Failed opportunity: The Jensen Sv8

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Jensen sv8

Against the odds;

The motoring industry is not one noted for its newcomers, or at least successful ones, there’s not much more than the old guard that were lucky enough to survive the tumultuous birth and evolution of the modern automobile. The sector is very much about the establishment which many of whom have blown much more than a hundred candles on their birthday cakes. That is not to say people don’t have a go at it but for the most part concepts don’t get of the ground and bank managers are disappointed way before a customer gets so much of a whiff of the actual car. Its a very difficult game to get into but if anyone was going to do it, it should have been the dynamic duo of Keith Rauer and Robert Bowyer, two directors at Leyland Daf who saw an opportunity to go it alone in 1993 as the van and truck producer went bankrupt (eeeek!) . Creative manufacturing systems was born the same year and quickly made a name for itself as a tooling and manufacturing system constructor/consultancy for the automotive industry. The company almost instantly became a multi-million pound concern, but one project from across the Atlantic was about to change everything again for Keith and Rob.

humble-beginingsHumble origins

On the prowl;

In the 90’s the American car industry was really in a bit of a pickle, the cars were duller than the cheese and just as wobbly. Even the Mustang, a poster boy for Americana cool became a fat, old and wheezy mess. America’s heyday was well and truly over and Detroit was about to begin its long and painful decline into obsolescence. Everyone there was making forgettable cheap crap with no real soul and no real engineering clout, but no company was producing more dearth than the Chrysler corporation, famously the least successful of the infamous American big three. Even good ol’ boy patriotism couldn’t stop Americans buying German or Japanese instead. These conglomerates were too fat with too many brands with too much internal competition (see British Leyland), some careful trimming was required leaving all brands up on the chopping block with very little time to produce new models to prove their worth. Plymouth was perhaps in the worst position in the whole of the sector, Plymouth’s were historically badge engineered Dodge’s with perhaps a bit more prestige and muscle. Cars like the Superbird were the things of American legend in the 70’s but by the late eighties and early nineties they awkwardly became the entry brand for Chrysler. The confused company was the most disposable of any of the brands in the company portfolio, they had no recent memorable models or any real meaningful following. The proposed saviour had to be something impressive and different, to prove they had much more potential than the badge engineered Neon (yes, we got it in the UK as the beautiful Chrysler). The designers obviously excited by this new found freedom drew up an impossible beast, the prowler which was a sort of futuristic retro 1930’s hot rod 2 seater roadster/sports car. It was clearly a concept but an exciting one that did very well with the public at auto shows, if Plymouth was to survive it needed to build it for real.

1997_Plymouth_Prowler_Overview

A car like this could not be built using traditional American techniques that Plymouth were accustomed to, so they sought a new and exciting creative manufacturing team to help. The project was lucrative but also compromised, the car needed a v8 to  its hot rod image credibility but Plymouth’s place in the Chrysler pecking order was set. A v8 prowler with its high-tech lightweight bonded aluminium structure could have made mince meat of the brutal but basic Dodge Viper halo car. So sadly the order of the day for the Plymouth was a wheezy v6 mated to a slow 4-speed slushomatic gearbox, it makes you wonder why they bothered to make the body so high tech. Still the Prowler did reasonably well but nowhere near as well as was imagined and the next car the Pt Cruiser (which started concept as a Plymouth) became a Chrysler when Plymouth died in 2001. Creative took the money and decided they needed their own car but one with no compromise to show what the company truly was capable of.

superbirdEnd of an era (1928-2001)

The new Jensen-Healey;

Keith and Robert decided that if their new sports car was to be successful it would need a badge with history and prestige, and being a British company there really was no shortage of defunct names to choose from, but not many names held as much cache as Healey. Donald Healey, like Creative, was a man who managed to get things done with the help of established manufacturers, also similarly his first real important collaboration also came aboard from America (Nash-Healey), so the name suited the project down to the ground plus who can argue against a name which has created some of the most lusted after sports cars of all time? Discussions with the Healey family seemed to be going well so there seemed to be no danger in inviting senior Jaguar designers Howard Guy and Gary Dore to get scribbling the new Healey, nicknamed Rio.

