Jensen heritage for the next generation

Jon Pressnell – Richard Graves Interview

Motoring Journalist, Jon Pressnell , was the last man to interview former Jensen Motors acting MD, Richard Graves, before he passed away in October 2011. As Graves made clear in this (most frank) interview, the final days of Jensen Motors weren’t happy. The Jon Pressnell – Richard Graves  interview was originally published in the February 2012 edition of Classic & Sportscar magazine.

May 1975, and as Jensen careers towards the abyss – months away from receivership – prominent senior manager, Richard Graves, resigns as deputy MD. “I’m worn out,” he tersely tells the press. It was the end of a turbulent decade with the West Bromwich firm, one that began with optimism around the Interceptor and FF, and was drawing to a close with the Jensen Healey débâcle.

It was all so different from ’66, when Graves had joined the company from a sales position at Rolls Royce, at the prompting of Kevin Beattie, Jensen’s chief engineer (an old friend with whom he’d been a Rootes apprentice). At that stage, the firm was building trimmed Healey 3000 body-chassis units for BMC, and converting Sunbeam Alpines into Tigers for Rootes.

The days of the gawky C-V8s were numbered, but, after a false start with the still born P66 of 1965, Jensen was to introduce the stunning, Touring-styled, steel-bodied Interceptor and four-wheel-drive FF at the ’66 Motor Show.

“The P66 was a Lovely car,” says Graves, who had been an Army flying officer before joining R-R in 1959. “It was comparatively small, fun to drive and comfortable, with a good driving position. But I was thrilled by the Interceptor. I was thrilled by the design and the fact that it was steel rather than glass-fibre. I was impressed by the factory; too. It was a big works, with so much going on. Production of the C-V8 was quite small, only three or four per week – but there were lots of Healeys – 120-130 per week – and Tigers being put together, with trimmed and painted bodies arriving to be motorised. It was a bustling place, employing about 1200 people.”

 After the first 60 or so Interceptor shells [and about 15 FF shells] had been supplied by Italian carrozzeria, Vignale, the jigs were transferred to Jensen. Getting the car into production at West Bromwich was challenging, recalls Graves, “We had fault after fault. When they put the panels together, they found one side was longer than the other. I remember Kevin [Beattie] coming into my office almost weeping, saying: “The bloody thing is lop-sided !” We had to get the Vignale people in to adjust the jigs.

 The first cars were lemons. The trouble was that we were trying to rush them, because we had such a big demand. The problems went on for some while. I got quite heated with Production & Engineering. Customers  invariably wanted a replacement, or a loan car, while we put theirs right, and we didn’t have the facilities. Plus we were getting a bad press. It was a nightmare, and all the while, the order book was lengthening.

 Meanwhile the  FF was on different tooling because it was 4” longer, so the front panels were different. The mechanicals were very good. The Ferguson-Formula system was not a problem, and the Maxaret anti-lock braking was fine. I used to love driving that car. But, although we sold it at a premium, I’m not sure the margins were there – a lot of extra cost went into it.”

 While manufacture of the Interceptor and FF was bedding down, the company itself was going through unsettled times. The ending of the lucrative Healey and Tiger contracts led to the workforce dropping from 1200 to 400, on the heels of a £52,000 loss in ’67.

“Everything went in one go”, says Graves. “There was a big hole.” During 1968, industrial holding firm Norcross (Jensen’s owner since ’59), brought in flamboyant American, Carl Duerr, as a consultant, a prelude to selling the firm to merchant bank, William Brandt, later that year. Duerr, who became a shareholder, took over as managing director.

His reign is not remembered with fondness by Graves, “He was known as the ‘Turnaround Man’. What he’d actually turned around before is a good question. He was the perfect PR man: he’d been an actor in Hollywood. Yes, he was colourful, but he was a bullshitter – he pretended to know everything, and made great use of the personal pronoun ‘I’. He lived with his PR people – and all they wanted was food for the press. I’m not sure how good a businessman he was. I don’t generally take badly to people, but I couldn’t stand him. He had apparently been head of industry in Austria after the war. Well, that’s what he said, anyway…”

 Duerr had his work cut out: the money simply wasn’t coming in. “You didn’t have to be a mathematician to wonder how Jensen made any money at all. ” says Graves. “You could see the cost of producing the cars. I knew from my marketing position what the margin was and I had a good idea of the overheads. They were far more than they should have been. We got rid of a few people, but the factory was still rattling.”

