Britain's high-performance 1966-1991 Jensen Interceptor never seemed to get much attention in the United States, and that's strange. After all, every one of these Italian-styled grand tourers carried a Chrysler V-8 engine and TorqueFlite automatic transmission.
What's more, the fate of Jensen Motors, Limited was once dictated by a couple of Americans: first Carl Duerr, a Chicago-born corporate "Mr. Fix-It," then San Francisco import-car baron Kjell Qvale.
Underappreciated by Yanks it may have been, but the Interceptor merits attention for its "overachieving" performance. Like Studebaker's Avanti, another 1960s creation that hung on for a long time in very limited production against all odds, the Interceptor became its own "replica" in a sense -- and all the more interesting for it.
Then there's its historically significant offshoot, the FF, which offered full-time four-wheel drive and antilock brakes more than a decade before Audi claimed that first with its original 1980 Quattro.
The Jensen story began with brothers Richard and Alan Jensen, who in 1931 began turning out car and truck bodies of their own design in the English Midlands hamlet of West Bromwich, near Birmingham.
Three years later they took over the old local coachbuilding firm of W.S. Smith & Sons and formed Jensen Motors. A year after that, in 1935, came the first all-Jensen car.
Like William Lyons of Jaguar fame, the Jensens initially traded in custom styling for various British production chassis, but they also worked on U.S. Ford V-8, Lincoln V-12, and even straight-eight Nash platforms. Dick was chief engineer, Alan the administrator (which may explain why some of their designs weren't all that attractive). Still, their work found increasing favor among monied types who wanted to drive something different and sporty, including movie idol Clark Gable.
Following World War II, the Jensens used six-cylinder Meadows engines and Moss gearboxes, then switched to a four-liter Austin six for a somewhat lumpy -- though not unappealing -- fastback coupe introduced in 1949. They called it Interceptor. A better-looking replacement, the 541, arrived four years later.
Besides a more modern tubular-steel chassis, this new model was noteworthy as the world's first production four-seater with bodywork in that new postwar "wonder material," glass-reinforced plastic (GRP), or fiberglass.
The Jensens were soon earning most of their money as contract body suppliers for the new Austin-Healey 100 sports car, but they managed to evolve the 541 into improved, higher-power R and S models, significant as early users of all-disc brakes. By 1961, they'd picked up a commission from Volvo for assembling that firm's new P1800 sports coupe, whose early bodies had been initially supplied by England's Pressed Steel company.
They were also busy readying a new Jensen, which was launched in 1962 as the CV-8. This was basically a facelifted 541 packing a 361-cubic-inch Chrysler V-8 with 300 gross horsepower, linked to the American maker's responsive three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission.
Though not very pretty -- especially its jutting nose with slanted quad headlights -- the CV-8 sold well for a specialty machine on its attractive combination of coachbuilt exclusivity, reasonable price, and high performance. The last went even higher in 1964 with the adoption of Chrysler's four-barrel 383 V-8, whose 330 horses were good for an honest 130 miles per hour.
Jensen was going great guns financially, too, still turning out Healey bodies and its last Volvos, as well as the new Ford-powered Sunbeam Tiger sports car for the Rootes Group, which was soon to become Chrysler UK.
See the next page to learn about the first of the series -- the1966 Jensen Interceptor.
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1966 Jensen Interceptor
With the future looking very rosy -- and the CV-8 looking very dated -- the firm began planning the new 1966 Jensen Interceptor in 1965. Even more ambitious, there would be a second model built with the "Ferguson Formula," the full-time four-wheel-drive system that inventor Harry Ferguson had been evolving since the early 1950s, and with Jensen since 1962. As a preview, Jensen displayed a Ferguson-converted CV-8 at the 1965 Earls Court Motor Show.
While there was never a doubt that the new models would retain the basic CV-8 chassis, styling was hotly debated. The planned pattern was an experimental in-house convertible labeled P66, but its rather bland lines didn't suit chief engineer Kevin Beattie, who insisted that these more upmarket Jensens needed the Italian touch to compete with the likes of Aston Martin, not to mention Latin exotics Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini.
Beattie carried the day with the Jensen board and, after a whirlwind tour of Ghia and Vignale, chose a proposal from Carrozzeria Touring: a shapely fastback coupe of largely squarish appearance, save a rounded tail topped by a huge, compound-curve backlight hinged hatch-fashion.
Alas, Touring was in no position to finalize this design, let alone build it, so Beattie sent the drawings across Turin to Vignale and secured that firm to supply both prototype and initial production bodies, which would be rendered in steel, not fiberglass. A CV-8 chassis was duly sent to Italy in February 1966, and was rebodied by June.
As planned, the new Jensens bowed with a flourish at the annual London show the following October, barely a year since the project had begun -- an astonishing achievement. Even more remarkable, jigs and tools were transferred from Vignale to West Bromwich during 1967, when Jensen took over body construction entirely.
