Fast Forerunner: The Jensen Interceptor and FF

If you think the 1980 Audi Quattro was the world’s first all-wheel-drive sports coupe, you’re wrong: Almost 15 years before the ur-Quattro, the tiny British automaker Jensen introduced a powerful GT car featuring full-time four-wheel drive and even anti-lock brakes. This is the history of the Chrysler-powered Jensen Interceptor and its high-tech offshoot, the AWD Jensen FF.

1976 Jensen Interceptor Convertible badge

THE JENSEN BROTHERS

England in the 1920s and 1930s abounded with small automakers as enthusiastic young entrepreneurs like William Lyons tried their hand at building cars. Many of these small firms began as what today we would call tuners; others were coachbuilders, developing bespoke bodywork for existing chassis. Some eventually graduated to building chassis of their own, although most relied on engines purchased from larger companies like Austin or Standard.

Alan and Richard Jensen were brothers, born in Moseley, Birmingham, in the early 1900s. Like many young men of their time, they developed a love of cars from an early age. Of the two, Dick was more focused on engineering while Alan’s talents ran to business and administration, but they shared a common interest and they worked well together. In 1928, they built their first car, dubbed Jensen Special Number One, based on a 1923 Austin Seven “Chummy.”

In 1931, the Jensen brothers became managing directors of the coachbuilder W.J. Smith & Sons, revamping and revitalizing its business. The brothers assumed full control of the firm in 1934 and renamed it Jensen Motors Ltd.

Although Jensen’s bread and butter was commercial and military vehicles, the firm also built sports-luxury cars for well-heeled buyers. The first of these was the 1935 “White Lady,” a stylish touring car on a Ford chassis, powered by a well-tuned version of Ford’s well-known 3,622 cc (221 cu. in.) L-head V8. This was followed by the S-type and long-wheelbase H-type “3½ Litre” cars, also Ford-powered, which sold in modest numbers through 1940.

1939 Jensen S-type 3½ Litre saloon front 3q © 1984 Mighty Antar (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
A 1939 Jensen S-type 3½ Litre, powered by a highly tuned 3,622 cc (221 cu.) Ford ‘flathead’ V8. (Photo: “1939 Jensen S-type” © 1984 Mighty Antar; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

THE AUSTIN ERA

Unlike Jaguar, Jensen never had the resources to develop its own engines. Prewar Jensens generally used Ford engines and running gear, but after the war, the Jensen brothers looked elsewhere, eventually establishing a longstanding relationship with Leonard Lord, managing director of the Austin Motor Company and later BMC.

In the late forties and early fifties, Jensen fielded a variety of cars powered by Austin’s big 3,993 cc (244 cu. in.) six, including a big sedan called the Jensen PW, an aluminum-bodied drophead coupe called Interceptor, and from 1954 a smaller fixed-head coupe called the Jensen 541. From 1950 to 1953, there was also the diminutive Austin A40 Sports, based on the A40 Devon and powered by a dual-carburetor 1,198 cc (73 cu. in.) Austin four. Jensen was also contracted to provide bodies for a number of Austin models, including the Austin-Healey 100.

1957 Jensen 541 Deluxe front 3q © 2013 GTHO (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
The Jensen 541 was powered by a three-carburetor version of Austin’s 3,993 cc (244 cu. in.) big six. The 541 Deluxe, introduced in the fall of 1956, was the first British car with four-wheel disc brakes, although with only about 53 of this model built in all, it may strain the definition of series production. (Photo: “Jensen 541 Deluxe of 1957” © 2013 GTHO; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Since Jensen’s own cars sold in tiny numbers, Jensen during this period was often operating hand-to-mouth, largely dependent on its contract work rather than its own production. With Alan and Dick Jensen’s health flagging, Alan Jensen went looking for an outside partner, which culminated in a 1959 partnership with the Norcross Group. Jensen also secured a contract for Jensen to assemble the new Volvo P1800 coupe, but the Swedish firm was dissatisfied with the quality control in Jensen’s West Bromwich factory and eventually arranged to buy out the contract and assemble the P1800 in Sweden.

YANKEE POWER

In the early sixties, the Jensen brothers found a new source of engines for the company’s own cars: across the Atlantic in Highland Park, Michigan.

Since the introduction of Cadillac and Oldsmobile’s overhead-valve V8s in 1949, American automakers had been rolling out a litany of compact, powerful modern engines. Unlike the hotter European engines, most American V8s were modestly tuned, which made them tractable and reasonably reliable. The main drawback of the American engines was that they ran afoul of displacement-based taxable horsepower rating systems, making them very expensive to own. American engines were also very thirsty by local standards; British and European fuel prices were already far higher than in the States.

For Jensen, though, a big Yankee V8 was an enticing prospect, just as it had been before the war. For British or European buyers, even a quite-ordinary American V8 engine had a certain tinge of exoticism, and since Jensens were quite expensive to begin with, customers were less likely to balk at the running costs.

1966 Jensen C-V8 Mark III (red) front 3q © 2009 Brian Snelson (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
Early Jensen C-V8s used Chrysler’s 5,913 cc (361 cu. in.) engine, but when Chrysler dropped that version of the RB in 1963, Jensen substituted the larger 6,276 cc (383 cu. in.) version. Most C-V8s had Chrysler’s excellent TorqueFlite automatic and were scorching performers. Jensen was not the only European manufacturer to use Chrysler engines; the French Facel Vega and Switzerland’s Monteverdi did too. The C-V8’s styling is an acquired taste, although one certainly couldn’t call it dull. (Photo: “Jensen CV8” © 2009 Brian Snelson; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

By some accounts, the Jensens originally hoped to purchase the Chrysler FirePower Hemi V8 for their 1961 541S model, but by then, Chrysler had discontinued the FirePower in favor of the wedge-head B and RB engines. The Jensen 541S would retain the old Austin six, now with 135 hp (101 kW), but Jensen contracted with Chrysler to purchase the Chrysler RB engine for Jensen’s next new model, the 1962 C-V8.