1950-nash-healey_031951 Nash healey

The big Healey look is evident from the early design sketches, and the original plan was to take the 6 cylinder engine and gear box from the GM omega giving it a real family connection with perhaps the greatest healey of all, the 3 litre. Sadly the car was coming along much quicker than the discussion and with motor shows on the horizon an alternative solution was required and fast.

sv8-1

The Jensen name was so much easier to acquire, and so with a few awkward alterations the team managed to make the car look similar to perhaps one of the lesser loved Jensen, the cv-8. Out with the 6 cylinder Rio and in with the v8 a-la Ford mustang, the Rio transformed into Project Vulcan. Bish bash bosh, the story of the sv-8 begins. These last minute almost awkward alterations did nothing to stop the public’s enthusiasm for the new Jensen sports car at the 1998 N.E.C National Motor show.

Birmingham_International_Motorshow_1998_Jensen_SV8

Demand, in fact, was much higher than anticipated with 60 orders were placed for the Jensen Sv-8 directly at the show despite no knowledge of how and when the car would arrive, and scarily a further 240 orders were secured by the following year when the car re-appeared at the 1999 Earls Court motor show. Like the prowler the company worked on before, the sv-8 had complex and expensive aluminium construction, the car was much more difficult and expensive to produce than the usual efforts found from the cottage sports car industry. This was a proper job that even bigger manufacturers would struggle to produce.

The car needed presses and proper tooling and with demand an actual facility. Speke in Liverpool has an awkward history with the car; Triumph had two factories there with varying results, but the tr7 spelled the end for British Leyland production in Liverpool. Ford had more success in nearby Halewood, and as this factory was now under Jaguar’s helm, it seemed the perfect neighbourhood for Jensen’s new factory. Ten million pounds of funding was secured from several sources, local schemes sank half a million into the project and the rest was found via investment banks and also excited potential dealers. Realistically the car wouldn’t be ready for some time so the project had to keep interest coming while the tooling and factory was being set up.

jensen factory

In 2000 the press got the first drives of the pre-production prototypes and they seemed to like the cars despite maybe being a little rough around the edges. Road testers at the time seemed particularly impressed with the car’s ride, which was not overly hard but most importantly there was an apparent lack of scuttle-shake (a real task for a convertible car with a monocoque construction). Things went from good to great when The Jensen was set to be one of the star cars of the hotly anticipated  ‘The Getaway’ videogame for the newly released Playstation 2 console.

The_Getaway_Mission_3_Art_Appreciation_PS2_Enhanced

The game suited the car down to the ground and was set as a cockney crime thriller similar to the popular films of the 70’s which gave fast Fords and Jags massive street cred, but all was not as it seemed unfortunately.

The cursed marque strikes again;

Jensen was a name synonymous with celebrity and high-class, people from Led Zeppelin drummer Jon Bonham all the way to beloved comic Eric Morcambe, and with cars like the Interceptor and 4×4 FF it was not hard to see why. The old Jensen company had similarities to parent company Creative as they too subcontracted into production and tooling, producing the earliest Volvo P1800’s and also coincidentally the first big Austin-Healey , the 100. But sadly the similarities didn’t end there with the original Jensen. Sales began to slump on the ageing Interceptor in the 70’s and the company went into administration in May 1976 and it laid dormant until 1982 where it suffered the indignity of 3 failed rebirths at the hands of 3 different dreamers all in the space of 10 years when the company finally fell into the hands of Jaguar parts specialist Martin Robey (an ex pressing agent to Jensen) who wisely decided to do little with it.

The-Simpsons-Season-8-Episode-18-11-27cb.jpgBeyond the 1970’s Jensen jobs were not so stable

The company suffered with a lack of development, the Interceptor was never all it could have been, and for the price charged it was not particularly well screwed together (parts such as steering racks could change randomly with whatever was available that week), plus it was growing very old in the tooth very quickly, a big Chrysler engine didn’t suit the oil crisis of 1973. The original Jensen Healey should have come at the right time in 1972, the car boasted a Lotus twin cam engine  and should have been a barnstormer but with a lack of development and constant strike action (familiar?) the cars just didn’t leave the West Bromwich site in the numbers needed.

Much like the Jensen Healey, the sv8 was never built to demand, but for perhaps completely different reasons. By the start of the millennium, Jensen didn’t focus on fulfilling the 300 or so orders. In fact, they already were unveiling their new model, the c-v8, which admittedly suited the Jensen name much better. You can imagine customers who placed their orders getting quite annoyed, waiting 2 years to find out the company was seemingly more occupied with the new model.

