Buyers Guide Jensen Interceptor 1966-1976
The life and times of the West Bromwich answer to Aston Martin. Words: Paul Wager.
1966-1976 FACTS, FIGURES AND HISTORY ON THE GLAMOROUS ’70s GT
JENSEN INTERCEPTOR DATABASE:
Facts, figures and history on the stylish grand tourer which was built in West Bromwich using American muscle and Italian style.
The story of Jensen Motors is a fascinating one, even without any mention of the Interceptor. The company was founded by the Jensen brothers when they bought out their previous coachbuilding employer but the story also includes car industry legends Kjell Qvale and Donald Healey as major players. Oh and Colin Chapman played his part too, notably in the company’s eventual downfall when his Lotus twin-cam engine proved to be the Jensen-Healey’s Achilles’ Heel In the early years the firm produced coachbuilt bodies on other makers’ chassis, progressing to complete cars in the mid ’30s and then commercial vehicles – among them some trendsetting designs such as the front-drive articulated Tempo and a specially designed tube transporter for Reynolds.
During the 1940s the firm produced the A40 pickups and A40 Sports for BMC as well as its own PW saloon and a convertible version – the first car to wear the Interceptor badge. Jensen would also construct the bodyshells for the Austin-Healey 3000 until 1967, the Sunbeam Tiger and famously assembled the early P1800 for Volvo.
The Interceptor as we know it has its origins in the Jensen 541 which appeared in 1953, envisaged as a smaller, more modern high-performance successor to the original coachbuilt Interceptor. The Jensen brothers, together with body design engineer Eric Neale and the general works manager Colin Reikie, came up with a recipe which allied an aerodynamic four-seater GT body with a stiff separate chassis and the 4-litre Austin engine.
At the time fibreglass was a new and exciting way to construct low-volume bodies and Jensen decided to use it for the 541 bodyshell, hence the use of a separate chassis. The first prototype however, was hand-panelled in aluminium which was actually quicker than making the necessary moulds.
The 541 went into production in 1955 with the fibeglass body and was well received by the press, with a triple carb set-up and other mods giving the Austin engine a useful extra verve. Jensen was a forward-looking company and in 1956 the car became the first production saloon car to offer disc brakes on all four wheels.
In 1958, the 541 was developed into the 541R, using Austin’s own uprated version of the engine allied to a Moss gearbox and with the refinement of rack-and-pinion steering. The R was a formidable achievement, its 127.5mph in the hands of Motor testers making it the fastest four-seater the magazine had ever tested.
The 541-R would in turn be superseded by the 541-S which came with a Hydramatic automatic transmission as standard alongside the novelty of standard seatbelts. By that time, buyers of cars in this high-end grand touring class were overwhelmingly choosing the self-shifter option and it was felt that the old Austin engine lacked sufficient power to provide the performance when allied to a torque converter automatic.
The answer then was a more powerful engine but in one of those slightly bizarre decisions which characterises the men at the top of Britain’s car makers in those days, the decision was taken to adopt a Chrysler V8. Not for Jensen the small-block Chrysler motor either, but the full-fat 5.9-litre big block which at a stroke took power from the Austin’s 130bhp to a serious 305bhp.
Unsurprisingly, it was felt that the chassis needed revising and while the work was being done the opportunity was taken to develop a new body, continuing the glassfibre construction but adding aluminium door skins.
The result, known as the C-V8 was introduced at the 1962 Earl’s Court motor show and boasted 136mph potential.
In 1963, a Mk2 was launched and shortly afterwards the car gained the 6.3-litre version of the V8, rated at 330bhp.
By the late ’60s, thoughts had turned to replacing the C-V8 and most marque historians report that it was at this time that Jensen management was torn: one faction wanted a more affordable V8-powered car which was even debuted in concept form as the P66 Interceptor, but the rest preferred a continuation of the upmarket C-V8 theme.
It was this group which felt that style was of major importance for this kind of high-end product and commissoned three Italian styling houses to submit proposals: Touring, Vignale and Ghia.
