History of Jensen Motors Ltd.

The brothers Alan and Richard Jensen were born in Birmingham, England, in the years before the First World War. From a young age, they displayed an interest in motor cars and a bent for designing and building them. Their first efforts came to fruition in 1928 when they knocked up a racy little body on a second-hand Austin Seven chassis while still apprentices in the Birmingham motor industry, living at home with their parents.

The Austin special caught the eye of many around the Midlands, including the Chief Engineer of the Standard Motor Company. Alfred Wilde offered the brothers a contract to design something similar on a Standard chassis, a task which fell largely to older brother Alan, a trained draughtsman working with Serck Radiators in Birmingham. Standard liked his design and contracted New Avon of Warwick to productionize the body, with Alan Jensen moving over to Warwick to liaise with the constructors and supervise the work.

The deal brought the brothers some welcome publicity and in 1930 they made their joint start in the motor trade by teaming up with a young chap called Joe Patrick, selling and servicing small cars and carrying out custom body jobs on light chassis from a garage in the Birmingham suburb of Selly Oak. This lasted only six months or so until in 1931 the Jensens fell out with Patrick and took their talents to the body works of W. J. Smith & Sons at Carters Green, West Bromwich. There they remained for the next 35 years, assuming control of the business after William Smith died and renaming it Jensen Motors in 1936.

The first real Jensen car appeared in 1935 in the shape of a stylish, well-appointed open tourer. Powered by a Ford 3½ litre flathead V8, the White Lady, as this effort was apparently dubbed, can be said to mark the point at which true Jensen car production originated. The pre-war years saw a range of chassis types and body styles carrying the Jensen brand name but the total number of vehicles was quite small – only 68 in all.

If the number of passenger vehicles was minute, underpinning the business was a steady trade in the commercial bodying of lorries, vans and buses. Alan Jensen was now the chief draughtsman and designer for Jensen Motors Ltd and he created a revolutionary light alloy truck which beat the weight-for-speed restrictions then in effect, carrying large payloads economically. It made its debut in 1938, although again few were made.

The war saw Jensen car and truck output curtailed for the duration but profits from wartime contracting put the firm in good stead when peace came. While the light alloy truck re-entered production in revised form in 1945, work on a postwar saloon car was also underway and in 1946 the Jensen PW was unveiled. Styled as a large luxury car for the well-to-do, it picked up where the Jensens of the pre-war era had left off. With wartime restrictions on the supply of raw materials still in force, few PWs were made and the Jensen as a brand name remained a highly exclusive form of transport.

In 1950, a more modern design appeared. Styled by Jensen’s recently recruited body designer, Eric Neale, this was dubbed the Interceptor and featured a light alloy body powered by Austin’s venerable 4-litre six. Interceptors remained in production until 1958 by which time a completely new style of Jensen had become the norm at Carters Green.

The 541 model, first seen in prototype form in 1953, entered series production in 1955. Like the Interceptor, it was powered by the Austin six but was revolutionary in that the body was made of fibreglass. Desirable as long range touring cars, and constantly improved and updated with new braking and gearbox technology over a long model life, 541s continued in production until 1962 when a much more powerful Jensen made its debut. This car, dubbed the C-V8, boasted a 6-litre Chrysler V8 engine and was the fastest road-going four-seater tested by Autocar to that point. Production reached 500 by 1966 when a decision was taken to contract out the firm’s next body designs to Italy.

The Jensen brothers, by this time getting on in years and not in the best of health, were not in favour of the new cars. In fact, they were actively opposed to their creation. They and Eric Neale, who had been with them for 20 years, had come up with a design of their own for future production and all three of them deeply resented the fact that they had been overruled by the Board in sourcing the new designs. At Earls Court in October 1966, when the first steel-bodied Jensens were shown to the public, the brothers and Eric Neale submitted their resignations and departed. The new cars were the Touring-designed Interceptor and the similarly styled but radically different FF, a four-wheel drive variant with Maxaret anti-lock braking, a world first for the small West Bromwich company.

