- Best model: GT
- Worst model: MK1s
- Budget buy: As above
- OK for unleaded?: Yes
- Will it fit in the garage? (mm): mm 4150x 1610
- Spares situation: Improving
- DIY ease?: Okay – it’s engine costs...
- Club support: Good
- Appreciating asset?: Still waiting
- Good buy or good-bye?: A good car once it’s sorted
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The ill-fated collaboration between Donald Healey and Jensen that promised so much back in 1972 has finally come of age – and at great prices, too
Pros & Cons
A modern MGB was Donald Healey’s vision of a sports car for the 1970s. His all new Jensen-Healey was based on Vauxhall running gear and designedto replace the Big Healey that was killed off at the tail end of the last decade. But US based car importer and salesman Kjell Qvale got wind of the project and reckoned he could shift huge numbers of these modern sportsters, so he persuaded Healey to change tack. There was a shift from a proposed glass fi bre shell to a steel monocoque construction, and Qvale’s Jensen outfi t handily became the obvious candidate for large-scale production… On paper the new Jensen-Healey looked a pretty tasty proposition in a market stifl ed by old MGs and Triumphs. In practice, it left a bad taste in the mouth for too many. Until now perhaps, where all the ingredients are ripe for some automotive microwaving to make the Jensen-Healey the car it should have been all along at Spridget prices!
The Jensen-Healey was intended to make its debut at the 1971 Earls Court Motor Show, but it didn’t arrive until spring of the following year. Healey’s idea for the car was right on the money for the more conservative 1970s and a complete contrast to the beefy sports cars of the 1950s. It was more in line with the Lotus Elan and Triumph TR6 than an E-type, and was just the thing to entice the ‘greener’ but always lucrative US market, which had been crying out for a new British sportster for years. First thoughts of the Jensen-Healey surfaced in the late 1960s before Healey’s contract terminated with British Leyland in December 1970. But it would be July 1972 before the fi rst customer cars were delivered at £1874 – well over the £1500 ticket that Donald and Geoffrey Healey originally planned on. The reason the price rose dramatically was that while an amalgamation of Vauxhall Victor/ Firenza hardware would keep costs down (in fact the only main non GM part was the gearbox which came from the Sunbeam Rapier H120), the new 2.3-litre VX4/90 engine couldn’t cut the mustard in emission-strangled US form. The answer lied in with the new Lotus 907 engine, which was based on the original Victor ohc unit. It was considerably more refi ned and, crucially, all alloy. A deal with an eager Colin Chapman was soon done. The earliest Jensen-Healeys were riddled with major problems – many of which originated from the Lotus engine, which Qvale bought without a warranty! They were fi xed quickly, although the damage to the new car’s reputation was done already. By the time of the introduction of the MkII in September 1973, there was no reason to be afraid of this affordable Jensen, but most buyers steered clear, still turning to old, but trusty Mgs and Triumphs. This ultimately lead to the downfall of the car and Jensen itself, for that matter.
The much improved MkII featured a wood-grain fi nish on the dash and better soundproofi ng, but it still wasn’t sophisticated enough to lure puntersinto the showrooms. Development continued, with a Getrag fi ve-speed gearbox replacing the previous four-speed unit in late 1973. The extra cog was a bonus but the best bit was the much greater durability of the new transmission. In a bid to boost the car’s appeal, a sports estate was launched in July 1975. Dubbed the Jensen GT, there were no Healey references because Donald Healey had quit the company by the time the first Roadsters had been delivered to customers. To assist sales of this upmarket derivative, the original convertible was discontinued in December 1975, but that still didn’t help matters. By the time production was wound up in 1976, only 473 GTs had been built, more than half of which were expor ted to America. Of the 10,453 Roadsters made, 7709 went to the States where they out number Intercepters 50 per cent at car shows. They love them out there – while in the UK, J-H’s are becoming better accepted by Jensen clubs who were once sniffy about them.
