Driven: Jensen Interceptor

For many young men the Jensen Interceptor was the epitome of cool and in deepest, darkest Oxfordshire there is one company breathing new life into this classic marque.

“Most customer conversations begin with ‘when I was a lad’,” says Durran Heslop, head of client relations and marketing at Jensen International Automotive (JIA). “‘When I was a lad my dad, uncle, or boss, had an Interceptor and I’ve always wanted one’. That’s the usual line, but I think that’s true for all classic car owners – that they have some kind of resonance with their younger, former life, and it’s just that they are now in a position where they can afford to have the car they want.”

JIA’s typical customers for their Interceptor R and R Supercharged variants are usually successful captains of industry who’s children have flown the nest, so now they find themselves looking to rekindle old flames and perhaps pick themselves up a sporty little number in the process.

“They are generally looking for a bespoke sports car, but quite subtle,” says Mr Heslop. “They want one that isn’t shouty though, like a lot of the fabulous Italianate machines you can buy on the market today. Our Jensen’s are a fairly discerning gentleman’s choice, and they would more than likely be adding it to their collection. They love the look of the classic car, but they do not want the aggravation that goes with it.”

A lot of hard graft and research has gone into perfecting the products at JIA, eliminating the issues the Jensen marque originally had with reliability.

“They had an appalling reliability record, even when they were new,” says Mr Heslop. “We now have modern engines with digital engine management, fuel injection, our own handmade wiring looms, modern relays and interconnectors. The cars are, as humanly possible, as reliable as a modern car. The gentlemen owners of these vehicles can simply jump in them at the weekend and away they go. I was speaking to a client this morning who was just preparing to drive his car from London to Scotland, which to me speaks volumes.”

Bespoke restorations

Although the R and R Supercharged are the two models JIA market, each car is bespoke built, with no two cars ever leaving the shop the same.

“Everything from the body paint to the stitching on the leather and the pointers on the dials can be customised,” says Mr Heslop. “We’re doing one car at the moment that we’re putting rear air-conditioning inside and we’ve recently done one with adjustable, heated memory seats, but there’s never been anything so outlandish that we couldn’t work it into the final build.

“We normally start a build with a ‘dead’ Jensen, which generally find us, with people looking us up and saying, ‘we’ve got a car we want to get rid of, are you interested?’ So we go and take a look and say yes or no. But they don’t need to run, they don’t need to have been on the road anytime recently – because we gut them and then start again.”

As part of the restorations JIA include their own significant chassis modifications, which is what makes the finished cars a completely different machine to drive than the originals. They lose the live rear axel and install an independent rear suspension set-up, which is derived from the classic Jaguar RS.

“At the front of the car we also change the geometry, camber and castor, for a better feel, but the original double-wishbone set-up was actually very good,” says Mr Heslop. “We also include bigger breaks, bigger wheels and modern tires – everything that the car rolls and rides on is made new.

“There’s also a new fuel tank and exhaust, all to our own design, which then permits us to install a new engine. All the components are made to order and, as we are based in the middle of F1 territory, just down the road from Silverstone, there are some amazing engineering companies around here who can make things for us that are works of art in their own right.

So, why try and reinvent the wheel when you can buy it in?

“It’s the same for our engines,” Mr Heslop continues. “We’ve gone to General Motors and sourced the LS3 which is a 6.2 litre, 430bhp V8 and the LSA, which is the supercharged variant of that with 556bhp. That is then mated to either a six-speed auto or six-speed manual transmission and that gives us serious performance!

“But, that’s not what it’s all about – you don’t buy a 200 watt hi-fi to listen to it at 200 watts – you want effortless performance at the lower registers – 90mph is 2200rpm, it’s a lovely, easy cruiser.”

Evolution

JIA Ltd was formed in 2010 with a majority shareholding from the highly respected entrepreneur, Sir Charles Dunstone. That, coupled with managing director David Duerden’s extensive motor racing and aeronautical engineering expertise, helped create something quite exceptional.

“In the mid-2000s they were looking for ways to increase the value of the Interceptor to the business, and also ways in which they could increase the value in terms of appeal and quality to the public,” says Mr Heslop.

“The obvious thing was modifications, because while Jensen’s look fantastic, in today’s terms they just don’t drive as well as they look. Even though it was originally a 7.3 litre Chrysler engine, with apparently 280-odd horse power, you just don’t feel that – not by modern terms. So, they were thinking about how to improve that and that’s why they brought David in, who’s a trained engineer and he came up with the suspension and brake modifications which massively improved the way the car rolls and rides.

“After these modifications it could cope with more power, so they began trying to tune the old Chrysler lump – which proved to be both difficult and costly – so the solution was to import reliability and newness in the form of ***craig motor engines?? (audio unclear Durran to fill in) and have shaved 200kg off the weight of the car.”

This essential formula of tinkering, researching and perfecting has stayed true throughout the evolution of the Jensen Interceptor R and R Supercharged and JIA have now gone on to address other elements about the Interceptor that could be considered lacking in today’s terms.

“In the Supercharged we’ve now got electric seats as standard and an improved wiper set-up, an improved heating and aircon system and so on,” says Mr Heslop. “We’ve evolved the Interceptor to pretty much its optimum place, and we’re just entering, unofficially, phase two of the Interceptor R, where we’ve managed to source a system that’s going to give us traction control and ABS. We’re also now capable of doing tap-shift on the gearboxes, we’ve got cruise control coming, heated electric windscreens, HID headlights and all sorts of little bits and pieces that will, overall, make the cars more appealing.

“It’s exciting times for us as this level of customisation and attention to detail is what helps us give the cars the best chance we can when it comes to targeting customers in our price bracket.”

Another string to their bow

Another facet of their offering, and one that has taken off quite dramatically for JIA, is what they are calling an ‘S Conversion’. A customer brings in a car that has been restored and re-trimmed and made good previously, and the Banbury workshop simply undertake the mechanical conversion

“We don’t touch the paint or anything else – we just make them reliable and quicker,” says Mr Heslop. “The advantage to this is that it’s a different price bracket, where the Interceptor Rs are now £200k-plus, by the time you’ve bought a £35-40k good, previously restored car and spent £70k odd on it – you’re at around the £100k mark – and that’s a different market. It’s something we’re starting to see more of.

“Creating an R will take a good year, but an S can be turned around in four months. This year in particular has gone mad and we’re building six at the moment and, as people begin to appreciate the Interceptor more, they are looking for ways ‘into’ them, which is giving us the opportunity to appeal to a broader market.”

A dedicated following

Compared with many other cars from the period, the shape and shape variants of the Interceptor have matured well and they are lucky to have inherited what was, essentially, an Italian styling exercise. These British-built cars, styled in Italy and powered by American muscle, means they have a unique appeal all of their own.

“In their period they were the coolest thing, they were the car everyone aspired to own,” says Mr Heslop. “Of course Jensen then fell-over in 1976 and from there they went into a gentle decline, but to everyone who knows them, and in particular people who can recall them from the period, they were the aspirational car.

“If you start looking around at what else there is in the classic car market that is similar, you really are in the league of Aston Martins and other top-end stuff – what other hand-built, British luxury GT from the period can you buy? I can’t think of one.”