By Jim Hanna
A good friend of mine decided to rid his garage of a 1976 Jensen Interceptor Convertible and asked if I'd like to help get it ready to sell, mainly in the form of driving it around Los Angeles to sip coffee and watch wizards in the dark arts of carburetors and convertible tops conjure their spells. "Oh jeez, I dunno Mike (pretending to look at appointment calendar), let's see, I suppose I could squeeze it in…."
If you've never had the opportunity to get behind the wheel of a semi gracefully aged British chassis powered by a huge Chrysler motor, it's a singular driving experience. In the British Roadster/American V/8 line up, if the AC Cobra 427 is Sean Connery on PEDS, the Jensen Interceptor 440 is Helen Mirren on Red Bull and vodka -- elegant and genteel, yet totally up for a parking lot slapfight. As with most collector cars past their high performance prime, driving the Interceptor in a spirited fashion is like peeling an overripe banana, you're being careful to keep the more delicate parts from separating, and wishing you'd gotten to it when it was firmer. This car is more about the hides, the wood, the deep exhaust note, and the way it looks, which is smashing, quite smashing indeed.
A more familiar Jensen to most is the Healy, the Interceptor's pretty, but not-right-in-the-cylinder-head sibling. While the Chrysler engine and Torqueflite transmission eliminate the greasiest challenges associated with Jensen ownership, the Interceptor does share some quirky family electrical traits. Having had problem-free ownership of a 1970 MGBGT, I've tended to view the British car/Lucas electrics "Prince of Darkness" lore as "I can top that" shop talk, but the Interceptor smacked me on the nose with a rolled up wiring diagram.
After a long day of hoisting to-go cups, I settled into the idling beast, turned on the headlights and sailed into a Bermuda Triangle of misdirected voltage. Dash lights pulsed, then went out, then came back on when I hit the brake pedal, which was nice, considering the brake lights didn't come on until they did. I propped the bonnet and a flashlight scan immediately picked up the alarmingly glossy lid of the fuse box. In my best Sir Alec Guiness, I calmly intoned, "Holy shit, the sumbitch's melting!" and ran around in a circle screaming "fire." Then I shut the ignition off and realized I didn't detect the signature scent of barbecued wiring. Inspection revealed the disturbing sheen to be the work of not fire, but water. I tried to shake off what I assumed was a drought-induced hallucination, but no, it was water. On the fusebox. Commence traditional sequence of increasing incredulity: What the… Why the… How the… WHO THE HELL PUTS A FUSE BOX RIGHT UNDER A RADIATOR CAP?! Please enjoy the coolant cap/fuse box interface captured in the accompanying photo. I replaced the leaky cap, dried things up, and soldiered on whistling the theme song from "Bridge On the River Kwai."
As Sherlock Holmes might deduce from the dinner plate sized four-barrel carburetor, the 25-gallon tank, and the fuel-filler door that screams "Feed me Seymour!" at every stoplight, gas mileage is not good. Very not good. Ten mpg with a Santa Ana tailwind. Also not in the "Reasons to Buy" column? Dependability, safety, parts availability, weather capability, cargo room, and probably insurance. The real kicker is that despite the fact that only around 500 were built, and nearly four decades of attrition has surely reduced that number significantly, the car's collectibility is debated.
Even knowing all of that, as I motored about my beloved Los Angeles in this rumbling, velvety Grey Garden of cracked leather and walnut burl, I found myself wanting to make it my own, to hold title to this bastion of Italian flair, British spirit and American muscle. And so I turned to The Fates. I asked for a sign that would render the detrimental facts powerless. And lo, I swear to you, there it appeared literally at my feet. As Beth and I walked into a restaurant, I stopped and stared down at a thick cast iron manhole cover stamped with bold block letters spelling "Interceptor Jensen Precast." As my niece would say, "I know, right?"
So I'm currently negotiating to buy… one of those manhole covers. Screw The Fates, like they were going to pay for the gas? (Resume whistling theme from "Bridge On the River Kwai.")