The story of Jensen starts in 1934, when the brothers Alan and Richard formed Jensen Motors Limited. Alan Jensen, born 1906, and his brother Richard, born 1909, were drawn inexorably into an industry in which they were to make a name for themselves.
They both displayed a talent for creativity, Richard being the more artistic of the pair, but Alan showing a flair for acquiring the basic discipline that was to serve them in such good stead over the years to come. A relatively undistinguished academic career for both eventually led them, imperceptibly yet steadily, towards fame and fortune.
Richard became an apprentice with Wolseley and Alan acquired a job in the drawing office of Serck Radiators. However, it was not a close association with the industry that first fired their youthful imagination, but the arrival of a friend in a home-made car which had both brothers swearing that they could do better if given the chance. An indulgent father saw to it that they had their chance.
Re-modelling The Austin Chummy
Mr Jensen, believing that four wheels were better, and much safer, than two, was delighted to encourage their interest in the world of the motor car - as against the motor cycles which were all the rage amongst the younger set - and bought the brothers their first car, a 1923 Austin Chummy, for £65.
The engine had barely cooled down following its arrival at the Jensen home before the brothers started to strip, redesign, refashion, remake and remodel the Chummy into their idea of what a small, two-seat, low-capacity, lightweight sporting car should look like.
Arthur Wilde, Chief Engineer of the Standard Motor Company
It is doubtful if the last dab of paint was dry before the two enthusiasts set off for Shelsley Walsh and the famous hill-climb. It just so happened that the brothers' car was noticed at Shelsley by one Arthur Wilde, Chief Engineer of the Standard Motor Company. Wilde, impressed by the lines of the Jensen's re-creation, invited them to carry out a similar exercise on one of his Standard 9 chassis. Again, the brothers combined the best of their talents to good effect, although the one-off radiator that Alan designed and had made-up, brought him to the attention of senior management in a manner which left him in no doubt that Serck expected his best efforts to be directed along lines laid down by his employers!
However, the time was rapidly approaching when neither brother would be overly impressed by the thoughts of his employers: they were on their way with all the enthusiasm and ambition of burning youth, harnessed to the lessons they were both learning in their day-to-day activities. Even in the 1920S, the British motor industry had its publicity machine and, of course, the press was just as eager to cover a good story as it is today. The redesigned Standard 9 was a good story in anyone’s book, and many were the words of encouragement and praise directed towards the two Jensen brothers.
Jensen brothers Richard and Alan in their original Austin Seven, which they heavily modified.
The first car built by Jensen and to carry a Jensen badge, the 1937 3½ liter as seen at the Welsh rally. The car was powered by a Ford 3.6 liter V8 engine, which drove through a three speed gearbox and twin speed rear axle.
1938 Jensen 3½ liter convertible.
1949 Jensen Inteceptor, which was powered by an Austin six-cylinder four liter engine, and had a top speed of over 100 miles per hour. It could accelerate from 0 - 70 mph in 17.8 seconds. The Inteceptor name was later revived for the high-performance coupes of the mid 1960's.
1950 Jensen Inteceptor 2 door - entered in the Monte Carlo Rally.
1951 Jensen Inteceptor 2 door hardtop.
Jensen CV-8, powered by a 5.9 liter V8 engine, giving the car a top speed of 132 miles per hour. The standard features on this car included limited-slip differential, disc brakes to all four wheels, seat belts, reclining seats, radio, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, two speed wipers with washers, front and rear heating and demisting.
1961 Jensen 541-S sedan, powered by a 4 liter six cylinder engine.
Jensen FF Coupe.
Interior of the Jensen-Healey.
The Jensen Inteceptor FF - for its time it was arguably the safest car on the road, as it featured Ferguson four-wheel drive and Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock brakes.
The Jensen-Healey, which was fitted with a 16 valve 2 liter 140 bhp Lotus built engine.
1974 Jensen Inteceptor Series III powered by the awesome 7.2 liter Chrysler V8.
Jensen Inteceptor SP ... or Six Pack. It was a specially carburetored version of the standard model endowing it with fearsome performance and matching fuel consumption.
Jensen FF Interior.
Jensen FF In Profile.