Oddly, it was Touring’s proposal which was accepted but was revised and further developed for production by Vignale. The project progressed quickly, with a C-V8 being sent to Vignale in 1966 where the glassfibre body was essentially unbolted and a new aluminum bodyshell built by hand.
The first hand-built prototype was running by June 1966 and by October, the first cars were being finished back in West Bromwich. Unlike the C-V8, the new car’s bodyshell was supplied completed and trimmed from Vignale, with Jensen performing only the final assembly.
The Interceptor and the four-wheel drive FF were launched at the London Motor Show in 1966 and early cars were essentially mechanically identical to the Mk3 C-V8 with the 6276cc Chrysler V8, three-speed Torqueflite automatic and a Powr-Lok limited-slip differential. The all-disc braking set-up was also carried over from the C-V8.
Unsurprisingly, the reception was positive but it didn’t take long for problems in the production arrangement to become obvious. Ironically considering Jensen’s own experiences supplying complete bodyshells to Volvo, the main issue was the poor quality of the finished, painted and trimmed bodies arriving from Vignale which needed extensive rectification by Jensen.
The contract with Vignale was swiftly ended, the presses and jigs transported to West Bromwich and from this point the bodyshells were produced in house.
Typically for low-volume makers, many incremental improvements were added during production without formal records being kept, but by 1968 the cars had gained better Dunlop calipers in place of the previous Girlings, the opening quarterlights were now fixed and the original Austin-derived kingpin front suspension with lever arm dampers had been updated to a balljoint design using telescopic dampers.
In October 1969, Jensen formally announed a Mk2 model, identified by the bumpers raised by two inches with square overriders and the indicators now below it. The headlamp surrounds were now black, while at the rear end the hatch opening button was removed and the bumper style revised to match the front. Under the bonnet, the Chrysler motor received ‘Jensen’ branded aluminium rocker covers, while other mechanical changes included a collapsible steering column and a bodyshell revised to allow the fitment of an integrated air conditoning system.
The interior was more substantially revised, with reshaped seats now featuring detachable headrests and a modernised dashboard style.
Road testers still praised the cars, especially the FF’s uncanny grip and safety, but in the accounts offices there were ominous mutterings as the numbers failed to add up. The FF was an expensive car to manufacture and sold in numbers too tiny to justify the investment.
For this reason, a new flagship was conceived which could be made more cheaply: the Interceptor SP. The initials signified ‘Six Pack’ and the car used the larger 7.2-litre Chrysler engine with a 10.3:1 compression ratio and three twin-choke Holley carburettors explaining the name. The SP boasted 385bhp and was introduced at the 1971 Earl’s Court motor show with the Mk3 Interceptor. The FF would be built briefly in Mk3 form but would be discontinued in 1971.
The production version of the SP could be identified by a vinyl roof and louvred bonnet, while air conditioning and an eight-track stereo were also standard. Meanwhile, all Mk3 cars gained 6.5-inch GKN alloy wheels and the interior was revised, gaining eyeball ventilation ducts and central locking.
Mechanical changes kept the car up to date and included ventilated brake discs, now also enlarged to 10.75 inches, while the engine specification was regularly changed by Chrysler. In 1971, the 6.3-litre engine was discontinued, meaning the standard Interceptor gained the 7.2-litre unit, albeit with a single carburettor instead of the SP’s triple set-up.
Emissions regulations in the USA took their toll on power though and by 1973, the single-carbed 7.2 was down to 300bhp. With the SP by then discontinued, the standard Interceptor was fitted with the 7.2-litre unit using a Carter Thermoquad carburettor for 330bhp, while the SP’s extra equipment was fitted to the regular model.
Few options were offered owing to the car’s high spec: buyers could plump for a newfangled cassette player instead of the eighttrack and a louvred bonnet was also available.
In late 1974, the S4 Interceptor was announced, featuring only minor detail changes over the Mk3, one of which was a full-width walnut veneer dashboard. Sadly, the end was in sight and in May 1976 the receivers had been called in. This wouldn’t be the end of the Interceptor though.
