Curbside Classic Dead Brands Week: 1973 Jensen-Healey

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

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.


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Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Classiclover Classiclover on Jul 24, 2010

    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.

  • Bryce Chessum Bryce Chessum on Dec 26, 2010

    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.

  • ChristianWimmer I have a 2018 Mercedes A250 with almost 80,000 km on the clock and a vintage ‘89 Mercedes 500SL R129 with almost 300,000 km.The A250 has had zero issues but the yearly servicing costs are typically expensive from this brand - as expected. Basic yearly service costs around 400 Euros whereas a more comprehensive servicing with new brake pads, spark plugs plus TÜV etc. is in the 1000+ Euro region.The 500SL servicing costs were expensive when it was serviced at a Benz dealer, but they won’t touch this classic anymore. I have it serviced by a mechanic from another Benz dealership who also owns an R129 300SL-24 and he’ll do basic maintenance on it for a mere 150 Euros. I only drive the 500SL about 2000 km a year so running costs are low although the fuel costs are insane here. The 500SL has had two previous owners with full service history. It’s been a reliable car according to the records. The roof folding mechanism needs so adjusting and oiling from time to time but that’s normal.
  • Theflyersfan I wonder how many people recalled these after watching EuroCrash. There's someone one street over that has a similar yellow one of these, and you can tell he loves that car. It was just a tough sell - too expensive, way too heavy, zero passenger space, limited cargo bed, but for a chunk of the population, looked awesome. This was always meant to be a one and done car. Hopefully some are still running 20 years from now so we have a "remember when?" moment with them.
  • Lorenzo A friend bought one of these new. Six months later he traded it in for a Chrysler PT Cruiser. He already had a 1998 Corvette, so I thought he just wanted more passenger space. It turned out someone broke into the SSR and stole $1500 of tools, without even breaking the lock. He figured nobody breaks into a PT Cruiser, but he had a custom trunk lock installed.
  • Jeff Not bad just oil changes and tire rotations. Most of the recalls on my Maverick have been fixed with programming. Did have to buy 1 new tire for my Maverick got a nail in the sidewall.
  • Carson D Some of my friends used to drive Tacomas. They bought them new about fifteen years ago, and they kept them for at least a decade. While it is true that they replaced their Tacomas with full-sized pickups that cost a fair amount of money, I don't think they'd have been Tacoma buyers in 2008 if a well-equipped 4x4 Tacoma cost the equivalent of $65K today. Call it a theory.
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