By on December 23, 2009

dead but still kicking

Revivals are notoriously unsuccessful. But the lure of recapturing the magic of of the past perpetually goads men into futile pursuits, whether it be cars or women. The problem is that the changed circumstance of the times aren’t properly considered: the chemistry that worked so well twenty years earlier may not today.  But it all makes for colorful stories, depleted bank accounts, dented egos, bent valves and prematurely rusty cars.

CC 68 052 800Donald Healey’s legacy was classic: the gifted British sports car racer turned engineer and then entrepreneur.  His long partnership with Austin resulted in the legendary Austin-Healey and A-H Sprite.  The big Healey was the consummate British sports car: crude, harsh, but effective; cobbled up from various BMC sources and draped with a sensuous body. Box fresh in 1953, it evolved and soldiered on well past its sell-by date, until safety and emission regs finally killed it in 1967. But its supporters were eager to fill the hole it left, despite the fact that the market and its players was quickly changing.

Mainstream manufacturers were entering the sports car market in ever bigger numbers. The VW-Porsche 914, Opel GT, and Datsun’s segment-buster 240Z changed the rules forever, and made competitive Brit cottage-industry style sports cars an increasingly difficult proposition, especially in the popular price class.

Nevertheless, Kjell Qvale, the biggest US distributor for Austin-Healy, was determined to revive the Healey marque. He brokered a complex marriage between Healey and Jensen, and old school maker of expensive limited-production coupes with big Chrysler engines, and set them to the task of coming up with a Healey replacement.

j-h cockpitHere’s where the story turns ugly, in so many ways. The styling certainly leans in that direction. It was driven by the early seventies’ theme of making a clean break with anything that looked old, classic, or sensuous; as well as anticipating the US 5 mph bumper requirements. The result is certainly a clean break with the past; an anodyne, faceless slab with a tail shaped by a cleaver. Thankfully, it was a short-lived fad, and classic curvaceous shapes would soon be socially acceptable again. But the Jensen-Healey, along with the Triumph TR-7,  is a styling time capsule of that painful era.

Lacking the resources to do otherwise, a scrounging expedition rounded up a motley assortment of chassis and running gear supplies: the front suspension and rear axle came via the Vauxhall Firenza. The gearbox was donated by the Sunbeam Rapier. You get the picture.

Engines were scrounged for too. The first choice was a Vauxhall 2.3 liter unit, but it was found lacking. Calls were made to Ford in Germany for their Cologne V6, and to BMW for their four. The Germans had supply problems in meeting the very ambitious (unrealistic) production goals that J-H was envisioning. So the shopping expedition continued.

Enter Lotus, which was developing an advanced and utterly untried alloy four (Type 907) with a four-valve head and a toothed rubber timing belt, something quite new and unproven at the time indeed. Perfect! Just the thing for a death-wish-mobile from England. Now add the obligatory insta-rust bodies, and the death of two brands is guaranteed. And sprinkle on a healthy dose of cowl shake for good measure.

CC 68 045 800

I know there are aficionados of the brand that have mastered Zen and the art of Jensen-Healey maintenance, and keep them running; obviously there’s this one sitting in front of the Lutheran Church on Sunday (maybe prayer is one of the keys). And they will extol the virtues of its clean handling and rev-happy engine (for that vintage). They will even say it can keep up with a Miata on a a good day. Good for them and for making our lives more colorful by giving us the chance to relive the seventies on the rare day we see one on the street. But the reality is that in terms of reliability, it was the Miata’s utter polar opposite.

CC 68 055 800The Lotus engine (see picture here) was an unmitigated nightmare from the start. The earliest version threw/broke timing belts at alarming rates, resulting in extensive destruction of the interference engine. Timing belt changes at 18k miles became mandatory for all J-Healeys. Better to let the big boys flesh out new technology like that. A number of other development-by-customer-experience shortcomings made their painful presence known.

It was a remarkably powerful unit  for a two-liter four in those smog-strangled times, zinging out some 140 hp (net) at about 6,000 rpm, even in US spec trim. That’s Chevy 5.7 liter V8 territory for back then. If only rebuilds every 40 or 50k miles weren’t all too common, if not almost mandatory.

The challenges didn’t end there: even Donald Healey’s son, Brian, once wrote in the classic British understated way that “the soft-top mechanism was completely unacceptable.” Someone described the Jensen-built bodies as having the same reaction to moisture as Alka-Seltzer.

