It’s turning heads, that’s for sure. Turin is a busy industrial city, not some primped and preened tourist town, but even the preoccupied Torinese stand and stare when we rumble past. The look they give the Jensen is an interesting one. It’s quizzical, even a little annoyed. At first I assume that this is a version of the negative reaction any large classic car produces from time to time, a mixture of envy and a little ecohate. But once we come to a stop I twig what’s going on. They don’t recognise it.
If you are even slightly into cars, you’ll know this is one of the most influential spots in the history of the automobile. While Italy’s car industry is not located entirely within the Province of Turin, many of the greatest names originated here and even more are now headquartered here. It’s Europe’s Detroit, only without the economic collapse.
And it seems Turin natives can feel a little proprietorial over a great many cars. To see one that is clearly a product of that golden age of post-war car styling, obviously a fast, Italianesque GT and yet unfamiliar, must irk them. Now we’re parked, and a smart middleaged gentleman walks slowly round the car with the eye of a racehorse trainer assessing a new stallion. Yet even he has to read the badge on the grille. ‘Ah yes… Een-ter-SEP-torr.’
We’re here partly to tell the story of this car, HEA 1D, and the birth of the Interceptor, but also for a practical purpose. This one is owned by UK Jensen specialist Cropredy Bridge Cars, and has been brought to Turin to attend the catchily-titled Auto Moto Retro show in the halls of the old Fiat factory, Lingotto. Values of Interceptors have shot up in recent years as the UK market recognises their qualities. The next step is a bit of recognition on the Continent, and what better place to start than in the city that built this car?
Our smartly dressed Jensen appreciator has to make a couple of guesses at the carrozzeria before he hits on the right one. That’s fair enough, given the tangled tale behind the car’s inception. It’s surprising that even a single Interceptor was completed, never mind the 6639 built between 1966 and 1976.
Jensen’s board was split over the successor to the fast but unpretty C-V8. Alan and Richard Jensen, along with chief engineer and designer Eric Neale, created a neat if unambitious threebox shape for the P66, resembling a low-slung Bristol 408. But managing director Brian Owen and deputy chief engineer Kevin Beattie weren’t impressed and felt strongly that the new Jensen should be Italian-styled. The balance of power lay with John Boex, who held the purse strings for Jensen’s then-owner, Norcros Limited.
Owen and Beattie talked Boex round, so the P66 was put on hold while they visited Ghia and Vignale in Turin and Touring over in Milan and invited a tender from each. Ghia had plenty of work from Chrysler and asked for a fee to extend its efforts to Jensen, so was ruled out. Vignale offered another three-box shape rather like the Maserati Mexico it had revealed at the ’65 Turin show, but Owen and Beattie thought it too conventional.
That left Touring’s submission, drawn by house stylist Federico Formenti. The dramatic semi-dome of the rear tailgate and the longnosed, low-slung proportions were exciting, but there were snags. Jensen was set up to build glassfibre bodies, not steel, and Owen and Beattie judged Touring to be financially unstable and not to be trusted with production. So the pair agreed to purchase Touring’s design outright and took it to Alfredo Vignale, who said he could build their new cars for them. The quote came back looking even more attractive than Owen had hoped, and a decision was forced through at the next board meeting. The new car would use the Interceptor name, a revival from a 1950s model and one originally intended for the P66. The innovative four-wheel- drive version, developed in parallel and also bodied by Vignale using a modified version of Formenti’s design (and a Maserati Quattroporte bonnet), would be known simply as the FF for Ferguson Formula, a reference to its four-wheel drive system.
Vignale bodied a CV8 chassis as a prototype which Beattie and his assistant, Mike Jones, drove home to West Bromwich as a transcontinental shakedown. Six months later, the second Interceptor – the car on these pages –was finished and ready for the British Motor Show in October ’1966, where it appeared alongside the prototype and the first two FFs. Production was soon into full swing.
Only a few months later, everything changed. Jensen had never intended to have Interceptors built abroad indefinitely; it needed time to make preparations for the change to bodying its own cars in steel. So problems with Vignale’s fit and finish – probably exaggerated – were used as an excuse to get out of the contract early. It was a neat reversal of the situation Jensen had found itself in a few years previously, when Volvo gave it the contract to assemble P1800s while a new factory was built in Sweden, then cited quality concerns to end the agreement and move production back to Gothenburg.
Jensen’s workforce built Interceptors by welding together pressed panels rather than hand-beating each panel like Vignale did. When you think of the cost of creating new press tools and establishing the new production facilities, plus the money already poured into FF development, you suspect that Jensen’s bank statements from 1966 and onwards made ugly reading. Indeed, by mid-1968 the board ceded control to a merchant bank, William Brandt, and in 1970 Jensen Motors changed hands again when Kjell Qvale bought it.