Richard_Hammond_Checks_Out_The_Jensen_S_V8_Coupe_2000The cv8 is beautifully sculpted, but focus really should have been on the existing car

This fear turned into a nightmare when demonstrators finally arrived in the hands of dealers, the cars had canyon sized panel gaps, exposed wiring and a roof that didn’t even fit the car. What was the point of owning a car with such incredible construction when the basics are wrong, demand began to slump fast , this was the beginning of the end for yet another failed attempt to bring Jensen back from the ashes. Things were so bad that the owners were willing to completely abandon their state of the art (part state funded) factory in Liverpool in favour of a cheaper workforce in South Africa, but this never came to fruition.

The hype machine was to be the undoing, but at least there was an exciting Playstation game on the horizon right? Well the Getaway’s development literally got away: much like the Jensen it was not ready in time. The game was supposed to be a launch title for what would eventually become the most successful games console of all time. You cannot underestimate the power the video games industry has on cars, the industry has surpassed both television and film, and they can be the saviour of independent companies. My enthusiasm for cars (and for TVR in particular) was born out of the Gran Turismo series, so the Getaway could have breathed new life into the project, but sadly it was released a whole 12 months after the Jensen project failed in 2002. Sad.

The_Getaway_All_Cutscenes

The Car;

When Jensen ended, an embarrassing ten cars were built, but there was parts left over which meant there was value to the company. The company was split into two parts SV Automotive who managed to iron out the niggles and produce a further twenty eight cars or so for a much reduced price, and Rejen Automotive who were set up to sell upgrades and parts to existing owners.

So do I believe the car should have been a success? Absolutely, the price was not excessive for something with such advanced construction, at under forty thousand pounds it fit well with TVR and Morgan (which still utilised wood!) . The engine was a smart but perhaps safe choice for the segment, the Mustang v8 may have been lazy  but just as TVR were producing their own v8 (to sometimes disastrous results) it could have proven favourable, perhaps they should have chased a more traditionally Jensen Chrysler unit.

The styling may always be hindered by it’s ever changing design spec, but it is not overly ugly and it undeniably still has presence which in the market is all you really need to make an impression in the golf club car park.

With such rarity, you might think market speculators will have scooped them all up, but no, occasionally they do come up for sale. This car became available knowing the development costs is seemingly a bargain at 41 grand (ten million divided by 38 means the car has a theoretical cost of over 260,000 pounds). This car is also supposedly the very last one, number 38 making it even more tempting, with just over 1000 miles and a gun metal finish its unsurprising it was snapped up in under a week.

The Legacy;

The Jensen name has seemingly become a bit of a challenge, as the story did not end with the failure of the sv8, in 2011 Coventry based CPP bought the rights but this rebirth again didn’t get off the ground again due to over ambitiousness as the company was also struggling to bring insane Dutch supercar producer spyker back to market.

cpp-jensenCpp’s proposed new interceptor

In 2013, Interceptor updater Jensen International Automotive decided they wanted a crack at the curse by introducing a concept Jensen GT, now this car looks like there was no doubt it was going to be Jensen from day one, it looks incredible and I wish the project the best of luck.

Jensen-GT-Fr-final.jpgThe next Jensen?

The curse did not seem to end with the name either, the sv8 seemingly left the factory in a sorry state as well. At the time of publication the site is left empty, following several failed attempts to get it working. I really feel for the area of Speke, as this wasn’t the first time the car industry promised so much and gave so little.

jensen-factory-carProbably the first parked car in months

The factory next door is hopefully proof of change for Speke as coincidentally a car company is manufacturing there, and successfully too. Briggs automotive company are the makers of perhaps one of the coolest track focused cars available at the moment, it’s also one of the most expensive. Despite this its gained nothing but praise from the motoring press and an order book that’s presumably full from the hive of activity I could see from the Jensen ruins. The BAC Mono could be used as evidence for karmic realignment, as where Triumph failed with the Tr7 and Jensen with the Sv8, Speke finally found a sports car that worked, and a much more prestige one at that. Fronted again by a dynamic duo of Neil and Ian Briggs, perhaps then BAC are the people who can truly stick it to the automotive establishment.

basc-mono-pressAt least one happy ending

sneaky-peekA sneaky peak

jensen-bac-factoryLiterally next door too.

By Jack Wood

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