The J-H was fairly well received by the motoring press at the time. R&T pitted it against a BMW 2002tii, and found that the J-H could corner quicker than the tall and softer-sprung Bimmer. In a reality-check reflection of the times, both of them recorded 0-60 times of 9.5 seconds. What were those enthusiastic owners saying about keeping up with Miatas?

CC 68 056 800The whole J-H marriage never had a honeymoon, as production snags and warranty claims for the engine, which Lotus wouldn’t honor, put a severe financial strain on the under-capitalized venture. The energy crisis of 1974 put a nasty dent in sales of the big Jensen Interceptor. In all, some 10k Jensen-Healeys were painfully birthed until it all crashed in 1976. Meanwhile, Nissan was cranking out 240 Zs by the gazillions.

The world is a richer place for the foolish undertakings like J-H, and my hat is off to the loyal owners who have found the perseverance and parts to keep their time capsules on the road. The seventies was a bleak time for the British industry, whipsawed by global changes it chose not to see, nor respond to. The graveyard of failed British brands is a crowded place, but having paid our respects, we’ll leave it now for another day. It’s not like there aren’t plenty of them closer to home.


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28 Comments on “Curbside Classic Dead Brands Week: 1973 Jensen-Healey...”


  • avatar
    Bunter1

    Actually test drove one of these 30 years ago.  Very quick steering as I remember.

    Bunter

  • avatar
    cnyguy

    I once owned a Vauxhall Firenza- what a pile of crap. Any car that shared parts with a Firenza was doomed from the start.

  • avatar
    midelectric

    Well in it’s defense they did do a great job of bumper integration for 1973, far better than the MG-B.  It didn’t occur to me before how much the front end looks like a Fiat 850.

  • avatar
    Dave Skinner

    I have to say, I’ve always liked the styling of the Jensen-Healey. While I agree it’s very much in the seventies style, it’s GOOD seventies styling.

    Comparing it to the TR-7 does the J-H an injustice, since the stylists did not add “mid-engine styling cues”, or initially offer it as a coupe. The long hood and lowered belt line of this convertible plays much better than the stubby, high waisted TR-7.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    Ah, the Jensen-Healey!
    I’m old enough to have seen a new one at the Chicago Auto Show, but young enough to have never driven one. The car was very uninspiring in it’s appearance, compared to the Pantera parked not too far from it.

    In an era of Opel sports cars, Datsun Zs, and Corvettes, the Jensen-Healey looked like the kind of car you bought just to be different. If you had the money, that is.

  • avatar
    Jaywalker

    I’m a serial offender, having owned two Jensen-Healys, both 1973 models. Niedermeyer has captured the essence, if not the painful details of JH ownership. The oil leaks were a permanent feature, as were the electrical challenges. The top was hard to put up, but I had nothing to campare it to, so it wasn’t a problem. I sold the first for more than I paid for it, and so went to the well a second time. As I recall, the timing belt change interval was 30k miles, and it went at 29k, taking my valves with it, a repair that cost me two weeks’ pay. The clearest shortcoming, even after all that, was the heater. An interesting design for mid-Georgia and Florida in the summertime, we could re-direct the heat, but could not turn it off. We had a choice of a baked right ankle or baked shins. They were a fine argument for cars-as-appliances.

  • avatar
    B10er

    I too always liked the Jensen-Healey and its sibling the Jensen GT. I always fancied it as a slightly more obscure TR6 or MGB, and although not as elegant as earlier generations, its an interesting slice of automobile from an often heart-breaking period in automotive history, and the bright primary safety colours of the 1970s are just too cool as well.

    I also take my hat off to those keeping them alive; not everyone can be interesting enough to drive a Miata or a Tiburon…

     (actually, I love to hate on the Miata, but I do respect it for what it is – a well made, fun to drive, reliable, cost effective rwd roadster, but man does it lack character, style, interest, or class.)

  • avatar
    Lokki

    Back in the day, I always wanted a Jensen Healy.  Fortunately I couldn’t find one, and ended up with a 74 Alfa Spider instead. 

    On (sports-car-magazine) paper, the car looked great.  Recall that the much-loved ( Loved by me, anyway) TR-6 hadn’t been gone very long, and the MGB was still around albeit with a Groucho-rubber nose).   Further, Lotus was a big name in those days. Team Lotus  won the F1 World Championship for Manufacturers for a sixth time in 1973.  Finally the big Healy was still a potent name for believers.

