The last of the open two-seaters?

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We drive the new Jensen-Healey

What is the fate of the open two-seater sports car ? British Leyland, purveyors of such machines to countless Sprite, Spitfire and MG-B owners, seem little interested in introducing any new models, the latest American regulations regarding roll-over strength, which will come into effect well before the end of the decade, give little hope, while GT manufacturers, such as Reliant, are going from strength to strength. But a little light in all this darkness for sports-car fans has been the promise of the Jensen-Healey. Everyone has known about the Jensen-Healey, it seems, for years. Certainly the idea started in 1968 and, since then, sports-car enthusiasts have just waited and waited. In April the car was officially announced, together with the fact that it would be powered by an exciting new all-aluminium, delightfully pollution-free, 16-valve Lotus engine. Things were looking up and we kept waiting.

This month the waiting is over. The few engine problems that bugged recent months are seemingly solved, cars are in the dealers’ windows, the factory in West Bromwich is turning them out at 40 a month from now on, rising to 200 in six months’ time, and Motor Sport has just completed an extensive test.

Immediately let us say that the Jensen-Healey was worth the wait and, as far as we are concerned, shows every sign of being a sales success at £1,820. This is not to say that it is the most marvellous car in the world. For a start our example, thoughtfully provided in Motor Sport green, leaked like a sieve in those heavy July rains, the engine was noisy, the styling less than startling, and the road-holding is not quite in the Lotus Elan category. And, for that matter, the whole plot ground to a halt in the middle of Hyde Park Corner in the morning rush hour. A black mark for SU who should be able to make more reliable fuel pumps by now.

That said, we would emphasise that we thoroughly enjoyed the car, which, let us not mince words, makes the MG-B as dead as the proverbial dodo. It is hardly surprising that Lord Stokes is not encouraging his dealerships—who used to sell Austin-Healeys—to add the cars to their stocks.

The Jensen-Healey is an extremely comfortable and untiring car to drive, despite that engine noise, the steering is an outstanding feature and the ride is first class. And what comparison is there between that old long-in-the-tooth Leyland “B” series motor and this latest Lotus unit ? We definitely approve of the end result of Colin Chapman’s new £1/2-million engine plant at Hethel, even if the 907 engine does not give us quite the kick in the back, at low revs, that we had expected. In fact, the real power is somewhat hidden, before 3,000 r.p.m. is reached, but then it keeps on going.

The Background

The first thoughts of the Jensen-Healey started germinating in the mind of Donald Healey back in late 1968 when BMC ended the Austin-Healey 3000 run. The Healey Motor Company’s contract with BMC was also nearing its end and the giant had indicated they would not be renewing. The Healey 3000 bodies had been built by Jensen so it was not surprising that, as far back as 1968, a liaison between Warwick and West Bromwich was suggested. Healey’s ideas had already won the approval of his long-time supporter Kjell Qvale, the San Francisco-based distributor for a goodly proportion of all sports cars sold in the States. Kjell (you say it “Shell”) was convinced that a new design of open two-seater from Healey would be a big success and became even more deeply involved when Healey bought a share in Jensen. Subsequently, American company doctor, Carl Duerr, left the still rocky Midland firm and Qvale, and his associates, acquired what became an 89% holding. Since then things have looked up and, apart from the new project, the big Jensens are selling at a best ever rate of 25 per week.

Meanwhile, the Healey Motor Company handed over the prototype to Jensen for their team of engineers, headed by Kevin Beattie, to productionise and otherwise sort out. The plan was to use a large proportion of Vauxhall parts, including the overhead-cam 2-litre VX 4/90 engine. Problems followed, however, for while the cost of the engine rose, the power output, even in 2.3 form, fell as a result of de-toxing and preparation for lead-free fuels. As things have turned out the Lotus engine is far better in these respects than the Vauxhall unit! The next we heard was that a BMW engine was to be used but that deal turned sour and, apparently, there was even talk of a Ford motor. There seemed to be little choice left and then, just at the right time, along came the new Lotus motor officially announced at last year’s Motor Show. Matters were simplified because Lotus had used Vauxhall blocks in the early experimental days and the subsequent Lotus blocks were of a similar slant-four conception.

