Hybrid vehicles are not a modern invention. The quirky, quintessentially British Jensen automobile company of Birmingham, England had the idea long before Toyota – and decades before there would be a Prius.
Instead of MPGs, however, the focus of Jensen’s “hybrid” was BHP – brake horsepower. And the name chosen for the vehicle would reflect its purpose and mission:
Built for roughly ten years between 1966 and 1976, the Interceptor was conceived as a sort of muscled-up XKE or DB6, combining the genteel elegance of an English two-plus-two saloon with the fine lines of a front-engined V-12 Italian exotic. But instead of a peaky, high-maintenance, high-RPM DOHC eyetalian 12, motive power came from the deadly simplicity of a massive, Detroit-built big block V-8 engine that produced tire-annihilating torque.
Marrying a British car with an oversized American V-8 wasn’t a new idea, of course – the 289 Ford Hi-Po powered Sunbeam Alpine Tiger and the later 427 Shelby Cobras being two examples from about the same time period. But while the Tiger and Shelby Cobra were typically British minimalist two-seater roadsters with clown car-sized bodies and few amenities, the four-seat, two-ton Interceptor was as large-living as the 7.2 liter “Super Commando” 440 cubic inch Chrysler V-8 under its long hood – with generous back seats, sumptuous accommodations up front and remarkable for the day advances, including Girling four-wheel-disc brakes with a mechanical anti-lock system and available all-wheel-drive (in “FF” trim).
The combination worked – delivering sports car handling, muscle car quarter-mile times and the easy big-engine power required for hours of effortless high-speed touring.
None of this came cheap, though. Base Interceptor coupes cost roughly twice the MSRP of a same-year Corvette: about $16,000 at a time when a new ‘Vette sold for around $7,000 or so fully loaded. Convertible Interceptors and FF models with all-wheel-drive bumped that up to $25,000 – exotic car money back in the early-mid 1970s.
But this was a special car – much more than just a British car with a big engine stuffed into it.
The Italian styling house Vignale was commissioned by Jensen Motors, Ltd., to pen what became the Interceptor’s sleek (though unfortunately rust-prone) bodywork – and came up with the car’s signature compound curved glass hatchback (a complex and expensive shape to produce at that time), backswept A, B and C pillars, raked windshield and long, Ferrari Daytona-style long hood. Though it’s true Vignale borrowed some styling cues from both Ferrari and Aston Martin – especially in the front end, where the influence of the DB series cars can be seen – the Interceptor’s exceptionally well-proportioned 2-plus-2 shape stands on its own as a credible reinterpretation of classic forms – neither cheaply derivative nor clumsily imitative.
Vignale rendered the prototype in four months – just in time to get completed show cars put together by October, 1966. The cars were assembled at Jensen’s West Bromwich factory near Birmingham, right up to the last year of production, 1976.
A beautifully hand-crafted, aviation-inspired interior with “Qvale” wood dash (named after Kjell Qvale, the Jensen company’s major shareholder), matching three-spoke steering wheel, hand-fitted leather and sumptuous Wilton carpets coddled the driver. Air conditioning and a premium (for the day) audio system were included standards. There were aircraft style toggle-style controls and a floor-mounted shifter on a handsome floor mounted center console.
Virtually all the early Interceptors were right-hand drive.
The first Interceptors off the line were fitted with 383 Chrysler big blocks with a performance grind hydraulic cam and single Carter carburetor – producing 325 (gross) horsepower. This gave the hybrid British/American supercar more muscle than the 1966-68 Ferrari 275 GTB/4 – whose far less torquey 3.3 liter V-12 managed only 300 hp at a much higher 8,000 rpm.
Shortly after production began, however, the ante was raised considerably when Chrysler’s famous 440 cube big block became the standard Interceptor powerplant – with either a single four barrel or – if you were well-heeled enough to pay the extra shekels for it – the same three two-barrel “Six Pak” set-up used in muscle car legends such as the Charger Daytona and Plymouth Superbird. Before emissions regulations and the ever-escalating cost of fuel began to choke the life out of the mighty 440 (as they were doing to all U.S. performance engines after about 1972), it delivered as much as 375 BHP and pushed the two-ton Jensen to 60 mph from rest in about 7 seconds flat and to a top speed close to 140 mph – excellent numbers for the time. (440-equipped early Interceptors were almost exactly as quick as the four-seater Ferrari 400 GT – and quicker than the ’68-’78 Lamborghini Espada.)
Had the Interceptor been equipped with an overdrive transmission and better gearing, its top speed would very likely have been comparable to that achieved by the GT Ferraris and Lambos of the era – but the inherent limitations of its non-OD three-speed Torqueflite automatic kept the car from having the 150 mph-plus legs of the Italian thoroughbreds.
A very small handful of Interceptors did leave the factory with Hurst-shifted 4-speed manual transmissions – and these cars were noticeably quicker than the automatic versions – and are exceedingly collectible today (as are the Six Pak-equipped “SP” and all-wheel-drive “FF” versions).
Jensen also supposedly looked into the possibility of offering the 425 horsepower 426 Hemi in the early ’70s Interceptor, but cost considerations ultimately proved prohibitive.
The Jensen’s suspension, like its powerplant, was straightforward – solid axle/leaf spring rear and coil-spring front suspension. But the Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock system was a true leap forward; no other production car of the time offered anything like this technology – which had been developed for aviation use. It would be decades before ABS became a common feature on even high-end luxury and sports cars.
The 10.75-inch Girling four-wheel-disc disc brakes were also state-of-the-art equipment for the era and together with the anti-lock system gave the Interceptor not just the stopping power but also the control of a modern car.
By the mid-70s, emissions regulations and double digit inflation conspired to sap the Interceptor’s might (its 440 cube V-8 was down to a so-so 220 net horsepower) even as it became even more expensive – factors which helped accelerate the demise of the car, and ultimately Jensen Motors, Ltd. The Birmingham factory fell silent after 1976, when the last of the original models – the Mark III – rolled off the line.
Fewer than 7,000 cars were produced, all told – including a small percentage of convertibles and FF all-wheel-drive examples.
Still, its very respectable ten-year production run (impressive for a low-volume marque) testifies to the car’s appeal and the basic goodness of the design. The chief problem was making a profit off such a relatively small production run of cars without pricing the individual cars beyond what buyers are willing to pay. It is the same Catch 22 all smaller car companies face, even Porsche. But Jensen didn’t have the established buyer base – or the status – of Porsche and other Name Brand exotics. This made it even harder for the company to stay afloat.
In 1986, the Jensen company was briefly reorganized as Jensen Cars Limited – and an attempt was made to resurrect the Interceptor nameplate with an updated Mark IV series. However, the effort failed and Jensen – after another brief resurfacing in the 1990s – faded away for good this time and the Interceptor became a piece of automotive history.
Interest in these unusual hybrid English/American/Italian road cars has endured over the ensuing years – and there continues to be a strong following of enthusiasts and would-be owners dedicated to their preservation. The Interceptor’s rarity and interesting hybridization of the best that England, Italy and America could put together on four wheels assures its future collectibility. very much like the Studebaker Avanti.
Even better, you can still buy tune-up parts at any auto parts store, because of the Chrysler running gear. The main difficulty (and expense) involved in keeping one of these cars going – or restoring one – is finding body panels, interior and trim pieces. They’re available, but unlike a rebuild kit for a Carter AFB or a set of rings for the 440, they’re far from everywhere – and nowhere near cheap.
Excerpted from “Doomed,” by Eric Peters. Preliminary release date summer 2012.