So many in fact that, almost as a direct consequence, Alan Jensen was introduced to Avon Bodies, a company specialising in the production of small series specialised bodywork, and asked not only to join the company but also to design a production version of the Jensen Standard 9. This Alan did, and the Avon Standard was only the first of a series of cars that Jensen and Avon were to produce.
Brother Richard, meanwhile, had left Wolseley to continue his' apprenticeship with Joseph Lucas, but still his enthusiasm burned un dimmed and it was not too long before the brothers were to come together again. Their big break came when they were asked to join Edgbaston Garages Limited, a thriving concern mainly in the garage business, but also with ancillary interests in other aspects of the motor industry. Nothing if not adventurous and keen, the two brothers completely revitalised certain aspects of the operation while introducing new and more profitable sidelines to the business - including staying open on a Sunday, a thing unheard of in those days.
Naturally, such talent and industriousness was noticed and, despite some opposition, the two brothers were invited onto the board of the company. It was not long before the two were looking around for something that would not only broaden their horizons, but also remove some of the personal pressure they were working under (to some extent, apparently caused with personality conflict with other Board members).
W. J. Smith and Sons
They found it in the shape of W. J. Smith and Sons, a bodybuilding concern which was in an organizational mess. Such was the growing reputation of the two Jensens that they were given the opportunity to come in at the top as joint Managing Directors. This was an arrangement which suited both the brothers admirably and one which allowed them to dovetail their respective talents in such away as to change completely the shape, size and scope of the Smith operation.
Richard quickly moved in on the business administration side of things, while Alan started with the work-shop-floor side of the firm. While Alan re-organized and re-equipped the shop floor, Richard pondered then acted with the decision that initially the interests of the company would best be served by building up the van and coach-building side of the business before moving onto the production of car bodies.
That was exactly what they did, but not before a few dramas were enacted and not without taking care to build up a team of excellent craftsmen and engineers, many of whom were to spend the rest of their working lives with the two Jensen brothers. The brothers were extremely businesslike; Richard eventually had his way, and a small car-body building shop was set up.
Jensen Motors Limited
The company changed its name to Jensen Motors Limited in 1934: the brothers had really arrived. From then on, the reputation of Jensen grew. It was a name that quickly became associated with high standards of craftsmanship and engineering excellence, and this was reflected in the popularity of the bodies the company produced for Wolseley, Singer, Standard and Morris chassis.
The Clark Gable Jensen
Jensen even got involved in record breaking, building the very special bodies for a series of record-breaking MGs owned by Ron Horton. Internationally, Jensen's big break came when the then King of Hollywood, Clark Gable, asked Jensen to build a body on a V8-engined Ford chassis. The result was an extremely handsome two-door, four-seat tourer, which combined the size and implicit power of the American chassis with the inherent taste and balance of good European design and craftsmanship.
Naturally, replicas were in some demand, but initially the Ford Motor Company indicated that it did not really want to co-operate with what to them was a minute and obscure company in the Midlands. A chance meeting with Edsel Ford and a discussion on the merits and potential of the Gable car led to a change of heart, and Jensen were able to secure sufficient supplies of the chassis to justify the production of a series of the car.
Of course, the next step was obvious. Having built up the company, having built up a reputation and having built up the necessary background and expertise, the Jensen brothers were not going to be happy until a car rolled out of the door with the name Jensen on the front, instead of having to share the spotlight with the chassis manufacturer.
The Jensen "White Lady"
The speed at which all this was happening was incredible by today's standard. Not for the brothers long periods of gestation, not for them endless meetings with market research specialists and economic forecasters, not even for them the endless boring committee meetings. So, in 1934, work began on the first prototype Jensen, the White Lady, a four-seater touring car which featured a box-section chassis, a steel floor section and the use of transverse half-elliptic springs for the suspension.
Power was provided by a 3.6-liter Ford V8 engine producing 120 bhp, which was fed through a three-speed gearbox with ratios that provided 60 mph at 2000 rpm, and allowed the White Lady to gather up her skirts and accelerate from 0-60 mph in 19 seconds. A very unusual feature was the use of a two-ratio rear axle, which effectively gave the car six forward speeds.
