Jensen Healey Story
The Jensen Healey Story has been written many times. However, Dutch Jensen historian, Han Kamp, gives us a fresh perspective on the whole saga of the Jensen Healey, from Donald Healey’s X500 project in the late 1960s, through to the iconic Jensen Healey that we know today.
Long before the official presentation of the Jensen Healey in March 1972, several years of development had passed, and many drawbacks overcome. The fact is; far from popular belief; the idea for the Jensen Healey, was not initiated by Kjell Qvale. When it became clear the Austin Healey contract was coming to an end, Donald Healey had already started working on a successor as early as 1968/69.
In view of the oncoming break up with BMC, Healey now based his designs on Vauxhall components. Vauxhall had recently introduced a new ‘slant’ 2 liter 4 cylinder engine. Using this engine made a low bonnet possible. Donald Healey named his project ‘X500’.
The Norcros Group appointed Carl Duerr (known as “ the turn around man”) as Managing Director of Jensen Motors in 1968. Duerr was worried about the large over-capacity in the factory, caused not only by the fact that the Austin Healey production had ended, but the Sunbeam Tiger as well.
Later that year William Brandt took over from Norcros. They asked Duerr to stay on. There was intensive contact between Duerr and Donald Healey, so together with the Jensen staff, the new Healey project was continued.
Duerr had worked in Germany for many years, and established a lot of valuable contacts there. He then approached BMW for their 6 cylinder in line engine. A logical move as a replacement for the “big” Healey which had a 6 cylinder engine too. Donald Healey however preferred a lighter more economical sports car and thus continued his design using the Vauxhall 4 cylinder.
The parties involved, Qvale in particular, had doubts about the styling of the ‘X500’ and approached Hugo Poole for a new design loosely based on the new Alfa Romeo and Fiat sports cars.
Kevin Beattie from Jensen Motors agreed, and from 1969 onwards, work on a new design started in ernest.
Kjell Qvale, who had lost the lucrative Austin Healey sales, was asked by Duerr to try and sell larger numbers of the Jensen Interceptor.
At the same time he was briefed about the new compact sports car. Qvale saw an opportunity, and procured a majority in Jensen shares.
He realised that his dealers desperately needed a volume model, so controlling both the production and sales could be very beneficial for him.
The three parties involved: Donald Healey, Jensen Motors and Kjell Qvale, reached an agreement and sought Alfred Vickers of Rolls Royce as managing director. Donald Healey was also appointed member of the board, while his son Geoff was given a position in the design department.
The ‘X500’ was used for extensive testing, and unfortunately was written off in an accident. Qvale did not like the styling of the ‘X500’ anyway, but also disapproved of Hugo Poole’s design. Qvale preferred styling similar to the succesfull Triumph TR6 and MG-B. His company made good money importing and selling these rather conventional British sports cars.
It was now 1970, and Jensen recieved delivery of ten chassis, which were based on the ‘X500’ platform. The pre-production cars were built on these platforms in various configurations. Ford was one of the candidate engine suppliers and offered the 2 liter OHC Pinto engine and/or the German 2.6 liter V6.
Ford even proposed to supply the complete platform – including all technical components – of the yet to be introduced Ford Cortina MK III.
Nevertheless, since development based on the Vauxhall technique already had progressed far, parties decided to stick to this plan. Duerr and Beattie started negotiations with BMW for the use of their 2.5 and 2.8 6 cylinder in-line engines and transmissions. BMW offered the complete 2.8 for 2570 German Marks and the gearbox would cost 612,70.
This would make the Jensen Healey too expensive however. Moreover, Donald Healey’s design was more suitable for a 4 cylinder. Hence why, during a later stage, BMW was asked to price the 4 cylinder 2 liter which they fitted to their BMW 2002. BMW offered respectively. 2000 German Marks for a single carburettor version aimed at the US market and 2200 for a stronger dual carbs European version. A top of the line motor with Kugelfischer injection was priced at 2400 Marks. Matching 4 or 5 speed gearboxes could be chosen.
Outside of engine choice, there were still issues over the design. Tests made clear that the MG-B like design with TR6 style rear end had a high CW value, and thus was unable to reach the desired top speed.
Once again, assistance of William Towns, who earlier also supplied a design, was called in to create some further designs. The designs were completed in a very short time. One of the designs, was finally agreed by Qvale. Towns was also commissioned to design the interior.
Undeniably Donald Healey’s and William Towns’ first designs were modern sophisticated looking cars. However, Qvale had persisted with modifications to the designs. This was due to Qvale’s overwhelming preference for conservatively styled sports cars. So further designs with these features were worked on. One such design was finished as a half clay model. The half model was placed against a mirror, thus creating a total picture.
The final design was a compromise with which Qvale could live with. Now that this decision had been finally made, further development continued. The development work taking into account the Federal legislation with regard to bumper and headlight height and emission.
