Jensen Interceptor: More than the Sum of its Parts

by | Apr 25, 2019 | Car Profiles

Photos: John Lamm; Lead Photo: Bryan McCarthy

Jensen Interceptor: More than the Sum of its Parts

by | Apr 25, 2019 | Car Profiles

Photos: John Lamm; Lead Photo: Bryan McCarthy

Pity the poor Jensen Interceptor owner of today who prepares the car meticulously for a vintage car meet only to be met with the well-intentioned greeting, “Nice Barracuda.” Yes, at first glance the incredibly long-lived Jensen Interceptor bears more than a slight resemblance to the considerably less distinguished 1965 Plymouth Barracuda, most notably in the mammoth curved rear windscreen, and the resemblance doesn’t just stop there. But equating an Interceptor with a Barracuda is like equating a 1976 Chevrolet Camaro with a Ferrari Daytona. Sure, the two cars share a certain sweep of line, but they’re not exactly the same thing now, are they?

Today’s British car industry still boasts a few odd small-run car builders, but it was once absolutely chock-full of quirky but industrious little enterprises like that founded by Alan and Richard Jensen, brothers who hailed from a town — West Bromwich, Staffordshire — that might have been the setting for a “Thomas the Tank Engine” story. In the years before World War II, Britain was rife with tiny coach building and specialty garages that tweaked the Austins and Standards of the day, adding both looks and performance — after a fashion.

Jensen Interceptors on display at the Paris motor show in 1967 (photo: Revs Institute)

The Jensen brothers were more ecumenical than most, because they fitted some of their creations with American flathead Ford V-8s and Nash straight-eights with Twin Ignition. But World War II threw their small enterprise for a loop, and it wasn’t until 1950 — five years after V-E Day — that they would return to the automotive business in any substantive way, introducing the first Interceptor. Attractive enough in a British manner, it had more than a passing resemblance to the Austin A40. Of course, by then, the Jensens were building bodies for Austin under contract, so the resemblance should come as no surprise.

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Though Jensen liked to think of itself as an auto manufacturer, it was primarily a body builder for other manufacturers that also assembled a few cars bearing its own name on the side. Over the years, the company constructed bodies for a string of cars that included the Volvo P1800, Sunbeam Tiger, and Austin-Healey.

The Jensen’s first Interceptor was decently attractive, but with power provided by a lumbering 4-liter Austin in-line six, it wasn’t destined for success in North America. In fact, the car caused barely a ripple even in its native Britain, though it was produced in small numbers for over a decade.

1989 Jensen Interceptor in front of Jensen factory in England

When the time came to do a completely new version of the Interceptor, Jensen tried its hand at designing a new body to cover the rather mundane mechanicals, but the result of its in-house effort didn’t capture the fancy of the firm’s top management. Seeking a quick fix, they decided to shop the project to a number of Italian design houses.

When the portfolios were reviewed, Jensen company brass liked the design proffered by Touring, a Milan-based firm. Somewhat oddly, Jensen, which had begun as a body building company, then commissioned the Italian house of Vignale to construct the Touring design as the next-generation Interceptor body. Certainly the lineage was confusing, but the offspring of this hastily arranged marriage was a sophisticated and manly two-door with a low cowl, low beltline and the aforementioned fishbowl rear windscreen. While not beautiful like its contemporary rival, the Jaguar E-Type, the Interceptor was certainly handsome, and the 2+2 can still swivel heads.

In all its iterations the Jensen Interceptor offered a rich, masculine interior.

As Jensen turned to the Italians for the body shape, it was also turning to the Americans for the powerplant. By the mid-Sixties, Shelby’s Cobra and the Sunbeam Tiger, among others, had proven that the relatively cheap, high-compression, big-displacement American V-8s offered both substantial horsepower and excellent reliability. So Jensen arranged for a supply of 383-cubic-inch (6.2-liter) Mopar V-8s, which easily generated about 325 horsepower and equal amounts of tire-lighting torque.

Using these various sources of supply — Italian body, American engine, British engineering — the Jensen Interceptor came together in a remarkably short period of time: just 10 months by some accounting. And the all-new Interceptor was well received at the Earls Court Motor Show in London in 1966. Sales on a small scale began almost immediately, and for a decade the cars continued to trickle out of the tiny Birmingham, England, factory at the rate of little more than 600 per year.

Jensen factory engine modifications.

Frankly, Jensen didn’t do all that much to refine the mechanical package over the decades of the car’s intermittent run. The Chrysler V-8 was backed up by a Chrysler three-speed TorqueFlite automatic that supplied the power to the rear wheels via a live rear axle. (A few early Interceptors were equipped with a manual transmission, but the TorqueFlite automatic was predominant.)

As mundane as that was, Jensen did take a run at technical innovation by offering a four-wheel-drive version of the Interceptor dubbed the FF. The 4WD system was developed by tractor manufacturer Harry Ferguson, but don’t let its barnyard origins fool you — the FF was one of the most technically sophisticated cars of its era. It offered mechanical antilock brakes, one of the first applications of the technology on a production car. The car also boasted Girling disc brakes all around when four-wheel disc brakes were a rarity.

Later-edition Jensen Interceptors offered satisfying GT performance.

Partly because it housed an American V-8, the Interceptor was big for a European car, with an overall length of 188 inches, about four inches longer than a Jaguar E-Type coupe. The 2+2 configuration meant that front-seat passengers were enveloped in the relative splendor of leather-covered bucket seats, wood trim, and wool carpeting, while the rear-seat passengers found themselves considerably more confined. The huge rear hatch did offer substantial luggage space, however.

Starting in 1971 Jensen swapped the 383 cubic inch V-8 for Chrysler’s 440 cubic inch behemoth. A convertible version of the car didn’t arrive until 1974.

1989 Jensen Interceptor

Perhaps the delay in building a convertible variant was because Jensen saw the Interceptor as a grand touring car in the classic sense, not a sports car. While its performance stats sound unimpressive compared with today’s sports coupes, the Interceptor had the statistics to give it credibility against its contemporary competitors. It could sprint from zero to 60 miles per hour in 7.1 seconds and offered a top speed of about 135 miles per hour.

The Chrysler V-8 granted the Interceptor its performance reputation, but its fuel-guzzling ways did not stand it in good stead when the fuel crisis of 1974-75 descended. With fuel consumption in the range of 10 to 12 miles per gallon, the Interceptor was ill-equipped to deal with fuel shortages and high prices. Even Jensen’s smaller, more fuel-efficient Jensen-Healey two-seater couldn’t help the company stave off the tide of doom, and it slipped into bankruptcy in 1976. The reorganized Jensen successors that followed finally failed as well, and the Interceptor, a rare example of inspired parts-bin engineering, was finally lost to the auto world forever, but certainly not without a fight.

 

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