A NEW INTERCEPTOR

The loss of Volvo P1800 production in the spring of 1963 once again strained Jensen’s finances and exacerbated tensions between the Jensen brothers and managing director Brian Owen, a Norcross Group appointee.

That tension came to a head over the development of a successor to the C-V8. Dick and Alan Jensen favored a notchback coupe known internally as P66, designed in-house by chief body engineer Eric Neale. Owen and chief engineer Kevin Beattie didn’t care for the P66 and instead argued that Jensen should commission an Italian coachbuilder to create a new body for the C-V8 chassis, replacing the quirky-looking existing car (also designed by Neale).

1965 Jensen P66 prototype front 3q © 2009 Stephen Carter (PD)
The car Jensen might have built instead of the Interceptor: the P66, designed by Jensen’s Eric Neale. Aesthetically, we prefer this basic shape to that of the Interceptor, but find the Interceptor’s detail styling far superior. (Photo: “Jensen P66 Prototype 1965 Nottingham JOC International 2009” © 2009 Stephen Carter; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2015 by Aaron Severson)

Despite the Jensens’ objections, the board opted for the Italian option, eventually selecting a proposal by the Milanese firm Superleggera Touring. The design was further refined by Vignale, which was also commissioned to build the bodies. The new car, which revived the Interceptor name, debuted in October 1966 at the International Motor Show at London’s Earls Court.

Riding the same tubular steel chassis as the earlier Jensen C-V8 and sharing the C-V8’s big American engine, the new Interceptor’s Italian body had interesting details and somewhat awkward proportions, marked by a big glass rear hatch reminiscent of the tail of Plymouth’s unloved 1964-1966 Barracuda fastback. Mechanically, the Interceptor was quite orthodox, with antediluvian touches like a chassis whose front suspension still used kingpins and lever-action shocks doubling as upper wishbones (like GM’s prewar “Knee-Action” layout), but it had plenty of raw power from its big 6,276 cc (383 cu. in.) Chrysler V8 — 325 gross horsepower (242 kW) — and the fine TorqueFlite automatic, which was far better than the lackluster Borg-Warner transmissions then offered by Jaguar and Aston Martin. (A Chrysler four-speed manual transmission was nominally optional, but few Interceptors had it and the option disappeared early on.)

1968 Jensen Interceptor front © 2010 Mark Fosh (CC BY 2.0 Generic - mod. 2015 by Aaron Severson)
The Mark I Jensen Interceptor is 188 inches (4,775 mm) long on a 105-inch (2,667mm) wheelbase and stands 52 inches (1,321 mm) high. Overall width is 70 inches (1,778 mm), 2.5 inches (64 mm) wider than the last C-V8. Curb weight with a full tank of fuel is about 3,800 lb (1,715 kg). (Photo: “Jensen Interceptor” © 2010 Mark Fosh; resized and modified 2015 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

Although the Interceptor was bodied in steel rather than fiberglass and aluminum and was therefore significantly heavier than the CV-8, performance remained formidable: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in just over 7 seconds and a top speed of more than 130 mph (210 km/h). Handling was generally good, although it was easy to overpower the rear tires with the throttle and the tail wasn’t easy to catch when it broke loose. Big disc brakes provided fine stopping power.

Unfortunately, despite its performance and luxurious appointments, the early Jensen Interceptor was erratically built and finished, particularly in view of its stratospheric price: £3,742 with British purchase tax, the equivalent of about $10,500 at the contemporary exchange rate and enough to buy a decent house in some parts of the U.K. (and the U.S.) at the time. That was also about twice as much as an E-Type Jaguar. Jensen brought body production in-house in 1967, but it took some time to work out the bugs. Some of the many early problems were eventually addressed, but others dogged the Interceptor for the rest of its production life.

Late-60s Jensen Interceptor rear 3q © 2007 dave_7 (CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)
All Interceptors and FFs had a live rear axle on parallel leaf springs, with a Panhard rod for additional lateral location. Early Interceptors had lever-action front shocks that also formed the upper wishbones, but the rear dampers were Armstrong Select-a-Ride adjustable units with four settings. (Photo: “Jensen Interceptor” © 2007 dave_7; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

The brothers were not happy at being overruled by the board, which was a sign that their influence over the company was rapidly diminishing. Alan had stepped down from day-to-day operations in 1963, although he remained on the board until 1967, when both he and Dick finally bowed out for good. They stayed on long enough, however, to push through Dick Jensen’s last great pet project: the Jensen FF.

1974 Jensen Interceptor III front © Aaron Severson
Some very early Jensen Interceptors were built in Italy by Vignale, although most were constructed in Jensen’s West Bromwich factory. Quality control at West Bromwich got steadily better over the Interceptor’s life, but remained flawed, disappointing given the price and high quality of materials.

FORMULA FERGUSON

Irish businessman Harry Ferguson made his fortune in farm tractors, but like the Jensen brothers, his first loves were cars and racing. In 1950, he joined forces with former racing drivers Freddie Dixon and Tony Rolt to launch a new automotive engineering firm called Harry Ferguson Research Ltd., hiring ex-Aston Martin engineer Claude Hill as chief engineer. In 1953, Ferguson sold his tractor business to Massey-Harris so he could devote his full energy to the new firm.

The company’s raison d’être was automotive four-wheel drive, something Rolt and Dixon had been working on since 1939. There were four-wheel-drive trucks and all-terrain vehicles like the Jeep and Land Rover in those days, but Ferguson, Rolt, and Hill believed 4WD could be used to make passenger cars safer as well. To demonstrate the point, they developed Project 99, a Formula 1 car equipped with their new 4WD transmission system.

