Survival in the '90s

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In less than quarter of an hour, the 1992 heirs to the Jensen dynasty recaptured their niches in our motoring heart. The West Bromwich company always supplied a unique, truly grand touring experience at its large wheel, charismatically blending Chrysler V8 brawn with the contradiction of a primitive tubular chassis and one of the best British leather cabins that it has been our pleasure to occupy. That appeal is almost the stronger for the passage of 12 years since we last drove a new example.

In 1975, it cost less than £10,000 to own one of the final run convertibles, which returned precious little over 12 five-star mpg. Some 280 bhp at 4800 rpm provided about the same performance (125 mph, 0-60 mph in 7.5 sec) as a current 16-valve hatchback. Yet its 7.2-litre iron V8 ambled to the 3100 rpm beat of 380 lb ft torque to provide a memorable week of cosseted, amiable, fresh air speed. It brought British manners and American energy together in a unique harmony.

For 1992 the same pleasures have been engineered into environmental acceptability, but if you want one of the 12 new examples which are to be hand-built annually, it will cost nearly £120,000 or the convertible, or just over £100,000 to capture the famous fastback line. The latter is sold as a ‘saloon’ in deference to the fact that Jensen also created a mismatched (and extremely rare) coupe.

For the ‘90s the Jensen becomes the S4 EFi, the S4 designation dating back to 1983 and the days of convoluted survival. Power is now supplied via a 5.9-litre, catalytically converted evolution of the pushrod Chrysler eight-cylinder. Torque is little less than the old seven-litre, at 275 lb ft. Quoted power has dropped sharply, to a total of 244 bhp at a lazier 4200 pm. The rev limit is marked at just 5100 rpm, but the ample V8 has such a breadth of pulling power from idle upwards that this mark does not feel unduly restrictive. We were not given the chance of testing the performance on this occasion the 1975 convertible went through that ordeal so we cannot verify sharply improved performance claims of a 140 mph maximum and 0-60 mph in 7.2 sec. However, we do know that fuel consumption has improved in the Holley fuel injection version, averaging around 16 mpg today.

The revived Jensen is one of the few vehicles Motor Sport will assess in 1992 where the normal performance criteria are irrelevant. Wafting along on a light throttle with the leather creaking in symphony with the breeze, you tend to forget the figures and any expectations of chassis capabilities from the convertible. Yet the Jensen, especially in the form of a well used, 85,700 mile, Interceptor III in the ‘glassback’ classic outline, proved rapid enough to entertain. Depending on an R&D, 6.3-litre version of the V8, running Weber-Alpha electronic injection, it rumbled happily as it ascended local valleys, hardly pausing for breath in zones which demand a downchange, or two, from the latest in hatchback frenzy. Even with current Jensen Car Company general manager David Heseltine sitting in on the session, we were able to see that our warm memories of the Jensen were not faulty.

However, its lightly vague steering, conducted by a Nardi wood-rim wheel in one case, seven rocker switches sprawled across the facia, six-dial black and white instrumentation, masses of chrome and long travel brakes (under pressure) are pure period pieces. This also applies to the Jensen leather interiors, which have been crafted in-house, under the supervision of Eric Ward, since 1955.

As our 1992 Jensen mileage accrued, we took the chance to catch up on company history with Heseltine, his remarks embellished with the sympathetic guidance of service manager John Page, who seems to know every V8 from birth into an abnormally high survival rate. Following its complicated creation by Touring and Vignale in 1966, the Interceptor replaced the mechanically similar CV8 and proved comparatively popular in the ’60s and ’70s, spawning a 4×4 derivative (the FF) that pioneered all-wheel-drive, high performance coupe motoring, some 12 years before the Audi Quattro dawned.

Unfortunately, the V8 was not enough to satisfy Jensen takeover businessman Kjell Qvale. Thus Jensen ventured out into the comparatively high volume world of cheaper sports car manufacture with the Jensen Healey. May 1976 marked the formal closure of Jensen Motors Ltd, an outfit that had employed 1,260 personnel in 1974. It had manufactured over 6000 Interceptors, including 360 all-wheel-drive derivatives. I understand that approximately 12,000 of the ill-fated Jensen Healey, with Lotus 16v motivation, were made between 1972-76.

Now the old Jensen site is a testimony to the mediocrity of current trading estate architecture and Jensen lives on a few hundred yards further up the West Bromwich feeder road, occupying the service department that kept the name alive between 1976 and 1983, when occasional examples of the Interceptor breed were again assembled. The sales situation is much the same today, in that every new S4 can be made exactly to the customer’s specification. When I called, a LHD machine for Germany was coming to life, its proud owners having spent some days at Kelvin Way, colour matching paints and leathers, all in an ironic theme of British racing green. Cheerful Brummie Heseltine informed me: “The company you deal with today really came about in 1989 when a design engineer and enthusiastic Jensen owner called Hugh Wainwright took on Jensen through his north-western group, Unicorn Holdings. They acquired it from Ian Orford, the man behind the limited production return in 1983.” The main business areas were profitable, but not expanding, whilst sales of the Interceptor S4 were stagnant. I would say that between 1976 and today, including some total restorations, no more than 30-35 Interceptors have been built. “Now the objective is to get turnover up from £1.2 million to £4 million, increasing production to 12 new cars a year and offering complementary items such as fitted luggage and performance tuning.”

