The List ‘You can feel the reams of latent power’ Your dream drive made real Reader turned loose in a Jensen C-V8 Jon Nield’s family has serious Jensen previous. Will the C-V8 live up to a hazy childhood memory of his uncle’s car? Words: Ross Alkureishi. Photography: Jonathan Fleetwood.
The List Will Jensen C-V8 memories be rekindled as reader Jon Nield takes a drive?
Then I arrive, a Jensen Owners’ Club be-jumpered David Wright is sitting at his kitchen table with Classic Cars reader and consultant to the engineering and construction industries Jon Nield. Cups of tea have been semi-drained, there’s a book spread open and Jon’s dextrously spinning a miniature model around with his fingertips. ‘This is our exact car,’ he says, holding it up for me to see. ‘Here it is in print, too,’ he adds, pointing it out on the page of an open book.
As well as having a mightily impressive collection, C-V8 owner David is also the author of British Sporting Cars in Miniature. The model in question is, he says, the result of his powers of persuasion in getting a French maker to manufacture it. We spend five minutes viewing some of his prized models before, sensing the time is nigh, he leads us through into his integral garage.
‘It’s a Sixties car, but you feel like you’re stepping back into the Fifties. This interior is glorious, and surprisingly light and airy’
There sits his lovely Jensen C-V8 MkIII in British Racing Green with Magnolia leather interior. ‘I know the styling is a bit Marmite and wasn’t without controversy when new, but I’ve always admired its lines,’ explains Jon. ‘It may be bold, rather than beautiful, but I think it very much matches the character of the 6.3-litre Golden Commando Chrysler V8 up front.’
Come the advent of the E-type, Jensen’s 541S suddenly found itself outdated – and, more importantly, outperformed. So to ensure they recovered the bragging rights back from their Midlands rival, the Jensen brothers turned to America; 0-60mph in 6.7sec did the trick, and it was advertised as having ‘acceleration probably unmatched by any other full four-seat saloon’.
Says Jon, ‘My father was a serial Alvis collector. He had 12-50s, a Silver Eagle, Grey Lady, an ex-George Formby Speed 20 which we used as our wedding car and, nicest of all, a TD21 drophead. However, there’s definitely Jensen in the blood on my mother’s side. I can remember seeing one on my grandad’s driveway and I thought it was a C-V8, but my cousin Louise recently showed me some pictures confirming he had a 541-R. The C-V8 was my uncle’s, and he used to use it to tow a caravan.’
Today isn’t just a time for memories, though – it’s time for reality, as he finally hops behind the driver’s seat of one. A quick key turn and he fires up the V8; bringing forth a deeply resonant exhaust note that sweeps around the whitewashed walls, filling the space with the promise of power. There’s a wide smile as he begins taking in his new surroundings. ‘It’s a Sixties car,’ he says. ‘But you feel like you’re stepping back into the Fifties. This interior is glorious, and surprisingly light and airy. There’s a lot of headroom, even for a 6ft 2in driver like me. The seat is comfortable and best of all is that delightful array of Jaeger white-on-black dials and old-school toggle switches all set in beautifully polished woodwork, with the speedo and tacho quite rightly centre stage.’
‘It has immediate pick-up and a stunning ability to accumulate speed under acceleration’
With David taking up residency in the rear of the car, I slot myself into the passenger seat while Jon has a fiddle with the column-mounted gear change. ‘It’s been decades since I drove a car with one of these – I’m just re-acquainting myself with the process,’ he explains. Drive selected, his focus turns outwards. ‘Oh, I absolutely love the view down over that expansive bonnet.’ Today the glorious South Downs National Park is his for the taking. He pulls us out of the driveway and feathers the throttle, thrusting us gently forward; easy does it at first, but even so, the big V8’s acoustics dominate the cabin. ‘The noise,’ he says gleefully. ‘Nothing overly exertive, all very relaxed, but you can feel the latent power – like it’s got 90 per cent in reserve.’
We soon dispatch our high-hedged, tree-canopied section of road and push out into the open countryside; even up at 60mph, the cabin remains wonderfully civil. A quick glance in the back shows a remarkably relaxed owner, Jon’s ability to tune in quickly to the C-V8 clearly putting David at ease. ‘The thin-rimmed steering wheel feels very similar to my Triumph GT6’s, so that’s helped with rapid familiarisation. The brakes are exceptionally strong, with discs all round, but it all comes back to that instantaneous pick-up – it just requires the smallest throttle prod, and its ability to accumulate speed under acceleration is stunning.’
We amble through the village of Amberley, the car’s exhaust burble tickling our ears as it ricochets off the low walls of various properties, before cutting north at Houghton to open up a plethora of sparingly used A- and B-roads. We’re just discussing the car’s dynamic abilities as Jon has to squeeze past a bin lorry, followed by a milk tanker and then a tractor complete with trailer – at least he’s getting familiar with its dimensions. As we finally get clear, a heavy foot elicits tyre squeal and an impressive amount of wheel spin. ‘It’s quite easy to do that,’ says David. Jon nods in agreement, ‘I’ve realised you do need to master restraint of the right foot, and I’d have to be far more cautious in the wet.’
Too right; with 330bhp and a throbbing 425lb ft of torque available, that’s a given. Like others of its ilk – Facel Vega Facel II, Iso Rivolta, Gordon Keeble and Monteverdi High Speed – you need to learn its limits before fully unleashing Uncle Sam’s big hammer. At least here there’s a decent bit of heft counteracting it – it’s trickier taming a big V8 in a lightweight two-seater sports car.
