Jensen Interceptor Convertible 1974-76

In this review, we take a look at the Jensen Interceptor Convertible, perhaps the most glamorous and prestigious model in the long line of Interceptor variants. At the time of its release in 1974, the Convertible epitomized the highest standards reached by the West Bromwich car-maker. Its reputation as the “top model” has not diminished with time.

Convertibles had long been a favourite in the Jensen line-up, ever since the brothers’ first foray into the world of automobile manufacture in the 1930s. Every model line Jensen ever produced had included a convertible in some shape or form, whether as a prototype, a limited production run (as in the case of the Interceptor) or as a model in its own right, as with the Jensen–Healey.

With the FF due to fall by the wayside in 1971, Jensen boss Kjell Qvale was thinking about developing and promoting another model as the company’s flagship. With his vast experience of the car market on the American west coast, Qvale believed that a convertible version of the Interceptor would be welcomed by his customers there. It would be a flagship for the company, a money-spinner in its own right and something of a big brother to the Jensen–Healey sports car, still a year away from release.

As it happened, the original drawings of the Interceptor, submitted by Touring in 1966, had included sketches of a convertible variant. In all likelihood, these were now dusted off and examined afresh by Qvale and the body designers. One of the prototype Interceptors, JM/EXP/120, which had outlived its usefulness as the developmental mule for the LHD Interceptor II, was selected to become the test-bed for the new model. In December 1971, while Chief Engineer Kevin Beattie was wrestling with the F-type project (the planned Interceptor replacement for 1974) and others were racking their brains over the uncompleted Jensen–Healey, Experimental Department boss Brian Spicer was handed the job of developing and building the prototype Interceptor Convertible. He began by chopping the top off EXP/120.

Development of the car was slow at first and proceeded in parallel with work on the F-type through 1972. By 1973, the necessary structural modifications had been worked out, the top design had been finalized and the first pre-production prototypes had been built. Being constructed on such a massive chassis — one which had been required to contribute all of the strength to the fibreglass-bodied C-V8 — the Convertible didn’t need a lot of strengthening other than in the body sills and windscreen pillars. While the prototypes were tested, the high-performance SP ruled as the top model at Jensens until finally the supply of Six Pack engines gave out in late 1973, shortly before the Convertible made its debut.

At home in Hollywood, 1931 reposes resplendent in black. They don't come much better
than this peach. What an image! Qvale knew what he was doing after all. Thanks Sandy.

Against the unhappy background of war in the Middle East and the first of the oil shocks which followed, Qvale announced the Convertible on 22 March 1974 as a rational alternative to the Rolls–Royce Corniche, then selling in the United States for $50,000. Originally, it had been intended that the Convertible would be unveiled at the New York Motor Show in June of that year and non-refundable deposits of $5000 were being taken against advance orders. In fact, the release occurred in March 1974, not in New York but at the Geneva Motor Show where two years earlier the Healey had been unveiled. Now Jensens’ newest foray into the world of drophead motoring was greeted with a mixture of surprise and praise. Most people thought that the era of safety legislation had killed off the convertible as a concept, but Jensens showed with their supremely strong Interceptor chassis that it was still very much a going concern.

Initial thinking had focused on a “limited edition” of 750–800 cars and, while the effects of the oil crisis continued, the likelihood remained that the output would indeed be low. But by early 1975, with renewed consumer confidence pushing the demand for Convertibles to unmeetable levels, the thinking was revised. Now, from an intended production target of five cars per week, it was planned to increase production to the point where it would reach half the total Interceptor output. This turned out to be an optimistic forecast, just as unduly ebullient sales forecasts for Interceptors and FFs in 1966 had projected that the four-wheel drive would add another 50% to the numbers of Interceptors sold.

Convertible production never reached the peak which Qvale envisaged. In the end, the tally peaked at a little over 500 cars by the time the factory closed its doors in May 1976. A few more were finished later in the year by Jensen Parts & Service and sold against firm orders secured in advance by the Receiver.