The Jensen-Healey never really lived up to its paper promise but that doesn’t mean it was a bad car. Far from it, in fact, as a new generation of owners are discovering. For starters, it was oneof the most comfortable and ergonomic sportsters around with fi ne seats and driving position with ample space for two. It’s a much bigger car than its predecessor too, some fi ve inches longer, almost four inches wider and, at just under 4ft tall, a couple of inches lower, too. Crucially, at 2150lb the modern Healey is some 230lb lighter. Despite its early faults, the Lotus engine was no mean performer. It lacks the crisp sound of the old Ford-based twin cam, but the 140bhp still provides plenty of shove, although for a 2.0-litre, it needs to be worked quite hard. Early cars featured a Sunbeam Rapier H120 four-speed (overdrive) gearbox, which has a much smoother action than the later heavy-handed ZF fi ve-speed unit, although the latter is the sturdier and has the advantage of an extra cog. The brakes are reassuring while the ride is excellent – too compliant in fact because it seems that the chassis was set up more for comfort than all-out handling – something most road test reports picked up on at the time. One of the defi nite perks is the steering. This is one of the best rack-and-pinion set-ups around, which is all the more impressive when you think that it was taken from the rather humdrum Vauxhall Viva. With 140bhp in standard guise the Jensen- Healey could blow a rival TR6 away, especially cross country, even if this harsh Lotus engine didn’t lap up the revs too well. There are many rough Jensen-Healeys but a well set-up version is a delight to drive and far more modern than an MGB or TR. In many ways it was the logical development of these ‘60s classics. Any sports car that could hit 60 in less than 8.5 seconds and hit 116mph (according to the 1975 test in Autocar) had to be worth a look. Yet despite its credentials the J-H lacked that certain something that enthusiasts craved. When Car magazine pitched an original roadsteragainst a Lotus Elan Sprint, the older car (still on Ford power) blew its modern replacement away in all areas, including reliability. Perhaps the comparison was unfair, as in size and price the J-H was more a rival to the TR6 that had similar performance and economy. Actually, the Jensen-Healey could have been a useful fi ller in the Triumph range as it looked like a Spitfi re on steriods, had the raw appeal of the TR6 but was as good a cruiser as the Stag. Today the Jensen is a good alternative to any TR and the evergreen MGB plus a lot more modern feeling. Does this sound like your sort of sports car?
There’s little difference in values between Roadsters and GTs. The best change hands for £8000 (usually within the club), but £5000 is the most you’re likely to on the open market. Restoration projects are still sometimes given away, but we’ve heard of up to £30,000 being spent on dedicated rebuilds. Currently there’s around 10 top cars in the UK says J-H expert David Booth (01244 336331) as apathy rules!
The J-H was always criticised for being underdeveloped but thanks to its pick ‘n’ mix of components, it can be uprated easily for little cash. The suspension is mostly Vauxhall Magnum items, which benefi t from a damper and spring swap plus poly bushing the rear axle retaining arms (although the ride will be fi rmer). Strangely, in standard trim, the J-H lacked a front anti-roll bar – but there’s no reason why a Viva GT/Firenza item can’t be grafted on. The Lotus engine (2.0- litres but a lustier 2.2 after 1980 and a wise swap says the owners club) benefi ts from the usual ‘organic’ tuning methods, though many owners may fi nd that just electronic ignition and a session on a rolling road will more than suffice.
What To Look For
- The pressed-steel monocoque can rot badly and few original cars are left. The low values of Jensen-Healeys means they’re often bodged.
- The good news is that the spares situation is improving all the time. Leading Jensen expert Martin Robey has just rebuilt a complete car from the stash of spares and tooling he holds and, if demand is there, there’s no reason why full bodies can’t be supplied. Robey is already producing new fl oorpans for the car and he holds virtually anything needed for a full restoration – right down to a J-H gear knob.
- Checking the outer panels is easy, but repairing them isn’t. Start by inspecting the condition of the sills and front chassis legs, located just ahead of the front footwells; repairs are tricky
- To restore the sills, the front and rear wings need to be removed, although they’re bolted on. As the lower portion of each wing also rusts, it’s usually necessary to replace these as well. It’s often the leading edge of the sill that corrodes fi rst, and if left to advance, the rot spreads throughout the sill. By the time it’s reached the back, the car’s condition could be mullered.
- Sills corrode from the top down. This means that the rot starts behind the wings and by the time it’s visible the corrosion is advanced. The whole panel has to be replaced in one go. They’re not far short of £100 each, but by the time the welding has been done and the wingsreplaced, the total bill is at least £500 per side. If serious corrosion has spread into the fl oors it’s time for a major rebuild.
- Rot in the chassis legs is an MoT failure point, and it’s an involved process to put right as access is poor and the metalwork is awkward to plate. Also, the engine, gearbox and front suspension all have to be removed (or at least dropped) to get to the affected area.
- Bonnets corrode, with good replacements hard to fi nd. Unobtainable new, a tatty bonnet will cost you £100. A mint one is £500.
- Front wings rot along the lower edge above the sill, as well as at the leading edge where the headlamp cowl is positioned. Also look where it’s bolted to the inner wing along the top edge plus the wheelarch lips.
- New wings are available from the original tooling and although they bolt on it’s an involved job getting them to fit properly and some hand fettling will be required.
- Rear wings rot along their top edge, after water has got into the joint between the inner andouter panels. There’s beading here, which perishes and allows water in, causing the inner wing to corrode unseen. It’s vital you open the boot and check the state of the metal from inside – there’s a huge job if it’s bad.
- The boot fl oor rots, as does the trailing edge of the lid and the bottoms of the doors. The latter rot from the inside out, and by the time the outer skin has started to corrode, there will probably be nothing left of the lower part of the frame. New doors are over £250, while a decent used one is £100 plus.
