It seemed like it was going to be the hottest day in August when I went to see last month’s strange Anglo-American V8 cocktail, the Allard J1, but it would have been Murray Walkerish of me to assume that it was before August had actually ended, because it seemed just as hot, if not hotter, when I went to drive in and photograph this beautiful Jensen C-V8.
I had covered most of the journey to Herne-Bay, the home of this car and its owner Tony Clark, the night before and I stayed in neighbouring Whitstable.
Whitstable, as you probably know, is a rather pleasant seaside town on the North Kent coast, and when I arrived the Whitstableites had just finished a week’s festivities concerned with that squidgy crustacean, the oyster. I suppose that I am a culinary Philistine because I can’t stand the things, and so it is not for the sake of the oyster that the name Whitstable will remain forever etched on my mind. It will be for the sake of a rather potent local brew, aptly named Spitfire, for that is exactly what it did.
It was with bleary eyes therefore, that I first saw the shining paintwork of Tony’s C-V8 the following morning, and it was feintly numbed senses that struggled to appreciate the idiosyncratic beauty of this early Sixties sports tourer.
By the end of the Fifties the Jensen brothers were beginning to develop ideas on a replacement model for the 541, and anxious to put these to some efficient use, and to inject some fresh insight into the development of their cars, they decided to appoint a new deputy chief engineer. This post eventually fell to Kevin Beattie, who had cut his teeth in the automotive industry with the Rootes Empire, working for them in Australia but returning to England in the late Fifties. On his return he was disappointed to find that the Unions were casting their Medusa like spell on the Rootes production performance, as they were on much of British industry, and he became keen to dedicate his enthusiasm to a smaller company, less hampered by constant ratifications and tea-breaks.
From the outset of his appointment he involved himself with the development of the new car. At the time the fashion in Grand-Tourer sports design was very much turning towards using automatic transmission. Jensen had been receiving more and more orders for automatic transmission on their 541, to the extent that by the end of the Fifties it was standard specification, with manual being an option that needed to be specially ordered. However there was a problem involved in making the 541 automatic; the Austin DS5 4-litre engine had rather inappropriate torque characteristics, and it certainly didn’t offer the sort of performance expected of the Jensen marque. Aston Martin had suffered a similar problem with the automatic option of their DB4, but the twin-cam Aston engine was still considerably more powerful than the Austin unit.
The solution for Jensen was obviously to get more power at lower revs, and as the philosophy of WO Bentley would testify, there is no substitute for cubes! Jaguar were heading down the right road with the introduction of their 3.8-litre and 4.2-litre engines, and as we saw last month Sydney Allard had spotted the advantages of a large V8 engine with locomotive pulling power. It was Jensen’s turn to cast their eyes over the Atlantic and seek the answer to their problems in a large, firing at every lamppost, American V8. Unlike Allard who had gone to Ford, and Gordon-Keeble who had used a Chevrolet engine, Jensen courted Chrysler for the use of their 5.9-litre V8 and the fine Torque-Flite transmission that came with it. It was a fairly mildly tuned lump, with quiet hydraulic tappets, an unambitious compression ratio of 9:1, and a maximum rpm of 5100. Nevertheless it was still adequately powerful, and when it wasn’t struggling to power an American ginpalace on wheels it could coax a decent turn of speed out of a more athletic and less obese European chassis. In fact it produced 305 bhp and the contrast between this and the Austin’s asthmatic 130 bhp was sufficient to persuade the Jensen engineers and management of the need to build a new chassis to accommodate the engine.
Kevin Beattie took it upon himself to design the new chassis frame, but it was his first attempt at a complete chassis design and the end result was somewhat flawed. It consisted of two parallel 4-inch tubes running down the centre of the car, with cross members to support the suspension, the scuttle and the rear seat pans. It was lighter than the 541 chassis, but it had less structural rigidity, and by the time sill sections and outriggers had been added to compensate for this, it was heavier and had more confined foot room. Despite the problems production went ahead, with Eric Neale designing the bodywork, and thus the C-V8 was born.
The design of the bodywork was the subject of mixed praise at the time, and even today the car looks slightly awkward; but I think that it has an eccentric charm made all the more pronounced by its nonconformist lines and proportions. The most striking feature of the car, the shark-like nose and the predatorial headlights was also the area that came in for most criticism. Certainly the styling aroused strong feelings, but as Eric Neale realised, that was no bad thing; there is probably no stronger evidence for the fact that something will be viewed as historically insignificant than unexcited universal assent at the time of its creation. Neale later defended his design as quoted in Keith Sanderson’s excellent book on the Jensen marque: “My natural concern was to try to maintain good airflow, and so I placed the lamps in position following the contours of the body; the smaller lamps inboard of the larger ones and mounted lower and further forward. To be successful as a designer of car bodies one must create a very positive reaction from potential customers; either love or hate, or both! I was always dismayed that in the case of the C-V8 one important fact was never published; ie, the headlamp clusters were designed to have a perspex cover held in the peripheral chrome-plated mouldings, thus giving the finest airflow and appearance. However, at the last minute Richard Jensen said ‘no’, because he was scared of their affecting the light emission. If I had known earlier that we were not to use the perspex covers I would have designed the headlamp layout differently, and of course there would have been no need for the peripheral chrome-plated mouldings; I would have designed separate bezels for each lamp.”
