Each of the ‘60s/’70s Euro-American V8 hybrids had its own quality. AC was the meanest, Monteverdi was the coolest, Iso was the sportiest, De Tomaso was the smarmiest, Facel-Vega the classiest, Gordon-Keeble the rarest (if you forget Monica) and Bristol both the weirdest and longest-lived. So where does that leave Jensen, which might well be the archetypal hybrid? The unluckiest, probably – again, if you don’t count Monica…
Birmingham-born brothers Allan and Richard Jensen were all about cars. In 1928, respectively aged 22 and 19, they sold their first design – a drop-top on the Standard 9 chassis, built by Avon Coachworks. By 1931, they were working out of W.J. Smith & Sons, a manufacturer of truck and coach bodies in West Bromwich, a few miles north of Birmingham. The Jensens were making specials under their own name and these had a lot of success – so much so that the young Jensen brothers took over the reins of the business in 1934.
However, the body-making started to involve more and more chassis fiddling. Furthermore, the launch of the Ford V8 and the Hudson Terraplane around this time gave rise to the first wave of Euro-American hybrids: chassis were relatively easy to manufacture once a suitable engine could be sourced.
Jensen made the leap in steps, from 1933 onwards – by which I mean they advertised their coachwork on Ford V8 chassis, then lowered the chassis to improve the look, and finally started to sell their specials under their own name, though still based on Ford running gear. The first “proper” Jensen was the White Lady prototype, which was developed into the Ford-powered S-Type.
Jensen continued using Ford V8s (both the 3.6 litre and the V8-60) on their cars until 1940, but this was not the only engine used: Nash provided Jensen with their finest straight-8 – a monumental 4.25-litre. OK, it was less than monumental, but it enabled Jensen to try their hand at a real luxury saloon, known as the H-Type. The chassis was still Ford-based, though…
After 1945, Jensen reappeared but the Ford days were over. The company invested a great deal of effort into developing a Meadows-engined chassis, which was beset by a myriad of technical issues and eventually abandoned. In 1947, the Jensen 4-litre saloon reappeared with some leftover Nash straight-8s, but by 1949 Austin’s 4-litre 6-cyl. took over. Very few of these Jensen PW (post-war) saloons were made, but at least the car had initiated a relationship with Austin, who brought Jensen a lot of business.
Let us not forget that Jensen never ceased to be a coachbuilder for other automakers – Austin especially, but by no means exclusively. Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, body production for ensured that Jensen always had a steady stream of work on top of their exclusive cars.
We might likewise bear in mind that Jensen also manufactured several types of trucks and proto-minivans – the latter being FWD Tempos, no less. But much as we love Tempos, let’s focus back on Jensen’s destiny, which took a turn for the sportier.
The first Jensen Interceptor, based on the Austin 4-litre chassis, debuted in late 1949. Less than 100 were made, but it presaged what Jensen cars were to become. The only thing that was still in the old style was the Interceptor’s body, which was made of aluminium panels over a steel frame. But when the 541 arrived in late 1954, most of its body was GRP. Jensen were one of the pioneers of this technique in the UK, which allowed their sports cars to shed some weight and raise their game.
Jensen still used the venerable Austin 4-litre, but the design of the car, clearly influenced by the 300 SL, was sleeker and more modern. The 541 R and 541 S, which followed in 1957 and 1960 respectively, were ameliorations of the basic concept, but said concept was running out of steam. Jensen needed something more powerful than Austin’s patrician six. They began toying with the idea of something more V-shaped, possibly with eight cylinders – most likely imported.
In late 1961, Jensen joined Facel-Vega and Bristol in selecting the Chrysler V8 for their new car, the aptly-named C-V8. The chassis and body were closely related to the 541 S, but for a few tweaks. The C-V8’s canted quad headlamps were all the rage in the early ‘60s, though some attempts were more successful than others. For my part, I find the Jensen C-V8 to be an impressive and unconventionally attractive car that looks like no other – save for the Jensen 541.
The C-V8 carried on through three series, while the shagadelic Austin-powered 541 S was nixed in 1963. But it seems Jensen were a little confused about what to do next. Several prototypes were being worked on simultaneously, including an all-wheel-drive (the famous “Ferguson Formula”) C-V8 and a smaller two-seater sports car on a new chassis, code-named P66. Not to mix metaphors, but in a nutshell, Jensen were at a crossroads — it was crunch time.