Following the collapse of Jensen Motors Ltd, two separate companies were created and sold off by the receivers. One of these was the short-lived Jensen Special products and the second was Jensen Parts & Service. It was headed by former Jensen financial controller Roger Edmiston, who in order to diversify his interests also took on the UK distributorship for a little-known Japanese brand: Subaru. The success of this venture would see the creation of International Motors, which would import Hyundai and Isuzu among others and is still a major player in the industry.
In 1982, Edmiston was fully occupied by the car import business and sold the Jensen Parts & Service operation to Ian Orford, former Jensen parts manager.
Orford’s vision was to create a brand new Interceptor and eventually in 1983 the ambition was realised at the Motorfair show when a brand new – crucially, not restored – car was unveiled.
Produced by Jensen Cars Ltd, the reborn Interceptor was marketed as the ‘Series Four’, reflecting the numerous upgrades required from the original. These numbered 1000 in total, mostly safety-critical issues related to the age of the original deign.
The bodyshell was perhaps surprisingly the easier part since the company had acquired the jigs and tooling from the receiver, but the 7.2-litre V8 had been discontinued by Chrysler, so the Series Four used a 5.9 unit These were very much built-to-order cars in the mould of the Bristol, with the company happy to accommodate the owner’s wishes in terms of specification. Jensen Motors Ltd was sold on in 1990, but after a further handful of cars were built it ceased trading in 1993.
The story didn’t quite end there: Jaguar parts specialist Martin Robey acquired the assets including body press tools and documentation and continues to supply parts for the cars to this day.
Under the skin, the Interceptor was largely identical to the C-V8. The four-wheel drive FF
was in fact originally developed as a C-V8 model although it never made production.
The ill-fated P66 Interceptor concept which was preferred by the Jensen brothers.
Chrysler’s big-block V8 gave the Interceptor effortless performance. Interceptor’s distinctive style was created by Touring and refined for production by Vignale. Jensen’s stand at the 1968 Earl’s Court show, where the models wore specially created designer outfits.
The Mk3 Interceptor was launched in 1971 and identified by its GKN alloy wheels.
Richard Jensen’s dream had been to create the world’s safest car and it was realised when the car simply badged Jensen FF was unveiled in 1965. The initials FF stood for Ferguson Formula, the concept developed by Harry Ferguson of the eponymous tractor maker. Central to the concept was the development of a centre differential which could allow both axles to be driven at high speed without mechanical ‘wind up’ under cornering. The company had also successfully adapted Dunlop’s Maxaret mechanical anti-lock system originally designed for aircraft for automotive use. In 1962, Jensen signed an agreement to use the Ferguson four-wheel drive layout in a road car and the result was the Jensen FF.
Essentially a four-wheel drive C-V8, the FF was four inches longer, the addition required to house the centre differential and transfer case. The rear end remained essentially standard C-V8 but the front suspension was radically revised to accommodate front driveshafts and differential.
The Ferguson system used a master differential driven from the output shaft of the Torqueflite gearbox which divided the power 37/63 front/rear. The rear axle was driven directly from the master differential and the front axle by a separate chain drive. Two one-way clutches allowed either of the axles to overrun the other.
The concept was a winner and although only one C-V8-based FF was built, its reception encouraged Jensen to launch an FF version of the Interceptor.
The FF was launched alongside the rear-drive Interceptor and shared its basic specification, although the FF was never offered with a manual transmission since the entire installation had been developed around the Torqueflite automatic. Like the C-V8 prototype, the Interceptor FF was longer than its two-wheel drive sibling and could be identified at a glance by having twin vents behind the front wheels.
Production of the FF would be discontinued in 1971, by which time demand had dropped to a point where its high manufacturing cost couldn’t be justified.
Early cars can be identified by having the indicators above the bumpers and body-painted headlamp surrounds.
Interceptors were popular with celebrities. This is Eric Morecambe’s former car (above). Convertible required extensive redesign around the rear end of the bodyshell.