 The trick – an elusive one – was to make money without ramping up production to the point that quality was sacrificed. “The MDs were always pushing for quantity – at one stage in the later years we got to 20-23 of the big Jensens per week – and I used to fight with them on that subject, particularly with Duerr.”

 “At one stage we had a hell of a lot of Interceptors in the back lot of the factory – and of course I was getting the blame for not selling them. You have to have customers who want the cars, rather than you wanting the cars to have customers. He couldn’t understand that. He said you won’t make any money unless you have volume. I said quality cars don’t need volume.”

 One thing holding down volume (and driving up costs) was the amount of lead-loading in the cars. “It was very labour-intensive and very expensive, and you had to put more paint on, to cover any blemishes after the leading. But customers loved it, when I took them around the works. They thought it marvellous. ‘Heavens, it really is hand-made,’ they’d say…”

 The dynamics at West Bromwich changed – to say the least – when Kjell Qvale, the hyper-energetic Californian king of British car importers, took over the company in 1970 – above all with a view to bringing a new Healey-designed sports car into production at the factory.

“Qvale was Jensen’s saviour – or so it appeared,” recalls Graves. “He started taking Interceptors from the day he came in, opening up a new market in the States for the cars. So production was secured – and when I heard that they were planning to put a new Healey into production I started to get very excited. It was just what we needed. We were all thrilled to bits. We thought we had a new lease of life.”

 Later it became clear, says Graves, that perhaps the sales of the big Jensens in the States were less remunerative than they might have been. “The big cars were only marginally profitable. I can’t be too factual about this, but I think Qvale was taking the cars at cost – or if he left us anything it would have been very little, because our coffers were totally dry after a while.”

 During this time the company was pushing the Jensen-Healey towards production as swiftly as possible. After endless difficulties sourcing a suitable engine, Jensen plumped for the 16-valve 2-litre Lotus engine – buying this untested new power unit without warranty.

This was an unutterable folly, says Graves. “We were up against it, to be truthful. So when we got the Lotus engine everyone jumped for joy – except the sales and marketing department, who said ‘You can’t bring out an engine without warranty’. My sales manager [Tony Marshall] said ‘Dick, you must persuade Qvale!’ We soon realised we were in trouble. The first Jensen-Healeys had warranty claim after warranty claim against them.”

 Thus were the seeds of disaster sown, helped by Jensen’s unrealistic initial insistence on deliveries of 200 engines a week. “I’d have been surprised if we could have done 200 cars a week,” says Graves. “Not without major alterations to the works – certainly a new paint plant and things like that. People were getting quite euphoric about Jensen, and the volumes, and the money. I think it was dream-time… Perhaps 150 Healeys a week would have been the maximum.

 “What all this amounted to was that Jensen did the development for Lotus on the engine – at its expense, and at the expense of early Jensen-Healey customers. Camshaft bearings seized; head gaskets blew; the engine drank – and leaked – oil; in cold weather, the cambelt could freeze on its toothed wheels, and when you started up it would jump some teeth, wrecking the engine; if you parked on a slope the car would drain its petrol tank into the engine, before the fuel in some instances overflowed onto the ground. One Jensen sales manager managed to set fire to his car when he removed the plug leads to turn the engine by hand and a stray spark started a blaze.”

“It cost us a fortune – and our reputation,” laments Graves. “The engine is the whole crux of the thing. With a car it’s not the leaks in the boot, the paint that falls off, that are the real problems. For a customer it’s above all when the engine goes wrong. The service department was crowded with returned Healeys. David Millard, the Service Director, was having a very tough time. It was a total shambles – it was awful. My marketing department was up in arms. Why should we bear the brunt of it? They used words I would not dream of repeating. It was a very unhappy time.”

 Alongside its engine maladies the Healey suffered from poor quality and lacklustre looks; even the colours failed to flatter the car. Graves feels part of the problem was that his sales and marketing department was not consulted about the car.

