Kjell Qvale saves Jensen
In 1931 the two Jensen brothers Richard and Alan joined W. J. Smith Ltd, a coachbuilder in Britain, and within three years they had taken over the company and given it their name. Their first production car, the S-Type, appeared in 1935 and was a big open touring car with a V-8 engine. For the company to succeed, they desperately needed good sales in the USA.
They were available in the U.S. sporadically prior to the Interceptor, but the purchase of Jensen Motors Ltd by the pioneer car importer Kjell Qvale in the early 1970s brought the marque firmly back to the U.S. market with new financial backing and considerable sophistication about what was needed to entice well-heeled Americans into an unusual imported car.
Qvale's takeover worked wonders for Jensen Motors and improved the Jensen Interceptor considerably. When Qvale purchased the company it was building seven to nine of the Interceptor and its 4-wheel-drive variant the FF per week; but after the takeover the FF was sidelined and Jensen was concentrating on the 2 wheel drive Interceptor, building about 30 per week, about half of which was exported to the U.S. Jensen also created a new make, the Jensen-Healey
, and this open sports car was being produced at the rate of about 130 a week.
Qvale must have known that in the Jensen Interceptor he had a car basically well suited to the American prestige market - a large, heavy GT coupe with smooth styling and a practical, powerful American V-8 engine coupled with an excellent American automatic transmission. With this base it was mainly a matter of improving certain details of the car and getting the company ready to produce more of them as he developed the demand for them.
Qvale began importing the Interceptor II in early 1971 and found it an altogether pleasant car: something like a Thunderbird he claimed, but more compact, more tastefully styled and, totally unlike the Ford product, a serious road car. The only real issue was with the amount of internal space. Jensen placed the big Chrysler engine well back in the chassis for good weight distribution and this left a very small rear seating space in a rather large car. And there were some flaws in detail design like heat from the engine getting into the interior, some old-fashioned and not very durable upholstery work around the dash, look-alike switches for most controls, and considerable torque-steer under acceleration.
Bigger Engine, Less Power
By 1973 the Interceptor II had morphed into the Interceptor III, and unfortunately the last of the line. The Mark III had several changes ordered by Qvale to improve its appearance as well as some significant mechanical alterations. The 6-in.-wide styled steel wheels were replaced by 7-in.-wide cast alloy ones that looked much better, the leather interior was redesigned and the seatbelts were improved. On the mechanical side the 383-cu-in. Chrysler engine was replaced by a low-compression 440-cu-in. unit that developed less power (no surprise given the pollution frenzy sweeping the world at the time), ventilated discs replaced the solid disc brakes and both the air conditioning and engine cooling were improved.
The net effect, apart from the decrease in horses, was that the Interceptor had come of age – and was damn near perfect (when judged against its contemporaries). The previous models has plenty of positives, but with the Mark III the few negative ones were either eliminated or minimized and despite the greater quantity of production at Jensen the assembly quality and finish was even better. Anyone that remembers a “handmade” car from the 1960s or 1970s, if they are honest, will tell you that this did not always translate into a quality product.
But with the Interceptor III it most emphatically did. Road testers and owners alike all coveted the smoothness of the bodywork, in which seams where various panels joined each other were filled and smoothed before painting, and the quality of the paintwork. Likewise the interior, which was almost entirely done in supple Connolly leather, was fitted and finished beautifully and any trace of shabbiness motoring journalist found in the Interceptor II was gone. There were no body rattles on rough roads, although one road tester did pick up a slight wind leak around the driver's door – we are not sure if this was a common complaint.
Behind the Wheel
The standard equipment was such that those who liked ordering "all the extras" would have been frustrated: standard kit included an elaborate AM/FM-stereo-tape (8-track) system; most of the power assists expected in a luxury car from that era; remote outside mirror adjustment, a rarity on cars imported to the USA; air conditioning; and delightful small touches such as a hardbound (and very detailed) owner's manual, white gloves in the toolkit for dignified tyre changes, a time-delay switch that left the interior lights on for a few seconds after you got in or out of the car, and a console pushbutton for the fuel filler door.
Naturally the front seatbacks were adjustable for angle, and the steering column was telescopic for additional accommodation of differing physiques. The front seats on the Mark III were re-contoured and were much more comfortable. The rear seating was still extremely tight, but if the front seats were halfway forward or more rear passengers of moderate size could make themselves comfortable. Instrumentation was complete and nicely arranged for reading, but the Jensen lacked some of the better control ideas of contemporary cars like a steering-column wiper and washer switch. In all the Interceptor was a very comfortable car for two long-distance travellers - its interior noise level at highway speeds was as low as that of any GT car then going - and it could take four people short distances in reasonable comfort: in other words, a true 2 + 2, albeit a rather large one.
On the Road
Though the Interceptor was a fairly large, heavy car and one that sounded and performed pretty much like any other locally built car, it lacked the cumbersome feel of a typical U.S. luxury barge in traffic. The power steering was quick and had good feel, the front body corners were well defined and vision to the rear was reasonably good. On the road, straight or winding, the Interceptor was a car that remained at ease going fast. If the winding road was smooth you would find the Interceptor had stable, near-neutral response to the steering wheel; that torque-steer problem of the Interceptor II was a thing of the past.
We believe that Jensen switched from using the Pirelli Cinturatos (as fitted to the Mark II) to Dunlop SP tyres. We do not know why the switch was made, but in any road test we can find the Pirellis were considered superior. Perhaps that is why some road-testers felt the Mark II had better cornering power. Dunlop had developed the SP tyre for the Jaguar XJ with its new variable-ratio steering; the Jensen didn’t have this and the Pirelli’s would have been a better bet. The Jensen's one serious deficiency emerged when it was driven with a full passenger load or cornered briskly on an uneven road surface. There was not much room for the live rear axle to move up and down, so it would tend to snub quickly and sharply on bumps under either of these conditions.
The result was a poor ride when it was loaded, or skittery cornering on rough surfaces. What would have improved things out of sight would have been IRS. Other elements of the Interceptor's road behaviour were better. Braking dive was at a minimum, the pedal effort required for braking was near perfect (it was too light in the II), the brakes pulled evenly in normal-to-hard use and there was very little squeal from the discs and pads. Interestingly, Autocar during their road test found that brake fade was almost exactly what it was with the Mark II despite the change to vented discs.
Engine performance with the low-compression 440 engine wasn't what it used to be with the high-compression 383. The Jensen II was good for a 0-60 mph in 7.4 sec and the standing quarter mile in 16.0; the III took over 10 seconds to get to 60 and over 17 sec to cover the quarter. But the III ran smoothly, without hesitation or surge in normal driving. Owner troubles in the first few years of ownership seemed to mainly relate to cold starts, where it could take 10-15 pumps of the accelerator pedal to get the III going in the morning. Fuel consumption was a little heavier for the III than for the II, probably because the engine engineers decided not to try to maintain performance.
The Chrysler automatic transmission was a near-perfect adjunct to the huge V-8 engine; it simply lets the engine get on with its smooth, unfussy delivery of torque and all the driver needed to do was mash the pedal and go. If you wanted to downshift manually for braking or cornering the Chrysler automatic didn’t respond as quickly as, say, a Mercedes 3-speed automatic; otherwise it was a wholly satisfactory piece of machinery.