Recollections Of The Sincar Operation | Mike Jones
Former Chief Engineer at Jensen Motors, Mike Jones, discusses with Museum curator, Ulric Woodhams, the hitherto unrecorded month that he spent at Vignale in 1967. Jones was sent out to Vignale, to help sort out engineering and quality issues on the Sincar operation. Some 30 odd Sincar Interceptors left the Vignale factory bearing both Vignale and Jensen names.
It was early summer 1967. Vignale had pretty much finished their contract of building cars for Jensen, but then there was the Sincar Operation. Left-hand-drive Interceptors being built by Vignale, on motorised chassis which were being supplied by Jensen. But although the completed cars bore the Jensen name, they were to all intents and purposes Vignale cars.
Carlo Dusio, was a financial partner in Vignale, and the brains behind the whole Sincar Interceptor scheme. He had seen an opening for the left-hand-drive Interceptor, and had negotiated a contract with Jensen to supply Sincar with the motorised chassis. Undoubtedly a clever move by him, it was; however; one that Jensen would quickly regret. Carl Duerr brought an end to the Sincar agreement in January 1968, although it took legal proceedings to bring it to an end.
It was Kevin Beattie that gave me the job of flying out to Turin and spending the best part of a month at the Vignale factory. I was a fairly junior member of Jensen Management at this time, working directly under Kevin. It had already become obvious to me (when overhearing one side of phone conversations) that Jensen senior management (Richard Graves in particular) were not at all happy with Vignale operating virtually on their own in Europe; building and selling cars under the Jensen name.
My assignment at the Vignale factory was mainly to check that the build of the Sincar Interceptors was to acceptable Jensen engineering and quality standards. However, in those days hardly any standards were written down either by Vignale or by Jensen. That said, so many of the so-called acceptance standards for fits and finishes were largely subjective.
After my arrival in Turin, and at the Vignale factory, my stay followed a fairly regular pattern each day. I would leave the hotel in Turin by taxi during week days, and return the same way in the evenings.
On some days, Dusio would drive me to his Club in the city for siesta time. At the club, we would take a swim in the club’s open air pool, have a light lunch, followed by a rest under some trees. After that, and with renewed energy, I returned to work.
A couple of weekends that I was there, Dusio and his wife, who I think was called Sophia, invited me to their holiday home on the coast.The nearby beach was never too crowded, and I remember the sea being beautifully warm to swim in, as opposed to the cold sea of Bournemouth, where I lived as a teenager.
In fact my strongest recollection of my stay in Turin was of the heat. It was very hot and humid on most days. I don’t remember any rain during the whole of the time I was there. At Vignale there was only air-conditioning in the offices, but in the factory there was none. I particularly remember changing a front brake caliper alongside a Vignale worker. A simple job at ‘room’ temperature, but I was soon literally dripping in sweat. The Vignale man of course showed no signs of overheating. I did eventually get acclimatised, but it took a few weeks, and by then I was nearing the end of my time at Vignale. Incredibly, there was a beer and wine vending machine at the factory. Something I was surprised to see. After working up a sweat changing the calliper, the machine beckoned like iron filings to a magnet.
I greatly approved of the idea of a siesta in the middle of the day. Office people and factory workers at the Vignale factory all started at 8.00am and stopped work promptly at mid-day, when the weather was at its hottest. Between 12.00 and 3.00pm you could do whatever you wanted. Then a return to work at 3.00 for the second half of the day, ending at between 8.00 and 9.00pm in the evening. I sometimes went into town for dinner to one of those delightful sit-outside-restaurants to watch the world go by. In those days most people made an effort to look respectable, especially the ladies. Often I would see three generations of a family sitting and chatting together on one large table. That was the Italian way.
You have probably guessed it – I really enjoyed my stay in Italy. I at least knew some of what to expect, because my father had worked in Italy for a couple of years before the second World War, and he had always spoken well of the life over there. I was brought up to the sound of Italian Opera singers, recorded on my father’s scratchy vinyl records.
This all sounds like a blissful existence, not dissimilar to a holiday, but I was at Vignale to do a job. Certain aspects of my job were not exactly easy. For a start, the vast majority of everyone at Vignale did not have command of the English language – and my Italian was limited (in truth, limited to my pocket Italian phrase book). Luckily, I did have Colin Davis, the unspoken hero of the Jensen / Vignale relationship, available on the phone when I needed him. Living in Italy, Colin had been brought in to help as an interpreter when Kevin [Beattie] and myself had gone out to collect the prototype Interceptor back in 1966. He was a true Englishman, and both Kevin and myself had taken to him. Colin had a good background in engineering, and spoke excellent Italian, which was the exact marriage we needed. I remember Dusio mentioning Colin’s excellent command of the Italian language – that was praise indeed.
Back to Dusio. Here was a charismatic personality. As far as I could see, Dusio was the man who ran the financial side of Vignale, and he probably shared financial ownership of the factory with Alfredo Vignale. There is no doubt that Dusio came from a wealthy family. His father was an aristocratic type who had raced cars quite successfully, and the young Dusio had followed in his footsteps.
