Everyone likes sports cars. In the '50s and '60s, the image of motoring through the countryside in a top-down British roadster was an alluring one. Curvaceous offerings from the likes of Jaguar and Austin Healey provided the glamour and performance that spoke volumes about the sophistication and breeding of their owners. At least that was the theory. In reality, British cars of the day were often cantankerous and trouble-prone, in addition to being cramped and uncomfortable for long journeys; fine for an MG or Triumph owner perhaps, but for a Jaguar or big Healey owner who had just spent as much as they would for a new Cadillac, the shortcomings were a disappointment.
A better ideaWith the demise of the Austin-Healey 3000 in 1967, legendary California import car dealer Kjell Qvale had a problem. The stylish big Healey had been one of his best and most profitable sellers, despite its early 1950s design. Qvale realized that the new six-cylinder MGC model was little more than a stopgap; a big and heavy engine stuffed into the existing MGB body shell. Likewise, the Triumph TR6 was really just a nose-heavy TR4, its six-cylinder engine only returning performance to pre-emission-control levels. What Qvale wanted was a modern version of a traditional British sports car, and he entered into discussions with Donald Healey and Jensen Motors (the company that had built bodies for the Austin Healey) to find out what could be done. Eventually, Kjell Qvale became a Jensen shareholder and then president, and Donald Healey became the company's chairman as they set about building a sports car.
All newDonald Healey and son Geoffrey Healey were the primary designers of the new sports car. They wanted it to be roomy and modern-looking and, realizing that it would be directly compared with the old big Healey, it needed to be fast. It also needed to be reasonably priced, so major components needed to be sourced from other high-volume British-built cars when possible. The four-speed manual transmission came from the Sunbeam Rapier of Chrysler U.K. The front suspension and steering came from the Vauxhall Firenza, as did the live rear axle with its drum brakes. The front brakes are the same as those from a Triumph TR6. A variety of stylists made contributions to the new sports car's design, but Healey and his son are generally regarded as responsible for the overall effect. This may be the Jensen-Healey's biggest shortcoming. Where the Austin Healey 3000 was all big shoulders and rounded curves, the new Jensen-Healey was 1970s modern, angular with sharper edges. Think Lauren Bacall vs. Ali McGraw; the Jensen-Healey had a look that was contemporary and unmistakably '70s but lacked some of the flowing elegance and charm that was in vogue in the 1950s.
Powered by ?It is often said that the heart of any sports car is its engine. Jensen had no engines of its own; its only other product was the Jensen Interceptor supercar, powered by a huge Chrysler V8 that would never fit in the lithe Jensen-Healey. With U.S. emissions regulations a real concern, Jensen looked first at a 2.3L produced by Vauxhall but soon realized that the engine would never produce the 130 bhp that Donald Healey had deemed necessary to make the Jensen-Healey competitive. Ford was contacted about the possible use of the Cologne, Germany-built 2.8-liter V6 engine, but strikes in the German factory meant that Ford could not guarantee deliveries. BMW was also approached but could not deliver the 200 engines per week that Jensen projected they would need.
They finally turned to Lotus and its mercurial founder Colin Chapman. Lotus was looking for a high-volume sports car home for its new 1,973cc, dohc, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine that would produce 144 bhp, 35 more than the Triumph TR6's 2.5-liter six-cylinder could make. The all-aluminum alloy engine was revolutionary for its time, using a cogged rubber timing belt to move the twin camshafts. European vehicles had twin Dellorto carburetors, while U.S. market cars had a pair of Stromberg carburetors. Top speed was 119 mph, and zero-to-60 mph acceleration was a very respectable 8.7 seconds. The car was launched at the 1972 Geneva Show, and the first impressions were good. The original list price was $5,545, making the car a mid-priced sports car. On paper at least, the Jensen-Healey was a winner.
Not so rosyRight from the start, the Jensen-Healey was beset with problems. Because the engine was laid over in the engine bay, its valve cover gaskets on the low side were constantly submerged in oil. Leaks soon formed, and the strong odor of burning oil hitting the exhaust manifold was a constant problem. The Lotus 907 engine hadn't really had much testing before finding a home in the engine bay of the Jensen-Healey and now the car's owners were acting like development engineers. Much more seriously, the engine would wear out its rubber timing belt and tensioner bearings, and when these failed the pistons would hit the valves and destroy the engine. Although rubber timing belts are commonplace now, the concept of regularly replacing the timing belt was unknown at the time. The build quality of the cars was appalling, especially in the earliest cars, and the plastic was tacky. The car was quick and would handle well, but most of the time disgruntled owners were stuck with their British sports car in the hands of their mechanics.
ChangesTo Jensen's credit, it continued to develop the car, despite its initial bad reputation. In 1974, big rubber bumpers, mandated by U.S. crash regulations, appeared and did nothing to help the Jensen-Healey's styling. A five-speed Getrag transmission, with first gear down and to the left, was standard starting in late 1974. A fastback Jensen GT Coupe appeared in 1976, but only 509 were built. There were minor trim and material changes over the car's short production life. The oil crisis of the early 1970s hit Jensen Motors hard, and between later strikes and rapid inflation, the company went into bankruptcy in 1975 and out of business in May 1976. In all, 10,453 Jensen-Healey cars were built.
What to look forRust, rust, and more rust. Even California cars suffer from rusting floors, and these are structural concerns. The timing belt and its tensioner must be changed every 18,000 miles, and if there is not hard proof of this having been done, assume it needs to be changed before driving the car. New rubber valve-cover gaskets have solved the oil leak problems, and a problem of fires caused by a broken plastic tee under the Stromberg carburetors can be fixed by changing to a metal part. In fact, many of the car's problems have been solved by an enthusiastic network of owners who keep the cars alive and maintain a good parts supply. Old cars have prettier bumpers, while newer cars have a five-speed transmission. Check out the Jensen-Healey Preservation Society at www.jensenhealey.com on hints to keep one running.
Why would you want one?Prices on Jensen-Healey models have begun to creep upward. There was a time you couldn't give one away, and drivable examples are still available in the $2,000 range. Nice cars can be had for $5,000, and show cars have started to reach more than $10,000. Engine upgrades can result in more than 200 hp, and with some suspension tuning, the cars can be serious performers. Remember that the Jensen-Healey was the D-Production SCCA National Champion in 1973 and 1974, so the potential is there. It's a roomy car, much more than an MGB or TR6, and both faster and much more civilized than either of those stalwart British roadsters at half their price. If you have a thing for the '70s and Ali McGraw and want a fun and fast old British sports car, the bargain-priced Jensen-Healey might be your car.