Wonderful British quirkiness!
There was a time not too long ago when the UK was perhaps together with Italy, the world’s greatest sports car nation. A large number of brands built various roadsters, coupés and GT’s, many of which have today become classics. Some are obviously more well-known than others, and their fame is often reflected in the astronomical prices many of them trade at today – think for example Aston Martin. What most of them have in common though, except Aston Martin and one-two others, is that they’re no longer around. The late 70’s and 80’s were a period of demise for the British car industry and through that, a number of highly original and quirky brands were lost. That’s of course how a market economy should work but just like with Saab a few decades later, it also meant losing a bit of the originality the car industry was characterized by not too long ago. One of the quirkier brands from this period is no doubt West Bromwich-based Jensen Motors, builders of the Jensen Interceptor of which I was lucky enough to see one earlier this week. This week we’ll therefore look closer at a quirky English brand, its cars and, well, the British view of the world beyond the channel! Jensen started as an automobile body manufacturer back in the 50’s, notably for the British car maker Austin Healy. Next to that however, the founding brothers Jensen decided to produce their own sports cars in small series. The first in line was a car with neither a very selling name (C-V8), nor a nice design – some would go as far as call it outright ugly. Jensen’s designer Eric Neale certainly didn’t think so but given the client is always right, the C-V8 was pretty much a complete failure. It was the search for a somewhat more successful car than the C-V8 that led to the Interceptor, Jensen’s by far most well-known car, presented in 1966. This time the design had been commissioned to the Italians at Carrozzeria Touring (another company that would go bust a few years later) and although certainly more convincing than the C-V8, it was definitely still quite original. The front looked like many sports car in the day, the rear which in the UK became known as the “fish bowl”, is rather reminiscent of the 70’s AMC Pacer (which was of course designed after the Interceptor). If the exterior isn’t to everyone’s taste the interior is much more so, with a selection and quality of materials that led to the Interceptor being compared to high-end brands such as Aston Martin, Bristol or even Rolls-Royce. We’ll make a quick pit stop here for a small side story that I find a wonderful illustration of Jensen and British car industry of the time. Jensen in parallel to the Interceptor built another model referred to as the FF. That’s actually a historic car as it was the first non-SUV passenger car with four-wheel drive, and thus highly innovative for its time. Neither in the 60’s nor now however does it snow a lot in the UK so if you build a four-wheel drive car close to Birmingham, you have to assume it was also intended for exports. All good so far. It’s just that no one in the Jensen factory apparently thought about the fact that most of the world outside of the UK by now had the steering wheel on the left side. So the FF only came as right-hand drive. Let’s just say it wasn’t a tremendous recipe for export success… Back to the Interceptor, which during the 10-year production came in three series with only subtle design differences between them but where the MK III was by far the most produced. The MK III also came with three different bodies: the most common “glass bowl” saloon, the much rarer and arguably better-looking convertible, and the ultra-rare coupé with a plexiglass rear. All three series had Chrysler big block V8’s and 3-speed automatic transmissions, but whereas the first two shared the same 6.3 litre, 325 hp V8 as the predecessor C-V8, the MK III had an even bigger, 7.2 litre engine, however at 285 hp with less power. This all had to do with the new US emission rules that limited the power of large engines quite heavily. Not only was the 7.2 litre engine less powerful, it was of course also heavier, and just a tad thirstier: apparently we’re talking 25-30 litres per 100 km (8-10 MPG) … The convertible version of the Interceptor was presented in 1974 and is another example of Jensen’s risk-willingness or complete ignorance of the world beyond the UK, depending on how you see it. At this time most other brands were halting the development of new convertibles altogether, as it was widely expected that US safety authorities would enact a complete ban on open cars without roll-over bar. So Jensen was basically the only brand brave or foolish enough to launch a new convertible in this period. They were ultimately right given a ban was never enacted but they were kind of wrong anyway, since the whole company went bust only two years later, in 1976. By then they had produced about 500 convertibles, out of a total of some 6400 Interceptors. Although the big block Chrysler engines were quite bullet proof, the fact that they all had carburettors and lots of them, didn’t make them any easier to run or service. The carburettors had to be adjusted frequently for optimal performance, apparently up to as often as every 1000-2000 km. Cooling was another issue Interceptors were known to struggle with and then there was of course the same issue as with all other cars in the 70’s – rust. You can certainly convert the engines to injection and upgrade the cooling system, an idea that some won’t like at all given the car is then no longer original. It will however be far more drivable, and thus possibly a solution for those preferring to spend time on the road rather than in the garage. Cooling and carburettors aside, the Interceptor is known as quite a wonderful GT car, offering loads of 70’s luxury and charm typically for far less money than a comparable Aston or Rolls (who as we all know also tend to have an issue or two…). There aren’t many in the market which makes pricing uncertain, but good saloons tend to start somewhere around EUR 50′ with convertibles costing much more. If this wonderful example of British ingenuity combined with a dinosaur-engine of a type will certainly never see again, then please make sure that if you’re not mechanically talented, you know someone who is, and go for a car as perfect as possible, as finding replacement parts for an Interceptor risks being as hard as finding a UK prime minister who will stay longer than a few months!
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