Despite the fact that the White Lady was first off the board and the first car made by Jensen with the Jensen name on it, pride of place in production was given to a more handsome, more restrained four-door sedan which first saw the light of day in 1935. Mechanically similar to the original car, the saloon body added another 100 Ib to the weight and knocked around 10 mph off the top speed.
Even so, 80 mph for such a luxurious motor car was no mean achievement in those days. The car made its debut to almost universal approval. Press reports were very favourable and the initial success of the Jensen brothers as motor manufacturers was assured. The S type, as the sedan was known, went on to stay in production until 1939 and to be built in both touring and coupe form, each new model receiving the same ready public acceptance.
The Jensen H Series
Of course, one car was not enough for Richard and Alan, so development and design continued to proceed apace. They even went so far as to build a prototype, on a Steyr-engined chassis, for the 1938 Motor Show, although the car never went into actual production. What did was the H series, a long-wheelbase version of the S, powered by a straight-8, 4.2-Iitre Nash engine.
Around 5 inches longer than the S, the H was equally well received and, in 1939, the He version was produced, which featured coil-spring rear suspension. A few, but only a very few, were fitted with 4.3-liter V12 Lincoln engines, the smooth power of these units serving to complement the Jensen brothers' reputation for high standards of performance and craftsmanship.
By this time, the war clouds were beginning to build over Europe and, in time, the Jensen brothers, and indeed the British nation, were to be glad of the fact that neither brother neglected the commercial vehicle side of the company, which had provided the much-needed springboard for their car manufacturing successes.
Jensen Commercial and Military Vehicles
One outstanding vehicle which Jensen produced was designed to carry high bulk, low density loads and which powered initially by a Ford V8 and then eventually a 4.7-liter P6 Perkins diesel engine, driving through a five-speed box, proved to be an exceptionally fast and light vehicle which delighted road haulage operators with its reliability and capacity.
It was that kind of design talent which enabled the company to switch quite quickly to the production of ambulances, fire engines and other vehicles for the Services, even modifying tanks for amphibious use. Such was the production expertise of the two brothers that, at the end of World War 2, they were able to switch back to the production of civilian vehicles with the minimum of dislocation and begin a new chapter in their company's history by designing bodywork for Lea Francis
The Jensen PW
However, by 1946 they were back in the market with a car of their own, the PW. This vehicle was particularly unusual in being designed as a six-seat saloon featuring an alloy and steel body built on a timber frame. It was originally intended that the PW be powered by a unit of Jensen's own design, but this aspect of the project was quietly shelved and the car first appeared with a Nash engine.
It used a peripheral-type chassis with tubular cross members and box-section side members. Another unusual feature of the car was the suspension system, which was built as two separate sub-assemblies, making manufacturing a much simpler proposition. If anything, the PW design was far too successful. Shown for the first time at a Cavalcade of the British Motor Industry in Hyde Park, the car attracted the attention of Leonard Lord and other Austin executives. The net result was the swift production of the Austin Sheer line, a car so similar in many ways that Jensen could not possibly compete with Austin's resources on the production of such a vehicle.
Supplying The Austin 4 Liter Sheerline Engine
While Leonard Lord may have been a tough businessman, with his priority list headed by what was good for Austin, he was by no means unsympathetic when Richard went to see him and explained their dilemma. Although refusing to come to any agreement over the Sheerline, Lord did offer Jensen a supply of 4-liter Sheerline engines. Also, they discussed the fact that Austin was interested in producing a sports model, and Lord asked Richard if Jensen would be interested in submitting some design proposals.
As could be anticipated, nothing suited the Jensen company more; their design, based on an Austin A40 chassis and powered by a 1.2-liter engine, resulted in Jensen receiving a contract to produce bodies for a two-door, four-seat tourer. To a world starved of the good things of life for almost ten years, the A40 sports, which appeared in 1950, brought back a glimpse of the good days before the war.
