Story- A Work In Progress
by David Cooper
my Jensen-Healey (#11014) in 1983. My previous sports car had been a 1968
Corvette convertible, but I had not been happy with it. It was too big,
too heavy, and it irritated me when other people admired it, because it
was just a car that anybody could go out and buy. It just wasn't me. So
I sold it and started looking for another sports car. It had to be a convertible,
it had to be affordable in cost, maintenance, and insurance, it had to been
simple enough for me to work on, it had to look great, it had handle great,
it had to be fast, and hopefully it would be a little more unique than the
I went to the Seattle Public Library and started going through all their old issues of Road and Track from about 1960 on. I had fallen in love with the cars that were around when I was getting ready to get my driver's license (in 1970) like the Aston Martins, Jag E. Types, Shelby Cobras, Ford GT 40, Lotus Elan, and all the Ferrari's, Maserati's, etc., from the 60's. They just looked so right to me. Those streamlined shapes with their low noses and the headlights under covers made them look like racing cars being driven on the street.
Well, needless to say, nothing fit my criteria. Most failed the affordability test, or the complexity test, or the size test. What I wanted was a small, light, powerful car that fit the classic definition of a sports car-one that you drive to the track, raced, and then drove home. But I kept coming back to a road test in the September 1974 issue of R&T of a Huffaker race prepared car called a Jensen-Healey. I decided that this car would be my goal. It had outstanding performance, both power and handling, lightweight, with 50/50 distribution front/rear, looked okay, had lots of potential, and the price was right. So I made a copy of the article and started to look around. Unfortunately for me, J-H 's are pretty rare in the Northwest. The first one I saw was a yellow 73 with about 80,000 miles and the body panel fit was poor (typical of the early models). However, it was an early 73 with the small bumpers and I had to have one, so the deal was done and I drove it home.
I stared to research my options while I drove to work every day with the car. For some reason I just fell in love with the car, the light weight, fine handling, power, and the feel of the driving position and the dash layout. It just fit me perfectly and on top of that everyone had to ask me what it was. Not a car for the masses. But, I HAD BEEN WARNED about engine fires due to the plastic carburetor tee and that is what happened to me soon after I had bought it- a disastrous fire in my garage while I was working on it. It was my fault entirely. The insurance company totaled the car and handed me the title after paying off the loan.
So there I was, in love with a burned out wreck. But on closer inspection it wasn't so bad, and my research had led me to a lot of upgrades I wanted to install, so in spring of 1983 I stared stripping the car and started saving for parts. I bought a bicycle for transportation to and from work (anything more expensive would have slowed down my restoration). Since I knew an engine rebuild the way I wanted would cost big bucks I figured I could work on the body while the engine work was on hold. I tore off everything on the car that I didn't like or that was burned out. This may seem like a sacrilege to other restorers, but I felt the Jensen brothers would have built a far different and better car if given the freedom to do so, rather that the compromised product that the NHSTA forced them to manufacture. I was out to build a real "Jensen-Jensen," one that really did meet the classic definition of a sports car.
I tore off the bumpers, front and rear, headlights, all the bodywork in front of the radiator, and removed the engine and trans. I bought some liquid two-part foam, made a small rough mold out of duct tape and Formica, mixed the foam and poured it in. After it had cured I removed the mold and started shaping the foam to something I liked. I read a little on aerodynamics, to get an idea of how to lower the wind resistance, and reduce the frontal area. The old headlights were a real wind catcher, about as high a drag factor as you could get. This lead me to design the front to incorporate headlight covers for streamlining (and I just liked the was they looked). But I had heard that covers sharply raked tended to scatter the light into the sky (a problem with the old Jags) so I tried to make the covers as vertical as possible. I wanted a four-headlight system so I could have some regular headlights combined with some quartz halogen driving lights for fast driving at night. I went to a wrecking yard and bought some headlight brackets from a BMW 2002 that looked as if they would fit.
I knew I was going to want bigger, lighter, wider wheels and tires, so I got a small sledge hammer and some body tools and flared out the fenders front and rear. I took out the sidelights and covered the holes with glass and epoxy, removed the trim strips from the fenders and welded all the body panels together. I sandblasted the steel on the fenders and inside the floor panels and laid a coat of two-part epoxy resin everywhere. I then started laying fiberglass over the shaped foam. After the glasswork was done I cut and sandblasted out the foam, leaving a hollow shell. I mounted the headlight brackets, cut some Plexiglas covers, and some steel rims, which I had chrome plated and presto-I had a smooth beautiful body without any unsightly and unnecessary add-ons courtesy of the US government. And by the way, after 18 years I had to remove some of the epoxy that I had laid over the raw steel, and the steel was as new as if I had just worked on it yesterday. Now I lay a cover of epoxy on every piece of steel in the car when it becomes exposed. It takes paint beautifully and solves all your rust problems forever.
I didn't like the stock seats so I replaced them with some very nice Recaro seats, which are a very tight fit. Since I am 6'1" and have long legs I cut off the seat brackets and welded down some new ones about 3" further back This gave me plenty of leg room. I thought the stock steering wheel was a little too big, and I replaced that with a 14" three spoke wheel from Emerson Fittipaldi. Since I wasn't going to have a radio in such a conspicuous spot in a convertible I redid the dash for some new instruments. I took out all the Smiths gauges except for the speedo and tach, and put Stewart Warner gauges, including a mechanical oil temp gauge, mechanical fuel pressure gauge, mechanical vacuum gauge, all very useful, and an amp gauge, which is useless. I am thinking of taking it out and putting in a pyrometer. I had a custom roll bar made with a belt bar for the 5-point seat belt harness for both driver and passenger. I also added a removable bar/brace that runs from the middle of the roll bar to the passenger foot well. It also helps stiffen the body substantially.