Excluding the top-chopped EXP/120, which must properly be recorded as an Interceptor II, the tally of known Convertibles produced through the calendar years is as follows: 

CALENDAR YEAR NUMBER MADE
1973 2
1974 190
1975 263
1976 54
TOTAL 509

Even today, one can still read in the popular motoring media a figure of 267 Convertibles having been produced. This number comes from Graham Robson's A-Z of British cars of the 1970s, first published in Classic and Sportscar magazine in September 1985. Repeated over and over since then, and gaining currency with each ill-advised repetition, the figure has become the default setting for people who haven't updated their files since my databook was released in 1991. 

That the Convertible design was a good one is not in doubt. Indeed, so popular was this model in the first few months after its release that some Interceptor III saloons were returned to the factory by owners in the United States for conversion to the new body style. At least two such returns are documented, and there may have been others. Over the years, the residual Jensen organizations in Britain have carried out more Convertible conversions, as have some private owners, with varying degrees of success, to the point where there are probably about a dozen of them in existence today.

The Convertible was certainly a striking car, possessed of beautifully slim lines amidships, with or without the top in place. Perhaps the only criticism might have been leveled at the hood stowage arrangement in which the cover sat up prominently behind the passenger compartment (there was nowhere else for it to go). But the Convertible was a distinctive car in anyone’s book. At the time of its introduction, it had only two competitors in Britain — the Bentley Convertible and the Rolls–Royce Corniche, which sold for a staggering £16,343. A snip at only £9,863, the Jensen sold well from the outset and, in keeping with the tradition of the drophead body style, remained in high demand on the second-hand market.

Convertibles shared the same basic mechanical specification as the saloon — the proven drivetrain of the 440ci Chrysler V8 with TorqueFlite automatic transmission — but there were some variations to the options and detailing lists. Painted coach lines were standard on all Convertibles (in the UK, they were optional on the saloon for an additional £8.53). Louvered bonnets were incorporated as a matter of course (they were a no-cost option on UK saloons).

It may amuse or distress some to learn that the factory never painted any of its Convertibles bright red. Nowhere do we learn of these cars receiving coats of Racing Red, Signal Red, Flag Red, Guards Red, Ferrari Red, Porsche Red or any other kind of garish red. In fact, the range of paint colours used was mostly of sober hue with white, silver, brown and blue being the main colours:

COLOUR MADE COLOUR MADE COLOUR MADE COLOUR MADE
White 70 Yellow 25 Nevis Blue 7 Black Pearl 1
Silver Grey 66 Oakland Green 12 Aruba Red 6 Laguna Beige 1
Copper Brown 52 Mustard 11 Tangerine 6 Brasilia 1
Havana 46 Saturn Gold 10 Magenta 4 Brewster Green 1
Brienz Blue 41 Oatmeal 9 Moss Green 2 Faune Mais 1
Royal Blue 39 Sebring Silver 8 Pine Green 2 Claret 1
Cerise 35 Saba Blue 7 Silver Mink 1    
Black 35 Cheviot Brown 7 Oxford Blue 1 Unknown 1
            TOTAL 509

The Convertible’s hood fabric was available in a choice of colours to match or complement the paint, with the headlining choice boiling down to a selection of either Fawn or Mushroom. The leather trimming range reflected that of the standard Interceptors.

Here’s the breakdown on the interior trimming ...

LEATHER NUMBER LEATHER NUMBER
Tan 187 Magnolia 41
Black 96 Mocha 7
Blue 68 Grey 1
Beige 66 Unspecified 1
Red 42 TOTAL 509

... and here’s the breakdown on the top colours. Note how the main top colours are in close proportion to the trim colours:

FABRIC NUMBER FABRIC NUMBER
Tan 161 White 28
Black 97 Cream 22
Blue 66 Red 13
Beige 42 Unspecified 80
    TOTAL 509

Factory options and departures from the standard specification included a choice of special paints, quartz halogen fog or spot lamps, whitewall tyres, inertia reel seat belts in the rear, special upholstery, sheepskin inserts to the seats and, in the UK anyway, the Radiomobile 108SR Radio-Stereo cartridge player (the Learjet 8-track remained standard for the US and some other markets). An internally adjustable driver’s door mirror became standard equipment on RHD Convertibles from July 1974 (it was already standard on US and some other cars). For RHD saloons, the mirror remained an option costing an additional £17.55.

Also available in the UK was the Philips RN712 Radio-Stereo cassette player-recorder. This featured a microphone mounted under the steering column to allow the busy executive to dictate his thoughts while on the move. If this wasn’t exactly the Director model reborn, it was a neat and useful option, when it worked. The units were apparently prone to gremlin attack and often wound up as more ornamental than utile.

