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Jensen bosses must have reflected gloomily, in the mid-’60s, on the wisdom of selling prototypes to members of the public.
The 4in-thick history file that comes with this one-off C-V8 convertible tells the story of a car that was not properly tested or sorted before being released to its famous first owner in the summer of 1965.
A full four-seater, it was Jensen’s first official drop-top since the demise of the 4-litre Austin-engined Interceptors, the firm having lost its taste for building open cars (at least under its own name) with the introduction of the glassfibre-bodied 541 in 1954.
Somehow, its sleek profile did not lend itself to that sort of intervention.
The case for a convertible C-V8 was harder to ignore.
Whatever your views on its slant-eyed styling, the arrival of the Chrysler V8-engined model in 1962 upped Jensen’s game enormously with a car that could justifiably claim to be the world’s fastest-accelerating four-seater.
Here was a 130mph car fit to be mentioned in the same breath as an Aston Martin or Rolls-Royce, in a section of the market where buyers expected to be offered the option of an open model.
The pickings were slim in the niche specialist sector: even the likes of Alvis still did quite good business with its convertibles, so why not the C-V8, whose meaty chassis frame of welded tubes and steel pressings tended to suggest that it was a natural roof-chop candidate?
One fresh-air-loving Jensen customer clearly shared this view, but only did half a job when he was moved to commission a Sedanca de Ville-roofed C-V8.
It was interesting, but lacked the visual appeal of the big, fully open cars that had helped to define Jensen’s image in the ’30s.
Mindful of this the Jensen brothers, Richard and Alan, proposed the idea of a convertible C-V8 to stylist and body engineer Eric Neale, a man widely celebrated for creating the shape of the 541 but smarting somewhat at the mixed reviews his C-V8 was receiving.
Work on the drophead began in ’64, by which time production of the MkII C-V8 was well under way.
The transformation involved more than simply taking a hacksaw to the roof, because the convertible was based on experimental chassis EXP/108, specified by Neale at 9in longer than standard to make room for the hood well and thus avoid compromising rear legroom or restricting rear vision.
Indeed, the drophead has inches more leg space in the back than the saloon.
The windscreen and rear seat were bespoke, and the Formica dashboard of the C-V8 saloon was eschewed by Neale in favour of a leather-covered one to reduce reflections.
It didn’t prove to be an easy adaptation, however, and work on the project stalled before the end of the year.
It was only revived under pressure from Jensen’s distributors, led by the main London agent, Charles Follett of Mayfair.
It was to Follett that the finished item was sold, probably with some relief on Jensen’s part.
Delivered in May 1965, painted Smoke Green with a grey hood, the prototype was a visual mixture of C-V8 MkII and MkIII details – including the shallower scuttle of the later model – but was mechanically standard, which meant the latest 6.3-litre Chrysler V8 and TorqueFlite three-speed automatic feeding power to a semi-elliptically sprung Salisbury live rear axle.
Like the four-wheel-drive C-V8 FF, the convertible had been created against an unhappy background of boardroom in-fighting in West Bromwich, where the loss of the Volvo P1800 contract and the uncertainty of its relationship with BMC (Healey bodies were built by Jensen) had caused minds to focus on the potential of the C-V8 and other Jensen-badged products.
Rather than head further upmarket, the founding brothers wanted to supplement the C-V8 with the cheaper (but still Chrysler-powered) P66, also styled by Neale.
But with their firm in the hands of holding company Norcros since 1959, Alan and Richard Jensen no longer called the shots at Kelvin Way.
They faced stern opposition, in fact, in the form of engineering chief Kevin Beattie and the Norcros directors; both parties correctly deduced that it was only the styling of the C-V8 that was holding back sales of an otherwise enthusiastically received and world-class grand tourer.
It probably didn’t come as much of a surprise that the Jensen brothers and Neale resigned in disgust after Beattie got the go-ahead to look for a new body in Italy.
Meanwhile, Charles Follett sold the orphan C-V8 convertible to Lord Carrington on 18 June, two weeks after it appeared in the showroom at 18 Berkeley Street.
A former High Commissioner to Australia and First Lord of the Admiralty, 46-year-old Peter Carington was an old Follett customer and a loyal Jensen owner who, at the time, didn’t realise that his C-V8 convertible would remain unique.
He would eventually own six examples of the marque, although he broke his Interceptor habit with a Fiat 130 Coupé in 1974.
This may or may not have had something to do with the fact that, in the teeth of the fuel crisis, Lord Carrington had recently been made energy minister in the Heath government – a role that was not hugely compatible with 7.2-litre, 11mpg Jensens…
Carrington collected the C-V8 drophead, wearing his private XYU7 numberplate, in a thunderstorm and soon discovered that the hood leaked profusely; this gripe headed a list of complaints about his new Jensen that Carrington would submit to Follett.
Richard Jensen himself intervened and, in a memo to Kevin Beattie, detailed how the car’s occupants become ‘completely soaked’ because of porous stitching and leaks around the ’screen.
In places, the grey leather of the seats had become stained.
The hood was, generally, a disaster, with a mechanism that had been strained and was hard to operate.
It was also a source of wind noise; Richard Jensen suggested that, if necessary, the works would have to fit a new hood before Lord Carrington took it on holiday in the summer.
Other irritants included various squeaks, rattles and draughts, as well as poor radio reception, excessively hard rear suspension and a passenger-side window mechanism that didn’t work.
The paint was also poor in places and, because the drophead was a hybrid of MkII and MkIII specification, the owner was reportedly somewhat miffed that it only had the single-line braking system of the earlier model.
