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As an attempt at reinventing the classic British sports car for the safety- and emissions-minded 1970s, the Jensen-Healey looked like a credible product in 1972.
With two revered names on its tail, a new twin-cam, 16-valve power source courtesy of Lotus and rational, off-the-shelf Vauxhall underpinnings, here was a modern yet traditional 125mph open two-seater with scintillating acceleration and tidy handling.
At a fraction over £1800, it should have picked up where the Big Healey left off.
Despite misgivings about its raucous engine and the flimsy, wind-noise-inducing hood, the press reaction to the car was cautiously positive.
While taking the fight to the Datsun 240Z, the car that had filled the void left by the demise of the Healey 3000 in the North American market, the Jensen-Healey should also have appealed to MGB and Triumph TR6 owners looking to trade up.
Sales forecasts of 10,000 units a year did not seem unreasonable.
True enough, its new unitary body was no ravishing beauty, yet, as a means of walking a fine line between good looks and increasingly demanding American Federal legislation, the rather unremarkable shape managed not to offend the eye.
Between 1972 and the demise of Jensen Motors in 1976, almost 11,000 customers must have at least come to terms with the car’s styling, even if they couldn’t fall in love with it.
That rather suggests the problems lay elsewhere: in the well-documented cases of poor finish and underdeveloped engines, and a simple inability to produce enough cars to satisfy the initial enthusiastic demand.
Throw in a bolshie British workforce and an American boss trying to control events remotely from his San Francisco base, and you begin to wonder how the car ever got built at all.
The 1973-’75 Mk2s, with sorted engines, were better, but by then even the Healey family had washed its hands of the affair.
It would be wrong to put the demise of Jensen squarely on the shoulders of this cursed two-seater, but the investment it represented must have hastened the West Bromwich firm to its 1976 collapse.
When Robert Hickman was in the market for a sports car that same year, the model had all but disappeared from the new-car price lists and its various shortcomings were less widely broadcast.
He was just a young man looking for a sports car, and his budget would only stretch to a secondhand example anyway.
Fresh out of university, the Solihull native was planning to replace his MGB with an E-type when this Jensen-Healey came up for sale locally.
“It turned out to be a 1972 car, the 71st made and Ziebarted from new,” Robert recalls.
“I’ve always been mechanically minded so its reputation didn’t faze me.
“In fact, although it needs some special tools – and uses American spanner sizes – it’s easy enough to work on.
“I sometimes went to the Jensen works at Kelvin Way to buy components, but the Vauxhall connection meant that it was relatively cheap to run if you had the Vauxhall parts book.”
The original idea was to use the Healey as an everyday car to drive to work in.
But when it was deemed politically imprudent to have a “spotty graduate” coming to work every day in a flashy, red two-seater, the Healey was usurped by a succession of company vehicles, hence the low mileage of just 32,000.
Marriage to Karen in 1981 and the young family that ensued further curtailed Robert’s use of the Jensen, but he maintained his enthusiasm by joining the Austin-Healey Owners’ Club and becoming the registrar for the Jensen-Healey.
The car was in and out of storage in the 1980s, with its bodywork still holding up well, but Robert admits that he couldn’t always afford to run the Jensen or give it the attention it needed.
“My dad was always looking for excuses to drive it,” he smiles, “or if we went out as a family the kids would perch on the shelf behind the seats.”
Karen says (only half-jokingly) that the Healey should have been sold to pay for a honeymoon in 1981.
“He has never even let me drive it,” she adds.
Fast-forward to the mid-2000s and the car was not being used at all.
“The body was still good,” says Robert, “but the paint was showing its age.”
Marque specialist Martin Robey was commissioned to do a bare-metal respray, with new front wings.
The Hickmans got the car back in 15 weeks.
“Martin said it was the best Jensen-Healey he had seen,” says Robert.
Five years later, however, the original engine was playing up – hardly surprising given its dodgy reputation for oil leaks and discharging fuel into its cylinders when parked facing downhill (although Robert didn’t suffer those particular issues).
Despite the low miles, it was just tired.
“Various people had tried to get it running properly but, after talking to Mike Taylor at Lotusbits, I came to the conclusion that the only way forward was a rebuild.
“Having retired, I wanted to be able to use the car.”
The decision to raise the capacity to 2.2 litres and swap to a Toyota five-speed transmission was not so much a case of mission creep as one of simple expediency, because the original Rootes four-speed was past its best.
“With the 2.2 you get a lot more torque,” explains Mike, now a leading expert in the Lotus 907 and 912 engines, “which means that it can pull the W57 or W58 Toyota gearbox’s 0.78:1 overdrive fifth.”
