Curbside Classic: Jensen Healey – Care To Take It For A Really Long Test Drive?

(first posted 8/14/2014)    So who would like to be a paying beta tester for a 70s Lotus engine? Anyone? No? Well, eleven thousand Jensen owners were, and we can assume unwittingly. Colin Chapman, as well as Lotus Elite, Eclat and Esprit owners owe them at least a round of pints. Perhaps that’s why some Jensen Healey owners are still holding on to theirs.  It might be a long wait.

Earlier, we’d seen the Jensen Interceptor, which is one of the two hallmark cars made by Jensen. The other is the much smaller Jensen Healey. Expensive V8 powered GT cars like the Interceptor were never going to be large volume sellers even in the best of times, a fact that Jensen was no doubt aware of. The coach building side of the business had previously taken up some of the slack, but this was going to take a major hit with both the Austin Healey and then the Sunbeam Tiger going out production.

So Jensen had a problem, but luckily for them an American sports car dealer, British Motor Car Distributors, headed by Kjell Qvale, also felt the need for a replacement for the venerable Austin Healey 3000. By then it was clear the six cylinder powered MG C was not going to be it. Kjell Qvale bought into Jensen to become a shareholder, and then was able to name Donald Healey a chairman. Donald, his son Geoffrey and William Towns were responsible for the design of the new Jensen Healey.

The suspension design for the newest Jensen was lifted almost entirely from the humble Vauxhall Firenza, which could be considered a sort of British Chevrolet Nova. So this meant double wishbones with coils for the front teamed with a live axle and coils for the rear. Certainly better than the lever shocks and leaf springs of the MG B, but nothing earth shattering either.

The top was a rather tent-like affair that would inspire nostalgia from owners of 50s and 60s British roadsters. Even lower rung cars like the Triumph Spitfire had decent folding tops by this time, never mind the much better designs on something like a Fiat Spider. The interiors were rather plain without even the traditional wood trim. Later versions fixed this deficit. The general assessment of the styling ranges from ugly to decently attractive, so what then is the big appeal?

The engine of course was the big draw. For its time, the Lotus 907 2.0L four cylinder engine put out a very impressive 140hp (less in the North American market which was inflicted with Zenith Strombergs instead of the lovely dual side-draft Dell’Ortos). It loved to rev, and indeed needed to be flogged to make its peak power. It certainly made the old B-series lump in the MG B look agricultural in comparison. Think of it as the Honda S2000 engine of its time, but instead of being assembled in a high tech factory it was nailed together in a shed somewhere in the south of England. While the high tech and modern for the time Lotus engine was the Jensen Healey’s trump card, it was probably also its biggest downfall.

When the Jensen Healey was being designed, Jensen did not have any in house engines of its own nor the ability or desire to develop any. They had a goal of a 130hp in a compact engine, ruling out any V8s. One of the engines under consideration was the Vauxhall 2.3 L slant four, which met the all-important emission regulations in the most important market, the US, but power fell short.

The BMW 2002 power plant was also tested, but BMW could not commit to the volumes Jensen was expecting. The Cologne V6 from the Capri was also considered but again a steady supply could not be guaranteed. Colin Chapman was waiting in the wings offering his newly developed but untested 907 alloy four cylinder with impressive performance while gracefully meeting emission regulations (no air pumps or ERG needed). The engine was canted over at an angle just like a Chrysler slant six which helped with hood (or bonnet as the British say) clearance. It was too tempting to pass up, and Jensen bought them with no warranty from Lotus, a mistake that would come back to haunt them. Initially, it was hooked to a four speed gearbox from the Sunbeam Rapier, and later a five speed Getrag.

The early engines suffered from oiling and leakage issues which lead to the Jensen Healey having a reputation as a bit of lemon. These shortcomings were resolved quite quickly, but the damage was already done. With no warranty from Lotus, Jensen had to pay all repairs out its own bottom line. This, combined with the oil crisis impacting sales of the thirsty Interceptor, was too much for Jensen to bear and the company went into liquidation in 1975.

Our featured car looks to have the later interior but the four speed gearbox and the early, smaller bumpers, making it quite attractive. White isn’t my favorite automotive color but it looks sharp here with black interior and trim.

An interesting variant on the Jensen Healey was the shooting brake GT variant. Donald Healey had left by this point, so his name was dropped and it was known simply as the Jensen GT. These all had the five speed Getrag gearbox and were moved upmarket with all the expected luxury accessories and price tag to match. Only 505 (or 509 or 511 depending who you believe) were made. Oddly enough they seem to show up on eBay with a regularity that defies their production numbers. I found this one outside a British car repair shop a number of years ago. Strangely it had huge rally lights fitted to the front. Sorry I know the photo doesn’t show them but it was too tight to get a shot from the front. Note the big impact bumpers which later Jensen Healeys and all GTs got.

So the Jensen Healey is a bit of an enigma. Its unique calling card, that lovely slant four Lotus engine, was also a big factor in not only its demise, but without it where would it have been? Suppose it used a more mundane but proven power plant. Power would have been down, reliability would have been up, but would it have had enough character to make an impact?