Possibly the Lotus engine was Hobson’s choice and the units have taken longer than anticipated to go into full-scale production but, undoubtedly, they have made the Jensen-Healey a much more exciting proposition than it would otherwise have been.

The Specification

While the Vauxhall engine was left behind, other Vauxhall bits have been retained. Obviously with its American connections and predicted high export rate, the Jensen-Healey had to be acceptable for the latest crippling US laws, particularly those regarding crash testing. The obvious way to go was to produce something well mannered and straightforward. Thus a rear-engined car was ruled out (lack of available gearboxes and other considerations) and a conventional specification, using Vauxhall suspension and other parts, proved to be the answer.

The chassis is a conventional structure, fabricated from steel pressings, with stiffness provided by the transmission tunnel and boxed door sills.

Interesting though is the fact that the wing panels, front and rear, are bolted on, an idea which appeals to insurance companies apart from anyone else. This whole unit was designed to accommodate the GM suspension and running gear. At the front a complete Luton-built cross-member and sub-assembly, including the double wishbones, hubs and disc brakes, bolts into place. At the rear, there are further Vauxhall Victor parts including the live axle located by its four-link and coil-spring system and the drum brakes which go with it. But the Jensen engineers use their own springs, naturally the rates had to be different, and shock-absorbers, as well as keeping the whole lot off the ground on some very attractive 13-in. light alloy road wheels. Vauxhall rack-and-pinion steering is also used. The gearbox comes from a different source altogether, for the Sunbeam Rapier H120 unit, complete with the original Chrysler ratios, is used although it is modified in some ways.

The final styling was the work of an an independent styling engineer by the name of Bill Towns who has produced a body of clean lines but, one feels, lacks any particular flair. At the back it undoubtedly has an uncanny similarity to the latest Triumph Spitfire, so much so in fact that in the street the Jensen-Healey hardly turns anything but the trained eye. The bonnet, complete with a mini-bulge, is an extremely large sheet of metal although easily rigid enough, while the front of the car, including the headlamp surrounds, is of glass-fibre. Again in deference to US regs the bumpers are hung on extremely securely. With petrol and oil aboard the car weighs close on a ton, so one can gather that it is a fairly substantial piece of motor car and, in real life, quite a lot larger than the photographs would indicate.

In the Factory

We were invited to collect the road-test car from the factory, which was an excellent idea for it gave Jensen the chance to prove to us that, although they were in the middle of the annual holidays, production was just about to swing into action, and gave us the opportunity to talk to Kevin Beattie, marketing director Dick Graves, and others involved in this project which is so important to them. It should be explained that, while Donald Healey and his son Geoffrey are members of the Board, they do not play a part in the day-to-day running of the business but they will be responsible for a competition programme for the car and possibly even competition versions. This is good news indeed and, though the actual details have yet to be finalised, the car would seem a natural for the forthcoming Standard Sports Car category as well as for endurance racing in the GT class.

The factory visit was revealing for a number of reasons. First you can discount all those stories about cars waiting around for engines. In fact, it is now the other way around. There were plenty of engines, some to US specification, complete with Stromberg rather than Dell’orto carburetters, waiting to be fitted to cars, production of which was not in full flow because of the holidays but was obviously proceeding apace before everyone downed tools and rushed off to Majorca, Blackpool or wherever.

It was also interesting to note that the cars receive a good deal of protection against the weather. Before painting, the bodies are first immersed in an anti-corrosive dip and then undersealed comprehensively. The paint job is at present by hand spraying although a new immersion bath will be installed in the near future. Qvale has financed considerable new plant to cater for 200+ a week production and the labour force is being increased.