The handsome Interceptor would have been triumph enough for such a small firm, but its all-wheel-drive companion, called the Jensen FF, was a sensation. Both offered great, loping performance with their Chrysler 383 V-8s, slightly detuned from CV-8 form to 325 horsepower (SAE gross).
Also shared were the expected Chrysler TorqueFlite (a manual transmission option was announced for the Interceptor but never offered), plus an improved tubular chassis, rack-and-pinion steering (assisted on the FF only), power all-disc brakes, and an orthodox suspension comprising double wishbones and coil springs in front and a heavy leaf-sprung live axle with Panhard rod location at the rear. Inside was the walnut-and-leather treatment traditional in British cars, sporting or not. In all, the new Jensens were quite something.
But the cars were not without sales challenges. For one thing, Latin-styled Yankee-powered GTs were springing up everywhere. Britain's AC, for example, had just introduced its new Frua-bodied, Ford-powered 428, and even the smaller Italian makers -- Bizzarrini, DeTomaso, and Iso -- had similar cars.
Moreover, the new Jensens were not cheap. The Interceptor bowed at £3,743, then equal to $10,480 at the prevailing £1/$2.80 exchange rate. The FF cost a towering £5,340, which translated to $14,952.
Nevertheless, both of these British newcomers were received with great enthusiasm. If only they could be properly built and prove reliable, they would surely be a great success. Not that they had much of a sales record to beat, for the CV-8 had seen only 391 examples over four years.
Follow the Jensen Interceptor story from 1967-1973 on the next page.
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1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973 Jensen Interceptor
The 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, and 1973 Jensen Interceptor would sell, and in numbers far above those of most Italian rivals, though early prospects didn't seem all that promising. In the late 1960s, Jensen seemed to be in continuous trouble of one sort or other -- if not financial, it was strikes; if not strikes, it was quality problems.
By this time, the aging Jensen brothers had sold out to a conglomerate holding company called Norcros, which was quite capable of sustaining occasional losses. Trouble was, Jensen Motors was losing money with alarming regularity.
On top of this now came the sizable expense of putting the new Interceptor and FF into production, aggravated by the end of Jensen's last two body contracts (for the Tiger and A-H 3000). The only real way to improve the bottom line was to improve sales, yet the big new GTs were initially set to be built at a combined rate of only 200 a year, which was far from enough.
Seeking to avoid disaster, the Jensen board hired Carl Duerr in 1968 to help straighten things out. In a way, he did. Within months he arranged to sell the firm to merchant bankers William Brandt, Sons, and Company, Limited. But he also managed to boost Jensen output to 506 units in calendar 1968 -- a better than twofold increase -- followed by 644 in 1969, the year the 1,000th Interceptor was built (in August).
Another 594 cars were completed in 1970, when a new savior appeared in the person of Kjell Qvale, a prime U.S. West Coast purveyor of British cars from MG to Jaguar to Rolls-Royce.
Qvale quickly moved to bolster faith in Jensen Motors, making Alfred Vickers -- of the famed British aero-engine family -- his managing director. Even more heartening for enthusiasts, he installed world-renowned sports-car builder Donald Healey on the Jensen board.
Because Qvale had sold a lot of Healey 3000s, he naturally saw a lower-priced, higher-volume Jensen sports car as the best route to prosperity. Indeed, he had agreed to take over at West Bromwich only if Healey and his son Geoff would design a new two-seat roadster for Jensen to sell.
The result emerged in 1972 with four-cylinder GM/Vauxhall-derived power, making it a sort of latterday Austin-Healey 100. Called the Jensen-Healey, it's another story altogether.
Meantime, sales of the big Interceptor and FF continued to climb despite inflationary pressures at home and abroad, plus the extra production burden of the new Jensen-Healey. The combined 1971 big Jensen total was 808, followed by 1,043 for calendar 1972, and 1,253 in 1973.
Of course, the Interceptor still accounted for the vast majority of these sales, no surprise given its lower price and virtually identical appearance compared to the FF. Indeed, the four-wheel-drive model had been canceled at the end of 1971, a victim of minuscule sales that made modifying it for looming U.S. safety standards uneconomic. More surprising, perhaps, was that the Interceptor was selling better than ever despite its well-known tendency to early rusting, a trait shared with the FF.
Although the basic Interceptor/FF design would not see any fundamental alteration for a decade, a good many detail changes were made, and were always applied to both models at the same time. Power steering became an option effective with October 1967 production and was made standard equipment in 1968. Mark II versions arrived in October 1969 with larger fuel tanks; standard radial tires, replacing biasplys; and newly optional air conditioning, a belated concession to the important U.S. market.