The rest of the bodywork excited less criticism, apart from the ridges above the wheel arches that were necessary to give the fibreglass structural rigidity, but it remained a design notable for the fact that people either liked it a lot, or couldn’t stand the sight of it. The curvaceous waste over the rear wheel arch, and the shape of the side windows and door were particularly pleasing, and the air intake on the bonnet was better than that of the Gordon Keeble, although as a whole it lacked the latter’s unity of design: it had a more old fashioned and dated feel to it.
Mechanically the focal point of interest was the Chrysler V8 engine. The older cars were fitted with the 5.9-litre Chrysler engine, before Chrysler discontinued this unit and replaced it with a 6.3-litre engine. The compression ratio was revised in the later engine to 10:1, and the power of 330 bhp was also more considerable. This in fact made no difference to the rev-limited top speed, but it made the acceleration more brisk. This Chrysler engine is particularly smooth and of course has that characteristic V8 burble, although the note is sharper and more aggressive than that of the Gordon-Keeble’s Chevrolet. The Allard’s Mercury was positively amicable. The smoothness of the engine was promoted by the inherent qualities of the design, and also the fine Chrysler engineering. The crankshaft was also counterbalanced, and had torsional vibration dampers.
The engine was mated to a fully automatic three-speed gearbox in line with an hydraulic torque converter that was operative in all three gears. Such is the quality of the Torque-Flite transmission that gearchanges are barely perceptible; moreover when the automatic was tested against a manual car by The Autocar it proved to be considerably quicker in acceleration. It only lost out against the manual in terms of absolute speed, presumably because the automatic transmission absorbed rather more power than the manual box.
The one significant criticism of the transmission set-up, and even pottering about Herne-Bay one had an inkling of this from the acceleration in first gear, was the fact that using the kickdown gearchange at speeds below 43 mph would drop you into first gear and the resultant surge of acceleration was genuinely savage; it could have you up the back of the car you meant to overtake, or scrabbling for grip on a loose and slippery surface. All the more fun in my opinion; as PJ O’Rourke said, if you create a completely safe horse you end up with a cow, and wouldn’t life be dull?
The suspension of the C-V8 was fairly conventional, with wishbones, helical springs, and an anti-roll bar at the front, and with the rear axle on semi-elliptic springs with a Panhard rod. Unsophisticated, but very practical, to judge from the contemporary road reports: “The car is extremely well balanced for cornering with almost neutral handling characteristics biased to the slight understeer that most drivers prefer. When hurried through corners almost to the limit the Jensen remains predictable and easily manageable.” “With its nearly even weight distribution, and fairly high geared rack and pinion steering, the Jensen handles in a precise, responsive, almost sprightly way that suggests a much smaller car.”
For the Mark ll model Jensen fitted Selectaride adjustable rear dampers, with four different settings controlled from the driver’s seat. Whether this was quite the “electronic, self regulating, variable damping, suspension system” fitted to some of today’s cars I’m not sure, but it takes less time to say `Selectaride’. Other modifications during the course of production were confined to insignificant detailing: the removal of the ridge from the boot, the removal of the door handle from the front of the bonnet, and in the Mark III the redesigning of the headlamp clusters and the removal of the controversial chrome moulding.
As we threaded our way through the holiday traffic and past the numerous road works that had been carefully placed to further complicate the Herne-Bay road system, it struck me that a powerful V8 sports-tourer affords one the best of both worlds. The engine is large enough to propel you, a couple of passengers and a considerable amount of luggage at speeds that make motoring exciting rather than something that has to be endured. In a Ferrari there is pure excitement, in a Rolls-Royce there is pampered luxury; a car like the C-V8 combines something of the two.
In terms of basic equipment the C-V8 came with a Motorola transistor radio with twin rear speakers, a petrol filler cap unlocked by a switch on the dashboard, a fire extinguisher, bonnet and boot lights, an illuminated cigarette lighter, a first-aid pack and detachable storage boxes in the front and rear armrests. The seats were fully adjustable, the accelerator pedal was adjustable for height and the steering column was telescopic. There was a vast cubbyhole, a clock and a map light, and the instrument panel consisted of matching Jaeger dials.
But it wasn’t simply in terms of specification that the Jensen flattered its occupants. The atmosphere of the car was equally important and sinking back into the leather seats, amid the tanned cloth lining and the veneer finish and dashboard, is rather like relaxing in an English country house’s drawing room, or the Drones Club without the food fights. And so it was no coincidence that Jensen commissioned Hardy Amies of Savile Row to redesign the interior of the Mk III model. In the end however, the venture proved unsuccessful, and the Jensen management resorted to their own good taste, which was quite clearly good enough.
A couple of small boys on the Herne-Bay sea front seemed to appreciate the car too, although not surprisingly their questions were confined to “how fast does it go?”, and “how much is it worth?”. Tony’s answers of “90 mph in second gear”, and a fair amount” seemed to keep them happy enough, and their eyes lit up with excitement at the boom of the exhaust as Tony fired the engine, and moved off with a little demonstration display of first gear acceleration. They certainly didn’t seem too bothered about the headlight arrangement or the car’s eccentric lines, and it was a shame to think that as petrol prices rise due to Saddam Insane’s antics in the Gulf, machines like this could all too easily be confined to the garage, and we might all be left to wonder at only the muted whine of an electric shopping trolley. I hope not. CSRW
MOTOR SPORT would like to thank Tony Clark for allowing us to photograph and ride in his Jensen C-V8.