It’s a Jensen Interceptor Coupe, one of the rarest of a rare hybrid breed of Italian coachwork, American firepower, and British Midlands build quality. Ah yes, that last one’s the rub – the Midlands might be known for pastoral scenery and the ability to craft a decent pint of ale, but when it comes to screwing together a car, things can be hit and miss.
However, this particular machine, which is almost entirely original, may just be the pinnacle of the breed. Nearly a quarter-million dollars is buried underneath the perfectly fitted sheetmetal, deftly-sewn seats, deep-pile carpets, lustrous paint, like-new wire wheels, and period-correct fitments. It’s far more perfect than anything that ever left the factory.
Even more interesting is the cracked and faded keychain with the blue ballpoint script reading “Mr. Qvale.” This Jensen is the late Kjelle Qvale’s personal car, the man whose New York Times obituary read “married the US to sports cars.” An early importer of MGs and Jaguars to the West Coast, Qvale claimed to have imported and sold over a million cars including Aston-Martins, Rolls-Royces, and Austin-Healeys.
He was also one of the architects behind the Corkscrew at what’s now Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, raced MGs at Indianapolis, and was a founding member of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. He left a lasting impression on the face of the automotive world when he died last year, and there’s a sense of occasion about cranking the key, slotting the shifter in Drive and letting the big Chrysler V8 rumble off down this winding Washington back road.
The last Interceptor rides again.
That thing got a Hemi in it?
The Jensen motor company began as a humble coachbuilder in West Bromwich, England. Two brothers, Alan and Richard Jensen, set about shaping new bodies for cars from Wolseley, Morris, and Ford. This last was famously associated with Clark Gable who didn’t actually own the car for more than a day or so, but agreed to do promotional shots, lending the fledgling Jensen operation some movie star glamour.
By the early 1960s, Jensen had produced several of its own designs, notably the fast and light 541R. Turning to V8 power, they created the CV8, which used a 361ci (5.9L) Chrysler eight-cylinder underneath a svelte and lightweight European body. The CV8 would be the basis for the Interceptor.
This was the heyday of the Euro-American hybrid, with cars like the Iso Grifo, AC Cobra, and Bizzarinni 5300 GT showing off a blend of the shapely European ideal with the unmatchable American firepower. Jensen turned to an Italian coachmaker for the design of their newest four-seater, and in 1966 the Carrozzeria Touring-designed, steel-bodied Interceptor arrived, powered by a probably-underrated 325hp 383ci (6.3L) Chrysler V8.
The bubble-backed, long-nosed shape remains one of the most distinctive-looking cars of the period: it’s a slippery, clean shape, but also one that projects a certain toughness. The most recent Fast & Furious movie elected to use a Jensen Interceptor as the car of choice for the is-she-bad-or-isn’t-she character, and that particular ground-pounding, matte-grey battleship exuded menace like an East London gangster.
At the time, the Interceptor neatly split the difference between a Jaguar XK-E and an Aston-Martin in terms of price and performance, and provided an element of four-seat practicality as well. It was a blend of Italian Gran Turismo and American musclecar, and must have surely looked astounding on a British B-road, surrounded by homely little Morris Minors and beat-up Hillman Minxes.
This first car, the Mk. I, was never officially exported to the US, but an interior redesign meant that the second generation passed US crash test regulations. The Interceptor landed in America, and there it met the man who would save it.
Apprenticeship the hard way
In 1970, Doug Meyer was a pump jockey in Buffalo New York, having paused for a spell in his ramblings around the continental United States. For fifty cents an hour he pumped gas, checked tires and dipsticks, and chatted idly to customers about what they were driving. One day, an Interceptor showed up.
“That was the first year they were allowed in,” he says, “and as they got ten miles to the gallon or so, I saw the car pretty regularly.” Meyers is tanned, mustachioed man with round glasses, he wears a headband to hold back his shoulder-length greying hair and his knuckles are scarred from frequent bouts with British sheetmetal.
