It looked as though America was about to ban open cars so a headline writer at The Guardian titled a Jensen-Healey column, “The last open sports car?”. Well, it wasn't; America changed its mind on going topless. Another edition of the newspaper called it a “West Brom Bomb”. Alas, the Jensen-Healey was not as good as real West Bromwich Jensens.
Otherwise the words were accurate and well intentioned. I was careful with a caveat in the first paragraph. My brief half hour's drive was too short for more than a superficial assessment. It was a time, I felt, for hedging bets. I had been unconvinced by Kjell Qvale, the Norwegian-American who made a fortune selling sports cars in California and was by then frustrated. With no beautiful Austin-Healeys to sell he became president of Jensen, made Donald Healey chairman and Geoffrey Healey a director. It lasted until 1973 when Donald resigned, frustrated at the changes between prototype and production, not to mention endemic cam cover oil leaks from the Lotus engine, which had been designed with a dry sump for racing.
There was an unusual problem parking a Jensen-Healey on a hill. Dell'orto carburetor needles allowed petrol to drip into the sump, one of the misfortunes (others included water leaks) that dogged the car throughout its brief production life. Later estate-car versions, known as Jensen GTs, were laden with luxury but weighed down by US safety bumpers. Poundage was up, performance suffered and only 473 were ever made. Total Jensen-Healey production was 10,926 This edition of the newspaper spelt Tony Rudd Tondy Rudd, by way of illustrating why whimsical Fleet Street called it The Grauniad.
MOTORING GUARDIAN, 16 September 1972 ERIC DYMOCK on the new Jensen-Healey sports car. Jensen Motors has put into production the Jensen-Healey announced at the Geneva motor show in March. Production will soon reach 200 a week, with about 60 per cent bound for North America. Coinciding with the start of production, I had a brief, 30 miles’ drive, too short for more than a superficial examination, but enough to suggest that it is going to be a better car than it looked at Geneva.
The philosophy of the Jensen-Healey is straightforward. It is a replacement for the Austin-Healey 3000. A robust sporting car produced by the British Motor Corporation and latterly British Leyland, it dated back to the 100/4 of 1952. The Austin-Healey 100/6 of 1957 was made up till 1969, when American safety regulations made demands it could not meet. The design, by then nearly 20 years old, could not be changed to satisfy the rules and the “Big Healey” that had done so much for BMC and BLMC prestige, winning rallies like the 1961 and 1962 Alpines and the 1964 “Liege”, was dropped. The production line at Jensen in West Bromwich, where Healey bodies had been made, was summarily stopped, and sports car dealers all over America found themselves without one of their best sellers.
One of these dealers was Kjell Qvale, and no sooner had Lord Stokes pronounced sentence on the Healey than Qvale was in Britain negotiating a replacement. British Leyland was not inclined to build it, so to ensure that its subcontractor Jensen would, Qvale stepped on. He brought finance to help the firm over the crisis caused by the loss not only of the Healey, but also the Sunbeam Tiger, which Jensen made under contract for Rootes, later Chrysler. Donald Healey and his son Geoffrey set about the design of a new open 2-seater, and searched for a suitable engine.
The layout of the car sustained Healey’s tradition for strength, making use of as many standard components already in production as possible. The idea was to keep down the cost of development, buying parts cheaply. By motor industry standards, Jensen-Healey quantities are relatively small, but using the same rear suspension links as Vauxhall, which orders them by the 10,000, the Jensen benefits from other manufacturers’ volume production. The engine chosen for the Jensen-Healey was an inclined twin overhead camshaft 4-cylinder Lotus, developed for a sports car not yet announced, designed by former BRM chief engineer, Tony Rudd. This was installed in a Healey-designed body shell as developed by a Jensen team under Kevin Beattie, who had been responsible for the Jensen Interceptor.
Beattie had also been responsible for the brilliant four wheel drive FF, one of the world's safest cars, ironically forced out of production by the same American Federal Safety regulations that threw Austin-Healey production lines into idleness. While the Jensen-Healey is in the mould of the old Austin-Healey as a fast, open sports car in the style of the 1950s, it is completely new. In contrast to the old car's rather ponderous iron 6-cylinder engine, the die-cast aluminium Lotus four is high-revving and responsive. Also a contrast to the heavy steering and stiff gearchange which, in an inverted sense, many owners of the Austin-Healey actually enjoyed because, like exercise, they thought driving a thoroughbred sports car ought to be strenuous, the Jensen-Healey has light steering and an exemplary smooth change with a short crisp movement.
The Jensen-Healey would benefit from slightly firmer springing. It bounces over bumps instead of riding them smoothly but the handling is otherwise good. Acceleration is swift and although there was no chance to see how fast it would go, Jensen's claim of 120mph (193.1kph) will not be wide of the mark. It also claims 24mpg (11.8l/100km), which sounds about right for an efficient 2litre engine in a 2650lb (1202kg) car with low frontal area. The last of the big Healey 3000s had polished woodwork and a quality look about the interior. Alas, safety rules have changed that too and the Jensen-Healey has padded plastic, better to knock your head against, but less elegant. Any colour may be specified for upholstery but all you will get is black. By way of compensation the seats are comfortable, and with reclining backrests they can be adjusted to people of most sizes. Cushions and backrests are shaped to hold occupants in place on corners.
For a sports car in which sacrifices are implied for the pleasure of style or performance, or providing an excuse for leaving someone behind, luggage space is adequate and well shaped without being generous. A fuel capacity of 11gal (50l), giving a range of only just over 250miles (402.3kms) between fillings seems niggardly. If the Jensen-Healey is as rust-resistant and trouble-free as its predecessor and provided the legislators do not force it out of existence this car could keep the workers at West Bromwich in business for another 20 years. Priced in Britain, with tax, £1,810.
It wasn’t rust-resistant or trouble-free and didn’t keep West Brom going for 20 years. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 pulled the plug on Jensen. Sales of the splendid Interceptor slumped. American dealers subscribed briefly to the flawed Jensen-Healey but to no avail. Jensen foundered in 1976 and an unsympathetic Government, which would later subsidise Delorean to the tune of £75,000,000 to buy a few votes and a trifling popularity in Northern Ireland, refused a paltry million to save one of Britain's fine cars. Like MG, Jensen employed good craftsmen, honest workers - but not enough of them to create a political crisis and motivate a bail-out.
Pictures: (from top) Motoring Guardian column. Jensen-Healey 2-seater. Troublesome sloper Lotus engine.
Austin-Healey 100S at Goodwood. Exquisite lines with roll-over protection. Jensen FF II I road tested, still on trade-plates at Hyde Park Corner. Austin-Healey 3000 Mk III.
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