1961 Ferguson P99 - Stirling Moss at 2005 Goodwood Speed Festival, side view © 2005 Anthony Fosh (used with permission)
Sir Sterling Moss behind the wheel of the 4WD Ferguson P99 Climax F1 car at the 2005 Goodwood Speed Festival. (Photo © 2005 Anthony Fosh; used with permission)

Harry Ferguson died in November 1960, but the Ferguson P99 soon made a promising debut in Formula 1. Stirling Moss used it to win the 1961 Oulton Park Gold Cup, but Ferguson’s subsequent 4WD competition efforts were hampered by a lack of development and frequent hostility from racing’s various officiating bodies. Nevertheless, Ferguson’s company held out great hopes of offering their 4WD system in street cars.

THE FF SYSTEM

The Ferguson system, known as Formula Ferguson, or FF, was what would now be called a full-time four-wheel drive system. A planetary-type central differential, mounted behind the transmission, normally sent 37% of the engine’s torque through a chain-driven take-off shaft to the front differential and the rest through a conventional propeller shaft to the rear axle. Both the center and rear differentials were limited-slip, the latter a Powr-Lock unit. Unlike a contemporary 4WD truck, the Ferguson transmission could be used on dry pavement without binding or tire scrub. The system dramatically improved wet-weather handling; even in the dry, it allowed the car’s power to be exploited in turns in ways that would be foolhardy on a conventional rear-drive vehicle.

1976 Jensen Interceptor convertible wheel
Front-fender vents were a signature feature of all Jensen Interceptors. The split-level front bumper marks this as a later Mark III; this is a 1976 Convertible.

The other component of the FF system, just as revolutionary as 4WD, was anti-lock brakes. This was an adaptation of the Dunlop Maxaret system, first introduced in 1952 for use on heavy aircraft, although Ferguson’s version was distinct enough that Hill and Rolt were able to patent it separately in the early sixties. Unlike modern antilock braking systems, the system was purely mechanical and there were no individual wheel speed sensors. Instead, wheel slip during braking was detected via the difference in the rotational speeds of the front and rear driveshafts. The system allowed a certain amount of slip so as not to overreact to low-speed maneuvers, but if slip exceeded that threshold, a flywheel mounted adjacent to the differential would trigger a solenoid-controlled valve that briefly relieved vacuum pressure in the brake master cylinder, automatically “pumping” the brakes several times a second until the wheels were no longer slipping. Highly skilled drivers did this as a matter of course, but the system promised to allow even amateur drivers to stop like experts.

1974 Jensen Interceptor III rear 3q © Aaron Severson
The Jensen Interceptor is about the size of a contemporary Pontiac Firebird, but was very large by contemporary European standards and quite heavy. Later Interceptor Series 4 and 5 models (this is a Series 4) had reinforced bumpers to meet U.S. crash standards.

The combination of full-time 4WD and anti-lock brakes was pushing the bleeding edges of the technological and manufacturing capabilities of the early sixties, but it represented a great advance in road performance and active safety (i.e., accident avoidance), just as Harry Ferguson had hoped. When they learned of the FF system, Dick Jensen, Kevin Beattie, and Brian Owen were all very excited and wanted to get involved. Technical merits aside, the system had enormous publicity value and would help Jensen stand out in a crowded field. Alan Jensen, always the more fiscally responsible of the brothers, was wary of the FF system’s enormous costs and unproven reliability, but he was unable to dissuade his brother and Owen from contacting Harry Ferguson Research and purchasing an exclusive license to offer the FF system on passenger cars with engines of more than 3,500 cc (215 cu. in.) displacement.

JENSEN FF

Just fitting the bulky FF hardware in the existing Jensen chassis was troublesome, requiring a wheelbase stretch and various frame modifications as well as relocation of the standard engine and transmission mounts. Jensen built a single prototype C-V8 FF, which was shown at Earls Court in 1965 and tested throughout 1966. As Jensen had hoped, the car drew widespread curiosity and customer interest, but Jensen representatives had to tell disappointed prospective buyers that there were not yet any cars to buy.

The production car, naturally dubbed Jensen FF, debuted alongside the new Interceptor in October 1966. The FF was based on the standard Interceptor and looked much like it, but had an extra louver on each front fender to cover the 4-inch (102 mm) wheelbase stretch required to accommodate the Ferguson center differential and Maxaret hardware. Adwest power steering was added to help manage the extra weight.

1971 Jensen FF Series III (red) front 3q © 2008 Martin Alford (used with permission)
This is one of the final, Mark III-based Jensen FFs, which ended production in 1971 after only about 15 had been built. Other than the extra fender vent, the FF looks very much like the Jensen Interceptor, although the FF was somewhat longer — 191 inches (4,851 mm) on a 109-inch (2,769mm) wheelbase — to make room for the bulky 4WD differential. The Jensen FF was heavier than a contemporary Interceptor, dulling performance somewhat, but was still quick even by American standards and scorchingly fast for British cars. (Photo © 2008 Martin Alford; used with permission)

The Jensen FF was more than 270 lb (123 kg) heavier than a standard Interceptor, so acceleration suffered a bit. However. the FF was still capable of reaching 60 mph (96 km/h) in around 8 seconds and had a top speed of about 130 mph (210 km/h). Handling was of an entirely different order than the standard Interceptor’s, particularly in the wet. Even with vintage bias-ply tires, the FF was far more assured in bad weather than almost any other contemporary GT and its traction allowed a skilled driver to make full use of the Interceptor’s impressive power. The Maxaret system, meanwhile, helped prevent skids on hard braking, although many contemporary drivers found its operation disconcerting.

Alas, to each of the Jensen FF’s virtues, we must append “when it was working.” The FF suffered many of the same quality-control problems as the Interceptor plus a host of mechanical reliability issues of its own. Despite Ferguson’s mass-market ambitions, each FF gearbox was more of a hand-built prototype than a production unit, with many unexplored weaknesses. The front hubs were particularly troublesome and had to be redesigned several times before they were finally sorted. The Maxaret system, meanwhile, had its own problems, including a tendency to be triggered accidentally by sharp bumps, an endemic flaw.