From the sales point of view it was interesting to learn that production is to be split fairly equally between US and Canadian markets and other territories. In Britain a chain of new distributors has been set up to complement the existing Jensen outlets, and dealers are also being selected on the Continent. Switzerland is seen as a good market, as is Germany, Holland and Belgium, but Sweden proves difficult with its own rather pedantic safety regs. New Zealand, and, strangely, Hong Kong, are also expected to take a number of vehicles, but countries with local content programmes like South Africa and Argentina will not be seeing the car. But the sales force does see the car very much as an export commodity other than simply a dollar earner.

While the Jensen-Healey is possibly the last mass-production open sports car to be introduced we did make tentative enquiries about a GT version which obviously would not provide much of a problem to build. The answer was that Jensen will build such a car in the future but, at the moment, are contenting the people who don’t want a soft top with a clip-on hard top which will follow in a few months’ time.

On the Road

All the foregoing is fine but to use a very hackneyed expression, the proof of the pudding is in the driving or something! This was not to prove a disappointment. For a start, first impressions upon sitting in the car were favourable. Immediately the seats, which have built-in head-rests, felt comfortable, although it took a little while to sort out a suitable driving position, but both seats have a widely adjustable rake. The steering wheel is a distinctly odd device, completely covered in leather, including the two spokes, and with sculptured hand holds. Instrumentation is full and easily readable, the rev.-counter being red-lined at 7,000 r.p.m. An interesting little feature is a row of three small panels which light up to inform you first that the ignition is on, then the handbrake and, when you release that, the third panel will light up to inform you that the safety-belts are not done up. The facia also includes two eye-ball fresh air vents, the driver’s one to the left of the instruments and almost central, and the passenger’s one to the far left. The test car was fitted with an AM/FM radio and for some peculiar reason the windscreen wipers interfered badly with Radio London and other FM channels but not with AM stations. The central handbrake and the gear-lever are incorporated in a central console which also incorporates a rather small ashtray and a depression for odds and ends. In fact some padding on the console so that one could rest the left elbow more comfortably on long Motorway trips would be welcome. There is also a generous glove box which, for some reason, was not only badly fitting but also badly finished. Above the radio were the heater and demisting controls. Our summer test did not give an opportunity to try the heater but the de-mist worked efficiently enough. The facia also has a range of square knobs ranging from choke to hazard warning lights.

The GM collapsible steering column has two stalks; the right one to control indicators and lights and the left one to look after the windscreen wipers. In the up position it offers two speeds, while the down position will give just one sweep or continuous sweeping for as long as one likes to hold it there. The stalk also caters for washing from the electric pump. All the controls are snag-free and easy to operate, the gear-lever comes perfectly to hand, and the parking brake is well placed. There is an interior light in the passenger side door and the doors themselves have worthwhile pulls. The window winders on the test car, which was the tenth off the line, were extremely stiff and difficult to operate. This is a problem which will be easily overcome but the final inch was always the most difficult, but important, as a guard against the ingress of water.

The Jensen-Heaky has no pretensions to being anything but a two-seater but there is quite a lot of space behind driver and passenger and a third person could be carried in discomfort down to the pub, but little else if the hood was erected. Talking of the hood, this uses Velcro extensively to attach it when raised and the whole lot can be lowered easily enough. When raised it did rattle a good deal and we were unable to stop this. A hood cover is standard equipment but the tonneau, which also came with our car, is extra.

The interior is finished in black throughout. The boot is also carpeted but offers much less space when opened than one would imagine beforehand. Part of this is because underneath is the spare wheel on a cross bracket which can be lowered. The steeply raked, laminated windscreen has two decent-sized anti-sun vizors, not always provided in open sports cars. The interior is undoubtedly a success.

Once one has sat in the car the next thought is to open the bonnet and look at the new Lotus engine. Well, with our test car, this was easier said than done because the bonnet release, operated from inside the car, was inoperative. However, some crafty fiddling soon overcame this, revealing the impressive Type 907 Lotus unit. The engine has already been described in an earlier Motor Sport article so, suffice to say that this 1,973-c.c., 95.28 by 69.24-mm. power unit has some interesting features. At the top end there are four valves per cylinder, the twin camshafts being belt driven. Much of the cleanliness of the engine must be attributed to Ron Burr’s head design with shallow pent-roof combustion spaces with central spark plug and an inclined valve angle of 38º. The compression ratio, with the dished piston crowns, is 8.4 to 1.