The transmission had to be modified to take a cable clutch using a Lotusbits kit, which also involved moving the pivot point of the clutch pedal to get the correct ratio.
The clutch was uprated to take the torque – and the input shaft – of the Toyota ’box, a custom propshaft and speedometer cable were made, plus a new crossmember for the rear of the ’box.
All of this is available as a conversion kit, including the gearbox and clutch plate, for £2800.
“We’ve already sold 10 kits,” says Mike, “and have converted four Jensen-Healeys to this spec.”
Because the 2.2-litre 912 block – as used by the Lotus Excel, along with the Toyota ’box – has a lip rather than rope seal, a breather pick-up and a different oil pump, it fouls the Jensen’s steering.
So the Healey’s original 907 block had to be bored out.
That also meant sorting the inherent inter-cylinder breathing issues endemic in the early engines, which infamously caused leaks by pressurising the cam boxes.
It now uses 2.2 HC internals with lightweight pistons and rods for balance, but mated to the original Jensen sump.
Given that Robert was looking for usability, uprating to fuel injection seemed sensible (another kit, this time for £3500).
Coil packs obviate the need for a distributor – the original sits horizontally under carburettors, never the handiest arrangement – and other upgrades included a beefier alternator, a geared starter motor and a lightened flywheel.
The fuel tank was modified to incorporate a swirl-pot that maintains a litre head of fuel for the injection, to keep surge under control during cornering.
Under the bonnet, the factory Dell’Orto 40s and their restrictive airbox have been replaced by throttle bodies in a roomy, well-laid-out engine bay with the handsome twin-cam heavily canted over to get a low bonnet line.
Because Robert wanted to keep the original brakes and supple suspension 180bhp was deemed enough, but Lotusbits has built these engines with up to 250bhp, with appropriate upgrades to the Firenza steering and Magnum brakes.
The Healey was running on RoStyles with wide tyres that made the steering heavy, so Mike located a (hard to find) set of original alloy wheels, now shod with Pirelli CN36s.
As well as looking visually correct, these are among the few V-rated ‘classic’ tyres available in the original 185/70x13 size.
All in the work took six months, although recent health problems may tempt Robert into adding an electric power-steering conversion.
Variously described as ‘bland’ and ‘anodyne’ by its critics, the Healey’s visual weakness lies with its nondescript nose and the fact that the car sits quite tall on its springs.
The best view is from the rear, where the roomy boot flows into a neatly chopped-off rump incorporating ubiquitous Hillman Hunter tail-lights.
The gloomy, synthetically trimmed but highly original interior is not handsome or inviting but, like the rest of the car, it seems to have been specifically created to address the post-vintage shortcomings of the Healey 3000.
Roomy and adequately ventilated, it has well-thought-out controls and low-slung seats that hold you in all the right places.
The dashboard, fully stocked with gauges to measure volts, oil pressure and the rest, kept sporty types happy in a world where warning lights were starting to become the norm.
It also has rounded edges, is free from protrusions and even has a seatbelt warning light: all very Ralph Nader-pleasing.
The fuel injection means starting is instant, and the well-spaced pedals and smooth drivetrain soon put you at ease with the car.
It has quite a long expanse of bonnet that gently bobs up and down on the move.
This tends to emphasise the soft ride, but seems a small price to pay for genuine comfort that was still rare in sports cars in the 1970s.
On paper the steering is low geared, but it is not over-light or sloppy and feels entirely in sympathy with the car’s well-balanced deportment.
There is just enough roll to give you a sense of how much cornering power is being generated, and more than enough torque and throttle response to transition smoothly from gentle understeer to predictable oversteer.
The Toyota gearchange is outstandingly slick and accurate, with ratios perfectly matched to the torque delivery of the engine so the acceleration flows smoothly.
It feels usefully and decisively stronger than the original in the way it picks up in the low and mid-range, without turning the 2200lb Healey into a terrifying rocketship.
More than 50 years on, the Jensen-Healey is still an orphan, having neither the glamour of its Chrysler V8-engined siblings nor the real-ale-drinking, rally-winning machismo of its handsome BMC-engined predecessors.
Well conceived but poorly executed, it was the right car in the wrong situation and lacked – in spades – an indefinable romance factor that would have caused buyers to forgive its shortcomings.
Perhaps it will never capture hearts in the manner of an E-type or an Elan, but Robert doesn’t care.
His 47-year affair with this reinvigorated car – which, like all the best restomods, looks totally standard – shows there are exceptions to prove every rule.
Images: Luc Lacey
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