 “Once they’d started planning it, I thought we might have been brought in a bit. We had hardly any input into the car itself. When we were shown the Healey, it was a fait accompli. We weren’t in a position to say whether we liked this or that, whereas at Rolls-Royce we had quite a lot of input, on anything to do with a new car. We were asked our opinion on upholstery, colour schemes, and so on. Even if they didn’t necessarily act on our suggestions, I believe that some of that input was very helpful.”

 As 1973 turned into 1974, it was evident that Jensen had missed its moment in the sun with the Healey. The company was struggling to sell either the big V8 Jensens or the Healey, and was making substantial losses on both cars. It had also been dissipating resources on the design of a new big Jensen, the F-type, and a smaller gullwing-doored car, the G-type. Meanwhile, in March 1974 supplies were coming in to build 105 Jensen-Healeys a week, but the Healeys were leaving the lines at a weekly rate of only 78 vehicles.

The last three months of 1974 saw the moment when Jensen reached the point of no return. “We knew it was closing time. We couldn’t see what was going to resolve the problems,” says Graves. In particular, sales had nose-dived in the States, which took 85-90 per cent of all Jensen-Healeys and a good number of Interceptors.

“The big Jensens just stopped selling in the States, because of the oil crisis. The Healey was struggling, partly because of its reputation, but also because the oil crisis hit everything. Qvale had said he wasn’t taking any more – he turned off the tap to sales of the Jensen-Healey. We weren’t selling Healeys in any great numbers in the UK or indeed in other overseas markets outside the States – we sold a few in Australia and in Hong Kong, but sales in the UK and Europe didn’t amount to a hill of beans.”

 Stocks of completed cars were by now worryingly high and cashflow had dried up. Qvale and his workforce were at ill-tempered loggerheads, as the Jensen owner assumed the role of MD as well as chairman and pushed for staff cutbacks and a halving of output whilst criticizing the workforce’s alleged lack of productivity with headline-grabbing bluntness.

Although there were certainly difficulties with some of the unionised workforce, this wasn’t altogether fair: part of the problem was quite simply that when Jensen did need to produce cars it was often short of parts because it was unable to pay its suppliers.

“We were living hand-to-mouth,” says Graves. “There were occasions when we couldn’t get the cars out, because we’d run right out of some pieces. I said ‘Let’s sit in a meeting every morning and see whom is owed what and let’s see how important they are to maintaining our production programme. We were on the phone to suppliers, pleading with them. We were all pretty tired and sick. We were working long hours and having to put up with an awful lot.” 

“I was like a battering ram. I was doing my daily visits to the works and I was getting cat calls. They thought it was all my fault because for them I was the boss. They never regarded Qvale as the boss – he was just the money man. He wasn’t there that much. I’d say he came once a month, but sometimes not for one or two months. He was calling the shots, maybe, but from about 12,000 miles away. The whole thing was unstable – you never knew from one moment to the next what was going to happen, and I was the one who took the bullets.”

 At the root of this wretched saga, says Graves, was the oldest story in the book: the Jensen-Healey was rushed into production. “It was cobbled together. If we’d had another year we’d have sorted out the problems and made it a better-looking car. Kevin Beattie was under tremendous pressure to get the Jensen-Healey into production, and the company wasn’t geared for that. It was a mess, frankly.”

 Meanwhile, amidst talk in the press of the company working a three-day week, and – nonsensically – of folding Jensen into the shortly-to-be-nationalized British Leyland, weekly output of Healeys slumped to 25 cars. Debts rose to £3.7m. When a financial restructuring was proposed that the board judged not to be in the company’s best interests, tension between Graves and Qvale exploded. Graves resigned, moving on to a successful 11-year stint with foundry company Brockhouse Dudley, along with various other directorships. “I was shattered,” he says. “I’d had enough.”

 Jensen was broke, its cars – such as it could afford to produce – were unwanted, and after its bank appointed a receiver in September 1975, it would finally be wound down in May 1976. It was a sad end, but in retrospect one that was inevitable.

Jon Pressnell

CLASSIC & SPORTSCAR MAGAZINE

Jon Pressnell - Richard Graves Interview

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: The Museum would like to thank motoring journalist, Jon Pressnell, and James Elliott from Classic & Sportscar magazine for allowing us to publish this article.

COPYRIGHTS: All images and text copyright of Classic & Sportcar magazine | Jon Pressnell | Tony Baker

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