Let’s back up a bit first. In 1959, the Jensen brothers had sold off the whole operation to Norcross Holdings PLC. The brothers remained in charge, but as business began to slow down, there were some murmurs. Some decision-makers were adamant that the P66, designed by Eric Neale (as all Jensens had been since the early ‘50s), was a step in the wrong direction. They convinced the Jensen board that an Italian design would be a far better selling point. The board was convinced, and in February 1966, a C-V8 chassis was dispatched to Milan, where Touring did their thing – the Interceptor as we know it. By July, the car was ready for production. The Jensen brothers had been sidelined and left in a huff, along with designer Eric Neale.
The first Interceptors were built in Italy by Vignale (Touring were circling the drain at that point), but this proved uneconomical, so jigs were sent to West Bromwich in mid-1967. Compared to the C-V8, the Interceptor looked, well, Italian. Which is not a bad thing, especially in the ‘60s. But it did take some of its personality away, not to mention that it was back to a conventional steel body, instead of the C-V8’s fiberglass.
Backed up against a wall financially, what with all that P66 development money poured down the drain and the loss of both the Austin-Healey and the Sunbeam Tiger lines, Jensen tried to recoup their investment in the Ferguson car by introducing the Interceptor-based FF as the first all-wheel-drive sports car and the first car equipped with anti-lock brakes. On the outside, the FF looked almost identical to the RWD Interceptor, save for the its longer front end and additional side-vent. Internally, things were mighty different indeed.
The late ‘60s / early ‘70s were the high point in automotive history for Euro-American hybrids – in terms of supply, if not demand. One might also call that a glut. The only way for Jensen to have a future was to attempt something a bit less exclusive than complex V8-powered coupés. Or so thought one of Jensen’s top importers, a certain Mr Kjell Qvale, based in San Francisco.
Qvale had been instrumental, through his California dealerships, in distributing thousands of MGs, Jaguars and Austin-Healeys (and over 30 other foreign marques, including Jensen) since the late ‘40s. By the late ‘60s, he was selling around 150,000 cars per annum on the West Coast. Always willing to spontaneously offer helpful advice to the automakers he represented, not unlike his colleague Max Hoffman in New York, Qvale fancied himself a bit of an amateur carmaker. And in the late ‘60s, he met with an actual carmaker, Donald Healey, who was trying to finalize a new project. Let’s take a few paragraphs to delve into the Healey side of this story.
Healey existed for a number of years as an independent carmaker. After having worked for Triumph in the ‘30s, Donald Healey founded his eponymous Motor Company in 1945 and his cars were almost immediately hailed as excellent in terms of build quality, reliability and speed, being able to top 100 mph. The car became a fixture of European rallies and racetracks in the late ‘40s, with Donald Healey himself actively participating as a constructor, team owner and driver.
Healey used Riley’s “big four” 2.4 litre twin cam engine and rear axle, but made most of the rest of the chassis in-house. As per the custom of the era, a number of clients ordered the chassis and got the body made by a coachbuilder of their choice, which could make for some surprising results (clockwise from top left: Bertone, Uhlik, Langenthal, Duncan, Pennock, Van den Plas, Pourtout, Worblaufen).
The Healey 2.4 could also be bought with standard bodies designed by Healey to a high degree of sophistication – wind-tunnel tested and everything. These included the Westland roadster, Elliot coupé and Silverstone racer. In 1950, Healey updated the car’s looks and farmed out the drop-top to Abbott and the coupé to Tickford. Aside from the horrid 1949-50 Sportsman cabriolet, these were pretty successful and were produced until about 1954. But Donald Healey was not content with making cars under his name only. He leveraged the 2.4’s multiple racing victories into new ventures of the joint kind.
In 1950, Healey struck a gentleman’s agreement with George Mason to produce a Nash-engined sports car for the American market. The Nash-Healey had limited success, but started something of a trend: sports cars whose name ended in “hyphen Healey.” The first Nash-Healeys seen in early 1951 were bodied by Panelcraft in Birmingham, but subsequently got a major facelift by PininFarina, who took over body-making duties.
In 1952, Healey launched the 3-litre G-Type, which used Alvis’ 6-cyl. and was otherwise known as Alvis-Healey. But successful though this all was, Healey’s operation was small-time in the extreme. Only about 500 Nash-Healeys and fewer than 30 Alvis-Healeys were made by 1954, as well as about 600 Healey 2.4s. The way to make it sustainable was to team up with a larger domestic carmaker, just like what DB did with Panhard, Abarth with Fiat or Shelby with Ford.
