Curbside Classic: Jensen Interceptor – The Handsome Anglo-Italo-American Mashup

(first posted 9/5/2011)    Being a true multi-national, the Jensen Interceptor has many facets to its complex personality. If you were a pessimist you’d say it has the electrical system of a British car, a rust-prone body inspired by the Italians, and all the mechanical sophistication of a big American brute. I’m often an optimist to a fault, so I view it as a car with British charm, a finely tailored Italian suit and a strong, reliable American V8 heart. Exactly why the Interceptor speaks to me so strongly is hard to pin down; maybe I’m tri-lingual. But the story of Jensen and the Interceptor is a highly fascinating one, even in just English.

Our CC car is far from being the first Jensen, and is in fact not even the first Jensen to have the Interceptor name. The Jensen story starts with two brothers in Great Britain, the inevitable Austin Seven, and lots of aspiration. It’s amazing how many companies either started with an Austin Seven, or had it play a major role in their early history: Lotus, Jaguar, Nissan/Datsun, even BMW via the Dixi, among others.

The Jensen brothers, Alan and Richard, started by building a sporty body for their Austin Seven special, and from there landed a job re-bodying cars from Standard. They continued to re-body cars for the next few years until 1935, when they created the first real Jensen. Nicknamed the “White Lady”, the brothers’ love of big engines became apparent by their choice of powering it with a flat head Ford V8. The S-Type of 1938 (above) is a direct descendant of the White Lady.

They also built various other big touring cars as well some trucks, with the war interrupting. I know you are eager to hear about the Interceptor and I’m getting there… just not to the one you think. In 1950 a Jensen was produced called the Interceptor (above), which was powered by a 4.0L Austin straight six. Austin loved the styling so much that they commissioned Jensen to build what turned out to be almost a 2/3 replica of it based on the Austin A40, called the A40 Sports.

Next came the 541 in 1955, with a fiberglass body and was also powered by same Austin straight six as the old Interceptor.

By 1962 the C-V8 was introduced, also using a fiberglass body, but this time powered with a big block Chrysler V8. The C-V8 also featured some very odd styling at the front, but was incredibly fast for a four seater. For its replacement, all the in house styling proposals were rejected and Jensen looked for outside proposals. At this point, both the Jensen brothers and their head stylist left the company.

Touring of Italy came up with the winning design for the Interceptor, which Jensen bought all rights to. Then in a very odd move, considering Jensen itself was a coach builder (they built the bodies for early Volvo P1800s, Austin-Healeys, etc), they hired out the initial production of body shells to Vignale of Italy.

Jensen Comparison

Paul Niedermeyer did this analysis of the design origins of the Interceptor:  The top car is the 1963 Studebaker Avanti. The middle one is a bit obscurer: the 1964 Brasinca Uirapuru, a Brazilian GT, of which only 73 examples were made, and powered by a triple carb version of the old Chevy six (just like the original Corvette). Wiki makes reference to the Uirapuru’s being the stylistic antecedent to the Interceptor, and even has a link to a Brazilian video comparing the two, but no mention is given to the rightful originator of them both. Undoubtedly, the Uirapuru was the missing link, as its front and rear ends are much closer to the 1966 Interceptor. 

The similarly styled but very advanced FF model was brought out at the same time, with Ferguson Formula four wheel drive, traction control and anti-lock brakes. While the Interceptor used the same chassis and underpinnings of the C-V8, the FF (above) had a five inch longer and much modified chassis. That extra five inches was between front door and front wheels, resulting in two side louvers, and a longer front hood and fenders. The Interceptor FF was a true milestone car, and its full-time AWD drivetrain that was eventually taken up by Jeep, and others.

Because the FF was (foolishly) designed to be strictly a right-hand drive car, and the mechanical packaging of the AWD system made it impossible to convert to left hand drive, no FF’s were ever (officially) imported to the US. Its 30% price premium also dampened its sales substantially.