The Austin A40 Sports
Although by no means the only competitor in this sector of the market, the A40 Sports was so successful that Jensen produced 3500 bodies for this model. The profits from the A40 Sports contract, both real and projected, were channelled by the brothers into another car of their own design. This was to be the Interceptor, a name which is by now synonymous with Jensen standards of quality and luxury. Having secured a supply of engines, the 4-liter Sheerline units that Lord offered Richard Jensen, the design staff of Jensen went ahead with the building of what appeared to be a rather larger version of the A40 Sports model, although the Interceptor actually saw the light of day before the Austin model.
As it transpired, the Interceptor arrived on the market with a top speed in excess of 100 mph and with the capability of accelerating from 0 to 70mph in 17.8 seconds. It was an instant success. Boom times were coming to the British Industry and the Interceptor filled the bill for those top executives who wanted a fast, powerful and luxurious car to whistle them around the country. Jensen forged ahead with plans for more cars of their own.
The Jensen 541
So it was that Jensen showed the 541 model at the 1953 Earls Court Motor Show. By far the most interesting aspect of this particular car was the extensive use of glassfibre bodywork panels. Using the experience gained in the commercial vehicle field, the body of the 541 consisted of three separate mouldings, thus making the body easy to produce, light in weight, and virtually corrosion proof as well, as being extremely easy to repair.
Door panels, however, for this powerful four-seater continued to be made of aluminum. Using a peripheral chassis, the 541 also featured independent front suspension, using coil springs and wishbones, while the rear suspension used semi-elliptic springs and a panhard rod. Powered by a 4-liter, six-cylinder Austin engine, the 541 had a claimed top speed of 112 mph, making it a very desirable car.
Development continued on this model and the 541 De Luxe, first shown in October 1956, is claimed to be the first production four-seater car to be offered with disc brakes on all four wheels. Further facelifts to the model continued, and the 1960 541S model featured a four-speed automatic transmission and seat belts. Other commitments entered into by Jensen at this time included the production of a 24 cwt commercial vehicle called the Tempo, which featured front-wheel drive and all-independent suspension.
Building Austin Gypsy Bodies
Jensen were also contracted to BMC to produce the bodies for the Austin Gypsy; an all-terrain-type vehicle which eventually died a natural death after a sales collision with the Land-Rover. On the organizational side, the company had not remained static and a number of moves culminated in all the resources of the company being concentrated in a factory at Kelvin Way, West Bromwich, in 1956.
Jensen found themselves in need of financial backing as the UK motor industry moved into one of its most turbulent periods at the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, times which were to see many famous names either depart from the industry or amalgamate, Accordingly, the two Jensen brothers began negotiations with the Norcross Group, the eventual result of which was that Jensen came under the financial protection of the Group.
The Jensen CV-8
By 1960, a contract which Jensen had with Pressed Steel to produce bodies for the Volvo P1800 coupe
model had been terminated, and this left the company free to concentrate on developing a successor to the 541 model. This proved to be the CV-8, an extremely handsome car which had a 5.9-liter V8 Chrysler engine fitted into a chassis of rather unusual design. This had as its basis a parallel-tube frame, the designer's contention being that it would be easier to make major design changes in the car with this form ofconstruction than with a chassis of more orthodox design.
The chassis also featured two sheet-metal cross members and the whole thing weighed 100 lb less than the chassis of the 541. Fitted with a 305 bhp engine, it was inevitable that the new car should prove to be faster than its predecessor and, with a top speed of 132 mph at 4800 rpm, it certainly was. Power was fed through a three-speed Chrysler Torqueflite automatic transmission and a Powrlok limited-slip differential, and the whole car smacked of that imperious power and aggression which was to stand it in good stead with those who could afford it.
Working on the Carrol Shelby-designed V8-powered Sunbeam Alpine
Meanwhile, the company had been co-operating on the development of a production version of a Carrol Shelby-designed V8-powered Sunbeam Alpine
which came to be known as the Tiger. About 7500 of these cars were built, the bulk of them coming to the USA. Chrysler's takeover of Rootes, and the fact that the Tiger was powered by the Ford V8 engine, ensured the demise of what was considered a good motor car. Even so, Chrysler proved to be impressed with the quality of Jensen work and the company did do a lot of work on developing prototypes for Chrysler, all of which proved to be stillborn.