    So, we young and naive types had reason to hope that   the Jensen-Healy would be a modernized Brit car  that was finally going to catch up to  the Italians in the affordable sports car competition.  

    The Jensen wasn’t bad looking by contemporary standards, and it was modern. In those pre-internet days, it took a long time for the word to get around about those interference engines.

    So, yeah, if I could have found one, I’d have bought it straight off.

    Fortunately, I couldn’t and  the Alfa turned out to a good second choice.  Loved that car enough that I just bought a 71 to play with.

  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    Yes, yes, yes…terrible tech problems.
    But damn, these were really beautiful cars.
    I long for these true sorts cars.
    The Triumph Spitfire :
    http://rides.webshots.com/photo/2238308260036008647BsoXvf
    The 1974 Jaguar e type:
    http://www.conceptcarz.com/view/photo/282063,9584/1973-Jaguar-XKE-E-Type_photo.aspx
    The Cobra:
    http://www.showyourauto.com/am/listings/l0085.html
    These were really beautiful sports cars.

    Today, we have the Mazda Miata, the Soltace and the over priced Viper.

    Beatufiful….

  • avatar
    fincar1

    A co-worker had a Triumph Spitfire, and described it as the most rudimentary transportation device known to man. He went on to buy a Fiat 124 Spyder.
    Now there’s a thought for a CC post. I drove a friend’s 1969 124 coupe and thought it was a blast.

    • 0 avatar
      TrailerTrash

      I actually meant to add this car .
      It was one of my favs as well.
      My white 1976 spitfire was really fun, so I don’t know why your friend said it wa not.
      In fact, all these sports cars were rather rudimentary…but fun.
      My Fiat 850 spider was soooo weak, but still a blast.
      I couln’t afford the 124.
      That is until the floor and brakes rusted to non-existence!

    • 0 avatar
      fincar1

      He was kind of an odd duck. I rode home in the Fiat with him one night; he drove exactly the speed limit, nothing resembling hoonage like one might expect in such a car. I noticed that the car had 12.000 miles on it and had never been dusted or cleaned inside.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Thanks for another nice write up.

    Reminds me of a car I never saw in the states (perhaps it was there too but I missed it) which I have seen several times here in Europe:  The Stag … wonder if this would have been a better alternative.

  • avatar
    Syke

    I’m fortunate in that Richmond has a wonderful European (formerly British-only) antique car show every September, and I get to drool over these and the TVR’s that show up every year.  I’ve always wanted one, but long experience in Meriden Triumph’s and BSA’s have always kept my desires limited to Triumph’s and TVR’s – at least the problems there are manageable.  And I know of excellent parts sources for both.
     
    Don’t know if anyone noticed, but the rear end is a complete rip of the Michelotti-designed Triumph TR-6, and looks just as good here as it did on the original.  The front?  Unfortunately, the British took reports of what American safety legislation was threatening (note: threatening, not what they actually did) on their new designs – thus some of the nasty styling curiosities on their 70′s cars.
     
    Yes, I know that in general a vintage British car is a nightmare, but there’s a class and style to a Jaguar, Rover, Sterling, Jensen-Healey, etc. that a German car just cannot touch.  Having said that, I have to admit to complete cowardice:  Every time I’ve started to move on putting something British in my yard, I’ve ended up chickening out and buying a BMW – or recently, a Porsche.
     
    My wallet still holds sway over my heart.

  • avatar
    Nicodemus

    “Don’t know if anyone noticed, but the rear end is a complete rip of the Michelotti-designed Triumph TR-6, and looks just as good here as it did on the original.”

    Interesting observation, except for the fundemental flaw…Michelotti did not design the TR-6!!!!

  • avatar
    bomberpete

    The Stag was imported to the U.S. by British Leyland, but not for long — maybe tw years. Peter Lawford drove one as a swingin’ dude in the James Garner flick “They Only Kill Their Masters.”

  • avatar
    cnyguy

    You would lose that bet. The Vauxhall was a lousy car- it made the Olds look like a Benz.

  • avatar
    Rod Panhard

    Who can forget the episode of “The Larry Sanders Show” when Elvis Costello sells his Jensen-Healy to Larry?

  • avatar
    carnick

    I’m actually old enough to have owned one of these, a 1974 with the Lotus engine which I had while in college in the late 1970′s. Overall, it was nowehere near as satisfying as the MBG’s, TR4′s etc. I owned (even a Sunbeam Alpine was more gratifying in some ways).