1970 Jensen FF Series II in snow rear 3q © 1992 Francis pullen (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
A 1970 Jensen FF Series II in its element, circa 1992. The FF performed well in snowy conditions, one reason a number of later vehicles (including the Triumph 2.5 PI and Triumph Stag and some British and American police vehicles) got FF conversions. (Photo: “Jensen FF mk11 in snow” © 1992 Francis pullen; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Inevitably, the FF was also extremely expensive. In the U.K., prices started at a whopping £6,017 with purchase tax (almost $17,000 in contemporary dollars) — 60% more than the already pricey Interceptor. Although the FF’s technical novelty attracted wealthy celebrities, Jensen quietly steered them toward the regular Interceptor, fearing negative publicity. The company also limited exports, understandably preferring to keep the complex FF within easy reach of factory service. As a result, sales were very slow.

MUSICAL CHAIRS

1967 was a difficult year for Jensen: the founders had departed and the company’s two major assembly contracts, the Austin-Healey 3000 and the Sunbeam Tiger, were both discontinued. The Norcross Group responded by hiring an American management consultant named Carl Duerr to get Jensen in shape so that it could be sold. Duerr worked to restore workforce morale, increased output, and improved production quality. In June 1968, Norcross Group sold Jensen Motors to the merchant bank William Brandt’s Sons & Company, Ltd., although Duerr remained as managing director through 1970.

In September 1969, Jensen introduced the Interceptor II, which featured various mechanical improvements such as a new front suspension using proper double wishbones, ball joints, and telescopic shock absorbers; better Girling disc brakes; Adwest power steering (already standard on the FF); optional air conditioning and radial tires; and various safety fittings to conform to new American regulations. The emphasis on U.S. requirements reflected a new focus on exports, which had previously accounted for only a small percentage of Jensen sales.

Engine of a 1971 Jensen Interceptor II © 2010 Tony Hisgett (CC BY 2.0 Generic)
Despite the “Jensen” lettering on the valve covers, this is an engine familiar to U.S. Chrysler fans: the ubiquitous 383 cu. in. (6,276 cc) RB V8. This one is probably the low-compression version (known to Jensen as the G-series) with 300 gross horsepower (224 kW), fitted to late Interceptor II and early Interceptor III cars. (Photo: “Jensen Interceptor engine” © 2010 Tony Hisgett; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

In 1970, Jensen Motors was sold again, this time to Norwegian-born American importer Kjell Qvale. Qvale was the owner of British Motor Car Distributors in San Francisco, which had been the largest U.S. distributor of Austin-Healeys. With the Austin-Healey 3000 dead, the planned 4000 stillborn, and the smaller Sprite on its way out, Qvale was looking to organize the development of a successor designed by Geoff and Donald Healey; the latter was appointed the new chairman of the Jensen board.

In the short term, Qvale pushed to increase production of the Interceptor, of which a new evolutionary version, the Interceptor III, debuted in the fall of 1971. The main features of the new Interceptor were alloy wheels, a lower-compression engine, and further interior changes to suit U.S. safety and emissions rules. With Chrysler preparing to phase out the 6,276 cc (383 cu. in.) V8 in favor of the de-smogged 400 (6,557 cc), Jensen soon replaced the smaller engine with Chrysler’s big 7,206 cc (440 cu. in.) V8. Most of these these were the low-compression version, initially making 300 gross horsepower (224 kW) with a single four-barrel carburetor, but 232 non-U.S. cars were built to Interceptor SP spec, powered by the 385 hp (287 kW) three-carburetor 440 Six Pack engine from Chrysler’s 1970–1971 sporty models. The SP was ferociously quick, but the extra power made it even easier than ever to send the tail sliding.

1974 Jensen Interceptor III hatch
The bulky glass hatchback added a certain amount of versatility to the Jensen Interceptor, but the large glass area and the steel body conspired to make the original Interceptor (later called saloon to distinguish it from subsequent convertibles and coupes) very heavy compared to the aluminum-and-fiberglass-bodied C-V8. The short-lived Interceptor Coupé, introduced in late 1975, omitted the hatch in favor of a notchback profile. Coupés used the chassis of the Convertible, but their assembly was jobbed out to Panther Cars Ltd.

The Interceptor III sold about twice as well as its predecessors did despite even higher prices (£6,981 by 1973, $15,500 in America) and, in the U.S., detuned, emissions-controlled engines. In other markets, the big engine still had 280 net horsepower (209 kW), but by 1973, American Interceptors were down to 220 hp (164 kW). Nonetheless, the Interceptor III found favor with the rich and famous, including John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, and featured in a variety of period movies. In many respects, it was the car the Interceptor should have been when it bowed back in 1966, although it was still far from trouble-free.

1976 Jensen Interceptor convertible interior
The last-of-the-line Mark III Series 4 and Series 5 Jensen Interceptors had a new wood dashboard, first seen on the Convertible and added to the rest of the line about a year later. By this time, air conditioning was standard along with a full set of Jaeger instruments and the TorqueFlite automatic.

The Jensen FF disappeared very soon after the launch of the Mark III. By that time, most of the major flaws had been addressed if not wholly resolved, but buyers remained wary. Sales flatlined and Jensen could no longer justify the expense of producing it. About 15 Interceptor III-based FFs were built in 1971, but that was the end of the line. Sales for all five years totaled only 320.

1976 Jensen Interceptor convertible grille badge
By the end of the Jensen Interceptor III’s run, a 7,206 cc (440 cu. in.) V8 had become standard. Sadly, U.S. cars now had only 230 net horsepower (172 kW) and curb weight had ballooned to over two tons — a U.S.-spec convertible ran to 4,225 lb (1,917 kg) — so performance was somewhat muted.