It now became clear that the Vauxhall engine in Federal specification was not powerful enough. This was yet another problem causing the project to be delayed further.
The search for another powerplant was opened again, and several manufacturers were approached, among which included Ford, Mazda, Simca/Chrysler and once again, BMW
Unfortunately, there were issues with all the engine choices. One engine was too expensive, another too heavy, or the manufacturerer could not comply to the required number of engines.
Several prototypes were fitted with various engine & gearbox combinations, and underwent testing. One particular example related to a BMW 2002 which Jensen Motors rented. Brian Spicer and his chaps in the experimental department, removed the engine and gearbox from the loaned BMW, fitting the unit into a Jensen Healey for testing. Of course the BMW was returned to the rental company after a few days with the engine etc. refitted. Nobody was the wiser !
This BMW was very suitable since it was also a ‘slant’ unit like the Vauxhall, so it fitted perfectly. Unfortunately the BMW option ended by June 21, 1971, when they wrote that they could not supply the 10.000 units per year as envisioned by Qvale. (see letter)
However, it was outlined to Jensen Motors, if they were prepared to carry the cost, then BMW would be willing to increase their production capacity….
Under huge time pressure (for Qvale could not afford any more delays), it was decided to choose the brand new motor that Lotus had begun building.
The Lotus connection came about purely coincidentally. Two Jensen technicians were discussing the engine problems while on a train, and a Lotus employee overheard this conversation.
This new Lotus engine was in fact developed on the cast iron Vauxhall block, for which Lotus designed and built a cylinderhead with 2 overhead camshafts, 16 valves and two carburettors.
Tests with this setup were succesful and Lotus then developed an alloy block with wet cylinder liners, while still using some Vauxhall components such as the crankshaft and connecting rods.
Innovative in those days was the use of a ‘rubber’ belt instead of the commonly used chain to drive the camshafts. The new engine produced sufficient power and was ‘clean’.
When Jensen Motors first contacted Colin Chapman, he was hesitant, since his new engine had not been fully developed and tested. On the other hand he was keen to accept the order, as it would help him to recover a great deal of his investment.
Tough price negotiations between Qvale and Chapman, eventually led to an agreement that Jensen would buy the engines without any warranty. This in order to keep the cost at an acceptable level, although at £300 the cost was well beyond what had been budgetted for the Jensen Healey.
The Vauxhall motor would have cost a mere £160. A thought of perhaps offering a cheaper Vauxhall powered version along with the Lotus was soon abandoned.
Time and time again various circumstances delayed the project and necessitated the price to be increased. As yet many Vauxhall components were still fitted to the Jensen Healey and apart from the gearbox these proved satisfactorily. After hard testing the Vauxhall gearbox wasn’t considered good enough.
Again the search for an alternative for this important part started. After much research and testing, of amongst others Alfa Romeo and Fiat 5 speed gearboxes , it was decided to choose a 4 speed gearbox from Rootes, who used it in their Sunbeam Rapier H120. They were in a position to supply adequate numbers at a reasonable price as well. So now that all major components were decided upon, further testing could continue.
Kjell Qvale’s prognoses for the Jensen Healey’s sales potential were (too) high. He estimated to build 200 cars a week. To this end, while final testing and development was still carried out, the factory was prepared for mass production, even hiring new personnel.
The Jensen craftsmen however, were not used to mass fabrication and sometimes clashed with the new workers. It took quite a while for them to get used to the new production methods. On top of that the Unions began to interfere…
After some four years of money and energy swallowing work on the new car, the Jensen Healey was scheduled to be presented at the Earls Court Motor Show of October 1971.
Problems with subcontractor supplies prevented that, so it was March 1972 that the Jensen Healey could be officially revealed at the Geneva Motor Show. Meanwhile, Jensen Motors had a press launch at the factory. Both television, and media were invited, and allowed to see the Jensen Healey production line with work in progress. A section of the factory was curtained off, and two Jensen Healeys placed on show, one complete, and one with the wheels takenoff to show the suspension set-up. The car was greeted favourably by the public and the press, but this enthusiasm cooled off soon after the first series of cars had been delivered to customers.
Although all was set-up at the Jensen factory for mass production of the Jensen Healey, issues over deliveries of the new Lotus engine started, with an inevitable production hold up. Former Jensen Motors Sales Manager, Tony Marshall, remembers the situation well,
“we were receiving a fraction of the number of engines promised by Lotus, resulting in early production figures way below forecasts. And all the while the stocks of bought in parts including gearboxes, wheels and tyres, exhausts, screens and glass etc etc were pouring into the factory each week as originally scheduled from suppliers, until the ‘taps’ could be turned down to match production. Not only was the Lotus engine supply disastrous, but they also came out of sequence and with an alarming number of design and build faults; and Qvale had done the deal with Chapman with no warranty ‘given or implied”
Even once cars were coming off the production line and finding owners, all was still not well. It was not long after the first Healeys were delivered to customers that the enthusiasm for the new sports car deminished. As if Jensen had not already had enough difficulties, buyers of the first Jensen Healeys bombed Jensen with warranty claims.
