This week’s history article is about a coachbuilder that became a manufacturer and survived the low volume manufacturing by being a supplier to other major manufacturers. The company is Jensen Motors based in the middle of the UK and was founded in 1934 by Richard and Alan Jensen who worked for WJ Smith, a commercial truck manufacturer.
Prior to being with WJ Smith, the two brothers had already had a great career in building specials. Alan had built one based on an Austin Chummy which had lead to a job with the Standard Motor Company. Alan then joined his brother at an Austin dealer who encouraged them to build more specials on Austin chassis. It was when these cars were badged under the owners name that they left to go to Smiths.
They had built some more specials based on Wolseley chassis and WJ Smith used their name to distinguish it from the truck business. When the founder of WJ Smith died, the two brothers bought the company and renamed it Jensen Motors continuing the business of building specialist and unique bodies on chassis supplied by Morris, Standard and others. This lead to the actor Clark Gable commissioning Jensen to build a car with a Ford V8 and this in turn lead to Ford commissioning several more cars: for example a Jensen H Type fitted with a Lincoln Zephyr V12 motor.
This could have helped Jensen generate the funds to design their own car top to bottom as opposed to being based on someone else’s chassis. This was called the S Type and was offered with convertible, touring or saloon bodies made from aluminium. Thanks to the relationship with Ford, it was fitted with either a 2.2 or 3.6 litre Ford sidevalve V8.
With war looming, Jensen switched to commercial vehicles and military equipment, restarting car production in 1946 with the PW model, which like the S Type was available in a couple of body types. It was originally fitted with a Meadows 3.9 litre straight 8, however this was switched to a Nash engine and then a 6-cylinder motor that was found in Austin’s Sheerline. This was the start of a long relationship with Austin.
In 1950 the PW was replaced by the first version of the Interceptor using the same running gear as the Sheerline. The Interceptor was available as a 2-door coupe, convertible and town car. At the same time Jensen were contracted to make the Austin A40 Sports, a scaled down version with a 1.2 litre 4 cylinder motor.
In 1955 Jensen released the 541, a GT with the same Austin running gear. It was well ahead of its time with the use of a fibreglass body. The 541R appeared in 1957 with larger brakes and then the 541S came along in 1961 with a Rolls-Royce sourced gearbox.
In 1959 Jensen was sold to a company called Norcos Group and in addition to building their own cars, Jensen built the Austin Gipsy 4WD and the Austin Healey 100. They were also part of the manufacturing process for the early 1960s Volvo P1800. Volvo selected Jensen over German manufacturers who bid for the business. Jensen in turn contracted another company, Pressed Steel, to make the panels. So the bodies started in Scotland, were finished, trimmed and painted in England then shipped to Sweden for final assembly. This must have been an expensive process!
The 541 was replaced in 1962 by the CV8, a 2-door coupe fitted with 6 litre Chrysler V8s and the Chrysler Torqueflite gearbox. Jensen had been toying with American V8s for a number of years. Briggs Cunningham had fitted a Hemi to an Interceptor and a 541S had a Chevy motor fitted as well. Like the 541, the CV8 was made mostly of fibreglass and came in fixed and drop head versions. Only about 500 were built over 4 years.
The CV8 was replaced by the most famous Jensen – the second generation Interceptor that was in production for 10 years. There was a clear evolution from the 541 through the CV8 to this new Interceptor. It had a steel body with the Chrysler motor and gearbox combination and was designed by Carrozzeria Touring in Milan – famous for designing many grand touring cars from Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Aston Martin. The bodies were originally built by another Italian coachbuilder – Vignale, before being brought in-house.
The Interceptor started with a 6.2 litre motor, which grew to over 7 litres by 1971. Like other models, it was available as a Grand Tourer or a convertible and a coupe version was made during the mid 1970s as well.
Another version was the FF. This was an Interceptor with an all wheel drive system – in fact the first production all wheel drive car. It was longer than the Interceptor and was fitted with Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock brakes – another first for a production car. FF stood for Ferguson Formula and was developed by Ferguson Research. The system was also fitted to a Formula 1 car.
When the Interceptor was upgraded to the 7 litre motor, Jensen tried to slot it into the FF but it didn’t fit thanks to the extra prop shaft and transfer case. Only about 320 FFs were built, so it’s a nice collectable today.
In 1970, Norcos sold the company to Kjell Qvale, an American car importer who brought in Donald Healey to run the company because the Jensen brothers had left in 1966. Qvale later owned De Tomaso for a while. One of Healey’s creations was the Jensen-Healey, a two door convertible fitted with a 2 litre Lotus powerplant. The car even won the SCCA championship in the US.
The Jensen GT was a fixed head version of the Jensen-Healey that was the last model built before the company went into receivership in 1976. Qvale had the foresight to split the company before the rot set in, and one side survived to provide spares and servicing to existing owners. The managers of this company figured out they could make continuation cars for the Interceptor, however this didn’t last long and the spares business was sold to a company that specialised in Jaguar parts.
There have been several attempts to bring Jensen back to life with the name and trademark being exchanged several times as enthusiasts tried to revive the Interceptor with modern parts and engines. The last attempt during the late 1990s brought the S-V8 prototype to the market as a new CV-8, which was in the classic mould of a Jensen – a 2 door convertible with an American V8, this time a Ford Cobra sourced 4.6 litre. After 20 cars were built, the company went into receivership and the remaining cars on the production line were sold off for spares.
Then a few years ago, another company called the Jensen Group announced that they would be building a new 6.4 litre car – to be launched in 2016. The “Interceptor 2” was shown off as a clay model using F-Type Jaguar rear lights and many design features from the original series 2 Interceptor. The plan was for Jensen Group to subcontract the Jensen International Automotive (JIA) company to build the new cars. JIA have a history of taking original series 2 Interceptors and “upsizing” them with a 6.2 litre Chevrolet crate engine, new gearbox and modern electronics. Something that I feel shouldn’t be accepted – with so few built, my view is that the Interceptor should be kept as original as possible. I think you destroy the provenance and desirability of the vehicle by undertaking such work.
The new Interceptors have never made it to market. It is quite interesting how many people try to revive old names, drop a bucket of money in and then everything keels over – despite the fact that existing low volume manufacturers seem to sell all that they build. Perhaps it’s a case of leaving sleeping dogs lie – just don’t touch a famous long lost brand. Typically, the personality and atmosphere can’t be revived!
In 2016 one of the prototypes from the 1930s was found in Canada! It was believed to be the second prototype that had to be re-bodied after an accident severely damaged it. It was sold on and ended up in Ottawa in 1957 still being used and called “the White Lady”. It was laid up in 1968 ready to be restored and it remained in partial restoration mode until 2016 when it was acquired and rebuilt to be in road-worthy condition.