ALL FALL DOWN

Kjell Qvale had improved Jensen’s fortunes temporarily, but by 1974, things were again looking grim. Qvale’s Jensen-Healey roadster was proving to be an expensive commercial flop and sales of the newly revised Series 4 Interceptor (launched in October 1973) and new convertible (launched at Geneva in 1974) were hurt badly by the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, which made big, fuel-swilling cars decidedly unfashionable. That ugly situation was compounded by ongoing labor and supply problems which left Jensen deep in the red by the end of 1974.

By September 1975, Jensen was in receivership. The receiver allowed Jensen to continue building cars for a time, including a slightly revised Series 5 and a new notchback coupe based on the convertible, but the situation was untenable. Production finally ended in May 1976, although the Jensen Parts & Service organization completed and sold a few more cars later that year.

The Healeys later attempted unsuccessfully to raise money to revive the company under their own management, but were unable to secure government support and the endeavor collapsed. Total production for all original Interceptor variants, excluding the FF, was 6,407.

1976 Jensen Interceptor convertible front 3q 2
The Convertible was one of the most expensive of Jensen Interceptors, costing almost £10,000 in the U.K. and $25,812 in the U.S. in 1976. The factory advertised that the nearest competition was the Rolls-Royce Corniche, which was much more expensive, but the Jensen still cost as much as two 1976 Cadillac Eldorado convertibles.

Although production had ceased, Jensen Motors’ formal bankruptcy proceedings continued until 1990 and the Jensen Parts & Service organization remained in operation to provide support for cars already sold. Since that organization retained the Interceptor tooling, director Ian Orford decided in 1986 to reorganize, revive the dormant Jensen Motors name, and resume limited production of an updated Interceptor Mark IV. It was again Chrysler-powered, this time using the modern 5,895 cc (360 cu. in.) LA-series engine.

Unicon Holdings bought Jensen Motors in 1988 and launched am ambitious effort to develop an Interceptor V, but that proved to be beyond what the company’s finances could support in a recessionary market. Jensen went into bankruptcy again in 1992 and its assets were sold.

A company called Creative Group later tried to develop a new Ford-powered Jensen S-V8, first announced in mid-1998, but after several fits and starts, only a handful of production cars were built in in the summer of 2001. The venture collapsed again in late 2002.

SPIRITUAL HEIRS

After the demise of the Jensen FF, Ferguson converted a few Ford Capris to 4WD for racing use (although racing drivers nixed the use of the Maxaret system) and got a few contracts from American police departments to convert their Plymouth patrol cars. There were also a few Triumph Stags and 2.5 PI Mk 2 sedans fitted with the system, but none was ever seriously considered for production.

For most of the seventies, the idea of a 4WD drive passenger car seemed to be stillborn. However, in the mid-seventies, Subaru added an optional part-time 4WD system to its compact Leone. In 1979, American Motors launched the AMC Eagle, which featured an all-wheel-drive system based on a viscous coupling differential Tony Rolt had designed for Ferguson in 1970.

Neither of these cars was particularly sporting, but at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1980, Audi unveiled the first 4×4 sports coupe since the demise of the FF. Dubbed Audi Quattro, it was a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive version of the Audi 80 Coupé. Like the Formula Ferguson system, Audi’s AWD hardware was heavy, bulky, and expensive, but it imbued the Quattro with formidable all-weather performance. In due course, the “ur-Quattro” (as its fans now call it to distinguish it from the various later Quattro models) became a formidable rally competitor and one of the world’s fastest real-world cars.

1984 Audi Quattro at Rally Portugal
The Audi Quattro was developed primarily for World Rally Cup competition, making its competition debut at the 1981 Janner Rally in Austria. Like the street car, early racing Quattros had a 2,144 cc (129 cu. in.) five-cylinder turbocharged engine, but produced 350 PS (257 kW) or more compared to 200 PS (147 kW) for European production cars. The one seen here is driven by Walter Röhrl at the 1984 Rally Portugal. (Photo: “Portugal 84 Audi Quattro A2” © 1984 MPW57; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2009 by Aaron Severson)

For all its advanced technology, the early Audi Quattro fell behind the Jensen FF in one respect: it did not add anti-lock brakes to its specification until 1984. The Quattro’s electronically controlled Bosch ABS was far more sophisticated and more reliable than the FF’s Dunlop Maxaret (which competition drivers had never liked), but it was another sign of just how advanced the FF really was back in 1966.

The Audi Quattro soon spawned a host of other high-powered AWD sports cars like Porsche’s fearsome twin-turbo 959. These were followed by more affordable all-wheel-drive coupes like the Mitsubishi/Eagle “Diamond Star” turbo cars and the Subaru WRX. Most of those newer models are faster than the Jensen FF — and even the most troublesome of them was probably more reliable — but it was Ferguson and Jensen that paved the way.

