Interceptor and FF at 50 Jensen’s amazing GT duo. Jensen’s GT revolution Interceptor meets the radical FF. Jensen’s Genius. The contradictions inherent in the Interceptor and FF mean that these grandest of tourers remain sorely misunderstood, says James Elliott. Photography Tony Baker.
The Jensen Interceptor and FF are 50, yet even today they seem to have never quite found a settled spot in the classic car firmament. One is so standalone that it has nothing with which to be compared. The other has suffered its entire life because of the public’s insistence on measuring it against the incomparable. People feel more comfortable when they can put things in boxes, but these Jensens don’t quite fit, being as anomalous and anachronistic in 2016 as they were in period.
Even though they were priced at the top of the market when new – the £5200 you would have paid for an Interceptor in 1966 could have snagged you an E-type 2+2 and something practical for the au pair, or an Aston DB6 with change – it is difficult to see what you were paying for beyond the name, the glamour and the image of artisans handcrafting trim and widgets. Which, given the extent to which the parts bin helped to build this car, is largely an illusion.
For example, while other British companies embraced monocoque technology or developed twin-cam engines, Jensen simply reclothed the girder-like C-V8 chassis with a Touring-penned and initially Vignale-built body that matched bluff purpose at one end with a vast glasshouse at the other. Despite it being undeniably handsome, you wouldn’t have thought that it was a formula for success – especially in an era when just about every other British manufacturer had realised it was time to throw away their decade-old designs and start again. Yet it catapulted the West Bromwich company from boutique to near-volume.
Having built just 500 of the hairy C-V8s over the four years to ’66, Jensen churned out more than 1000 Mk1 Interceptors in the next three. And then the format lingered – like the De Tomaso Pantera, it somehow resonated with both the public and celebrities, refusing to die: a further 5000-plus cars were produced up to its (second) official death in 1984. That ‘modernised’ Interceptors are being built today, and that there’s endless chatter of a revival speaks volumes about the car’s enduring appeal.
The Interceptor and FF represented more than a sea change in Jensen’s profile and success. They also prompted a schism within the firm. As soon as owner Norcros backed chief engineer Kevin Beattie’s plan for the Italian-styled car over the in-house P66, the departure of founders Richard and Alan Jensen – with whom relations were already frayed – and long-term designer Eric Neale was inevitable. Norcros’ faith was repaid in spades as the Interceptor and FF sold in huge volumes by the standards of a marque whose existence had always been underpinned by building cars for other people. Ironically, early Interceptors were assembled by Vignale, cash-strapped Touring looking more of a risk.
Even 50 years after the launch, Touring’s masterful styling still epitomises the idea of a sophisticated transcontinental GT, and RoStyles look made for it.
There is something about them. Something reassuring in how solid they are, how, well, unnecessary. Did anyone really need a burbling rhino-heavy 6.3-litre V8 to propel two tonnes close to 140mph? Apparently they did, and the comfort of knowing that the big-block was there, even if throttle travel barely passed a couple of inches, was equally important. As was the opulent leather, wood and togglefest 2+2 interior in the finest tradition of upmarket Brit and Italian GTs.
According to Kevin Birch, the owner of this Mk1, that cabin is all-important: “I had dreamt of owning an Interceptor since seeing my mum’s boss’ car in the early ’70s. I recently tracked him down and found out that his was a Sage Green Mk1 FF, which is now red and still on the road in Sweden. I was looking for a Mk2 or 3, because I preferred the front end and dashboard layout, but I was struggling to get anything within my budget, so had to have what I could afford. I have now fallen in love with my Mk1, the interior is so much more classy than the later cars.”
Birch bought the Jensen from France after chasing up an advert that read ‘make a sensible offer, you never know’. After completing the deal in double-quick time, he rocked up at the owner’s Angoulême home with a trailer to repatriate the car: “It was in good company with a Rover P6, Spitfire, Scimitar and Jaguar SS100. I have just received the original factory documents, so will now try to track down the first owner, Dr John Hobby, who amazingly lived in Edgbaston, four miles from me. I truly have brought it home.”
He is the first to admit that the car is a little rough around the edges, but it drives nicely, keeps its cool and stops nearly as well as it goes. The beauty of any Interceptor is the sense of power. Even with the Torqueflite in neutral you can rock the car with your right foot; even without throttle it can creep with a stealthy menace. On the move it is as docile, as calmly hasty or as brutal as you like. That, along with the glam looks, explains why it was such a hit with people as disparate as Tony Jacklin, Cliff Richard and Henry Cooper.
