The battle of Wills: When I nearly buttoned Jensen!

Mr Barrie Wills

Way back in 1970, Jensen Motors had been acquired by the Californian of Norwegian origin and birth, Kjell H Qvale (pronounced Shell Ke’-vah-leh). Qvale had spotted the potential of MG sports cars in the American market in the years immediately after WW2 and soon became the west coast importer of the iconic roadsters from a base in San Francisco. He began to add other British brands to his portfolio – including Austin, Morris, Jaguar and Rolls-Royce. The Austin link soon brought Austin-Healey sports cars into his fold and with it a close friendship to the illustrious Donald Healey CBE.

The earlier announcement by Donald Stokes of British Leyland that he would end production of Austin-Healeys created a problem for Qvale, who stood to lose considerable sales. It was also unwelcome news for the Austin-Healey’s designer Donald Healey – who received a royalty from BL on each Austin-Healey sold – and for English car manufacturer, Jensen Motors, who had built the Austin-Healeys under contract for BMC. This prompted discussions which led to a plan for the design and production of a sports car to fill the gap the Austin-Healey would leave.

The Jensen-Healey

Qvale’s answer was to buy 70 percent of Jensen Motors and, whilst continuing production of the up-market Interceptor, use it as the basis of a deal with Donald Healey through which a two-seater sports car – the Jensen-Healey – would be designed, engineered and developed, primarily for the US market. Healey had been appointed chairman of Jensen with a manufacturing man from a non-automotive consultancy-based background, Alfred ‘Alf’ Vickers, as managing director. With the assistance of Donald Healey’s son Geoffrey, they had laid down a design for a sports car with stylist/designer Hugo Poole, which met the increasingly severe US and particularly the Californian safety regulations.

After the styling had been tidied up by William Towns, their original prototype was powered by a 2.3-litre Vauxhall, single-overhead-camshaft, four-cylinder engine, and here, coincidence played a major part in the car’s development. Lotus’s Colin Chapman had arrived at the point where he wanted to manufacture cars using an engine of his own rather than his practice of purchasing from a major OEM an engine Lotus would ‘enhance’. Using the basic parameters of the same Vauxhall engine, Chapman had led the design and development of a dimensionally similar unit which featured a sixteen-valve cylinder head. Subsequently, Qvale dropped Vauxhall and did a deal with Chapman to purchase 60 per week of the new 900-series engines for the Jensen-Healey from Lotus.

The heart of the problem – The unreliable Lotus based power unit.

Jensen advertised for a chief buyer in The Daily Telegraph and I immediately shot off an application along with an updated version of my curriculum vitae. I was invited to Jensen’s headquarters in West Bromwich and on arrival a receptionist took me into the boardroom, where – to my amazement – I was introduced to the trio of Qvale, Healey and Vickers. The three questioned me at length, concentrating on my Jaguar experience. I also met the chief engineer of the car Kevin Beattie.

A job offer followed along with a salary and company car offer that was an attractive improvement on my then-current package. If there was a disappointment, it was that I would be reporting to a supplies manager, to whom I had also been introduced after the interview and who singularly failed to impress me. I was also more than concerned by William Towns’s renderings I had been shown of the proposed car as they seemed to me to be somewhat bland and unoriginal. In more recent years, I have formed the clear impression Towns’s ‘improvements’ to Hugo Poole’s original design were a ‘Chinese’ copy of Pininfarina’s 1966 Fiat 124 Sport Spider (later the Pininfarina Spider Azzurra), designed by the American Tom Tjaarda, with revised front and rear ends that far from improved the American’s superb original work.

The Pininfarina Azzurra

As a result of my misgivings, I decided to make a phone call to one of my former mentors at Jaguar, FRW ‘Lofty’ England, number two to Sir William Lyons. Lofty invited me to visit him at Browns Lane very soon afterwards. He clearly knew a lot about the new Healey, no doubt due to his close business links with Kjell Qvale and his company British Car Distributors through their role as Jaguar’s north Californian distributors. Lofty was very critical of the new Healey, recommended I should not ‘touch it with a bargepole’ and forecast its likely failure in the market, bringing down Jensen in the process. As much as I wanted to move on in my career, somewhat reluctantly I followed Mr England’s advice by writing to Mr Qvale to thank him for his most kind offer which, regretfully, I declined.

Sadly, Lofty was to be proven right – Jensen did go bust. I was amazed to learn the deal with Lotus to buy their unproven engine, which had yet to be specified by them in any model within their limited car range, had been completed without Lotus providing a warranty. The 900-series engine  experienced an abnormally high rate of oil consumption as well as distorted cylinder liners. The massive cost of Jensen meeting their customers’ warranty claims with no recourse to the engine manufacturer, led to the model’s demise, Qvale’s decision to end production, and a receiver being appointed by the Bank of America in September 1975. By that time, Chapman, having been handed on a plate the easiest and best ever free-of-charge engine development programme he could ever have wished for, had introduced an improved version – designated type-907 – into his 1975 Lotus Elite.

Colin Chapman and Kjell Qvale

On 1 September 1970, I moved on to British Leyland Truck & Bus Division as supplies manager of the revolutionary new Leyland National bus project to be manufactured at a state-of-the-art greenfield site near Workington in North West England. However, I often wonder whether, had I taken the Jensen job, I might just have insisted upon the Lotus engine deal including a warranty, thereby avoiding the bankruptcy of Jensen – maybe at the expense of the financial collapse of Lotus.

How things could have changed thereafter!

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