    The best thing I remember about the car was the wonderful engine sound. It was just so smmooooottthh… it was a race car engine fantasy, purring up to its high redline – when it ran. Nearly every day brought new adventures in electrical problems. Mine had about 30,000 miles on it when I got it, and the transmission synchros were already toast. I also remember all sorts of levers, buttons, handles, etc. falling off in my hands whenever I tried to turn something on or open something. The top also made the erector-set version on an old MGB look efficient. Plus all the usual British nuisances of oil leaks, water leaks, etc. It was not a very satisfying car (except for the spine-tingling engine noise).

    • 0 avatar
      john.fritz

      Plus all the usual British nuisances of oil leaks…

      Q: Why don’t the British make color televisions?
      A: Because they can’t figure out how to make one that leaks oil.

  • avatar

    A buddy had one of these in 1980 or so.  He yanked the engine and dropped in a 454 Rat motor. It was so fun to watch the car twist on launch!

  • avatar
    GeneralMalaise

    The Porsche 914 and Opel GT changed the rules forever?!?! Maybe if one could own one of the former long enough before seeing it burn to the ground due to a magnesium-fueled fire near the battery housing and the latter if  one could overlook a puny, pushrod engine in a toy Corvette.
    Fiat’s X1/9 set the standard for small, affordable sports cars… a brilliant design that resulted in a true driver’s-car. More grins-per-mile than any car before or after.
     

  • avatar
    classiclover

    I know the car came with it’s problems but so did all English cars. All English cars of the past where touchy but we still love them. To say the least, the Jensen was unique! Sadly the timing was off when trying to build and market this car, with the political climate in the U.K., unions, strike action, socialistic attitudes, inflation etc. The oil crisis and the way the world car market was developing was also taxing the Jensen company.

    I have always loved the low and exotic look of the Jensen-Healey. I sure would rather have one of these
    than a “run of the mill” generic modern sports cars. This hand-built, low production English classic, was considered a semi-exotic in its time. They cost more than a Corvette and almost as much as a Mercedes SL.
    Jensen-Healeys are very low production cars , only 10,453 roadsters where produced for the world market between 1972 and 1976 (that includes J-H MARK I, J-H MARK II and the J-H5; and another aprox. 473 J-H GT coupes) and not that many are left. They where one of the last “hand-built” English sports cars. They really should be up in the ranks, of say, a Jaguar E type in uniqueness. Maybe even more exotic considering they came with a Lotus 907 engine. That is basically the same engine that was put in the Lotus Esprit of that era. It always surprises me when people argue that it came with a Ford Cortina. So much misinformation out there!
    It surprises me that other sports cars of the same era have more recognition, like the MG or Triumph models. Even Italians like Alpha-Romeo or Fiat. Jensen-Healeys will out perform most of their models (even run circles around some), look better than many ( more refined, elegant styling), and are much rarer.
    It seems that this cool automobile just sort of “fell between the cracks” so to speak. It has been forgotten. Perhaps because they are so seldom seen.
    It hopefully won’t be long before this unique roadster with a just as unique history ( it was actually built to replace the legendary Austin-Healey) will come back into the limelight and become a star amongst amateur as well as the seasoned automobile aficionado, especially those that love British sports cars.

    Also check out the site… Richard Calver’s Jensen web site …. http://www.richardcalver.com Also jensenhealey.com. and their online shop…jhps.com. Both sites are from the Jensen Healey Preservation Society. There is also a company in Phoenix, Arizona, called Delta motor sports that specialize in JH parts (they ship worldwide). Their web address is…. http://www.deltamotorsports.com.

    MORE INFO. ABOUT THE MARQUE………………………………………………………….

