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Not merely the last of their respective dynasties, but the last of Britain’s mass-market, traditional, steel-bodied sports cars.
Certainly both have been heavily criticised and given as examples of Britain’s 1970s industrial malaise.
Whether in period or more recently, commentators and pundits have tarred them with the bitter brush of criticism.
Lumps have been knocked out of these Brits for quality and reliability woes, rampant corrosion and even their styling.
Yet here they remain, not merely still standing but looking resplendent after all these years and each with their own band of loyal enthusiasts. So surely they deserve a second chance?
The roots of both cars can be traced to the same chaotic corner of Britain’s troubled motor industry.
Today, it’s easy to associate the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) with all manner of disaster, but the origins of the combine’s problems were most definitely covered in British Motor Corporation (BMC) fingerprints.
Among BMC’s legion of issues was that it would spend huge sums on prototypes – sometimes even multiple disparate concurrent prototypes, all intended to replace the same model – yet none would make it to production.
Healey suffered such a fate on multiple occasions. The ‘Super Healey’, also nicknamed Fireball XL5, came to nothing after swallowing £1m.
The Healey Motor Co’s own successor to the MkIII Austin-Healey 3000 was rejected, and although the MkIV 3000 was built and engineered, it didn’t make production because it wasn’t liked by boss Donald Healey.
Plus, as his son Geoff would later write, its new heavier engine ‘gave much trouble in early production form, and lacked the torque of the old unit’.
Fast-forward to life under Leyland bosses, who were eager to rationalise the combine’s vast stable of marques, and the Donald Healey Motor Co found its name removed from the Sprite when its licence agreement terminated in 1970. RIP Austin-Healey.
But Healey still needed to replace the 3000. As did America’s largest Healey importer, Kjell Qvale, who also disliked the MGC.
After a request by Jensen for Qvale to sell more Interceptors in the USA, he sensed an opportunity.
In early 1970, following labour and production issues, Jensen was heading for receivership so Qvale took an 80% stake and Donald Healey became chairman.
As with previous Healeys, various cars were appraised for donor potential, before Vauxhall suspension and running gear were chosen for the new car.
Codenamed X500, the monocoque was designed by Geoffrey Healey and Barry Bilbie.
Its styling, though, underwent many changes because Qvale was not happy. The car we now know as the Jensen-Healey was initially styled by Hugo Poole then fettled by William Towns, who also designed its interior.
Several engines were evaluated, but many either failed US emissions regulations, couldn’t reach the desired 130bhp output, or were too large and/or expensive.
A four-cylinder was wanted to make the car light and economical.
Enter Colin Chapman, with an offer to supply his new 2-litre, all-alloy, 16-valve, twin-cam Lotus 907, which produced 144bhp.
After tough negotiations between Chapman (keen to offset the 907’s costs) and Qvale (keen for no more delays), the 1972 Jensen-Healey would be the first production car to use the unit.
It would, alas, be without a Lotus warranty – and its resultant problems would be a big factor in Donald Healey’s resignation from Jensen.
Again this was inspired by the fuel crisis but the side effect, whether intentional or not, was that the car would be a direct competitor to its stepsister, the MGB.
The TR7 was born out of a competition between these two opposing marques.
MG designed a cutting-edge mid-engined MGB replacement, while Triumph worked on a project dubbed ‘Bullet’.
This was a typically conservative Spen King design, which would appeal to American buyers.
Although the full convertible was in danger of disappearing from the USA, due to feared roll-over legislation, the Bullet featured a T-bar roof. The problem was what MG had created.
Yes, the Bullet made a lot of sense. It had easy-to-fix, TR2-like mechanical simplicity, a wide engine bay full of potential, and it shared its front suspension with the proposed Dolomite replacement, SD2.
A later, King-authored styling refresh was particularly handsome, too, resembling a front-engined Porsche 914.
However, with the ADO21 MG, Harris Mann had produced a stunning shape.
So it was decided to make the sensible Triumph resemble the slinky MG, by reclothing it in a new Mann design.
Here was the best of both worlds: a traditional sports car, but dressed like a mid-engined exotic.
Plans to badge BL’s newcomer as both a Triumph and an MG, though, like the rumoured US ban on convertibles, came to nothing.
However, the latter rumour was strong enough for the TR7 to be designed solely with a fixed-head ‘turret-top’ body, so customers had to wait until 1979 before a convertible was offered.
Both cars led troubled lives.
The Jensen-Healey has been blamed for Jensen Motors’ 1976 demise, while the Triumph only played a supporting role in the epic BL tragedy.
The ’75 TR7 – like the MkI Jensen-Healey – experienced quality, supply and production woes (it was built at three different plants in its life), which hurt sales despite many improvements.
The TR’s end came in 1981, its potential never fully realised.
The 16-valve Sprint was abandoned in 1977 after just 61 prototypes; the V8-engined TR8 ran to a mere few hundred examples from 1977-’78, and while 18 right-hand-drive convertibles were built in UK trim, the model didn’t enter full production.
Lyndsey Dempster is a serial TR7 owner.