By the late 1960s, problems with the introduction of these cars, coupled with the winding up of the Jensen factory’s underpinning contract work on the Austin Healey, engendered instability in the company’s financial affairs. Norcros, a holding company which had owned Jensen Motors since 1959, brought in some advisers to sort things out, one of them an American troubleshooter by the name of Carl Duerr. Duerr helped revitalize Jensen Motors, giving the firm enough of a lease on life to keep it going for a couple more years, but ultimately Norcros decided to divest itself of the trouble prone car-maker. In 1968, Brandts Bank took over the ownership of Jensen Motors, although retaining Duerr at the helm and also the other co-directors as minority shareholders.

Still, the money to grow the business was not there. In 1970, another American, Kjell Qvale, took over. A well-established distributor of British sports cars in the United States, Qvale bought the business from Brandts in order to secure the means of producing a replacement sports car for the Austin Healeys which he had been selling so profitably through his US distributorships. This meant that Duerr had to go, which he did reluctantly after his own initiative to take over Jensens failed. Qvale’s team moved in and soon Jensen Motors was working on making a new sports car designed by Donald Healey.

Prototypes of what would become the Jensen-Healey, with a Lotus 16-valve engine, were running in 1971, the year in which the FF was phased out and uprated versions of the Interceptor were introduced. One of these, the SP, featured a high-compression 440ci engine with three twin-barrel carburettors, the largest and most powerful configuration ever used by the firm.

The Jensen-Healey entered production in 1972 and for a time things looked positive. But in 1973, the first of the oil shocks set off damaging repercussions throughout industry worldwide, and the motor industry in particular. Jensens were hit badly by the loss of consumer confidence which followed. Despite an ambitious programme of defect rectification on the troublesome Healey, the introduction of more exclusive Convertible and Coupé models of the Interceptor, an estate version of the Healey known as the GT and some expensive but abortive projects to replace both the GT and the Interceptor, Qvale eventually found he had no choice but to pull the plug. In September 1975, the receivers were called in, the situation was assessed and limited production was allowed to continue until Jensen Motors ceased trading in May 1976.

That was not the end of the operation at West Bromwich. To look after the needs of those who bought the cars, Qvale set up two subsidiary organizations in England before he departed, one of them devoted solely to servicing cars and sourcing spares. Ian Orford, who ran this operation, realized by the early 1980s that the availability of spares and jigs would make it feasible to build new Interceptors, updated in line with the prevailing market. During the 1980s, he was able to resume limited production but was unable to take things beyond that stage.

In 1988, Orford sold out to Unicon Holdings, a Stockport-based engineering consultancy run by Hugh Wainwright. In 1989, Unicon began an ambitious programme of cost-cutting at the factory while initiating development work on a new Interceptor. Unfortunately, these efforts coincided with a severe downturn in the collector car market in England and led to heavy losses. In 1992, a receiver was again called in at Kelvin Way and in 1993 the material assets and records of the former Jensen Motors were bought by Martin Robey, a Nuneaton-based manufacturer of body spares for classic Jaguars. The Jensen spares operation has been run out of Nuneaton ever since.

In 1998, the Redditch-based Creative Group announced that it was designing, building and marketing a new sports car to carry the Jensen name. Designated the S-V8, this Ford-powered roadster was scheduled to appear on English roads later that year. However, continual delays pushed back the planned production date and by 2000, when a concept coupé dubbed the C-V8 was displayed at the NEC Motor Show, production had still not commenced. The S-V8 was finally unveiled in production form in 2001 but continuing financial problems hampered efforts to build more than a few prototypes and a dozen demonstrators.

Always struggling to stay solvent, the new Jensen Motors eventually had to close its doors. Regrettably, a package to save the firm could not be agreed and the workforce was made redundant and the company placed in administration. By the end of 2002, the assets had been broken up and this, the last, attempt to revive Jensen as a car manufacturer had failed.

Despite media reports of intended resurrections of Jensen since that time, in name if in nothing else, the glory days of Jensen Motors are well and truly past. Restoration, renovation and preservation of the older models now forms the focus of attention on the Jensen marque worldwide.

Richard Calver