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NOTES ON SOURCES

The basics of Jensen’s history came from Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “Jensen-Healey and Jensen GT,” 18 August 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1972-1976-jensen-healey-and-jensen-gt.htm, accessed 11 May 2009; and “1962-1966 Jensen CV8,” 25 July 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1962-1966-jensen-cv8.htm, accessed 11 May 2009; John Baker, “Austin A40 Sports,” Austin Memories, n.d.., www.austinmemories. com/styled-33/ styled-37/ index.html, last accessed 10 August 2015; Arch Brown, Richard Langworth, and the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, Great Cars of the 20th Century (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, Ltd., 1998); Richard Calver “Jensen history” (n.d., www.richardcalver. com/ jensenhistory.htm, accessed 9 May 2009) and “Pre-war Jensens” (n.d., www.richardcalver. com/ prewar.htm, accessed 9 May 2009); Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); Simon GP Geoghegan, “Jenson cars,” Simon Cars, n.d., www.simoncars. co.uk/jensen/jensen.html, accessed 10 May 2009; Geoffrey Healey, Healey, The Specials (London: Gentry Books, 1980; distributed in the USA by Motorbooks International); “Jensen Cars,” Wolverhampton Museum of Industry Transport Hall, n.d., www.localhistory.scit.wlv. ac.uk/Museum/Transport/ Cars/Jensen.htm, accessed 10 May 2009; “Jensen Motors – Short Lived but Spectacular,” Unique Cars and Parts, n.d., uniquecarsandparts. com/ lost_marques_jensen.htm, accessed 10 May 2009; David Knowles, MG: The Untold Story (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); Karl Ludvigsen, “History of Automotive Design: Volvo Builds a Sports Car – Part I,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #21 (May 2007), pp. 62–66, and “History of Automotive Design: A Swede for the Saint, Part II,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #22 (June 2007), pp. 62–66; Alex Meredith, “SIA Interview: Donald Healey,” Special Interest Autos #67 (February 1982) pp. 58-62; “The Jensen Story,” Ride Drive Classic Cars, 27 January 2011, www.ridedrive. co.uk/ classic-jensen-pt1.htm, accessed 10 August 2015; and John Wild, “The Jensen FF Home Page,” n.d., www.geocities. com/ MotorCity/7902/ (mirrored at www.oocities. org/motorcity/ 7902/, accessed 10 May 2009.

Additional background information on Harry Ferguson came from the English-language bio on Gerrit Preuter’s Dutch AnnaTEFka Website (n.d., The AnnaTEFka Website, www.annatefka. com, accessed 9 May 2009); the Ferguson Family Museum website (n.d., www.ferguson-museum. co.uk, retrieved 10 May 2009); and Csaba Csere, “Traction for Sale: The long, hard road to automotive four-wheel drive,” Car and Driver Vol. 32, No. 9 (March 1987), pp. 113-120.

For background on the Dunlop Maxaret, we consulted Claude Hill and Anthony P.R. Rolt, assignors to Harry Ferguson Research Limited, U.S. Patent No. 3,073,405A, “Vehicle Braking Control,” filed 25 May 1960, issued 15 January 1963; Karl Ludvigsen, “Skid-free Stopping a Reality in ’69,” Motor Trend Vol. 20, No. 7 (July 1968), pp. 38–41, 76, 105; and a vintage article from Flight 19 March 1954, www.flightglobal. com, accessed 11 May 2009. The Christchurch Aviation Society’s pages on the de Havilland Sea Vixen, which used the system, contains several interesting reminiscences by Fleet Air Arm pilots (n.d., www.christchurchavsoc. co.uk, accessed 12 May 2009).

Some information on the 541 came from Peter Wallis and Jane and Dave Turnage’s Jensen 541 website (www.jensen541. com, accessed 9 May 2009). Some information later models also came from Richard Calver’s articles, originally written in the nineties for the Australian magazine The Interceptor (www.richardcalver. com/marques.htm, accessed 9-11 May 2009).

Additional information on the Interceptor and FF came from “American Motors Eagle: Having landed, will it fly?” Road & Track Vol. 31, No. 7 (March 1980), pp. 104–107; “Autocar road test 1922: Jensen C-V8 (5,916 c.c.),” Autocar 10 May 1963, pp. 800–804; “Autocar Road Test Number 2023: Jensen C-V8 (6,2766 c.c.),” Autocar 16 April 1965, pp. 751–756; “Autocar Road Test Number 2,178: Jensen FF (6,276 c.c.),” Autocar 28 March 1968, pp. 11-16; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1966-1991 Jensen Interceptor,” HowStuffWorks.com, 23 October 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1966-1991-jensen-interceptor1.htm, accessed 10 May 2009; “Autotest: Jensen Interceptor (6,276 c.c.),” Autocar 4 September 1969, pp. 22–26; “Autotest: Jensen Interceptor III Convertible,” Autocar 26 October 1974, pp. 48–53; J.R. Daniels, “Rallycross the Hard Way: Ford’s four-wheel-drive Capri — an experts car,” Autocar 13 May 1971, reprinted in High Performance Capris Gold Portfolio 1969-1987, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1990): 25–28; Edward Eves, “Four Wheels for Snow,” Autocar 1 March 1973, reprinted in Triumph 2000 – 2.5 – 2500 1963-1977, ed. R.M. Clarke (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books, 1984): 72–73; Claude Hill, assignor to Harry Ferguson Research Limited, U.S. Patent No. 2,796,941A, “Four Wheel Drive for Automotive Vehicles,” filed 8 June 1953, issued 25 June 1957; U.S. Patent No. 2,796,942A, “Four Wheel Drive for Automotive Vehicles,” filed 16 August 1955, issued 25 June 1957; and U.S. Patent No. 2,959,237A, “Four Wheel Drive for Automotive Vehicles,” filed 19 July 1957, issued 8 November 1960; Claude Hill and Anthony P.R. Rolt, assignors to Harry Ferguson Research Limited, U.S. Patent No. 2,796,943A, “Drive for Independent Suspended Vehicle Wheels,” filed 3 December 1953, issued 25 June 1957; and U.S. Patent No. 3,339,661A, “Multiple Wheel Drive Vehicles With Means Preventing Torque Being Transmitted Back to the Engine,” filed 21 April 1965, issued 5 September 1967; “International splendour (Road Test No. 5/67: Jensen Interceptor),” Motor 4 February 1967, pp. 13–18; “Jensen Interceptor III,” Road & Track Vol. 25, No. 2 (October 1973) pp. 74-77; Richard Heseltine, “Fourplay,” Classic & Sports Car June 2001, pp. 108-111; Martin Holmes, “Winning on all fours,” Motor 3 July 1982, reprinted in Audi Quattro Gold Portfolio 1980-1991, ed. R.M. Clarke. (Cobham, England: Brooklands Books Ltd., ca. 1995), pp. 40–41; Michael Lamm, “PM Owners Report: Subaru 4WD Station Wagon,” Popular Mechanics Vol. 152, No. 9 (September 1979), pp. 96+; Jan P. Norbye, “Half-Hour History of Four-Wheel-Drive Autos,” Special Interest Autos #59 (Oct. 1980): 54–58; “Performance with safety (Road Test No. 14/68: Jensen FF),” Motor 30 March 1968, pp. 27-32; Anthony P.R. Rolt, assignor to Harry Ferguson Research Limited, U.S. Patent No. 3,401,763A, “Motor Vehicle Drive System,” filed 18 October 1965, issued 17 September 1968; Mark Wan, “Audi Quattro (1980),” AutoZine, n.d., www.autozine. org/Archive/ Audi/ classic/Quattro.html, accessed 10 May 2009, and “Audi Sport Quattro (1984),” AutoZine, n.d., www.autozine. org/Archive/ Audi/ classic/Sport_Quattro.html, accessed 10 May 2009; and Gary Witzenburg, “Driving American Motors’ four-wheel-drive Eagle” Popular Mechanics Vol. 152, No. 9 (September 1979), pp. 92+.