Having owned a convertible as her first car and a later fixed-head, the urge for another drop-top proved too strong and this highly original 1980 model was bought sight-unseen during lockdown, needing minor bodywork, paint and an interior refresh.
“Back in the 1980s, they were just different from everything else on the road,” she recalls. “They had style, that shape, and I absolutely adored them – hence why I got one for my first car.”
“It’s got personality: whereas in a new car, it’s all power steering and it does everything for you, in this you feel as if you’re driving,” she continues.
“There are a few little rattles and what have you, but that’s character!”
Tim Giddy’s tuned 1973 Jensen-Healey is a MkII prototype, still retaining some MkI features.
Ask him about the Healey’s reputation for rust and he candidly admits that, yes, they deserve it – especially given that he has undertaken a full nut-and-bolt restoration.
“It was originally the Jensen marketing manager’s car,” says Tim, who couldn’t bring himself to return it to its factory Tangerine colour.
“It was a good running car when I bought it. The floors had been patched, so I knew that needed doing, and then one Saturday afternoon the cambelt slipped and it managed to bend 10 valves.
“So while the engine went for a rebuild I thought I’d tackle new floors and a coat of paint…”
Tim finds it easy to sum up the Healey’s appeal: “It’s something different. I don’t often see another one, and it’s just a really fun car to drive – amazingly nippy and very responsive.
“You do have to be fairly switched on if the weather’s not great, and it will more than keep up with modern traffic.”
From behind the wheel, these two cars are as disparate as their styling. The Jensen quickly underlines its sporting Healey DNA.
The offset driving position is a little bit cramped, its ergonomics are somewhat chaotic and the uprated clutch is rather abrupt, but its torsional rigidity is vastly better than its six-cylinder predecessors.
Blatant scuttle shake and chassis flex? Nope, none of that here.
The Triumph’s charms are more subtle.
There is far more room in this car and it has the best, most straightforward driving position of any TR.
The dash might be a touch more Lego-like and chunky, but its instruments are all visible and it even has a clutch-foot rest and padded centre console for your lazy leg.
Given that the convertible wasn’t even in the original plan, its structural integrity is surprising.
Once it’s awake and on cam, the Jensen’s Lotus ‘twink’ inhales deeply through vocal Dell’Orto carbs and bellows through its twin exhausts.
The Getrag dog-leg five-speed ’box is a bit vague and clingy, but the steering is direct and consistent across the rack.
The ride is firm and it corners flat: punt the Healey through a corner with bravado and you can clearly feel its limits. Nevertheless, it’s a hoot.
Dynamically, the TR7 is an all-rounder of the MGB and Sunbeam Alpine school.
It rolls slightly more than the Healey, but the pay-off is a more forgiving ride.
The twin SUs make initial throttle response and pick-up more immediate, but the steering lacks the Healey’s ultimate precision.
Being hyper-critical, perhaps there is some light numbness in the middle of the rack when going from lock to lock, but the TR7 does have a tighter turning circle.
Swooping through the countryside, the only noise is a softly sporty exhaust note.
Having been frustrated by many a tired BL five-speed, this TR7’s gearbox is a delight – light, smooth and positive – and at legal speeds the chassis’ cornering limits are out of reach on today’s battered, greasy roads.
Do these cars still deserve to be burdened with such terrible reputations? No.
On a day when the bitter wind has been all too eager to brandish its sharp teeth, they remind you of the pleasures of driving a sports car in wintry weather.
I was hoping to like the Jensen-Healey due to its Warwick ancestry and, as a sucker for an enjoyably rugged roadster, I certainly do.
Yet it is the TR7 that comes as the real surprise here: it’s an eminently usable sports car that is as easy to drive as it is to enjoy. Find the right one and you’ll wonder why they’re still so affordable.
Images: John Bradshaw
- Sold/number built 1975-’81/112,368 (all TR7s)
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, sohc 1998cc ‘four’, twin SU carburettors
- Max power 105bhp @ 5500rpm
- Max torque 119lb ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by MacPherson struts rear live axle, trailing arms, tie rods, coil springs, telescopic dampers; anti-roll bar f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes disc front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 13ft 8½in (4178mm)
- Width 5ft 6¼in (1681mm)
- Height 4ft 1½in (1257mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 1in (2159mm)
- Weight 2500lb (1134kg)
- 0-60mph 11.4 secs
- Top speed 109mph
- Mpg 29
- Price new £6382 (1981)
- Price now £7-12,000*
- Sold/number built 1972-’75/10,926
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 1973cc ‘four’, two Dell’Orto twin-choke carburettors
- Max power 140bhp @ 6500rpm
- Max torque 130lb ft @ 5000rpm
- Transmission four/five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones rear trailing arms, live axle; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes disc front, drums rear, with servo
- Length 13ft 6in (4115mm)
- Width 5ft 3¼in (1605mm)
- Height 3ft 11in (1219mm)
- Wheelbase 7ft 8in (2337mm)
- Weight 2127lb (965kg)
- 0-60mph 7.5 secs
- Top speed 123mph
- Mpg 24
- Price new £1810
- Price now £15-25,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
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