At a time when proposed US-market regulations saw most British makers either abandon open cars entirely or hedge their bets with a Stag-style targa design, the ever-contrary Jensen released a convertible Interceptor in March 1974.
Much more than just a chop-top, the car was extensively redesigned at the rear where the glass hatch of the original design meant an entire new rear deck had to be created. The end result was surprisingly neat and the car proved to be popular with 467 examples being sold.
The convertible also formed the basis for the rare Interceptor Coupe, essentially a hardtop version of the coupe body style with the regular Interceptor’s rear side widows but without its glass hatch. Using a Jaguar XJ6 rear screen, just 54 were built.
The FF was technically way ahead of its time but was expensive to make and a slow seller, which explains why it was dropped in 1971.
THE CORPORATE STORY
By the late 1950s, the Jensen brothers were looking to the future and to finance their ambitious plans they realised that Jensen Motors would need more subatantial backing. With this in mind, they contacted Norcros Group, a holding company which specialised in taking financial control of British companies with the intention of avoiding death duties.
In 1959, Norcros took control of Jensen and it was this move which enabled the ambitious future model development programme to be realised. The financial stability afforded by a larger parent company also indirectly made Jensen more attractive as a contract supplier to larger organisations like Volvo.
By the mid 1960s however, Norcros began to reconsider its position and when a 1967 report suggested that a low-volume specialist car maker wasn’t a sound investment the decision was made to offload the company.
An agreement was worked up whereby merchant bank William Brandt would acquire 100 per cent of the shares and then pass 40 per cent on to a group of directors. Production increased over the next few years, but the company remained financially precarious and in 1970 a new owner arrived from an unexpected direction.
Kjell Qvale is credited as being the man who made America fall in love with British sports cars and had built his fortune on importing MGs and Austin-Healeys to the USA as well as other European marques. When British Leyland announced that the Healey 3000 wouldn’t be replaced, he was understandably dismayed at the potential loss of revenue. Someone else who shared his disappointment was Donald Healey, who stood to lose his lucrative royalty payments from BL, while Jensen was similiarly hit by the loss of the profitable assembly contract.
This explains why in 1970 Kjell Qvale assumed majority shareholding of Jensen Motors, with Donald Healey acting as chairman. The intention was to develop a Jensen-badged replacement for the Austin-Healey and this eventually appeared as the Jensen-Healey. On paper, it promised much, with Lotus’s lively new twin-cam engine and a modern style coupled with a much more affordable price tag than the lavish Interceptor.
Sadly, the reality was that the car was plagued with reliability issues, not helped by Qvale’s decision to negotiate a lower price from Lotus for the engines by foregoing a manufacturer warranty on the units. It’s generally accepted both that Lotus used Jensen as a guinea pig for an engine which was incompletely developed and that in Lotus boss Colin Chapman the ruthless Qvale had met an even more ruthless adversary.
The receivers were finally called in during May 1976 and Qvale’s adventures in UK car manufacturing were over, costing him an estimated £3m.
Chrysler discontinued the 6.3-litre V8 in 1971, meaning later Mk3 cars used a 7.2-litre unit good for 330bhp.
YOU DIDN’T KNOW...
- Stylist of the 541 and C-V8, Eric Neale, resigned in disgust after the Touring design was chosen for the Interceptor, with the Jensen brothers both retiring shortly afterwards.
- The C-V8 was offered as a four-speed manual, using a Chrysler truck gearbox. It was slower than the Torquefl ite auto and wasn’t popular: only three were built.
- Rather alarmingly considering the 325bhp and 425lb.ft on offer, Jensen initially fitted crossply tyres in the interests of ride comfort. Apparently they were fi ne up to 120mph when they started aquaplaning in the wet.
- Motor testers reckoned the automatic opening of the SP’s second and third carburettors under engine load created a sudden power increase sufficient to ‘dislodge the rear’.
- The Interceptor Coupe was created by Panther.
- The position of the transfer box meant the FF couldn’t be manufactured in left-hand-drive, losing vital export sales.