Silver was about the commonest colour on the Convertible range but there's nothing 'common' about the car.
Here's 1952, double-bumpers and all, looking for a new owner in Marina del Ray. Thanks Anon.

Something like five prototype Convertibles seem to have been built. As with most things Jensen, there is always some room for doubt but it would seem as if the developmental car EXP/120 was followed by prototypes serially numbered 001, PP101, PP102 and PP103 (PP denoting “pre-production prototype”, vehicles built in the production jigs to test the assembly process). Complicating matters is the fact that a conversion was carried out on LHD saloon 133/5698 at around the same time. The factory registration UEA 662M has been associated both with that car and with PP101, leading to confusion about the purposes for which each was made.

Most of the prototypes survive. PP102, painted Royal Blue with Tan trimming and roof, was registered by the factory as AEA 990M in July 1974. It served as a press demonstrator before being turned over to Qvale as his personal transport a few months later. PP103, factory- registered as CEA 522N, was used as a works test vehicle before being sold in November 1974. It came to Australia in 2002. The first purpose-built convertible, 001 (XEA 152M), was registered in December 1973 and used for cold-weather testing in Norway where it crashed. It went to a wrecking yard but somehow survived and still exists. 

One of the early Convertibles, CEA 878N, was made available for Kevin Beattie’s use in 1974. Originally a body prototype car, it may have been built as a PP or EXP vehicle and renumbered as one of the first production examples (its chassis number is 2340/9504). It was used to test a set of chrome bolt-on wire wheels specially imported by Qvale from the States. It was also the first Interceptor to be given the full wood dash, something which Qvale insisted the car would need if it were to compete successfully against the opposition at the top end of the market. Orders for the design and building of the wooden dashboard were issued in October 1974, at the same time as separate orders went out for the building of the first Interceptors to the 1975 Federal specification. More than anything else, it would be the new dashboard, introduced as a standard feature on saloons and Convertibles later in 1975, which set these cars apart as the most luxurious automobiles ever produced by Jensen Motors. Regrettably, they would also turn out to be the last cars made by the firm.

The bolt-on wire wheels were not to survive in exactly the form as tested but soon Qvale’s BMCD chain in the States was offering the option of US-made Zenith chrome wire wheels with centre-lock hubs and special Jensen centres. These were not adopted by the factory on home market cars, nor indeed were they referred to as an option in advertising literature, but they were apparently in demand in the States and several saloons and Convertibles with these wheels survive.

Convertibles were purpose-built in several different configurations for different markets. By 1974, the complexities of keeping up with legislative changes in this regard were forcing many detail revisions on the overworked Engineering Department staff. The key to the Convertible models is given by their four-digit VIN prefixes which are as follows: 

VIN PREFIX CODE MARKET AREA NUMBER BUILT
2310, 2311 NADA 409
2340 Home 86
2320, 2321, 2323 Europe 5
2341 Australia 2
2344 Hong Kong 2
2342 Japan 1
PP Prototypes 4
TOTAL   509

There may have been some thought given to introducing special features on the Convertible, particularly as those who worked in the factory at the time knew that the F-type was not destined to see production. Perhaps some of the novel design features from the abortive prototype might have been intended for the Convertible. Dominic Driscoll, who test-drove PP101 in 1973 and later owned it, recorded that it incorporated several non-standard features which he believed were intended for production. These included headlamp washers mounted on the bumpers, a drip tray under the brake fluid cannisters and a manual override switch for the electric radiator fans. Whether these were added at a later date has not been established with certainty. It was also claimed, for example, that the car had first been owned by novelist Harold Robbins, when in fact Robbins owned 2310/9638.

Robbins was one of the more notable buyers of the Convertible, taking delivery in person at the factory in a well-photographed ceremony organized by Marketing Director Dick Graves. Pictures of the handover were sent to Robbins who was so taken with the car, and with the friendliness of the staff, that he had one of the pictures reproduced in miniature on the back cover of his best-selling books. The ceremony, unfortunately, was marred by a failure with the power top mechanism which meant that Robbins’s car went back to the workshop from day one. He took this in resigned good humour.