Things were beginning to change on the organizational side of Jensen. The two brothers were beginning to get on in years and new aggressive young men were beginning to make their voices heard in the corridors and in the boardroom. For a while, the company lacked the steadying hand of really firm leadership. Alan Jensen retired as an executive director in 1963, but retained his seat on the board, while brother Richard gave up the Chairmanship and the post of Chief Engineer in 1966, finally retiring from the board in 1967.
The Jencen Inteceprot P66
Despite these internal problems, Jensen continued to develop new ideas for cars, even though the direction of these ideas suffered from a lack of clear thinking about what was to be done with them. The Interceptor P66 was introduced in 1965, priced lower than the CV -8, effectively killing the sales chances of the older car without having the production facilities or finance necessary to produce the newer car in any numbers. However, the real struggle was about what direction the company was to take. This battle was eventually won by Kevin Beattie, then the Chief Engineer, who had joined Jensen in 1959.
While the Jensen brothers tended towards a policy of developing the P66, Beattie's answer to the problem was to adopt a much more aggressive approach. He pressed for a radical re-think of the company's policy. He was convinced that only Italian styling could help them develop a completely new image. Given permission by a majority board decision, he visited the styling houses of Ghia, Touring and Vignale. From all the designs submitted for a new body, Beattie chose the Touring one, even though he had to offer the production contract to Vignale, as the successful stylists simply did not have the facilities to produce the body in any quantity.
Meanwhile, back at West Bromwich, the company had continued a parallel development programme and came up with the CV-8 FF model, a four-wheel-drive version of the CV-8 which won the Don Safety Award following its introduction at the Motor Show of 1965, but which the Company was not in a position to build if Beattie's plans were to reach fruition. Kevin Beattie pressed ahead. From board approval for his plans to production of the first car took only ten months. Beattie was in a hurry. He decided that the distance between his production plant and Vignale's body shop was too far, and bought the jigs, shipping them over to England.
The New Jensen Inteceptor
The task of re-training labour to make the new car was proving difficult, and the division of effort was soon reflected in the sales for the company's existing models. For Jensen to stay in business, Beattie's car had to be a success. It was an outstanding success. Introduced in 1966, the new Jensen Interceptor was timed exactly right for the market. It fulfilled two basic needs; it was a car the market wanted and a car that Jensen needed. The handsome lines of the new Interceptor caused a sensation. The performance from the 6.2-liter Chrysler V8 engine was dazzling, with 140 mph top speed and a 0-60 mph time of only 7.6 seconds.
Beattie then capitalised on Jensen's experience by unveiling at the same time, a four-wheel-drive version which assured the company of a technological advantage that few companies could match. It was just as well that the company was well armed though. 1967 saw the axe fall on the contracts with BMC and Rootes and drastic cuts had to be made in the labour force as men were laid off. Despite the best efforts of management, the Interceptor range alone could not carry the company. The appointment of the charismatic Carl Duerr as Consulting Managing Director served to keep the name Jensen in the forefront of people's minds, but this in itself was insufficient to keep the company afloat.
A take-over of Jensen by merchant bankers William Brandt, who bought all the equity of Jensen in June 1968, proved to be the first major step in the right direction, and the appointment by Brandt's of Alfred Vickers as an investigating consultant proved to be the next. Vickers was a brilliant manager, it was he who brought a rationale and style to the management of Jensen which slowly pulled the company out of its despondant attitude and instilled fresh enthusiasm in everyone. His appointment as General Manager brought fresh hope. However, it was production that Vickers wanted and it was while casting around that the name Kjell Qvale entered the Jensen story.
Qyale had built up a very big business centred on the west coast of the USA by specialising in British pedigree cars, particularly the Austin Healey. BMC's decision to cut the Austin- Healey out of production had hit his prospects hard and he was looking for something to fill what was a very large gap indeed. It was natural that the four interested parties most concerned with the demise of the Austin-Healey-Brandt's, Healey, Jensen and Qvale-should get together to discuss if something could be done. Qvale was a man of action, his first move being to assess the situation and then buy the major shareholding in Jensen. His second was to appoint Donald Healey and his son Geoffrey to the Board.