How fortunate, then, that the car itself turned out rather well. It became one of the most familiar motoring status symbols and benefited from association with numerous celebrity owners, including an odd popularity with drummers: John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, Mick Fleetwood and Ginger Baker all had them. Bonham had at least two and Baker racked up three FFs, including one that was wrecked and abandoned in the Sahara desert. You don’t have to spend long with an Interceptor to discover its appeal. The cabin is a very nice place to be, with broad, comfortable chairs and an abundance of head- and kneeroom by 1960s standards. The dash could be from a Ferrari 365 California, with the speedo and tachometer each nestling in their own hooded bezel. And despite the Interceptor’s reputation for heft, it doesn’t seem that large a car in modern-day traffic.
We make our way from Lingotto towards the River Po and the Parco del Valentino. The network of quiet roads amid the green spaces would have been an ideal place for Vignale to test and photograph his early creations; his first workshops were just around the corner in Vanchiglia. There’s only a block of flats there now, but at least we get a glimpse of the Mole Antonelliana, the spire that Vignale used as the central emblem on his badge.
The squeaks and rattles that Turin’s potholes are provoking give away the car’s age. That said, it rides more like a luxury saloon than a sports car. The trade-off is that the handling offers a similar comparison. While the Interceptor was a marvellous grand tourer, this Jensen and its ilk weren’t seen on racetracks and weren’t bought by Jim Clark wannabes. This was something a famous racing driver might park in the paddock for a swift but relaxing drive home. Indeed, Jackie Stewart had one for just that role.
From launch to the early 1970s, Jensen was selling between 600 and 1000 Interceptors every year. Compared with 400 Aston DBS V8s in three years or just 79 Bristol 410s in two years, the company was flying. But we know this already: any car enthusiast with their eye on the small ads in the 1980s and ’90s knows how far Interceptor values fell. They were too numerous for too long. And then there was the thirst of that thumping great V8.
Though sales were strong in the UK, tax brackets and import duties made Interceptors a lot more expensive in Europe, especially in Italy, which has a measure of irony. Vignale moved into a larger factory in 1961, over at Grugliasco on the eastern side of Turin.
Nowadays, with the signage long gone, it could be any old industrial estate. In its day it was a fully-fledged car factory, a giant step up from the cramped workshop in the middle of town. Lancia Appias, Flavias, Maserati 3500 GTs, QPs and Sebrings were built here and Vignale became a marque in its own right, with rebodied Fiats such as the 850 Spider, Eveline, Gamine and Samantha.
It all seemed an excellent fit for Jensen but, despite the size of the premises, work was labour-intensive. With little automation, the economic climate for small coachbuilders worsened through the 1960s. Alfredo Vignale sold out to De Tomaso in 1969 and, only three days later, perished in a car crash.
It would have been fascinating to know how he regarded the Jensens his company built. This one, HEA 1D, was the first production example and was used for the Autocar road test in the 5 January 1967 issue. In the history file is a Jensen memo asking the engineering department to ‘ensure that it is in prime condition’ for a loan to Motor as soon as it returned from Autocar.
Both magazines praised almost everything bar the arrangements for heating and ventilation. Neither mentioned the typical Interceptor hot starting problems and overheating, one benefit of lending it for road tests in the middle of winter. Interestingly, Autocar said that ‘for a new model the Interceptor feels fully mature and extremely well built.’ Build quality problems from Vignale? Hmm…
After Jensen Motors sold this car into private ownership in 1968 it changed hands a few times and eventually returned to the factory in the late 1970s for a ‘major restoration’. After 10 years of dry storage another owner had it repainted (in the original colour), re-chromed, Waxoyled and smartened-up inside with trim repairs, which throws doubt on how extensive the first restoration really was. More work continued through 1990 and ’1991 including the replacement of the bonnet with a new item from the factory. By the time Cropredy Bridge acquired the car in 2014 it had mellowed pleasantly and thus it remains, with a thorough re-commissioning job to maximise reliability, We’re closing a very large circle by returning this car to Turin. As it takes its place on a show stand at Lingotto more than 50 years after it rolled out of Vignale’s premises, it’s a significant piece of history. The Interceptor had a troubled birth yet sold in big numbers. It later tumbled from celebrity status symbol to secondhand gas-guzzler, but now it’s risen again, attracting big money and high-end restoration investment. It’s an Italian masterpiece with an American heart but an entirely British soul, and the Brits are here in Turin to remind everyone what they’ve missed. About time, too.
THANKS TO Ulric Woodhams, jensenmuseum.org; Cropredy Bridge Cars, www.cropredybridge.com.
‘FROM LAUNCH TO THE EARLY 1970S, JENSEN WAS SELLING BETWEEN 600 AND 1000 INTERCEPTORS EVERY YEAR’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1966 Jensen Interceptor
Engine 6276cc V8, OHV, Carter four-barrel carburettor
Power 325bhp @ 4600rpm / SAE gross
Torque 425lb ft @ 2800rpm / SAE gross
Transmission Three-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Suspension Front: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers. Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf spring, adjustable dampers
Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
Top speed 140mph
‘THIS WAS SOMETHING A FAMOUS RACING DRIVER MIGHT PARK IN THE PADDOCK FOR A SWIFT, RELAXING DRIVE HOME’
Above and right Penned by Touring but built initially by Vignale; cabin also has an Italian flavour, especially in the individual cowls for the dials – minor switchgear suitably confusing, too.