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.
Donald 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.
Here’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.
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.
The 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?
The 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.