Although evidently not concerned about the mixture of MkIII bumpers and MkII sidelight arrangement, Carrington did ask to have the latest MkIII ‘Jensen’ script fixed to the bootlid.
Follett was understandably nervous about upsetting a peer of the realm, although Lord Carrington was said to have been ‘remarkably good about the whole thing’ according to one of the many contemporary missives to Jensen.
But if the future of the C-V8 convertible as a production model was not already doomed, Beattie’s July 1965 road test of the one-off must have sealed its fate.
Over and above Carrington’s fairly superficial observations, Beattie diagnosed torsional weakness with chassis lozenging and oscillation, plus excessive exhaust boom.
When cornering, he noted more understeer than was desirable along with ‘general sloppiness’.
Fitted with a new hood and the later brakes, the drophead racked up 21,000 miles with Lord Carrington over 18 months, including grouse-shooting trips up to Scotland.
He only parted with it when the first production Interceptors became available in 1967.
Follett took the C-V8 in part-exchange, and was doubtless happy to do so because it had a second owner lined up.
Enter Philip Southall of Rednal, Birmingham, an open-top enthusiast who had coveted this C-V8 since first seeing mention of it in an article in the Financial Times in 1964.
Southall tracked down his dream car to Follett, only to discover it had recently been sold to Lord Carrington.
Advised that his Lordship generally changed his cars once a year, Southall bided his time and captured the convertible in February 1967, part-exchanging his Aston Martin DB2/4 drophead.
Revelling in its ability to cruise at well over 100mph on a pre-speed-limit M1, Southall used the C-V8 for business and pleasure.
The Jensen became part of the family, to the extent that he gave his daughter her first driving lesson in it, aged 15.
Re-registered LPP 766C, it remained in daily use until 1973 when its 16mpg became somewhat conspicuous in the midst of a fuel crisis.
Southall amassed a huge history file of correspondence not only with the Jensen works, but also with designe rNeale and even Lord Carrington, who by the early ’80s was General Secretary of NATO.
‘It was a marvellous car,’ he remembered fondly in a note to Southall in 1986, ‘and I’m sorry I didn’t keep it.’
In 1987, Southall passed the C-V8 on to his son-in-law, Martin Bryant. Robert Bentley of Classic Automobiles persuaded the Bryants to part with the Jensen a couple of years ago.
“People had forgotten about the car because it had been locked away for so long,” he says. “It needed paint so we did a sympathetic restoration – a respray, carpets and re-Connollising – but mechanically we had to do very little to it.”
Nine inches is quite a lot of extra length, yet somehow when you see the car in person the eye doesn’t pick it up, at least not without a standard C-V8 to compare it to.
For all its curves and fussy-looking blisters, Neale’s basic shape is an essentially well-balanced one that lends itself well to the convertible treatment.
Lord Carrington is thought to have been responsible for changing the leather-covered dash for a MkIII-style veneered type.
I can’t tell you if the hood still leaks or not, but it looks good up or down with that all-round vision second owner Southall was so keen on, its practicality supplemented by wind-down rear quarter-windows that the saloon did without.
Apart from the repaint it is a well-preserved C-V8 with that hard-to-define feel of a loved and maintained car that has never really been apart.
Exactly what was done by Jensen to cure the structural failings is not clear, but the C-V8 convertible is much nicer to drive than it has any right to be.
Even today, in a world where quick four-place convertibles are common, this Jensen is a rapid and civilised means of travel, the velvet thrust of its acceleration perfectly in tune with the almost imperceptible changes of the column-shift auto.
Rarely are more than 3500 revs required as the big engine makes light of the Jensen ’s heft, the visual sensation of speed somehow at odds with the perception of effort expended. You are only aware of the rush of air and a lazy rumble.
If there is something jet-age about the pace then the attributes of the steering are rather vintage in character.
It is more than reasonably responsive, yet heavy enough at low speeds to have been as much of a deal-breaker with Jensen customers as the styling.
The big 18in wheel helps with leverage, and there is something reassuring about the way it kicks and writhes over bumps yet also plots such a steady course.
The steering lightens nicely with speed, and you can put the torque and evenly balanced weight distribution to good use so the C-V8, rolling very little, can be boosted smoothly through corners against lightly reassuring understeer.
Press the brake pedal and the long travel belies the Lockheed-servoed four-wheel discs.
Conversely the suspension, primitive on paper, tends to exceed expectations by giving a quiet, refined and firmly checked ride, albeit with the occasional squeak and rattle from the body.
Our green, damp island is one of the great homes of open-topped cars – probably because, on the days when the rain is not coming down, we like to make the most of it.
You certainly can in this C-V8, both speedily and sociably. The relative (if belated) success of the prettier but less practical Interceptor convertible a decade later proved the concept was right.
Images: Olgun Kordal
Thanks to The Jensen Museum for the archive image; Classic Automobiles Worldwide; and RM Sotheby’s
Jensen C-V8 Convertible
- Sold/number built 1965/1
- Construction tubular steel chassis, glassfibre body
- Engine all-iron, ohv 6276cc V8, Carter four-barrel carburettor
- Max power 330bhp @ 4600rpm
- Max torque 425Ib ft @ 2800rpm
- Transmission three-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension: front double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes Dunlop discs
- Length 16ft 1½in (4915mm)
- Width 5ft 7in (1702mm)
- Height 4ft 7in (1397mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 6in (2896mm)
- Weight 3332Ib (1511kg)
- 0-60mph 6.7 secs (std)
- Top speed 130mph
- Mpg 12-16
- Price new £3491
- Price now £250,000*
*Price correct at date of original publication
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