Kjell Qvale imported a host of great British marques into the US in the 1960s, including MG and Jaguar, but his best-selling brand had been Austin-Healey – until that marque was killed off by BMC. So when the Healey family began working on a new sports car Qvale was immediately interested.
Like the Healey’s previous sports cars the new machine drew heavily on existing engineering to keep costs down, but had a bespoke body for maximum kerb appeal. Freelance stylist William Towns penned the shape, blending hints of Lotus Europa (front) and Triumph TR6 (rear) into a cohesive if rather conservative open sports car. The body was a modern steel monocoque (unlike the Austin-Healeys, with their separate chassis frames) with some bolt-on outer panels.
As with the Austin-Healeys, the bodies would be built by the West Bromwich firm of Jensen, which Qvale bought outright.
The new car’s low nose meant that a compact engine was essential, and the Healeys considered the 2.6-litre Ford Cologne V6 and the ‘slant fours’ from Vauxhall and BMW, but it was another slant four which got the job – a new unit from Lotus, based on the Vauxhall crankshaft. It was an attractive option, more powerful than the others and very clean burning thanks to an efficient 16-valve cylinder head, which meant it could pass US emissions regulations.
Unfortunately the Lotus unit was still in development, and it was nowhere near ready when the Jensen-Healey, as the new car was called, was announced in 1972. Those early Lotus engines leaked oil, and failed to start if the car was parked on a hill because fuel drained from carburettors.
Most of the problems were fixed on the Mk2 of 1973, which also had small exterior and interior improvements. The following year the four-speed Sunbeam Rapier H120 gearbox was replaced by a five-speed Getrag, and US-market 5mph impact bumpers were added.
But sales were slow, thanks to the engine problems and a reputation for rust. Many Jensen-Healeys required extensive repairs under warranty, the costs of which must have hastened Jensen’s demise in the summer of 1976 – just as a two-plus-two estate version, the Jensen GT was being introduced. Just over 10,000 Jensen-Healeys were made.
If you can find a good example today – probably fewer than 100 are still on the road in the UK – then the Jensen-Healey makes a strong case for itself. Even at idle the Lotus engine makes its presence felt, with a purposeful rasp which it retains whether cruising in top gear or accelerating hard in the indirect ratios. It’s no wonder that later cars were treated to greater sound insulation. For a big in-line four-cylinder engine of this era, the Lotus is surprisingly capable: smooth, gutsy in the mid-range, and happy to spin to 7000rpm without running out of breath.
The Jensen-Healey rides softly for a sports car, but still tackles corners with poise. It’s not all good news, though: the steering could be more direct, and mid-corner bumps can upset the rear suspension (a coil-sprung, four-linked beam axle).
In most areas, though, the Jensen-Healey is well thought out, with the sharpness to entertain a keen driver and the comfort to cosset a cruiser.
It’s a shame that the Jensen-Healey is dogged with its reputation for unreliability – and it’s a shame there are so few left.