Qvale assumed the role of President, Vickers was offered, and accepted, the role of Managing Director and Donald Healey was made Chairman of Jensen. Now, with Qvale's quality network of distributors throughout the US, Jensen could plan on expansion, and from expansion would come the profits which could be earmarked for the next stage of the Jensen story. Donald Healey had not been idle during the later years of the Austin-Healey success story, nor had age diminished the keenness of his mind or the drive and ambition in him to produce sports cars. Furthermore, always practical and pragmatic, Healey recognised that legislation and not engineering creativity were to be the major parameters of sports-car production in the future.
Designing A Sports Car For The America - The Jensen-Healey
In particular, he acknowledged the fact that it would be the regulations governing sports-car acceptability in the USA which would prove to be of major importance. Accordingly, he had laid down a design for a sports car which fitted the US regulations exactly. His prototype was powered by a 2.3-liter Vauxhall, single-overhead-camshaft, four-cylinder engine, and here, coincidence played a major part in yet another phase of the story. Colin Chapman, head of Lotus, had arrived at the point where he wanted to manufacture cars which his company, as far as was financially possible, could produce from its own resources. Using the basic parameters of the Vauxhall engine, he had designed and developed a dimensionally similar unit which featured a sixteen-valve cylinder head.
The resulting engine was not only very pollution-free in operation and economical yet powerful, but was also designed as a 'slant' engine, which meant that designers could use a low body line when designing new shapes, just about the line that Healey had drawn, in fact. With 140 bhp being produced at 6500 rpm and a 130 lb ft of torque available at 4800 rpm, Healey had the power unit he needed. The rest fitted together with surprising ease. A four-speed Chrysler box was used, a simple but effective Vauxhall-based suspension design was approved, featuring double wishbones, coil springs and hydraulic-piston-type shock absorbers at the front, with a live axle at the rear being supported by diagonal and trailing links, coil springs and telescopic dampers.
The unitary-construction body was simple, clean and uncluttered. When it was introduced at the Geneva Show of 1972 as the new Jensen-Healey, the Company now had that extra production line it needed, Healey had his involvement back and Qvale had the guaranteed supply of quality products that he needed for his American showrooms. Alfred Vickers had done his job. It was time to move on; Kevin Beattie took over, but in 1974 Kjell Quale appointed himself as Managing Director. So, in 1974, Jensen and Healey were entwined, each drawing from the other that which they needed.
Fast - In A Straight Line
Ovale's Jensen-Healey, though sound in concept, was poor in detail execution. Jensen's premature approach to Lotus for 2-liter twin-cam engines resulted in the acquisition of under-developed and unproven units. This move did not endear the Jensen-Healey to the press who were quick to brand the first cars as noisy and nasty. That they were also quite fast, at least in a straight line, was clearly not enough. The new model stood little chance of reviving Jensen's ailing fortunes; even Jensen fans were calling it an overweight Triumph Spitfire
, and if that was unkind it was not unfair and Jensen knew it.
The Healey was the key to Jensen's fate. As production continued, so quality improved and as each successive car rolled off the production line so the Healey looked more and more like a viable product. However, it still lacked the excitement to turn it into a true Jensen. It was beginning to look all too much the classic case of too little and too late. The company was already borrowing heavily crippling interest rates, and with the Interceptor experiencing something like social rejection with its frighteningly thirsty 7.2-liter V8, Jensen's future was collapsing like a pack of cards. In a desperate attempt to give the Healey a quality image and a more confident identity, Jensen brought out a GT version - a sort of sports wagon after the style of Reliant's GTE - but although it was undoubtedly the best Healey it was still a Healey and so inherited a rather poor reputation, maybe unfairly so, but mud sticks.
Jensen’s in production in 1975 were the Interceptor convertible and the Jensen-Healey range. Five million pounds were needed to finance a new generation of models but for Jensen, in 1976, this was the end of the road. The curtain rose on Jensen's final scene on 17 August when the company's remaining assets were auctioned off, which included only three cars. Two of the cars were Interceptor Coupes and the third an Interceptor prototype which never reached production. The cars went under the hammer for a disappointing UK£33,000 and finally Jensen had been put to rest.
Also see: Jensen Car Reviews