Historical exchange rates for the dollar to the pound came from Werner Antweiler, “PACIFIC Exchange Rate service, Foreign Currency Units per 1 British Pound, 1948-2007” (2007, University of British Columbia, fx.sauder.ubc. ca). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of British and U.S. currency at the time, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are listed separately. All exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate and are provided for informational purposes only; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on the historical value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


20 Comments

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  1. In terms of styling, I much prefer the Barracuda over the Jensen Interceptor…

    What’s interesting about this car is that it has 4wd technology way before the Audi Quattro… I think not many people know that…

    The problem is that Jensen never makes use of the Interceptor in racing, or rally, despite the fact that it has a Plymouth/Dodge Six Pack as an option. So when the Quattro was raced, many people began to knew of that Audi car.

    I still don’t get it what “ur” means in ur-Quattro, though. I think it’s German.

    1. “ur-Quattro” is a common nickname for the original Coupe Quattro (“ur” meaning “proto-“). Audi fans started calling the original car that to distinguish it from either the quattro AWD system itself or the many later Audi models that have been called Quattro. It’s for basically the same reason that BMW and Mercedes fans tend to use the internal chassis code numbers to distinguish between different generations of 3-Series, 5-Series, E-class, et al.

      Jensen would definitely have made a bigger splash if they’d taken the FF racing, but they simply didn’t have the money. They never had the finances of even Aston Martin (which raced in the 50s and 60s, albeit at horrifying expense).

      1. I should amend this to note that the FF system did make it to the rally circuit, just not in Jensens. Ford of Britain, for instance, converted some early Capris to 4WD for rally use.

  2. What is this about the Interceptor looking like a Plymouth Barracuda? I’ve never ever seen a Barracuda in Europe, and I doubt Touring had. Apart from having a large rear window, where is the styling similarity..?

    1. I wasn’t implying that the Interceptor was in any way [i]inspired[/i] by the Barracuda — I very much doubt that it was — and their detailing is quite different. Still, the general proportions and the massive backlight have a superficial similarity, because of their bulk and because there aren’t many other cars with such a huge rear glass. If you drive an Interceptor in the States or take it to shows, you’ll inevitably have a couple of people who will assume it’s some variant or custom version of the Barracuda that they haven’t heard of. That’s still true today, and it was no doubt even more prevalent when the Interceptor was new, and ’64-’66 Barracudas were somewhat more common. (I have to imagine it would be galling for an Interceptor owner to be asked if his $13,000 GT car was a Plymouth, but it undoubtedly happened quite a bit.)

  3. The Interceptor is on my list of potential Project Car Hell candidates.

    My hope would be to find one in rough enough shape that the devotees wouldn’t crucify me for rebuilding it as I see fit, rather than to (mediocre) original.

    Engine and transmission parts would be easy to come by, it’s all the little interior trim bits that I’d just as soon fabricate anew.

    1. My impression is that Jensen fans, like Corvair and 914 owners, aren’t big sticklers for authenticity. This is one of those cars that (a) isn’t hugely valuable (FF aside) and (b) even its fans freely acknowledge as being seriously flawed in execution.

      The limited Interceptor SP, with the 440 Six Pack, also shows that even the factory had the idea of getting more out of the basic mechanical package, too.

  4. I saw an interesting Ford at a British car show a few years ago.
    It was a mark 4 (UK) Ford Zephyr that had been fitted with a Ferguson designed four wheel drive system built (or at least registered) in 1968.
    It seems the British police forces were looking for a large car suitable for high speed patrol work. The Jaguars that had long been a favourite were expensive and high maintenance and also had insufficient room and luggage space for the job.
    The Ford had very poor handling and roadholding, but was fast, large and easy to maintain. A four wheel drive system would probably have addressed its issues with road manners quite well, but nothing came of it.
    I guess the cost and complexity of such a car ruled it out.

    Roger.

    1. FF did a number of police conversions, including a couple of Plymouths for a police force in Michigan, but I don’t think it ever really caught on. I assume that police agencies, like all fleet buyers, are generally not disposed to anything that seems like it’s going to be complex or expensive to fix if it breaks and of course there was also the cost of the conversion to consider (which as I recall was something in the realm of £1,000 to £1,500 per car). So, that meant that for the cost of two converted vehicles, a customer could conceivably have had four or possibly five standard Zephyr 6s!

      There were also the aforementioned rallycross Capris (which I don’t think FF was really involved in engineering beyond supplying the center differential hardware) and a couple of converted Triumph Stags, of all things. Someone in Switzerland, I believe, also commissioned an FF conversion of a Triumph 2.5 PI Mk 2 estate as a winter family car. So, FF certainly kept their hand in, although it wasn’t until American Motors licensed the FF viscous coupling center differential for the 1980 AMC Eagle that a larger manufacturer got involved in any great numbers.

