In the 50s and 60s Britain churned out a lot of sports cars. Now feted as great British classics, most of them weren’t actually aimed at the UK market: in those dark post-war days Britain was all about export or die, which mostly meant America.
MG, Healey, Triumph and Jaguar et al did a cracking job of flogging cars to America. Obviously, in true British style, they didn’t follow up this success by actually creating new models to replace them when they aged. So they either withered away, like the Austin Healey, or soldiered on, like Spinal Tap, appealing to an increasingly specialist audience.
Quite a lot of these low volume Transatlantic cars were made by West Brom’s very own carrozerria Jensen, including the Austin Healey, Volvo P1800 and Sunbeam Tiger.
When demand for these cars began to faulter in the 60s Jensen’s slightly bewildered management started searching around for a way to keep its factory busy. They decided that The Thing To Do was to design and build their own contender. This they did.
Designed by in-house stylist Eric Neale the resulting P66 drop top was pretty dull and under-powered. Jensen’s new Chief Engineer, Kevin Beattie, recently poached from Rootes, quickly saw that the new car would be a flop and fought for a new strategy. The result was the Jensen Interceptor we know and love, which is another story.
The P66 – which would have been known as an Interceptor – may have been shelved but the desire to offer America a new low cost two seater hadn’t left Jensen. That, and the realisation that flogging the new Interceptor to death (which they did very well) couldn’t keep the big factory busy.
When Kjell Qvale took over Jensen it created the perfect storm for a new Austin Healey replacement. Qvale had made his money in California by selling British classics to Americans (including Jensens) and, since the demise of the Austin Healey, his showrooms were short of new product.
While pushing the new Interceptor project Beattie hadn’t lost faith in the idea of a smaller convertible aimed at America. With Qvale’s encouragement and cash in the late 60s he began developing a ‘new’ contender, badged a Jensen-Healey. This would be a powerful, inexpensive two seater to replace the hole left in the market by the demise of the Austin Healey.
Since Jensen made Americanised sports cars for other people, was owned by an American sports car distributor and had just launched the successful Interceptor, you’d probably be expecting quite a lot from the new car. And people did.
Developed very quickly and utilising a brand new, high tech Lotus twin cam 2 litre engine, the Jensen-Healey looked svelte, was practical and good to drive. It potentially had the sports car market to itself, since the major players were exiting rapidly amidst fears that America was about to outlaw convertibles due to safety concerns. The Jensen was the only new drop top launched in this period, which may suggest brilliance or blind lunacy. The rapid development programme, the stress of which is alleged to have caused Beattie’s early death, was a result of Qvale’s urgent need to fill the factory and generate cash. Of course, sports cars developed quickly by small companies are not necessarily a recipe for success. And so it was with the Jensen-Healey. As with many other cars ‘blessed’ with Lotus input – see also DeLorean – the car suffered catastrophic reliability problems. As most were exported to America before the problems arose, Jensen had to fix the issues at arm’s length. This took time, created crippling warranty claims and sealed the car’s reputation for unreliability. It probably didn’t help either that the Jensen-Healey wasn’t built very well (a problem shared with the P66) and its looks split opinion. The decision to launch with a fragile race-derived 2 litre engine rather than a low tech V6 or V8 also confused the American market. Certainly it wasn’t an Austin Healey.
All of which seems odd considering that aesthetics killed the car’s 60s Jensen predecessor and it was looks that sold the Interceptor. A hastily launched Mk2, which addressed these problems, proved too late to solve the crisis. Most assume that Jensen failed in 1976 because the ’70s fuel crisis killed Interceptor sales. In reality it was the poor performance and hefty warranty claims around the Jensen-Healey that pushed it under.
In four years of production from 1972 to 1976 just over 10,000 Jensen-Healeys were built, making it the company’s most successful own-brand model. By comparison, during 8 years production iver 40,000 Austin Healeys were sold.
Today the Jensen-Healey suffers from its underdog status. Its reputation as a ‘typical’ under developed 70s British sports car plus the understandably unappealing mix of recalcitrant Lotus engine with iffy Jensen build quality means prices are low, few have survived and they’re generally overlooked.
Which is a mighty shame. A decent Jensen-Healey costs less now than a similar standard MGB. Admittedly it’s a very different purchase proposition: where the B is plentiful, simple and durable, the Jensen is rare, complicated and fragile. And yet, it doesn’t have to be. Find a good, sorted car and you buy into a rewarding classic.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got behind the wheel of a Jensen-Healey for the first time. Being a lover of the alternative choice it was on my original wish list when I set up Great Escape Cars. But I can’t say it was a car I really loved. The looks are fine with me, but don’t set my pulse racing. Up close it’s a curious mix of clean and stylish and strangely cumbersome: the Federalised bumpers are at least better than those on a Fiat 124 Spider, but they were obviously an after-thought. The scalloped headlamps, reminiscent of an Alfa Spider, seem at odds with the rest of the car. With car design going all TR7-wedgy in the 70s the Jensen-Healey feels a bit out of time.
The interior, though, is much better. Jensen pioneered safety features not found on mainstream cars until years later so there’s a nicely styled and thickly padded impact-resistant fascia strewn with instruments, comfortable and spacious seats and a liberal splash of what looks like real wood. There is also a good size boot, very simple and effective roof and decent visibility.
On the move the Jensen Healey feels more sporting than sporty. There is power, albeit not lots of it, and the motor feels a little coarse. The gearbox is good but the car doesn’t really like to be hustled or hurried. With comfy ride and slowish steering this is a car for the Interstate rather than the B-road. It’s very reminiscent of a grown up MGB, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I could imagine munching through a couple of hundred miles and emerging relatively fresh, but this isn’t a car I’d tackle the Evo Triangle in. A shame, because the engine has race car pedigree.
The Jensen Healey feels like a project doomed to failure from the start. Like the later DeLorean, the idea of a small company flogging a volume car to customers 6,000 miles away never seemed to strike those involved as risky or odd. Particularly when Jensen had lost previous contracts, including for the Volvo P1800, due to poor quality.
But line the Jensen up against contemporaries like the TR6, Alfa Spider and Triumph Stag and you have a car that can easily hold its own. As a classic there is a lot to recommend it: rarity, useability and pedigree. I’d recommend a well sorted Mk2 over a MGB any day, and passengers would doubtless thank you for it, reliahing the space, comfort and ride quality.
Or seek out one of the ultra rare Jensen GTs, the stylish Scimitar competitor that stumbled and fell before it could really find its feet.