I was certainly impressed with Dusio’s driving skills on public roads, when he had driven me to the coast and back in his Maserati. In those days, there were no motorways, at least not from Turin to the coast, so there was lots of high speed overtaking between cars coming in the opposite direction – manoeuvres that Dusio executed with great smoothness and fine judgement.
Both Carlo Dusio and Alfredo Vignale; surprisingly; gave me the free run of the factory and the offices; they did not give me any no-go areas. I must have initially appeared to Dusio and Vignale, and to most of the factory workers, to be a Jensen spy. Remember, they hadn’t asked for a representative of Jensen Motors to go over to them. Jensen Motors had insisted. It was indeed lucky for me that both Dusio and Vignale treated me so well.
Taking into account the awkward circumstances of my arrival at the Vignale factory, I made great efforts to dispel any notion that I was there as a spy from Jensen. During the first week, in spite of my lack of Italian, I tried to show everyone involved that I was there to help and not to disrupt what they were all doing. I tried to answer questions on the spot, but if I didn’t know the answer I would phone or write to my buddies in West Bromwich to get the right answers.
I was expected to write weekly reports back to Jensen Motors, relating to my activities, and how things were going in respect to the Sincar Interceptors. I always showed these reports to Dusio, who had a reasonable command of English, before sending them on to West Bromwich. Dusio never asked me to change any of the wording of the reports.
During my time at Vignale, I was conscious I was representing Jensen, but the reality of the situation meant I was the Pig-in-the-Middle. That said, it wasn’t my place to become involved in Jensen-Vignale politics. My job was to try and help raise the quality of the Sincar Interceptor, which was being sold under the umbrella of the Jensen name.
It transpired that Vignale had very few engineering drawings. Jensen on the other hand had detail or assembly engineering drawings for most of the chassis parts, and had quite good drawings for wiring harnesses and other electrical parts. What Vignale did have were 3D sketches of every body part, showing quantity, description and part number, so it was usually quite easy to identify body parts, and no great skill was required to ‘read’ the sketches. The snag was that it was usually impossible to measure critical dimensions of incoming body parts from local suppliers, so great reliance was made of the suppliers to stick to the original dimensions, tolerances, and specifications of their designs.
I did not try to set rigid build standards for the body build, although I did point out obvious body defects. Particularly if I thought customers might later complain, or if something would not function properly. Areas that I focused on were components from Jensen that interfaced with Vignale’s body. Such areas included the welding of body panels to the Jensen chassis frame, and electrical layout.
Rather than identify defects at the completion of vehicle build, I tried to point out problems at an early stage of build, preferably at the component level, and well before assembly. If issues were left later than this, it would either be too expensive, or simply unrealistic to rectify. In the end, the Vignale factory workers respected me for that, and in general I had good co-operation from the majority of them.
As part of my job I would try and road test every completed Sincar Interceptor for about 20 miles, prior to shipment to the European dealers. I did witness a steady improvement of build quality during my time in Turin.
It didn’t take long for me to feel part of the Vignale team. After being around the Vignale workers for just under a couple of weeks, I was even invited to sit down and take lunch & siesta with them.
It was just at the point when I was starting to feel accepted, and at home, working at Vignale, that my month’s stay was coming to an end. I had dropped into a completely different life-style, and was becoming used to it. As I bid everyone at the factory goodbye, I couldn’t help but feel melancholic. I had enjoyed my short stay in Turin, but more importantly, I felt I had been productive, which was, after all, the reason for my visit.
Notes on Carlo Dusio (1922 – 2006)
Carlo Dusio’s father, Piero Dusio, was a wealthy Italian industrialist. A textile industrialist, and one time football star, his company manufactured uniforms for the Italian Army during the Second World War. One of Piero Dusio’s many passions was motor-racing, at which he proved to be remarkably quick behind the wheel. Among his most notable results was a third place finish in the 1938 Mille Miglia, driving an Alfa Romeo 8C 2900B.
Piero Dusio became so obsessed with the world of motor-racing that he decided to start a company devoted to the manufacture of fine racing cars. Using the acronym Cisitalia (Compagnia Industriale Sportiva Italia), Dusio asked leading Fiat engineer Dante Giacosa to design a brand new, single seater racing car in the evening hours. This was in 1944 with the Second World War still raging.
Cisitalia quickly became one of Italy’s leading racing car manufacturers. However, commissioning Ferdinand Porsche to construct a mid-engined, four-wheel drive Grand Prix car, drained all of the company’s resources. With all resources being used on this project, no finance or attention was being paid to improvements of their existing race car models.
By 1948, Dusio had moved to Argentina and established Autoar (Automotores Argentinos), financially supported by Juan Peron. His son, Carlo Dusio continued to run a refinanced Cisitalia company in Turin (1948–1964). Alfredo Vignale built some of the first Cistalia cars, and the close relationship and alliance between Dusio and Vignale would last until Vignale’s death.
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