The Jensen story

Jensen history is what we're on about but I'm afraid you'll have to wait to get the full story. As a potted guide, this will have to do for now.

The brothers Jensen, Alan and Richard, were born in Birmingham, England, in the first decade of the last century. From a young age, they displayed an interest in motor cars and a bent for designing and building them. Their first efforts came to fruition in 1928 when they built a racy little body on a second-hand Austin Seven chassis while still apprentices in the Birmingham motor industry.

Their Austin special caught the eye of the Chief Engineer at the Standard Motor Company and led to a contract to design something similar on a Standard chassis. New Avon of Warwick were contracted to productionize the Jensen-designed body and some very pretty results were seen from 1929 onwards.

In 1930, the brothers made their start in the motor trade proper along with a young chap called Joe Patrick, selling and servicing small cars and carrying out custom body jobs on light car chassis from a garage in a Birmingham suburb. This lasted until 1931 when the Jensens fell out with Patrick and took their talents to the body works of W. J. Smith & Sons at Carters Green, West Bromwich. There they remained for the next 35 years, assuming control of the business after William Smith died and renaming it Jensen Motors in 1936.

The first real Jensen car appeared in 1935 when the brothers' design for a powerful, well-appointed open tourer was realized. Powered by a Ford 3½ litre flathead V8, the "White Lady," as this effort was apparently dubbed, can be said to mark the point at which true Jensen car production commenced.

The number of passenger vehicles made at this time was relatively minute but underpinning the car business was a steady trade in the commercial bodying of lorries, vans and buses. In 1939, Jensens introduced a revolutionary light alloy truck which beat the weight-for-speed restrictions then in effect, carrying large payloads quite economically.

The war saw Jensen car and truck output curtailed for the duration but profits from wartime contracting put the firm in good stead when peace came. Work on a postwar design was soon underway and in 1946 the Jensen PW was unveiled. Styled as a large luxury saloon for the well-to-do, it picked up where the cars of the pre-war era had left off. With wartime restrictions on the supply of raw materials still in force, however, few were made.

In 1950, a more modern design appeared. This was dubbed the "Interceptor" and featured a light alloy body powered by Austin's venerable 4-litre six. Interceptors remained in production until 1958 by which time a completely new style of Jensen had become the norm at Carters Green.

The 541, first seen in prototype form in 1953, entered series production in 1955. Like the Interceptor, it was powered by the Austin six but was revolutionary in that the body was made of fibreglass. Desirable as long range touring cars, 541s continued in production until 1962 when a much more powerful Jensen grand tourer made its debut. This car, dubbed the C-V8, boasted a 6-litre Chrysler engine and was the fastest road-going four-seater then tested by Autocar. Production had reached 500 by 1966 when the decision was taken to contract the firm's next body design out to Italy.

The Jensen brothers, now getting on in years and not in the best of health, took a bow and left in disgust along with their chief body engineer, Eric Neale, who had been with them for 20 years. At Earls Court later that year, two new steel-bodied Jensens made their debut. These were the Touring-designed Interceptor and the similarly styled but radically different FF, a four-wheel drive variant with Maxaret anti-lock braking, a world first for the small West Bromwich company.

By the late 1960s, problems with the introduction of these cars, coupled with the winding up of the main underpinning contract work on the Austin Healey, engendered a certain shakiness in Jensen's financial affairs. NORCROS, Jensen's holding company, brought in advisers to sort things out, one of them an American troubleshooter by the name of Carl Duerr. Duerr revitalized Jensens, giving the firm enough of a lease on life to keep it going for a couple more years, but ultimately NORCROS decided to divest itself of the car-making business. In 1968, Brandts Bank took over at Jensens, retaining Duerr and the other co-directors as minority shareholders. Still, the money to grow the business was not there.

In 1970, another American, Kjell Qvale, took over the firm. A well-established distributor of British sports cars in the United States, Qvale bought the business from Brandts in order to secure the means of producing a replacement sports car for the Austin Healeys which he had been selling so profitably through his American distributorships. This meant that Duerr had to go, which he did reluctantly after his own initiative to take over Jensens failed. Qvale's team moved in and soon Jensens were working on making a new sports car designed by Donald Healey.

Prototypes of what would become the Jensen-Healey, with a Lotus 16-valve engine, were running in 1971, the year in which the FF was phased out and uprated versions of the Interceptor were introduced. One of these, the SP, featured a high-compression 440 engine with three twin-barrel carburettors, the largest and most powerful engine configuration ever used by Jensens.

The Jensen-Healey entered production in 1972 and for a time things looked positive. But in 1973, the first of the oil shocks set off damaging repercussions throughout the motor industry. Jensens were hit badly by the loss of consumer confidence which followed. Despite an ambitious programme of defect rectification on the trouble-prone Healey, the introduction of more exclusive Convertible and Coupe models of the Interceptor, an estate version of the Healey known as the GT and some expensive but abortive projects to replace both the GT and the Interceptor, Qvale eventually found he had no choice but to pull the plug. In September 1975, the receivers were called in, the situation was assessed and limited production was allowed to continue until Jensen Motors Ltd. ceased trading in May 1976.

That was not the end of the operation at West Bromwich. To look after the needs of those who bought the cars, Qvale set up two subsidiary organizations in England before he departed, one of them devoted solely to servicing the cars and sourcing spares. Ian Orford, who ran this operation, realized by the early 1980s that the availability of spares and original jigs would make it feasible to build new Interceptors, updated in line with the prevailing market. During the 1980s, he was able to resume limited production but was unable to take things beyond that stage.

In 1988, Orford sold out to Unicon Holdings, a Stockport-based engineering consultancy run by Hugh Wainwright. Orford's belief was that Unicon, with its vastly greater financial resources and its engineering expertise, would be in a position to take Jensen production back to the big league. In 1989, Unicon began an ambitious programme of cost-cutting at the factory while initiating development work on a new Interceptor, tentatively dubbed the Series 5. Unfortunately, these efforts coincided with a severe downturn in the collector car market in England and led to heavy losses. In 1992, a receiver was again called in at Kelvin Way and in 1993 the material assets and records of the former Jensen Motors were bought by Martin Robey, a Nuneaton-based manufacturer of body spares for classic Jaguars. What remained of the old Jensen premises was taken over by a manufacturer of plastic bottles. The Jensen spares operation has been run out of Nuneaton ever since.

In June 1998, the Redditch-based Creative Group announced that it was designing, building and marketing a new Jensen car. Designated the S-V8, this Ford-powered roadster was scheduled to appear on English roads later that year. However, delays pushed back the planned production date repeatedly and by October 2000, when a concept coupé dubbed the C-V8 was displayed at the NEC Motor Show, production had still not commenced. Sadly, this third Motor Show outing by the revived Jensen Motors coincided with reports of receivership and layoffs at two of the supplier companies in the Creative Group. In January 2001, a cash injection from the Browns Trust, in return for a controlling share in the enterprise, revitalized hopes that the promising prototypes would enter production. 

The S-V8 was finally unveiled in production form in August 2001 but continuing financial problems hampered efforts to build more than the prototypes and a dozen demonstrators. In July 2002, it was revealed that the MacDonald Partnership, a turnaround firm, had been investigating whether Jensen could be taken offshore as a means of ensuring its viability. Regrettably, a package to save the firm could not be agreed. The workforce was made redundant and the company was placed in administration the same month. By the end of 2002, the assets had been broken up and this, the latest, attempt to revive Jensen as a car-manufacturer had failed.


© Richard Calver 2000–2020