At the bottom end the crankshaft is an SG iron casting supported by five main bearings which, instead of running in simple bearing caps adding nothing to rigidity, utilise a sandwich casting between the sump and block. This casting carries the location for the bearings in the same manner utilised by Cosworth on their F1 engine.

The weight of the engine is only 275 lb., including ancillaries but less clutch. At present the motor is a little thirsty, consuming a pint of oil every 350-400 miles. Our particular engine did not seem to be sealed too well around the sparking plug holes, a little oil there bubbling slightly. Tightening the plugs did not cure this.

The engine is quoted as giving something around 140 b.h.p, and actually probably gives nearer 150 b.h.p. But with a ton to propel along it obviously is not going to surprise the Elan Sprint owner. In fact as you first accelerate the thought crosses the mind, “What is all the fuss about ?”, but at around 3,500 r.p.m. the power comes in more strongly and keeps going until just over 6,000 r.p.m. when it tails off. By then the engine is getting rather noisy although it will go to 7,000 r.p.m., where there is a rev.-limiter. On the open road this means that if one wishes to rocket quickly by that 40-m.p.h. lorry then it is better to change down to second and give it plenty of revs.

One evening we made a quick dash up the M1 to Derby and back to assess the car’s capabilities as a high-speed cruiser. Apart from the noise factor (one certainly cannot hear the radio over 60 m.p.h.) we were most pleasantly surprised. If we had been on the Continent we would have been able to cruise happily for hours at around the 100 m.p.h. (genuine) with about 5,500 r.p.m. showing, with bursts of up to 115 m.p.h. or so. At this speed the car retains its ease of control. The speedo. was about 5 mph. fast at 100 m.p.h.

But an important contributory part of the ease of high-speed cruising is the comfort, and the lack of effort with which the car can be driven. The steering is excellent, certainly one of the best features of the car, the brakes gave not a single moment for worry and the gearbox was snag-free. The ride certainly surprised us for it seems an ideal compromise.

A good deal of our test was carried out under wet conditions and this proved that the water-proofing leaves a great deal to be desired. One might just about put up with water flicking in from where the hood meets the end of the screen but the rain was also finding a way through on to the knee area of the passenger. The Jensen people will have to look into this problem.

The handling on wet roads was reasonably predictable but it was very easy to break traction even with the Dunlop Sport tyres, and fierce acceleration in 1st gear would unstick the rears quite easily. In the dry the road-holding was considerably better than we would have expected bearing in mind the rather conventional suspension lay-out. It hangs on very well with near neutral characteristics.

Unfortunately our lack of comprehensive figures is attributable to the failure of the fuel pump when we were actually on the way to the test track. As the car only had about 1,700 miles on the clock we were asked to take our figures towards the end of the test, and thus finished up without any further time available. However, as a rough guide 0-60 m.p.h. can be covered in 8 sec. and 0-100 mph. in 22.5 sec., with a maximum speed close on 120 m.p.h.

The fuel consumption was rather disappointing for on our Motorway run, for instance, it dropped to around 18-19 m.p.g., although a more normal figure would be 23-24 to the gallon. But that Lotus engine really does run perfectly on 2-star and definitely dislikes 5-star.

In Conclusion

It is difficult to know quite how the US market will take to the Jensen-Healey but our impressions are that it will definitely be in demand in the UK. The formula is right and we would foresee a lot of existing British Leyland sports-car devotees, TR6 and MG-B owners particularly, giving serious thought to a Jensen-Healey.

On the reliability front it is rather difficult to make an assessment. We have mentioned some areas in which the car needs attention but our test vehicle was one of the first off the line. So far there has been very little operating experience with the engine so one would be something of a guinea pig in this respect.

As far as Motor Sport readers are concerned the Jensen-Healey is a very important new model and one that was well worth the wait.— A. R. M.

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