In 1953, Healey tied the knot with BMC to create a highly successful family of sports cars, the bigger ones (the Austin-Healey 100, later renamed as the 3000) being bodied by Jensen. West Bromwich had actually made a few design proposals for the Austin-Healey, including a rather fetching coupé, but had to be content with merely building the bodies instead. In 1967, the big Healey’s demise left Austin-Healey with the only the 2nd generation Sprite, an MG Midget clone that Donald Healey had had zero involvement in and little enthusiasm for.
Unfortunately for Donald Healey, there were changes afoot at BMC. The corporation was merging left, right and centre, turning into the impotent hydra that was to become British Leyland. The Healey name had little value to the BL monster’s executives and, just like John Cooper, Healey was cut loose from his lucrative association with Austin by 1970 – the very last Sprites made in 1971 being simply rebadged as “Austin” so that BL could forego paying Healey’s modest royalties.
Donald Healey saw this coming and secretly worked on a Vauxhall-based prototype, codenamed X500, since 1967. In 1970, Qvale managed to take control of a struggling Jensen Motors, which had gone through a number of directors and owners since the departure of the founders four years earlier. Healey’s prototype was just what Qvale was looking for – an MG/Triumph competitor for Jensen to conquer the US market and keep the now severely underused factory active. Well, it was almost what Qvale was looking for. He didn’t like the styling, the engine was questionable and the chassis needed work. Still, it was a promising start. The Jensen-Healey project went ahead.
Engine-wise, there were lots of options to explore. A dozen X500 chassis were made and tested with various solutions – BMW, Ford, Mazda and Simca 4- and 6-cyl. engines all got a look into. Jensen never made an engine themselves, so it was crucial to find the most adequate one from another maker. The problem was that the X500 had been designed around the 2-litre Vauxhall slant 4, which was abandoned due to poor performance in US-spec. The other engines tested were either too big, too heavy or too expensive. As luck would have it, someone else swooped in to solve the conundrum: Lotus were devising a 16-valve DOHC 4-cyl. based (sort of) on the Vauxhall mill for their road cars, albeit made of aluminium and built by Lotus. It sounded ideal. Colin Chapman and Kjell Qvale soon struck a deal for Lotus to produce the Jensen-Healey engine, which was mated to a Sunbeam 4-speed transmission. Just to enhance the kit car feel, the rest of the car’s bits (suspension, steering and brakes) remained Vauxhall-sourced.
At the same time, William Towns was roped in to restyle the ungainly Healey drop-top to suit Qvale’s more conservative tastes. Not only that, but the Jensen-Healey was meant to be exported mainly to the US, where stringent new legislation beckoned regarding bumpers. It therefore made some sense to integrate the 5-mph requirement ahead of the curve. The result of the whole operation is debatable. The rear end of the car looks like it came off a Triumph, while the front has less charisma than it could have had. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Production started in mid-1972 and was supposed to ramp up gradually to about 100 cars per day by 1973. Unfortunately, the engine turned into an anchor. Colin Chapman soon owned up to production difficulties – not enough engines were being made, which held back the Jensen-Healey’s production schedule. Not only that, but the brilliant Lotus engine was severely underdeveloped, as the car’s first clients soon found out, in the US and elsewhere. Let’s see how the Jensen-Healey compared to other drop-tops available across the Pond.
In terms of engine trouble, the Triumph V8 certainly gave the Lotus 907 a run for its money. But Triumph’s 6-cyl. roadster, on the other hand, was a formidable opponent – cheaper, better sprung and reliable as the day is long. And if the lure of the twin cam was stronger than anything else, Fiat and Alfa were only too happy to oblige – with a lot more style, too. And let’s not forget the Corvette. Ok, it took about $1000 extra to put power brakes, power steering, A/C, radio and a real engine in one of these, but it was still pretty good value, all things considered.
The Jensen-Healey experiment turned sour very quickly after 1973. On the plus side, the Sunbeam gearbox was traded for a 5-speed Getrag unit. More creature comforts were available, such as A/C and a wooden dash, but the quality of the body was still not up to snuff and the convertible top was impossibly complicated to fold away. Production shot up for 1974, but that was the last ray of sunshine before the storm that engulfed West Bromwich.
Qvale knew that the Interceptor’s days were numbered. Since the Oil Shock of late 1973, sales of V8-powered luxobarges such as the big Jensen had fallen off a cliff. Several plans were being developed simultaneously: a drop-top version of the Interceptor, which went on sale in 1974, as well as two completely new models.
The F-Type, designed by William Towns, was planned to pack the Chrysler 440 found on contemporary Interceptors, but Jensen also had an eye to use a high-displacement triple rotary engine (GM or Mercedes) when those would become available. The F-Type went through a lot of development work – prototype body shells were made and at least one car was crash-tested in 1974. It failed the frontal impact test pretty conclusively, which put the programme in jeopardy.
