twin-turbo EcoBoost V6. Rated at 365 horses and 350 lb-ft of torque when it was introduced in 2009, the Taurus SHO provided all-wheel drive as standard equipment and was surprisingly friendly to tuners looking to boost its output. The SHO would survive until nearly the end of the decade before Ford turned its back on passenger cars in favor of crossovers and trucks.
Plug The Gap, Please
Today it's no longer possible to combine a V8 engine and all-wheel drive in the same package, unless you’re willing to spend significant dollars on a premium European badge. Dodge has made an effort to market the Challenger GT and Charger GT as 'AWD muscle cars,' but each model is restricted to a 3.6-liter V6, with just over 300 horsepower on tap. Not peanuts, but definitely not enough to elicit thrills from a platform that tips the scales at over 4,000 lbs.
A contender may be on the way, however—and again, it could have the most unlikely of origins. Ford is looking into continuing to expand the Mustang family of vehicles, and as such an all-wheel drive model of the company's popular pony car could be an easy way to draw in customers concerned about climate when purchasing performance. Given that the Mustang has already lent its name to an electric vehicle, it doesn't seem like nearly as much of a stretch for it to spin all four wheels in the near future.
Looking for more alternative muscle cars? We expanded our guide to outside-the-box V8 machines for free-thinking gearheads.