John Page amplified on the latter point. Later this year they will offer a ‘Stage V’ motor that had yielded 435 bhp and 504 lb ft of torque in prototype form. We tried some its elements in the two cars driven for this feature. “The Stage V car will reach 60 mph from standstill in around 5.8 sec,” predicts Page, “making it one of the fastest four-seater cars in the world.”

Independent businessman and accountant Heseltine lists his priorities for the reborn Jensen: “Firstly, to get the name known again. Not enough people know we are trading in 1992. Secondly, to operate the marketing properly, so that these cars are seen as the classics that they undoubtedly are. In this we are helped by the appointment of one dealer: West One at Baker Street, in London. Thirdly, to get exports moving again, for Jensen previously sold in an amazing number of places.”

The truth of that world export remark, and the basic simplicity of the product, is seen when walking around the Kelvin Way depot. There are V8s of all ages gathered here in conditions from apparently unsalvageable to concours, all congregating as if awaiting the final blessing of Page, 22 other employees and a few trainees. A couple of apprentices are learning leather trimming skills from Eric Ward, who is now in his early 60s and will have to retire one day…

It is traditional with a BMW or a Porsche to attribute car’s heart to the engine, but for a Jensen the central heartbeat comes from the massive girth of the chassis tubes. “We have never had to change a chassis,” comments Page with justifiable paternal pride. Filled with oil and sternly resistant to the ravages of rust, these longitudinal tubes and transverse members give an impression of solid girth that aligns with a kerb weight of more than 3300 lb. This also reflects the fact that Jensen uses steel panels to clothe the Interceptor series, although previous products have been panelled by alloy sheet or glassfibre. You expect the front engine to be allied to a Chrysler automatic (three-speed, but today they can offer an overdrive), but I had forgotten that the rear suspension was based on multiple leaves, the front by double wishbones.

To be fair, the absorbent ride would not have revealed the leaf sprung anachronism, but the persistent weaving over bumps did remind me that the rack and pinion steering had needed the faster rack action that had been incorporated for 1992. This was complemented with steering geometry changes, but there is no doubting the basic age of the design when the low profile tyres become restless over B-road cambers. Other design changes embraced a replacement electrical loom, enlarged disc brakes behind 16 in wheel diameters (our 1260-mile convertible carried Dunlop D40 SP 225/55 ZR covers) and a safety-orientated dashboard.

An extended front spoiler was also being created in the workshops when we called, all part of a company determination to provide “a modern sporting feel, that also retains the ride of classic Interceptors,” says Page. Factory visits to Jaguar and Rolls-Royce have their high points in the trim departments, but the Jensen ‘loft’ is not such a visual wonder; it is not until you see a Recaro re-covered in the Jensen manner that you appreciate that this understated service department area is capable of matching the finest of work from larger emporiums.

Another source of inspiration is the sheer variety of vehicles on the site. I was not overwhelmed by the variegated glasshouse outline of the formal coupe (complete with chrome accent on the final ‘e’), but as a piece of evocative automotive furniture it was an education in itself. So too were the immensely complex 3808 lb examples of the 4×4 — which demanded that the front wheels be relocated, thereby necessitating new sheet metal for the FF front wings and lengthening the car forward of the windscreen. Recalling that the FF also had anti-lock braking, Maxaret, as developed from aviation industry Dunlop componentry (reportedly with a kickback on the equine scale in the brake pedal), made me feel a little sad for Great Britain Ltd. Just think how many ABS sets Messrs Bosch and Alfred Teves sell all over the world to weave another wealthy strand in the German economy.

Although I enjoyed my driving at the helm of the convertible and updated Interceptor III, my memories of the day are dominated by those older models. Sitting in one of the originals reminded me of the jukebox era; plenty of toggle switches on hand to remind one of a time when cockpits had to be laden down with dials and switches to impress the showroom punters — even if remembering which one did what was a feat more suited to graduates of Mastermind.

The pick of the bunch was not for sale, but I would love to be around when it is offered for disposal. This 1971 (K-plate) machine had done 15,000 miles with one lady owner and no material specification alterations. The gardener got the job of starting it up every so often; when it failed to respond, the factory went and fetched it from a wealthy Birmingham suburb for some light restoration. Even the orange paint was a reminder of frightening flared trousers and similarly shaded BMW 2002s or Porsche 911s.

That made me think about the realities of paying £100,000 or buying a used example. Since it is an old design anyway, and so ruggedly constructed, why not take an original from the ’60s or ’70s? As luck would have it, Motor Sport had two 1971 examples listed in a recent issue. One had air conditioning and 80,000 miles; offers around £10,750 were required. The other was a comparative youngster at 65,000 miles, possessed a private plate after just two owners and was on offer at £10,950. Hence I could not advocate the new Jensen at £100,000 plus; if you are going to pay that kind of money for that kind of car, why not at least have a current body, courtesy of Aston Martin?

However, I certainly was very impressed with the service and knowledge displayed at Kelvin Way to support the purchase of an older example, which seem to be rather undervalued in comparison to many of their grand touring contemporaries.