    THE JENSEN HEALEY
    by Rick Feibusch
    These racy little Jensens are fast, well balanced and nimble. These also are a very low production car
    with quite an interesting international story. The original intention was to make a high level of technical
    spec and clever engineering available to a larger market at a more reasonable price. It was not to be.
    That is not to say that this isn’t a rare and collectable car. The four trailing-link rear suspension and
    great steering geometry make the car extremely fun to drive on backroads yet supple enough for
    comfortable highway cruising. ……………………… .. ……………………
    The Jensen Healey also suffered from always being just a bit too expensive……………………………….
    these are very low production cars – Just under 11,000 built between 1972 and
    197 6. They are rare, collectible and historic, as well as fun to drive……………………….
    I SAY THEY WHERE EXPENSIVE THEN BUT ARE BARGAINS NOW, BACK IN THE 70′S MODELS COST JUST A LITTLE LESS THAN AN S CLASS MERCEDES ROADSTER AND ALMOST TWICE AS MUCH AS THE CHEAPEST CORVETTE
    Rick Feibusch also says;
    Parts are relatively easy to
    obtain and the J-H is sturdy and solidly built, though the interior trim is a bit flimsy on earlier models.
    The construction is very basic and the car is relatively simple to work on by any reasonably competent
    home mechanic…………………………………
    Modifications can actually enhance the value. Simple upgrades like wider w heels, anti-sway bars,
    Spax shocks, and an electronic ignition can make this competent sportster a real back road charger…………………………………..
    Engine changes and heavier modifications might change the value but should be valued as an unusual J-H
    based hot rod rather that a collectible sports car. It¹s odd, but the ultra rare and best built Jensen GTs,
    are priced less than a roadster in comparable condition.

    EXCERPTS FROM ORIGINAL SALES BROCHURE:
    History. The making of a classic
    The history of car making sparkles with famous pairings, since the days of Rolls and Royce.
    The success of such marques has often stemmed from a unique fusion of diverse talents, in cars that reflect the best of both.
    So it is with Jensen and Healey.
    Two names that had earned their reputations for engineering and design long before the Jensen brothers first built bodies for the Healey 100 of two decades ago.
    The relationship continued until the demise of the Healey 3000 in 1967. And its success can be measured in the strong admiration which the car still commands seven years later.
    Now, the two names are joined in one uncompromising car. The Jensen-Healey.
    It combines the blue-blooded heritage of British sports car design with the very latest technological developments in automotive engineering.
    The result is a car that’s made to be best in its class for years. And years to come.
    The qualities of a classic
    The Jensen-Healey has all the characteristics of a proper sports car for the ’70s: comfort, handling, performance and safety. It’s the breeding behind the mixture, and the flair with which the qualities are balanced, that makes Jensen-Healey a classic.
    Driving it is the only way to experience the feeling. As Motor Trend said- “It has been some time since we have been moved to a burst of laughter brought on by sheer joy in a car, but it happened with the Jensen-Healey”*
    *Motor Trend, February ’73 …………………………………………………………………. ……………………………………..
    The car responds quickly to every light touch with a positive reaction. Accelerating onto a motorway- taming a twisting side road- braking for the unexpected- even dawdling along in heavy traffic. Everywhere you take a Jensen-Healey, you rediscover pleasures you thought had left behind…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
    From wide, low-profile radials on specially-cast 5 1/2″ section alloy wheels, to its sure-footed suspension, the Jensen-Healey promises good road holding……………………………………………………………………….
    Add the stopping power of a servo-assisted dual line braking system, the precision of rack and pinion steering- and you have a car that can comfortably cover all kinds of ground deceptively fast………….
    Heart of the matter:
    The brilliant Lot us Powerplant
    A modern British sports car as special as the Jensen-Healey demands something much more sophisticated than the usual adapted family saloon powerplant.
    The Lotus developed 2 liter OHC engine is a perfect choice. Light alloy, with 4 valves per cylinder. Retaining all the mechanical niceties of its racing engine forebears but giving a wide, usable band of power…………….
    Add to that a miserly thirst for fuel- around 25 MPG- and you begin to appreciate what a remarkable powerplant the Jensen-Healey has………………………………………………………………………
    Interior design: accent on comfort
    The lack of body roll, rattles and bumps puts a Jensen-Healey driver at ease from the first turn of the wheel.
    But even before the car moves, you’ll notice the comfort. With more legroom than a six footer could ask for, ample headroom, and space to move your elbows without hitting obstructions.
    The fully adjustable, reclining seats are ergonomically designed to hold you in place, and soft enough to it gently.
    For safety’s sake, seats have adjustable head restraints, while the inertia reel lap and diagonal seat belts incorporate a reminder warning system. Ahead of the fully padded steering wheel, the oval instrument panel is set in a foam filled facia.

  • avatar

    The lotus engine was developed from a Vauxhall unit LV in the prefix means Lotus Vauxhall. that motor stayed in production from 67 till 90 so it wasnt that bad and in Chevettes poked out 200 plus hp.


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