Guided by David, we wind further north, devouring quaint villages one by one. Jon’s working the C-V8 hard now, and its cross-country abilities are pretty impressive. ‘With no power assistance for the steering you have to work quite hard at low speed – quite similar again to my GT6 – but once on the move it has great feel and there’s plenty of feedback. For a 1.5-ton body-on-chassis car it feels remarkably solid and completely together – no bang-crash that you sometimes get – and that really comes across in how it handles and corners.’
By now the cabin’s become a pretty steamy place to be, even with the windows down. There’s no relentless heat soak or cabin fuel vapour encroachment as in a Facel II, but it’s hot nonetheless. We stop just outside of Petworth for a breather, a good poke around the Jensen and to swap thoughts.
‘You can clearly see the connection to the Fifties 541-Series cars, though the treatment behind the B-pillar does help to bring it into the Sixties from when it hails,’ says Jon. ‘Personally I like the look of the stacked/slanted quad headlamps and side strakes over all four wheelarches – very Mercedes-Benz 300SL. Overall the proportions are spot-on for a four-seater GT. I also like the fact that David’s car isn’t blighted with bonnet-mounted wing mirrors and relies instead on a neat driver’s-side window-mounted one.’
David requests the ignition key and then begins the convoluted process of opening the bonnet. Jon and I watch in awe as he first unlocks the small panel ahead of the air scoop, then swings the hand lever below and undoes the latches. ‘Talk about belt and braces,’ says Jon. ‘I love the way that opens up.’ David points to the rubber on the end of the long central bonnet droop, ‘This is the most important rubber grommet on the car. You only bang your head once or twice, before you learn.’
And there it is, in all its V8 glory, our Golden Commando. ‘I’ve driven other V8s, but they’ve all been more modern,’ says Jon. ‘Even aside from the family connection with these cars, there’s an awful lot that readily appeals to me.’ His family connection runs even deeper than we thought; he regales us with the story of yet another uncle with a Jensen – this time Barry – and his Interceptor.
‘He was a larger-than-life character and worked in the entertainment business, arranging balls at a variety of Cambridge Colleges. He married my Aunt Rita in the Seventies and they suddenly found themselves with four daughters, so she pressurised him into selling his Interceptor. A little while later my aunt became aware of another one driving around town and asked him if he “remembered those days, when he had the money and enjoyed one”. His reply was, “Yes, yes, darling,” Eventually she twigged it was him driving it, and he was keeping it a lock-up at the other end of the village.’ Cheeky boy.
Back on the road, we enjoy a blast along the A272, before heading south for a sweep past Goodwood. Just outside Chichester we join the Westhampnett bypass and Jon suddenly forgoes his right-boot restraint, as the Torqueflite gearbox kicks down and a ferocious wave of torque has the C-V8’s nose hurtling past inner lane traffic. Mightily impressive, and at David’s admission, not a feature of which he makes regular use.
‘You would never tire of that noise, or performance,’ states Jon. ‘Even under the hardest acceleration there’s no noticeable squatting at the rear or lifting of the nose.’
The rest of our journey is completed at relatively mortal speeds, and in no time we arrive at our final destination – the picturesque Waterside Café on the River Arun, in Arundel. Jon parks up and, stopping for one last glance, we make our way to a table for the final debrief and a well-earned late lunch.
‘At first I was very conscious of driving someone else’s pride and joy, and the fact that it’s a £50k-plus car,’ says Jon. ‘But because it was so easy to drive that worry about value evaporated. For such a high-performance Sixties GT, the civility and ease of use surprised me. I was also amazed at some of the detailed design and engineering touches like the mechanisms for the bonnet and fuel filler opening. It’s even a practical car up to a point. What didn’t surprise me was the magnificent engine and performance on offer; with 330bhp on tap there’s no chance of disappointment.
Time for the big question – would Jon have one? He replies, ‘In no way did the car or driving experience disappoint. On the contrary, the C-V8 quickly inspires rapid confidence. I also like the practicality that comes with this style of GT. I think when it was marketed in period they used the phrase ‘pianissimo power’ – how apt. With around 500 built and some 300 surviving it’s a fairly exclusive handcrafted machine, so for me it’s definitely worth the money. So all in all, yes I would love to own one.’
Would that be uncle-Barry-style ownership? Despite the glint in his eye, Jon replies, ‘I suspect I’ll have to relinquish some of my other cars in order to gain approval, but…’ he says, pausing to nod at the badge on David’s chest, ‘The Owners’ Club is already on the case. Hopefully it’s going to help me find and acquire my other uncle’s car, DEA 903C.’ Pianissimo power, indeed.
Jon rated the Jaeger dials and toggle switches set in walnut veneer. Jon looks right at home in the C-V8. No wonder, there’s family history here. Operating this hand lever is all part of the involved bonnet-opening process. C-V8’s civilised GT manner means no rear squat or nose-lifting, even under the heaviest applications of right foot. ‘I’m paranoid about the dreaded tin-worm getting to my steel-bodied classics, so it’s not hard to warm to this high-quality GRP/alloy bodywork’. The 6.3-litre Golden Commando Chrysler V8 delivers 330bhp. The V8’s great noise and effortless performance made a big impression on Jon.
Thanks to Owner David Wright and the Jensen Owners Club (joc.org.uk)