Jensen Interceptor

Mopar-powered English touring car

 

by T.J. Higgins

 

My 1976 Jensen Interceptor series III saloon, the “Highway Star”

 

            Alan and Richard Jensen started building cars under their own name in 1931 when they bought out a local garage in West Bromwich, England.  From the beginning, they saved time and money by building only custom bodies and interiors; they bought chassis and engines from other carmakers.  Eventually they built their own chassis, but Jensen never did build their own engine.  Some of the engines they used were the Ford flathead V-8, Austin 6-cylinder, Lotus model 907 DOHC 4-cylinder, Chrysler 360 and 383/440.

                Jensen Motors Ltd. was never really a big player in terms of sales of their own cars.  The cars were hand built and thus very expensive.  Jensen actually made most of its money building trucks and busses.  They also made a lot of money building cars for other carmakers.  If a carmaker didn’t have the necessary production capacity at its own plant, Jensen would be happy to build their cars.  Some cars built by Jensen under contract were the Volvo P1800, Austin-Healey 100 & 3000, and Sunbeam Tiger.

                When Jensen lost the contracts for the Healey 3000 and Tiger in 1968, their financial situation became very dire and never really recovered.  An American of Norwegian descent named Kjell Qvale bought the company in 1971.  Along with Donald Healey (of Austin-Healey fame), Qvale designed and built the Jensen-Healey roadster using the Lotus 907 engine.  This car was designed for the American market to compete against the other popular European roadsters of the day:  MG, Triumph, Alfa, and Fiat.  Introduced in 1973, the car was rushed to market too soon, and early cars suffered from reliability problems.  Even though quality improved throughout the lifespan, the Jensen-Healey never recovered from its early negative reputation.  The oil crisis in 1974 put a damper on Interceptor sales as well.  Jensen finally went bankrupt in 1976 and stopped building cars.  But the parts, service, and restoration business continued.

                Some former employees attempted to revive the company in the 1980s and a few Interceptors were built using the Chrysler 360 engine, but financial problems again forced them to close after just a few years.  A British conglomerate bought the Jensen name in the 1990s and in 1999 announced a new Jensen model, the S-V8 roadster.  In true Jensen fashion, they are using someone else’s engine!  This time it is the Mustang Cobra.  Several hundred orders have been taken but as of April 2001 no cars have been delivered to customers.

                Jensen was often on the leading edge of automotive technology, and this is what the company is generally known for.  The 541 model of the 1950s was one of the first to have a fiberglass body.  It was also one of the first cars to have disc brakes on all 4 wheels. Mercedes and Porsche will try to tell you otherwise, but the Jensen FF of 1966 was the first passenger car in the world to offer all-wheel-drive and anti-lock brakes.

                With the exception of the Jensen-Healey, Jensens were quite expensive cars, competing with the likes of Jaguar, Rolls-Royce, and Bentley.  For this reason they were often driven by movie stars and other famous people.  In the mid-1930s, actor Clark Gable drove, but did not own, one of the Ford flathead Jensen convertibles.  Some celebrity Interceptor owners of the 1960s and ‘70s were Farrah Fawcett, Jack Nicklaus, Tony Curtis, Princess Anne, Cher, Harold Robbins, and Ginger Baker.

                Jensen started using Chrysler drivetrains in 1962 when the C-V8 debuted with the 360 engine and TorqueFlite transmission.  A year later the 383 was first used and began a long association between Jensen and the wedge.    Like the 541, the C-V8 body is fiberglass.    But when ugly cars are discussed, the Jensen C-V8 is always mentioned.  One look will tell you why!

 

1963 Jensen C-V8

 

            Around 1964 with sales of the C-V8 falling off, it was time for a new model.  After an internal company struggle over competing designs, the design by the Touring styling house in Italy won out.  Two Jensen employees drove a C-V8 to Italy and the new steel body was fitted.

                The new model was called Interceptor and was an instant smash hit with the motoring press around the world when it appeared in 1966.  Luxurious and fast, it was a true “gentleman’s carriage.”  The all-wheel-drive FF model with anti-lock brakes also appeared in ’66 and was immediately hailed as the world’s safest automobile.  The October 1973 issue of Road & Track said the Interceptor “ranks among the world’s best cars.”

 

 

1970 Jensen FF.  Note dual air vents.

 

                Being hand-built and expensive, almost everything was standard on the Interceptor:  real wool carpeting; full leather interior, which required the hides of 7 cows; rear window defogger.  While early cars used vinyl or plastic on the dash, the later cars had full wood-and-leather dashboards.  Except for a few early cars, every car had air conditioning and power windows standard.  We take these features for granted today, but they were rare in 1966.

                Several different Interceptor styles were built at various times during the 10-year run of the Interceptor.  Along with the original saloon and FF were the SP (a saloon with the 440 six-pack), the convertible, and the coupe.  The coupe had a hardtop like the saloon, but instead of the big back glass hatchback it had a trunk like the convertible.

                In 1976 an Interceptor saloon cost about $16,000 and a convertible cost about $25,000.  By comparison, a ’76 Corvette cost about $8000.

                In addition to the wedge engine and the Torqueflite, all Interceptors used a Dana limited-slip differential.  Despite the high-performance drivetrain, the Interceptor is not a very fast car off the line.  It is designed for high-speed highway cruising in luxury, not standing-start acceleration.  The car is quite heavy; it weighs over 4000 pounds.  The rear-end ratio is either 2.89 or 3.11.

                About 7500 Interceptors of all styles were built, with about 6700 of those being saloons.  My saloon was built in March 1976, just 2 months before the factory closed.  I bought it in April 1999 in Cincinnati after finding it for sale in Hemmings Motor News.  Except for the aftermarket Enkei wheels and Moroso air filter, the car is mostly original.  A previous owner replaced the original Carter ThermoQuad carburetor with an Edelbrock.  The engine cooling fans have also been changed.  (Due to the steering rack, there is no room for a mechanical fan.  All Interceptors use electric cooling fans.)  In summer 2000 I converted the air conditioning system to a Sanden rotary compressor and R134a refrigerant.  Everything else on the car is stock.  I’m aware of a couple of other Interceptors in the Huntsville area, but mine is the only one roadworthy at the moment.

                Today you can buy a very nice drivable Interceptor saloon for $8000 to $10,000.  The other model types, being much rarer, sell for much more.  A good Interceptor convertible will set you back about $25,000.

                Getting parts has been no problem so far.  For drivetrain parts, any Mopar shop has what I need.  The Interceptor is even still in the computer at the Chrysler dealer!  Although sometimes I have to beat the clerk over the head several times to get him to type it in, since more often than not he has never heard of an Interceptor.  For Jensen-specific parts, there are a couple of places in the U.S. and several in England that do mail-order.

                You can learn more about Interceptors at my web site http://home.hiwaay.net/~tjhiggin/hwystar.html.  A great starting point on the web for all things Jensen is http://www.british-steel.org.

 

 

1975 Jensen Interceptor series III convertible