  5. Another interesting Ferguson conversion where the Brixmis (British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany) Opel Senators.

    1. Interesting! I knew Ferguson had done a variety of conversions, but I don’t think I’d ever heard of these.

  6. wERE ANY OF HE MARK 3 VERSIONS EQUIPPED WITH A 4 SPEED MANUAL RANNSMISSION?

    1. I’d have to double-check, but my recollection is that the last four-speed cars were Mark 2s. The four-speed was always rare (and TorqueFlite was the better choice in any case), even when it was still nominally available.

  7. Hi,
    Check this 2 links and you will probaly understand where Jensen found the styling or is it just a coincident? Who knows…. but the Bracinca was first!

    I mi self have a Jensen SP -73 just as the one on the pic.

    [Search link for Brasinca Uirapuru]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brasinca_Uirapuru

    1. Peter,

      I had to delete the longer search link, which didn’t work (perhaps because it was too long to fit the comment box), although people can do their own search on “Brasinca Uirapuru” to find what you’re talking about. It does certainly look a lot like the Jensen!

    2. Interesting car. Also has a bit of the TVR Trident roundeye version about its front end.

  8. For people interested in stillborn prototypes (that cannot be found on the internet), how comprehensive is the Jensen and Jensen-Healey book by Keith Anderson?

    One Jensen prototype that stands out of the 1952 Eric Neale designed sportscar proposal* (known as via number plates as JEA 504 or 2AEA) that lost out to what later became the Austin-Healey 100, powered by a 1.5 MG engine and curiously resembling the MGA that would appear a few years later.

    A pity Jensen could not do more with the 135-150 hp 4-litre Austin Inline-6 engine (that lasted in the Princess until 1968) given that Donald Healey developed a potent 140-180 hp 2.5 Twin-Cam version of the related 2.6 4-cylinder engine intended for ADO52 (as well as cheaper to build then the proposed C-Series unit), seeming to imply that there was a fair bit of development potential left for a redesigned 4-litre Austin unit to slot below both the 4-litre Rolls Royce FB60 / G60 and 3.7-litre Aston Martin DB4 engines.

    As for the Chrysler Era Jensens, cannot help but ponder whether Jensen would have fared any better during the early-70s had they utilized Chrysler Hemi-6 engines below the V8s.

    * Link to the car in question – www. joc. org. uk/ phpBB2/ viewtopic.php?p=39171&sid=1125f9073e76eaea21aabfbdcaae3950
    * Link with a bit of info and another picture – www. jensen541. com/ BiographyEricNeale.htm

    1. I’m not familiar with the Anderson book, so I can’t comment on it. As far as Healeys go, Geoff Healey’s book The Specials may be illuminating, but that has less about Jensen.

      To be honest, I’m not sure having a big six-cylinder engine for the Interceptor would have helped terribly. Even the smallest of the Australian Chrysler sixes you mention was 3,521cc and the biggest was 4,336cc, which British and European buyers would still have perceived as large and thirsty. Those engines wouldn’t have done Jensen any good in the U.S. market, since they were not federalized (nor were the 4-liter Austin or the FB60 — Austin did sell a modest number of Princess 4 Litre R saloons in the U.S., but I think they were dropped as soon as the first U.S. federal emissions standards were enacted) and Jensen certainly wasn’t in a financial position to do so. The great advantage of buying the Chrysler B and RB V-8s is that Chrysler had already done most of the work in that regard.

      Beyond that, I suspect a six-cylinder Interceptor would have been a losing financial proposition for Jensen. I assume part of the reason the Interceptor was so expensive was that it wasn’t cheap to build, irrespective of engine. Consequently, a cheaper version would likely have been less profitable as well. If the six-cylinder car had strong enough performance, people would have likely bought it instead of the V-8, but since it would still likely have been very costly, it’s hard to see it selling well enough to make up for the thinner profit margins. This is a mistake various high-end automakers have made over the years and is the problem the Jensen-Healey was nominally intended to address.

      I don’t doubt that someone could have gotten more power out of the old Austin 4-liter, just as there was a lot more power to be had from the FB60. The dilemma was finding an application that would be appropriate; obviously, the market for the old-style big BMC saloons had mostly gone.

      1. Aside from the Jensen 541 and Austin Sheerline / Princess models, it is surprising the Austin 4-litre was not utilized in more sporting applications (Austin-Healey, MG, etc) or pensioned off to Australia where it could be put to better use, unless Jensen and Austin-Healey somehow came to an agreement not encroach on each others turf in return for Jensen building bodies for Austin-Healeys or something to that effect.

        Perhaps Jensen would have been better off developing a car derived from the MGB/MGC, with downscaled Jensen Interceptor styling.

        Speaking of the Jensen-Healey have seen a proposal where it could have looked a lot better then turned out to be, also seem to recall a proposed 1.8 version of the 2.0 Lotus 907 Series that was rejected by Colin Chapman himself though currently having difficultly finding the source of that particular titbit.

        1. Sending it to Australia might have made some sense, but I don’t think BMC was all that terribly concerned with sporting applications. (MG certainly got the short end of the stick a lot.)

          As for an MGB-derived Jensen, I suspect that would have been a commercial failure. The Coune Berlinette is probably instructive in this regard; Coune managed to differentiate it quite a bit from the MGB (and even the later MGB GT), but in consequence, the Berlinette became too expensive for what was still basically an MGB underneath. Would someone have paid, let’s say £1,500 (or $4,200-odd) for a MGC-based Jensen that looked like an MGB/MGC or £2,000 tax paid ($5,600 or so U.S.) for one that didn’t? I’m skeptical.

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