- The all-alloy twin-cam engine is okay if looked after, but it won’t tolerate neglect. The engines used in the MkI were notoriously fragile, but a much stronger casting was designed for MkII cars. With its more rigid structure, the oil leaks that plagued the fi rst cars were cured. That said, even a molly-coddled power-plant won’t last more than 80,000 miles between rebuilds – more typical is a life-span of 50,000 miles before it’s banjaxed.
- The bottom end wears fi rst, so expect to pay £3000 or so to have the engine restored to its former glory. Do the work yourself and it’ll cost you little more than half this figure. If you’re rebuilding a MkI engine then it’s worth using a MkII powerplant as your new starting point – a unit fi t for rebuilding costs £250.
- Change cam belt every 24,000 miles or three years to avoid disaster. If it breaks, valves clash with pistons and you’ll need a complete rebuild. A new belt costs under £30 and replacement is fairly straightforward, so there’s no excuse.
- Flat spots at just over 2000rpm are common on with Dellorto carburettors, as the accelerator pumps are prone to seizing. This is cured by lubricating the lever mechanism and replacing the two pump diaphragms, at £10 each.
- The earlier Chrysler (four-speed) gearbox is nicer to use than the later Getrag (fi ve-speed) version, but the four-speed unit is weak. During spirited driving it’s possible to break the gearbox altogether as it was designed to handle just 120bhp. If the ’box is on its way out it’ll jump out of gear. The fi ve-speed unit is much stronger. and can be substituted if you use its bell housing. There aren’t many fi ve-speeders around, but if you fi nd a serviceable one, expect to pay £350 for it. If there isn’t one available then it’s possible to have a four-speed unit rebuilt, but the parts are getting ever harder to fi nd. The cost currently stands at around £250 for a complete rebuild.
- You could try the Toyota’ box that’s fi tted to the later Lotus Excel – it’s a sweet fi ve-speeder and dead reliable, of course.
- The Salisbury back axle, taken unchanged from the Vauxhall Magnum/Viva 2.3, is very strong and will last for well over 150,000 miles without problems. Don’t expect the unit to be quiet though – they whined and rumbled from new. If the noise becomes unbearable, fi t a used unit for around £100.
- Original-spec springs go soft, leading to the car leaning to one side. It’s usually the offside that sits the lowest for some reason.
- It’s also important to check for oil contamination of the front suspension mountings, thanks to engine leaks. The mounting rubbers rot once they’ve been soaked in engine oil, and replacements cost £11-16 each. There are three on each side. Some people fi t polyurethane bushes instead, but the standard rubber ones give the car a better ride, and they’re generally pretty durable.
- The only braking problem affl icts post-November 1974 models, which were fi tted with Lockheed self-adjusting rear brakes. These stop adjusting themselves, so you’ll need to free them up and fi le the teeth of the adjusting mechanisms, so they engage properly.
- Look at the condition of the hood, as replacement isn’t cheap. A new vinyl roof will cost £150-£200, but it will also have to be fi tted, which typically doubles the bill.
- None of the interior trim is available new and it’s now hard to fi nd decent used bits. By the time a car is broken for spares, its interior trim is usually beyond redemption. The trim panels have a hardboard backing that absorbs water then disintegrates.
- The vinyl-trimmed seats split and carpets wear through. Early MkIs featured rubber mats with the Jensen Healey logo embossed in them, but these are all long gone. At least the dash surround is pretty robust.
- Join the Jensen Owners’ Club http://www.joc.org.uk asit will be an enormous help.
Three Of A Kind
Triumph TR6A main rival to the Jensen-Healey, the TR6 was as ancient as the J-H was modern in 1972. Performance is broadly similar but the TR’s six is smoother, if more of a GT engine. In terms of handling, a good Jensen should show a TR the way home, although a lot is dependant on condition. Certainly, the Triumph is the more robust of the pair and the easiest to repair and restore. But a good TR6 is a lot dearer to buy, too.
Lotus EliteLaunched just as the Jensen- Healey, which shared the same engine, was put on a life support machine, the Elite is more a rival for the later hatch-backed Jensen GT, although it’s a much larger 2+2. Like the J-H, Elites are dirt cheap to buy but they also suffer from similar build and reliability issues and lack of respect – plus the Lotus engine is just as harsh and torque-starved in the Elite unless you get a 2.2 model.
Alfa Romeo SpiderIn many ways the Jensen-Healey could be likened to a British Alfa Romeo Spider due to its size, mechanical specifi cation and sophistication over the usual British offerings at the time. The Italian stayed in production well into the 1990s, although the earlier series up to the 1980s is the best and most desired. Spares and support is generally fi ne and these Alfas areuniversally loved – and rightly so.
The Jensen-Healey has always been unloved, yet a sorted car has a huge amount to offer. Its lousy reputation makes buying a good one more affordable than you’d think, but such low values are a double-edged sword, because there are so many bad examples out there as owners are often unwilling to spend the necessary funds to keep this car in proper order. However, a decent example decked out with modern upgrades makes for an unusual classic sportster that’s far better than the so-called experts would have you believe. And the time to buy is now
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