Another mooted development was the Jensen G-Type, with gullwing doors. Also penned by William Towns, this car was slated replace the Jensen-Healey, using the reassuringly reliable Simca 2-litre engine. This prototype was far less advanced than the F-Type, though, and Qvale had other ideas concerning the Jensen-Healey’s immediate future.
In spite of higher production, the Jensen ship was sinking fast by 1974. Donald Healey and his entourage elected to bail, as Qvale’s increasingly frantic management style and Chapman’s subpar engine muted Healey’s enthusiasm for the car that bore his name. Qvale had a couple of last shots to fire before he raised the white flag, though. Alas, the company went into receivership even before the final “new” models were introduced. Both were a blatantly desperate attempt to create something out of the existing range.
Interceptors now came in three flavours, body-wise: the coupé was launched in October 1975, as Jensen participated in their final London Motor Show. At the same event, the Jensen GT was introduced – sans Healey in the name, though it was clearly a shooting brake based on the roadster. That, and it was far too little and far too late: the reputation of the Lotus engine was such that few people were tempted by West Bromwich’s newest 2-litre car.
Jensen Motors’ receivership did not mean production was halted, but it was clearly in jeopardy. The firm officially ceased to exist in May 1976 and its assets were sold off in August. A successor company, Jensen Parts & Service (JPS) Ltd, was created and continued putting together a few cars until December – the majority of the 46 Interceptor coupés were made during this time, for instance. JPS kept operating for many years, as they had the jigs, molds and spares required to keep all Jensens on the road, as well as ex-Jensen employees who knew the cars better than anybody else.
The death of Jensen was seen as untimely by quite a few people. By the time oil prices went down and the economy picked up, a dormant company called Jensen Special Products, which Qvale had created when Jensen Motors sank, sprang back to life. (That’s an exaggeration, of course: they had been very busy doing subcontracting work for a number of clients, such as Volvo Trucks, Range Rover and many others.)
In October 1983, the Interceptor went back into production as the “S 4” coupé and convertible, now with Chrysler’s 5.9 litre LA series V8 in lieu of the 440 of yore, but very few other changes besides. Qvale sold his shares as soon as he could, probably sensing that things were not going to be rosy for long (and later bought De Tomaso — some people have a knack for business…)
Beyond its ageing underpinnings and looks, the main problem was that the Interceptor S4 was very expensive: £40,000 for the saloon, £46,000 for the convertible in 1984, and more than double those amounts by 1989. When the receivers were called in again in 1992, only 14 cars had been made in nine years – half stayed in Britain.
The marque withered, but still refused to die. A new project was put together to make a completely new Jensen, dubbed S-V8, first shown in 1998. The link with the previous Jensens were tenuous at best, though: the S-V8 had a Ford V8, a sophisticated IRS (unlike any Jensen before it) and unit body construction. The familiar small-time carmaker thing happened: production started in 2000, the company went bust in 2002, another company took over and lasted until about 2005. A grand total of 34 cars were made. It seems a few Interceptors were also put together in the 21st Century – albeit with Corvette power and a Jaguar-sourced IRS. So perhaps Jensen will make yet another comeback sometime in the future. But ultimately, all this revival malarky was always about the Interceptor, never the Jensen-Healey.
And therein lies the Deadliness of the Sin. When Kjell Qvale and Donald Healey teamed up to take over Jensen in 1970, the plan was to make a true successor to the Austin-Healey, as well as continuing with the big V8 Jensens for a while. In this, the Jensen-Healey failed miserably. It was not a particularly attractive design, was not built to a very high standard and was saddled with an engine that was unreliable – especially when driven hard. Qvale and Healey probably did not figure that “LOTUS” was actually an acronym for “Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious.” This ensured that Jensen, already fragile by the end of the ‘60s, would not make it past the ‘70s. Plus, let’s not forget that this double-barreled disaster also buried the Donald Healey Motor Co., a rare case of a Deadly Sin twofer.
So there we are – another trio of British Deadly Sins done, yet so much more to go. They’re starting to add up, sure. But the UK made a lot of mistakes over the years – not counting Piers Morgan, Brexit and Cadbury’s “chocolate,” of course, let’s keep this automotive – so there will have to be more British episodes in the future. In the meantime, though, let’s cross over back to the Continent. Where? Why, that would be telling…
Cohort Outtake: 1964 Jensen CV8 MkII – Nice Specs…, by Perry Shoar
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European Deadly Sins series