Unlike the C-V8, the Interceptor and FF now had steel bodies. The Chrysler 383cid V8 remained the engine of choice, most often with a three speed Chrysler Torque-Flite automatic, but there were a handful of manual transmission cars made too. With the end of the MkI Interceptor, Jensen brought body shell production back home to West Bromwich in England.

The MkII (1969) was brought up to date a bit. King pins and lever arm shocks were out and radial tires were in. Power steering was now standard. The interior lost some of its Italian flavor, and the styling was tweaked. The 325hp 338cid V8 carried over. There were a few SP models built with a 440cid V8 and three carburetor setup more commonly known as the “Six Pack”.

Back when I was in University, I used to drive two and half hours back home every few weekends along some of the most straight and dulls roads. I think there was literally four turns between my place and my mother’s, three hundred kilometers away. But there was an interesting little town in between the two which was probably home to less than fifty people but it did have a sad and neglected looking Interceptor MkII.

This town was not the most direct way but most often I’d invent excuses to go that way and usually stop and gaze at the Jensen. From what I remember it had a few different colours of body panels, extremely dusty but complete. I often dreamed of selling my Z28 and making an offer on it. As much of a wide eyed automotive dreamer as I am, I did know that being a student with no garage and no real tools or mechanical knowledge, the car would break me.

I even joined an Interceptor mailing list but never inquired after it. After a few years it disappeared, but hopefully found a good home. Unfortunately this was pre-digital camera era so I have no photos to share. I can share a photo of a Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R that sits in a field behind were the Jensen was.

The Mk III brings us up to our subject CC. The 440cid V8 with a four barrel carburetor became standard to maintain performance with dropping output from emissions equipment. I talked to the owner of this one briefly, and he said it was the first year of the 440cid, so that would make it a 1973 model.

Naturally enough, he drives it only on nice summer days, as Interceptors are known for guzzling impressive quantities of fuel, thanks in part to tipping the scales at some 4000lbs. The thing is, it doesn’t look as big you’d think from photos. It is actually over 10cms shorter than say, a Dodge Challenger.

Most of the motoring world was assuming the convertible was to be banned in the United States so they were all very busy creating sporty coupes to replace their drop tops. Jensen went the opposite way and developed a drop top version of its Interceptor. Lopping the roof off meant that the distinctive and large rear glass was lost, but in its place was a very bulky-when-folded top. As I recall the Rolls-Royce convertibles of the period have the same look, so perhaps it is meant to have class rather than that it wasn’t designed as a convertible. Convertible values are much higher, so a lot of folks must like the look, but I prefer the sedan with its trademark rear glass.

There was also a little remembered coupe version that used the convertible’s truck lid and a Jaguar XJ6 rear window to create a slightly odd look. Only 54 were built as Jensen was slipping into bankruptcy as warranty claims on its Jensen-Healey convertible, and low sales of the Jensen GT, combined with a sharp increase in fuel prices had overwhelmed the company. By 1976 production had ceased.

That is not the end of the story however as a subsidiary was created to service and provide spares for the cars. Before long they realized they had everything they needed to resume production. Production was restarted on a very limited scale. Some were apparently powered by a 360cid small block Chrysler V8. The horror! Another bankruptcy and the S-V8 project was launched to replace the Interceptor with a modern, Ford V8 powered roadster (below).

Yet another bankruptcy followed. You’d think that would be it then, wouldn’t you? No, Interceptor story still continues with the Jensen Interceptor R offered from a restoration company as opposed to Jensen, which was broken up in the last (and final?) bankruptcy. The Interceptor R is created from a classic Interceptor but with some modernizing such as a GM LS3 V8, independent rear suspension, updated brakes and 21st century luxury interior. Still sounds like the classic Italian styling, British charm and American power recipe to me.

Related reading:

CC 1972 Bristol 411 and Bristol History: The Last British Eccentric

CC Jensen Healey: Care To Take It For A Really Long Test Drive?