Former Jensen Motors Sales Manager, Tony Marshall, takes up the story again,
“there was a Birmingham-based Jensen Healey owner who had bought one of the pre-production prototypes as a ‘special deal’. Unlike the production Healeys, this car was sold on the clear understanding that it was without warranty of any sort. I don’t know who sanctioned the sale, it certainly wasn’t me, and it led to a lot of trouble. The owner had the words ‘Death Trap’ painted on it and parked it, or tried to, in front of Earls court one Motor Show. He came on to the Jensen stand creating a fuss and had to be removed by the security people. When they reported a successfull ejection to us afterwards, one of them said that it was such a pity that the man had somehow tripped going down the stairs at the front entrance. That was the last we heard of him.”
However , complaints on the first production cars was equally as bad, and these ‘were’ fully warranted. Complaints related to paint finish, and leaking soft tops. More serious were complaints about the Lotus engine which was still not fully sorted . Oil pressure problems, slipping cambelts (resulting in bent valves), oil leakage and flooding carburettors , all damaging the car’s reputation.
Jensen Motors had to solve all this at their own expense, for the Lotus engines were bought without any warranty. In retrospect this was a bad decision by Qvale. Jensen’s feable financial situation worsened considerably due to these claims.
It was not only the Jensen Healey that drained the finances though. Not to be forgotten were the very costly F and G-type projects that Qvale initiated. Figures between 1,5 and 2 million pounds are estimated to have been spent on these.
By now the Jensen management was fed up with the Lotus engine problems, and was seriously considering alternative power plants. Jensen Motors studied the feasibility of fitting a DOHC, twin carb cylinder head to the robust and reliable Simca/Chrysler 180 engine block.
Negotiations with Ricardo Comsulting Engineers were opened. In April 1973 Ricardo offered a complete package, from drawing board to mould making and building 10 complete test engines, including long term bench testing. Ricardo estimated to be needing 18 months and the cost was budgetted at £160.000.
On top of this, Ricardo demanded royalties for each engine to be produced in future, maximised at £10,000. The plan was shelved; it would take too long and was too expensive. Another study(supported by Lotus) involved having GKN supplying and assembling the Lotus engine block castings.
Making matters even worse, the Yom Kipur war in the Middle East caused a worldwide oil crisis, resulting in gas guzzling Interceptor sales declining seriously. Another adverse effect were government imposed energy saving measures that led to a 3 day working week. Reading all this will make one understand that these were diffcult and hectic times for Jensen Motors.
Quality issues were addressed adequately; paint quality was improved as well as many other, often minor issues. Nevertheless sales remained disappointing. In two years, only some 3,500 Jensen Healeys were sold in contrast to the 10,000 a year that Qvale had planned.
Donald Healey and his sons, Brian and Geoffrey, withdrew from the Jensen board in April 1973. They were severely frustrated seeing their reputation being damaged by the Jensen Healey that was carrying their name. Donald Healey’s withdrawal meant that he no longer received any royalties.
May 1973 saw the launch of a new and vastly improved version of the Jensen Healey, the MK II. In retrospect, the Healeys perhaps should have waited to see the launch of the new Mk.II Jensen Healey, but by then they had gone.
Bill Towns had been asked to redesign the rather bland interior. The dashboard in particular was upgraded and wood effect accents made it a lot more pleasing to the eye. At the same time the front fenders and headlight finishings were modified, panel fitment improved and a new range of colours introduced.
Teething problems with the Lotus engines were all solved by now, and positive test reports in many magazines helped sales considerably.
A little later, by the end of 1974, Jensen introduced the 5 speed ‘dog leg’ Getrag gearbox, followed by the thick 5 mph. impact bumpers mandatory for the US market.
Lastly, during 1975, Jensen Motors presented a luxury “shooting break” aimed at the American market especially, the prototype being registered in February 1975. The prototype GT had started life as a LHD Jensen Healey. Even an original Jensen Healey dashboard was left in place initially, while prototyping of the full wood veneer dashboard for the GT was completed. Some initial works photos show the car with the Healey dashboard, before the new GT dashboard was subsequently fitted.
Qvale saw sales potential for this ‘baby Interceptor’. The handsome car was simply named the Jensen GT, because Donald Healey was no longer involved. That said, if one lifted the bonnet, the valve covers still showed the Jensen Healey name on them.
The Jensen GT was just too late to help Jensen Motors. By May 1976 the Company had ceased trading. Just 509 Jensen GT cars had been produced, and approximately 10,500 Jensen Healeys.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Han Kamp | Tony Marshall, former Sales Manager at Jensen Motors.
COPYRIGHTS: Han Kamp
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