There’s no question that the Adwest powered rack and kingpin front, likewise the live rear, were improved upon with later cars. But for 1966 and on a sorted car they are fine. Even the all-round discs, often pinpointed as a weak spot, pass muster. Unsurprisingly, given the weight and position of the engine, the car is an understeerer, but it’s not about driving to extremes. It’s about effortless performance and incredible comfort at 90%. If the Interceptor didn’t make sense in period, the thinking behind the FF was barmy. How did such pioneering tech belong in a camouflaged C-V8 chassis? Yet there it was, a 6.3-litre behemoth with ABS (of sorts) and four-wheel drive.
Unlike Birch, owner Andy Kreis had set his heart on a Mk1, though not necessarily an FF: “I knew of a guy who had an Interceptor Mk1 in Switzerland, but I couldn’t convince him to sell it. Rather than being frustrated, I looked for an even better way to spend my money, which was my best ever decision whilst buying a car.”
Kreis’ FF drives impeccably. With all the extra mechanicals, it isn’t quite as sprightly as an Interceptor, but is still far from sluggish. In many respects it feels very similar but is smoother, more mature. Then, in bad weather or on tightening motorway spur roads, an FF’s extraordinary poise and balance make themselves known – it is as sure-footed as most moderns. Similarly, until you adjust to them, the Dunlop Maxaret antilock brakes are almost unnervingly good compared to other classics of the era.
Looks-wise, the extra vents, squared-off front, and half-foot longer wheelbase give the FF’s game away. Underneath, the chassis rails have moved outboard to accommodate the Bill Chattertondesigned Ferguson four-wheel-drive system.
Such innovations won the FF huge plaudits when new, which was perhaps the reason for its existence: to reaffirm Jensen as a forward-thinking can-do firm. Even today, passers-by conspicuously admire the FF and are quick to mention the four-wheel drive and ABS. A true cognoscenti car.
Jensen may never have recaptured the success of the Interceptor and FF, but these cars did etch themselves into public perception and affection, ensuring that the name would live on. Up to a point. After all, the Interceptor’s repeated miscomparison with an Aston is down to more than its bespoke nature and Italian skin – Jensen owners will tell you that it is the marque for which their cars are most often misidentified.
In fact, only a homegrown engine and an extra nought really separate them. Let’s not forget, however, that despite the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? role reversal, in period Jensens were far from the poor relation. They were costly gentlemen’s expresses for which those with the wherewithal would pay over the odds in order to stand out from the hoi polloi in their Jags. Yet more than 3000 were sold from 1966-’1972, three times more than Newport Pagnell shifted DBSs. Today they may be dismissed as a pauper’s Aston, but in the’60s West Bromwich took on the establishment and won. Sort of.
Sadly, the fact that now, as then, price plays such a big role in the Jensens’ appeal suggests that despite landing some decent punches and bruising a few egos, the cars didn’t deliver a knock-out blow to that motor manufacturing elite. The vast majority of enthusiasts appreciate them for what they offer for the money, rather than simply what they offer. And that is wrong. The truth is that the Interceptor and FF may have been too expensive in their day but, even with ballooning prices over the past few years, they are way too cheap for what they are now.
JENSEN INTERCEPTOR Mk1 Kevin Birch
The 51-year-old IT engineer from Halesowen bought his Interceptor two years ago after a lifetime of other classics, including Mk1 Granada Ghia Coupés and a Cortina II Lotus that he’s had since he was 18. He says: “When I bought the Jensen, I was aware that the interior was part way through being restored after a previous owner had painted the leather with white 2K paint. The chap I purchased it from was stripping the hide and redoing it in oxblood red. He had done 75% of it, and supplied the materials to complete the job. I’ve since finished it off, redone the dash veneer, sourced an original Jensen 8-Track, updated with an MP3 input, and Voxson speaker grilles. I have also rebuilt the suspension, done a complete overhaul of the brakes and upgraded the cooling system.
“I do all of my own work, including welding, although I’ve only had to deal with a small hole at the end of a sill. That allowed me to have a look inside the box section, and I was very pleased with what I saw in there. About the only thing I’ll farm out is gearbox repairs.”
‘ON THE MOVE IT IS AS DOCILE, AS CALMLY HASTY OR AS BRUTAL AS YOU WANT IT TO BE’
Make mine a manual
Despite the option of a manual transmission being available throughout the production life of the Mk1, few people ordered one. The effortless slushbox was thought to better suit the character of the car – and its owners. That said, there is a fascination with the manual, with several cars being retro-converted and a swarm of interest whenever one of the originals comes on to the market. According to the guru Richard Calver, just 23 right-hand-drive cars plus a single left-hooker were fitted with the Chrysler A-833 four-speed.
