May 5, 2009 4:38 PM
Pity the poor Jensen Interceptor owner of today who prepares his car meticulously for a vintage car meet only to be greeted with hails of "Nice Barracuda." Frankly, the 1966-76 Interceptor does bear more than a slight resemblance to the '65 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 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 nearly faceless British car industry was once filled with quirky but industrious little enterprises like that founded by Allan 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 chockfull of tiny styling garages that tweaked the Austins and Standards of the day, adding both looks and performance -- after a fashion.
The Jensens were more ecumenical than most, because they fitted some of their creations with 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 VE Day -- that they would return to the automotive business in any substantive way, introducing their first Interceptor. The car was not what the Interceptor would finally be. Oh, it was attractive enough in a British sort of way (no, it didn't have crooked teeth.), and some said 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 came as no surprise.
The fact was that, though Jensen liked to think of itself as an auto manufacturer, it was primarily a body builder that assembled a few cars bearing its own name on the side. Over the years the company built 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. (Ah, the British car industry.)
When the time came to do a completely new version of the Interceptor (because both potential buyers were clamoring for one), Jensen tried its hand at designing a new body to cover the rather mundane mechanicals, but the result of this in-house effort didn't capture the fancy of Jensen management so they decided to shop the project to a number of Italian design houses. Of the renderings submitted, company brass liked the ones produced 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, a sophisticated and manly two-door with a low cowl, low beltline and the aforementioned fishbowl rear glass. While not beautiful like its contemporary rival, the Jaguar E-Type, the Interceptor was certainly handsome, and the 2+2 can still swivel heads.
Even 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 beyond a shadow of a doubt that the relatively cheap, high-compression, big displacement American V-8s couldn't be beat in the bang-for-the-buck department. So the Jensens arranged for a supply of 383 cubic inch (6.2-liter) Mopar V-8s, which easily generated about 325 horsepower and gobs of tire-lighting torque.
The whole thing -- Italian body, American engine, British engineering -- came together in a remarkably short period of time, some 10 months, and the all-new Jensen Interceptor was well received at the Earls Court Motor Show in London in 1966. Sales on a small scale began almost immediately, and the cars continued to trickle out of the tiny Birmingham, England, factory at the rate of little more than 600 cars per year.
Frankly, Jensen didn't do all that much to refine the mechanical package over the decade of its run. The Chrysler Corp. 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. And while that was rather run-of-the-mill as was the suspension, 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, also offering mechanical anti-lock brakes, one of the first applications of the technology on a production car. The car boasted Girling disc brakes all around, when four-wheel disc brakes were a rarity.
Partly because it housed an American V-8, the Interceptor was big for a European car with an overall length of 188 inches, about five inches shorter than a late-model Camaro. 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. A convertible version of the car didn't arrive on the scene until 1974.
Perhaps that was because Jensen saw the Interceptor as a Grand Touring car in the classic sense, not a sports car and certainly not a "sporty" car. The Interceptor definitely had the statistics to gain "street cred" as a GT. 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.
Sadly, though, the American V-8 that was the car's heart also played a part in costing it (and its parent company) its life. The Mopar V-8 was a notorious gas-guzzler and while 10-13 miles per gallon consumption of fuel seemed okay prior to 1974, the Fuel Crisis of that year tilted sales downward at a dizzying clip. Even Jensen's smaller, more fuel efficient Jensen-Healey two-seater couldn't stave off the tide of doom, and the company slipped into bankruptcy in 1976. A reorganized Jensen successor company then failed as well and the Interceptor, a rare example of inspired parts-bin engineering, was lost to the auto world forever.