To learn about the next generation of Jensen Interceptors, the Mark III, continue to the next page.
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Jensen Interceptor Mark III
Exactly two years later came the Jensen Interceptor Mark IIIs boasting a revamped interior with "safety" instrument panel -- again to satisfy America -- plus vented brakes, cast-alloy wheels replacing five-spoke Rostyle steel rims, and an even larger Chrysler V-8: the big-block 440 with a single four-barrel carb and 300 horsepower (215 SAE net).
But the big news for the Mark III Interceptor was a second, more potent model, the SP, packing a 440 with triple two-choke Holley carburetors, good for a smashing 385 horsepower (SAE gross). Those carbs reportedly prompted the initials SP, denoting "Six Pack" as in its domestic Chrysler applications.
As one might guess, SP performance was formidable. Autocar, testing one in 1971, reported 0-60 mph in just 6.9 seconds (versus about 7.5 for the 383 Interceptor) and a top end of 143 mph (against 130-plus) -- plus overall fuel "economy" of just 11.5 miles per U.S. gallon. Only a standard vinyl roof and discreet hood louvers distinguished this prime cut of British beef from the standard article.
But the SP didn't have long to live because it was dropped after 1973 in the wake of the Middle East oil embargo and the resulting worldwide energy crisis, plus continuing inflation. Production came to just 105 units. After this, there was again one Mark III Interceptor, still with the single-carb "J-type" 440 and 300 horsepower.
That energy crisis sent fuel prices soaring around the world, leaving Jensen, like most other supercar builders, fighting for sales. Nevertheless, the firm managed a smart Mark III Convertible in March 1974, which was unveiled at Geneva. This was essentially the "glassback" coupe with a power-operated soft top -- fully lined with wool, but not too bulky when folded -- and a tail slightly restyled to form a separate trunk.
In October 1975, Jensen added the Coupe, effectively the Convertible with a new fixed top conferring a notchback profile and bearing reverse-slanted B-pillars and oddly shaped rear-quarter glass.
Though sales were well down by mid-decade and the basic design some 10 years old, the Interceptor might have carried on had it not been for the Jensen-Healey, which failed to attract the hoped for sales as a medium-priced sports car and thus lost Jensen Motors a lot of money.
This prompted Kjell Qvale to pull out, and the company went into liquidation during 1976. However, at least three fragments of the business survived. Among them was a so-called Parts and Service Division that was later reorganized with new management and new financing.
To read about the Jensen Interceptor in the 1980s and 1990s, continue to the next page.
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Jensen Interceptor in the 1980s and 1990s
Reorganization was enough to give a new lease on life to the Jensen Interceptor in the 1980s and 1990s. As it turned out, Parts and Service had retained all the original Interceptor tooling, which it used for the next 10 years to maintain and even restore existing cars for enthusiastic owners.
It was that enthusiasm, plus sufficient profits from the "service" business, that eventually attracted new ownership interest, and by 1986 P and S had been reorganized as Jensen Cars, Limited. More amazing yet, the revitalized firm announced its intention to produce an updated Mark III called, logically, Mark IV, though this was listed by some sources as "Series 4" or "S4."
Production wouldn't be high: only about one a month -- a dozen or so cars per year. Yet the mere fact of this revival after so many years spoke eloquently of the Interceptor's ageless appeal. Moreover, such tiny numbers made it a profitable proposition for this smaller Jensen company.
Though even more of a handbuilt car than Interceptors I-III, the Mark IV was remarkably like them, right down to the original 105-inch wheelbase. The Convertible returned, as did the hatch coupe, though the latter was usually referred to as a "Saloon" (sedan) and could be supplied on special order sans backlight with conventional boot, which made it look odd indeed. A revival of the convertible-based coupe, renamed "Hardtop," was announced in late 1986.
Because Chrysler had eliminated its big 440 V-8 years before, the Interceptor IV was switched to that firm's 360-cubic-inch small-block unit with standard four-barrel carburetor or, at extra cost, multipoint fuel injection. Otherwise, all was much as before save paint and trim -- which could now be virtually anything a customer desired, appropriate for a coachbuilt machine and much higher prices: initially £39,950 for the Saloon and £45,950 for the Convertible, about $60,000-$70,000 U.S. at then-existing exchange rates.
Little has been heard of Jensen Cars since late 1987, when it was the subject of much speculation. At that time, Automotive News in Detroit reported that a restyled "Interceptor V" meeting all the latest American standards, including passive restraints, would appear in 1989 with a $90,000 US. price and a "7.8-liter" Chrysler V-8.
Production continued to trickle in until 1993, when financial troubles forced Jensen to once again close its doors. An S8 version came on the market in 2001. The two-seater sport car sold for £40,000, but only a handful were made before financial troubles once again -- for a final time -- brought the Jensen Interceptor to an end in 2002.