“I told the guy, ‘I’m going to have one of those one day.’ He just laughed, of course.” There are now two Interceptors parked in Meyer’s garage.
It took a decade before the first Interceptor would pass into Meyer’s hands, and it was good-from-far but far-from-good. After checking out various Interceptors around the state, he finally found a black Mk. I that looked in decent shape and did a deal with the owner. When he got it home, a fender-bender in the garage showed just how much Bondo was holding the Jensen together, and a curious restoration project began.
Meyers wasn’t a trained bodyman or mechanic, he just knew how to build things. Having already looked at nearly every Interceptor in the surrounding area, he began returning to them and painstakingly, with pencil, cardboard, and knife, charting the shape of every body panel until each curve and every line was burned into his brain. It took five long years, but when the restoration of his black Mk. I Interceptor was finished, it was nearly perfect.
Word spread locally, and then eventually globally. With his wife Keri, Meyers founded K&D Enterprises, a parts and restoration company whose slogan is: “Jensen Interceptor: it’s all we do.” Meyer’s slow and steady approach to restoration yielded unmatchable results with thousands of hours poured into each car. Over two decades he estimates he has only entirely restored a dozen vehicles, each one taking between one and three years to complete.
As the word spread through the Jensen owners community, the wait time to get a car in the door averaged three years. However, there came a day when a trailer arrived with Qvale’s Interceptor, entirely unannounced.
Good riddance, Yank
Aside from the three main generations, the Interceptor was available as a saloon, convertible, and a coupe. Qvale’s car is the latter, and was created by simply fitting a Panther-built hard-top to a convertible body selected from the line. Thus, while it was the last car to leave the Jensen motors line, it doesn’t carry the last VIN.
The mid-1970s were a difficult time for any small car-maker and Jensen suffered as much as any. Qvale became a majority shareholder in Jensen in 1970 – his interest in the business was tied to Jensen’s manufacture of the Austin-Healey, a major import for his dealerships. The big Healey was very popular with North American buyers but the British Motor Corporation, who subcontracted Jensen to build the car, had just announced the end of production.
Qvale appointed Donald Healey to the Jensen board, and the Jensen-Healey was conceived as a replacement for Jensen to build and Qvale’s dealership network to sell. Meanwhile, sales of the Interceptor continued to grow, with the Mk. III of 1971-1976 being the breed’s best-selling generation.
However, labour disputes, a stagnating economy and the pressures of the oil crisis all combined to bring Jensen to its knees. Qvale had a reputation for being tough, and despite his love for the British sportscar, he was not universally liked among the union leaders at Jensen.
Meyers told me the following story. Qvale had his Interceptor shipped to California to his headquarters there, but the car had a mysterious problem: every so often it would stall, apparently for no reason. After some time resting, it would start again. Mechanics were baffled, until one had the idea to drop the gas tank and inspect inside. There they found a sheet of paper that someone had stuffed down the fuel-filler neck – it would float up and block the pump while driving, but then settle to the bottom of the tank if the car was let sit. On it was scrawled a simple message, “Good riddance, Yank!”
Qvale continued to drive his Interceptor around California right through until the eighties, though he never registered it, and kept it on a dealer plate. The key hung in the office, ready to go whenever he felt like taking a spin, up until the day it was damaged by a warehouse employee. Disassembled of all its chrome trim, it sat awaiting repair, gathering dust.
Then, in 1997, a car Meyer restored was used in a fiftieth anniversary celebration at Qvale’s California offices. Qvale was so impressed with the build that he asked Meyer if he would restore his old personal Interceptor. The pair travelled to the warehouse where it sat, and Qvale saw his car for the first time in years.
“‘What have they done to my poor car?’ he said,” Meyer relates. The trim had all been thrown away in a mistaken cleanup operation. Grime lay thick upon the roof and the interior was a disaster. Meyer said he would still take on the project, but at the standard wait time of three years. A few weeks later, Qvale sent the car up..