The factory’s “brochure” car, a yellow example with black top and trim (in all probability PP101), was booked for a photo-shoot at Warwick racecourse. Unfortunately the car scraped a post on entering the grounds which meant that the photographer could film it only from the undamaged nearside.

Topless in San Diego. Here's 1308 hoping someone will walk by and
fall in love with her charms. Isn't it amazing how they seem to turn
up everywhere in the States? Wish it was Oz. Thanks Anon.

The Penthouse “Pet of the Year” in 1975 took delivery of 1657, among other prizes. Other lucky recipients of Convertibles included singers Cher Bono, Little Patti and even Frank Sinatra whose car's build sheet was endorsed “Ole Blue Eyes”. This all-black example was turned out hurriedly after it transpired that the car originally intended for Frankie had been painted Mustard by mistake. Hollywood producer Quinn Martin and his wife Marianne both owned Convertibles, as did actress Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter. Financier Winthrop P. Rockefeller owned several Jensens, including a Moss Green Convertible. John “Gonzo” Bonham, drummer with Led Zeppelin, owned Interceptors and FFs as well as a rare late model Convertible with wooden dash (only a dozen were made in RHD). In New York, the prestige car rental firm “A Leet Leasing” ran a fleet of ten Jensen Interceptor IIIs, including three Convertibles, for anyone who could afford the tab. Tabs were of little consequence to the Arab aristocracy, several of whom favoured the West Bromwich products, especially Convertibles. Some of the richest and most powerful men on the planet took delivery of these cars through the factory’s agents in Bahrain, although what became of them in the heat of the Middle Eastern summer can only be imagined. In the late 1980s, when Interceptors were resurrected in limited production by Jensen Cars Ltd, Convertibles and saloons were again sought out by agents acting for the royal families in Oman and Saudi Arabia. Apparently, the potentates’ memories of the cars were undiminished with time.

Convertibles sold in all of Jensens’ regular markets, the United States taking pride of place, just as Qvale intended:

COUNTRY NUMBER COUNTRY NUMBER COUNTRY NUMBER
USA 375 Australia 2 Channel Is. 1
Mainland UK 87 Bahrain 1 Belgium 1
Canada 24 Saudi Arabia 1 France 1
Netherlands 3 Monaco 1 West Germany 1
Switzerland 3 Japan 1 Export (unspec) 3
Hong Kong 3 Ireland 1 TOTAL 509

Convertibles may be seen in a variety of movies and TV serials including Assault on Agathon, Desperate Measures, Gone in 60 Seconds (Part II – The Junkman), Terror Out of the Sky (aka Killer Bees), The Omen and The Users. Episodes of Harry Enfield, McCloud and Miami Vice also feature cameo appearances for the drophead Jensen. 

Today, the Convertible is probably the most prized and desired of all cars made by the Jensen concern. Regrettably, for those who live in countries favoured by the world’s largest car-makers, RHD Convertibles are extremely rare. They are considerably more common in North America where they also tend to be cheaper than elsewhere, if no less loved by their owners. Many Convertibles have received lavish restorations befitting their status as the top West Bromwich model of all time.

Unfortunately for historians, the paper trail on Convertibles runs remarkably thin in the later period, chiefly because the factory was then operating under the exigencies of receivership but also because most of the cars were exported. Jensens kept precious few records on cars which went abroad so it is hard to be precise about what went into their builds and what happened to them in the hands of their first owners. Some 116 late Interceptor files do not even say what kind of body went onto the chassis — saloon, Convertible or Coupé. Through 30 years of patient research, I have narrowed that field of “unknowns” down to just 16. Conceivably, all of these could turn out to be Convertibles but my impression is that probably the bulk are saloons with perhaps three Convertibles making up the balance. If so, then the final number of Convertibles would turn out to be 512. For the VINs in contention, have a look here. If you own one of these cars, I’d be very interested to hear from you to help me fill out the history.

As always, I’m interested to hear from anyone who owns a Jensen of any kind, convertible or otherwise, and I’m happy to help with queries about the histories of all kinds of Jensen cars. Contact me at tfmuch@bigpond.com.

Just so you don’t ask me things which you could find out first through a little self-education (such as why there were more than 267 Convertibles made), do some research of your own. 

To buy a four volume set of my books, go here.




© 2000–2016 Richard Calver

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