The Rare Manual Drive 541S Jensen Classic Car
A phenomenal amount of interest in classic cars a few years ago, caused much to be published and prices to escalate beyond belief.
This was at a time when an Aston Martin Zagato, racing car (that never won a race), sold for over a million and a half pounds. An ‘E’ type Jaguar commanded as much as £90,000 for what was a mass produced car (and so many were made in the 12 years of production). It is not so surprising that many enthusiasts were unable to afford an interesting classic.
Since those heady days the situation has changed dramatically, the recession, resulted in more sensible prices for most classic cars.
However, even when prices were rather ridiculous, there was a remarkable, distinctive, car of the early ’60s that was overlooked, available at a very reasonable cost, and still is undervalued.
Hand built, with very few maintenance problems, and best of all no body rust to worry about! It is one, of very few classic cars, that can actually be used as a daily form of transport – I had been driving one for well over 25 years and now my son still uses it.
I am referring to Jensen cars of the early ’60s, designed by Eric Neale, and made at the time when Richard and Alan Jensen owned the company. Particularly, the Jensen CV8 (this is the model before the Interceptor) with the huge 6 litre V8 engine and the 541S.
The CV8 was the fastest four-seater car of all in 1965, and I drove my special one off version, commissioned by Hardy Amies, every day until I emigrated from the UK a few years ago.
The other favourite is the classic British thoroughbred the 541. Especially, the last model made prior to the CV8, with the 4 litre straight six Austin Princes engine, particularly the manual drive version of the Jensen 541S.
Classic car show awards
For so many years these Jensen cars have not been expensive by comparison with any other classics of the period. Very strange really when one considers that, at most of the important classic car shows in the past, Jensen won all the best awards.
Up against all the well known prestigious makes, the Jensen Owners Club, together with Dave Horton’s famous CV8, have won; ‘Car of the show’, or ‘Best of the master class’ and ‘Best club stand’ and so on. There can hardly be a worthwhile classic car award that has not been won by a Jensen!
These awards are not really so surprising as the Jensen brothers based at West Bromwich made extremely fine hand built cars. They were also pioneers; the first to provide disc brakes all round; first with four wheel drive (on a CV8); one of the first to use the wind tunnel for body design.
They were also well known and respected for their advanced ideas on safety. The 541S was the first car with seat belts, as standard, they also provided very soft padded areas above and below the dashboard. Door handles, and window winders, were all in recessed panels out of harms way.
They won the silver medal for coach work at Earls Court, and with the 541R, in 1957 according to tests by ‘The Autocar’ they had produced the fastest four seater car of the day.
Over the years their glass fibre and polyester resin coach work has stood up to the test of time remarkably well.
Service and maintenance of these cars proves a lot easier, than with many other classics, and this statement applies to some of the more modern cars. There is a very enthusiastic owners club that provides valuable technical information. Most spare parts are also not too difficult to find through the Jensen Owners Club. The chassis is built like a tank and the glass fibre body cuts out all those rust problems.
The well proven straight six 4 litre engine is in a class of it’s own, set with triple SU large carburettors and linked to the Jaguar Moss 4 speed synchromesh gearbox, with overdrive, add to this, servo assisted Dunlop disc brakes all round. – Provides one hell of a lot of motor car!
The CV8 is an even more powerful car still, but not a British thoroughbred as it has a Chrysler V8 engine. There are certainly not many cars from the early ’60s that can still be used as a daily car some 35 years later.
I have not yet mentioned the luxurious interiors, but both of these models provide lavish leather arm chair comfort for four, but also with plenty of head room and leg space even in the back. A lockable glove compartment, a useful container under the central arm rest, a deep pocket either side of the rear seats for rolled up newspapers, as well as large pleated pockets, in the back of the front seats. The 541S front passenger seat folds completely up to allow far easier access into the rear than most other two door cars – even modern ones.
Both the 541S and the CV8, unlike many more modern fast cars, sensibly provide a very large boot space for luggage. I do feel that a lot of the modern fast car designs, fail to provide the head room and leg space for taller drivers, and completely fail to provide useful luggage space. As a family man these are some of the reasons why I favour the CV8.
An overwhelming amount of standard equipment, at a time when so many items were charged as optional extras, such as:- a Motorola radio (lights up with the name Jensen); the heater; a fog and a spot light; a fire extinguisher; a first aid kit; a cigar lighter; a clock; rear window heater and all the instruments one could wish for. Plus a very generous tool kit in a fitted tray, under the 541S dashboard, consisting of (apart from screwdrivers and spanners) pliers, an adjustable spanner, even a tyre pressure gauge, spare bulbs, tyre valve and cap.
Out of all the Jensen cars of this period, the 541S has been the least sought after, and the most difficult to sell. There is a reason for this, although it is an impressive car and beautiful, it has a reputation for lacking acceleration as a sports car. It has a good top speed and is capable of travelling at over 100 mph all day long.
The fabulous manual 541S
But all the original road test reports were based on the automatic version (this automatic gearbox although developed by Rolls Royce lost an awful lot of performance) – it is such a pity that the manual version was never tested!
Between 1960 and 1962 Jensen built 127, in total of 541S cars, out of these only 22 were manual drive. The manual is a gem of a car! The most luxurious car of all the 541 range, and what is not generally known, these manual drive cars with the Lacock-de-Normanville overdrive are very fast cars indeed. They would have earned a much better reputation from a road test than the one they have from the automatic version.
Extra design features
The 541S has certain unusual design features, adjustable front seat arm rests fitted to each door, the Bevelift jack, kept in the boot, was designed for use through the floor of the car in front of each front seat. So it was possible to lift front and rear wheels together whilst protected from the rain.
When the boot lid is open the driver can still see, without any restriction, out of the rear window. Very sensibly the spare wheel valve is accessible, through a fitting in the rear of the boot floor, thus allowing the air pressure to be checked easily without having to remove the wheel.
The look of these cars when viewed from the side could be said to be reminiscent of early Jaguar cars, head on possibly Aston Martin, and from the rear one thinks of Porsche. However Jensen developed with the 541S quite an original and distinctive aero dynamic design without any sacrifice to space or comfort.
I still consider it to be one of the most attractive four seater cars of that era that still attracts admiration today.
Readers will by now realise that I rather like these cars, that is certainly true, and we owned 5 out of the 22 made. It will not be easy to buy a good manual 541S as only 15 more at most exist.
They are identified by the chassis number prefix of 102 (there were two prototypes made with the chassis number JM EXP 100 and JM EXP 102). The hunt would be worthwhile, if one could be found, as such a car would cost less than an ordinary ‘E’ type Jaguar in reasonable condition.
My bet is that this situation will change.