Buying quantity for quality
“I called him up right away,” Meyer says. Qvale was happy to wait but would rather the Interceptor sat at K&D’s garage rather than in California. But when at last the quote came through, the now-eighty-year-old Qvale demurred. “Why would I spend that amount of money on a car I will never drive?”
In the end, Meyer bought the car and began an even more painstaking restoration than usual. For one thing, the coupe version of the Interceptor is exceedingly rare, with fewer that fifty ever produced. All the missing trim was thus nearly impossible to find.
Moreover, while some of the companies that made the carpets, sheepskin seat inserts, and wood trim still exist, they weren’t about to do orders for a single car. The sheepskin seats, for instance, required frequent phone calls to Australia to convince the company to dye the wool using a process they hadn’t used since the 1970s, and they expected Meyer to buy enough to fit out the interiors of more than fifty cars. The vinyl roof was true British Ever-Flex, but they too wanted yards and yards of the stuff purchased to make it worth their while to produce an authentic 1970s-era colour. To get the proper centre medallions for the wheels required convincing the company to dig the original tooling out of a forgotten warehouse and restamp an original run – for sixty cars’ worth of wheel-caps.
After five years, Qvale’s Interceptor was finished and almost immediately shipped to the UK for Jensen’s anniversary concours event. While Qvale had planned to attend, his health ultimately didn’t allow it.
Still, there the last Interceptor was, alongside one of Meyer’s more daring restorations, his wife Keri’s car. That particular car is fitted with fuel-injection and built up with modern conveniences such that it rides, stops and turns like a modern car, and can accelerate from 0-100km/h in under four seconds. Likewise, when Qvale finally saw the work Meyer had done to his old car, some years later, he would say that it was better than any Interceptor that ever left the factory. Both cars have been driven extensively, free from the reliability issues that plagued many of the original cars.
Twilight of the Interceptor
While Qvale’s car was the last to leave the Jensen factory, there would be other Interceptors that followed it. After receivership, Jensen Parts and Service was set up to provide support for current owners, and when it was realized that enough whole chassis and spares were left to create entire cars, very limited production of the Mk. IV Interceptor was attempted. Somewhere between eight and eleven cars were made over the course of more than a decade.
Another attempt was made to revive the brand with the SV8, a Mustang-powered car that boasted performance worthy of the Interceptor name. But that too failed and sputtered out into nothingness with only a few vehicles produced.
A recreation company, V Eight motors, famously featured their Corvette-powered conversion of an original Interceptor on Top Gear. The car was praised for its performance, but panned for its traditional British build quality.
Meyer’s creation, on the other hand, drives the way the Interceptor was supposed to, not how it actually did. It is smooth and comfortable, and while the power cranked out by the single-carb 440ci (7.2L) V8 isn’t close to that of the most-powerful Interceptor models – those with the 440ci V8 and “six-pack” triple carburettors – it’s ample for cruising. More than that, the car feels tight, almost modern in its reflexes.
K&D Enterprises is now shuttering their restoration business and selling their parts company. Meyers sought for a decade to find an apprentice to pass along his knowledge to, but couldn’t find a good fit. When he sells up shop and moves out of the country to retirement far South, his knowledge will go with him.
“There’ll always be collector cars,” he says, “but there won’t always be classic cars.”
While K&D always built their machines to hit the road, Meyers thinks this last Interceptor will likely go to a museum. Fewer people are driving their Interceptors these days, and every so often there’s a call from a son, daughter, or grandchild that’s trying to figure out how to sell off what’s just an old car to them.
At best, it’s a changing of the guard as cars like the first-generation GTI or Acura NSX reach classic status. At worst, it’s the slide into a time when the only Interceptor you’ll see is drained of fuel and tucked behind a velvet rope. For now, at least, they’re still out there, but not forever.