Clockwise: vast rear window lends the shape a futuristic air; hedonistic cabin with three-spoke wheel and toggle switches is pure ’60s; neat badging; V8 has massive torque.
Mark Gresswell and Elaine Llewellyn, a university lecturer and medical secretary from Lincoln, have had theirs for 13 years. It came with excellent history and just four owners from new, the previous one for 27 years, plus records of an extensive rebuild in the ’80s and various trophy wins. It has certainly earned its keep, as Gresswell explains: “We go abroad every year and have covered 7000 miles since the engine was done in May.
For my 50th and its 40th birthdays we took it to Milan (where the Touring factory is now a hotel!). A few years ago we did a Peter Sarstedt tour: St Moritz, Juan les Pins, etc.” Gresswell never set out to buy a manual: “My everyday cars are always automatics but it was a really nice example. It makes us feel great every time we get in it and heading off for an adventure in Switzerland, Italy and the south of France makes us feel like teenagers! It does about 19mpg, or about 2mpg better than an auto!” Maybe it’s the lack of familiarity but the long lever arcing out of the transmission tunnel looks like an afterthought where usually there is a neat auto selector. The first thing you notice when driving is the heavy clutch but on the move, once you strong-arm the recalcitrant, highly mechanical action, you can stir it along impressively, riding the revs like a wave and keeping the engine eager. The ratios are well spaced, but you do miss that cruising gear befitting its GT credentials. Is it better or worse? Neither, just different.
JENSEN FF Mk1 Andy Kreis
Seven years ago this economics and law lecturer from Glarus, Switzerland “failed to aquire a left-hand-drive Interceptor Mk1 and thought I’d rather go for the real thing.” The 49 year old has never owned a modern and his daily driver is a classic Volvo estate. He also runs a TR5 that he’s had for 20 years and admits to owning “several Jensens”. He says: “I started in 2000 with a C-V8 Mk2.
Apart from the FF, I currently have three C-V8s, two 541Rs, an Interceptor Mk1 and an SP. You really can say I’ve caught the bug!” He found his car on the Jensen Owners’ Club forum and has had to do plenty to it: “Although the car came to Switzerland under its own steam, I knew that the FF needed a lot of attention. There were some minor issues with the body but major mechanical problems, mainly regarding the brakes.
“I do almost 100% of the restoration work at home. A friend of mine, a retired panel-beater with more than 45 years of experience, is now exclusively working for me and my cars. He does all the bodywork while I’m sorting the mechanical aspects.”
Clockwise: most obvious difference in profile is the extra vent in front wing; cabin mirrors that of its stablemate; discreet badge; unlike Interceptor, all FFs had 6.3-litre V8.
TECHNICAL DATA JENSEN INTERCEPTOR Mk1
Sold/number built 1966-’1969/1024
Construction steel ladder chassis and body
Engine front-mounted, all-iron, ohv 6276cc Chrysler V8, single Carter four-barrel carb
Max power 330bhp @ 4600rpm
Max torque 425lb ft @ 2800rpm
Transmission four-speed manual or three-speed auto, driving rear wheels via LSD
Suspension: front independent by wishbones, coils, lever-arm dampers, anti-roll bar rear live axle, Panhard rod, leaf springs and telescopic dampers
Steering power-assisted rack and pinion
Brakes dual-circuit discs, with servo
Length 15ft 8in (4775mm)
Width 5ft 10in (1778mm)
Height 4ft 5in (1346mm)
Wheelbase 8ft 5in (2565mm)
Weight 3695lb (1675kg)
0-60mph 6.4 secs
Top speed 137mph
Price new £5198
Price now £15-70,000
TECHNICAL DATA JENSEN FF Mk1 (where different)
Sold/number built 1966-’1969/195
Construction steel ladder chassis and body
Engine as Interceptor, but angled and offset in bay
Transmission as Interceptor, plus transfer box behind gearbox with 1:1 chaindrive through Ferguson Formula central differential; drive split 37% front, 63% rear
Suspension: front independent by double wishbones, twin coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semielliptic springs, Girling telescopic dampers
Brakes as Interceptor, but with Dunlop Maxaret anti-lock system using vacuum reservoir in chassis tube
Length 15ft 11in (4851mm)
Wheelbase 9ft 1in (2769mm)
Weight 3981lb (1806kg)
0-60mph 8.4 secs
Top speed 130mph
Price new £6018
Price now £70-150,000