I bought some street/racing wheels from Centerline Wheels and tires from BF Goodrich (they seemed to be the best comprise between performance and comfort) and the combination was the same weight as the stock wheel. I like the Centerline wheels because they are very light and strong, very inexpensive (I have 12 of them) and very easy to clean. After the bodywork I was able to run 215/60 - 14's on the front and 225/60-15's on the back. I have a second set of wheels with DOT Street legal race tires-BF Goodrich gForce T/A R1's, 225/50 14's on the front and 225/50-15's on the back that I use at the track.
I was interested in speed from 30 mph to 130 mph so I junked the 4 speed trans and bought a 5 speed Getrag off a 1975 J-H. One big advantage to the 5 speed is the gearshift pattern, since I was never going use 1st on the track except for getting started. But I kept the 3.73 rear end so as to have more acceleration off the line. I had to have a special one-piece driveline made but it was only a couple of hundred dollars. Any top speed I couldn't use on the track didn't interest me, and I figured 130 mph was as high as I could go on a reasonable length straight. With the street tires I run 19.9 mph per 1000 rpm, which is okay for the street. On the track I turn 18.5 mph at 1000 rpms. The nice thing about the 5-speed is you have 5 perfectly spaced gears. For the street the speeds in gears are (at 7000 rpm) 1st-41mph, 2nd-64 mph, 3rd-88 mph, 4th-112 mph, and 5th-139mph. For the track 1st-38 mph, 2nd-60 mph, 3rd-82 mph, 4th-104 mph, and 5th- 129 (I believe that I could turn 7600 rpm on a longer straight, which would boost me to about 140 mph). This works very well at our local track, Seattle International Raceway. I joined the Alfa Romeo club as they rent this track a couple of times a year.
Since I had some overheating problems I had the radiator recored with three rows to replace the regular two rows. I took off the engine fan and installed an electric pusher fan from Delta. This not only works better but also has the advantage of being able to be switched on with the engine off to cool the front brakes in between track sessions. I added an oil cooler, as the stock car did not have one, and mounted it up on the passenger side fender well.
Speaking of brakes, I had a problem the first time at the track with the brakes fading very quickly when used hard. I found a place in California that would cross-drill and gas slot the rotors, and another outfit that makes carbon Kevlar brake pads and will recover your old shoes with the same material. These are much better that stock pads or metal pads. I replaced the brake fluid with some DOT 5 Girling from Delta (I found out the hard way not to use American high temp fluid, as it eats the brake seals in British cars). I ducted the front brakes with 3" hose from scoops under the front. The rear brakes are ducted from two scoops under the rear anti roll bar. This has eliminated all brake problems.
For the suspension I added the up rated springs and Spax shocks from Delta Motorsports, along with all the little bits to rebuild the front end. This, along with front and rear anti-roll bars and the racing tires, make the car handle like it is on rails. I have yet to drive the car fast enough to find the limit. I am going to add a panhard rod this winter to help stabilize the rear end under heavy cornering loads. I intend to convert the car to rear disc brakes sometime in the future.
Another trick I have is to use a tiny 4 1/2" x 12" spare tire off a MG Midget, which has the same 4x4" bolt pattern. This makes a great space saver spare tire and that way I don't have to carry another one of those huge custom wheels and tires around, and they don't really fit under the car anyway.
The gas tank had rusted out, of course, and I didn't like it anyway, so I took it out and put in a 16-gallon fuel cell. It is made out of plastic and despite having 4 more gallons, it is so light it must weigh about the same as the stock fuel tank; it also has a positive locking cap. This keeps any fuel inside the tank if I ever turn upside down. I also think it would take a lot more punishment than the steel tank if I ever got into a wreck on the street. This is not a bad way to go if you want to replace your old rusty gas tank. I fill mine from the trunk but I think you could relocate the fill to match the stock filler cap.
Meanwhile I went to a local race shop and had the engine rebuilt. I went with the 2.2 liter crank and 9.5 compression pistons from Delta Motorsports, had the head ported and polished, and had the whole engine balanced and blueprinted. I bought a set of S&S headers from Delta (excellent) and I had them ceramic coated. After installation I wrapped the exhaust tubing with heat wrap from the collector back to the rear differential. This does a number of things. It reduces the "cold wall" of air in the exhaust system that acts as a dam for the new hot gases the pistons are trying to push out the exhaust, so your engine breathes much better, since the hot air is less dense and flows much more freely. It lowers temperatures in the engine compartment, so your carbs breathe colder, denser air (more power). It reduces the heat around your feet on the driver's side, which I had found very uncomfortable in summer with my built up engine. And lastly it reduces the heat transfer to the steering shaft and so to the plastic turn signal and wiper bracket that is clamped to the steering shaft. On my car this got very hot and I think led to the plastic clamp breaking.
Instead of a stock muffler system I spilt the single pipe from the headers into two pipes after the collector and ran the two pipes to the rear of the car, one on each side of the spare tire. Each exhaust is made of heavy gauge steel and has a flow-thru resonator just after the rear axle, and then into a Suppertrapp muffler. If you are not familiar with these they are a tunable exhaust muffler. You increase or decrease the back pressure in the pipe by increasing or decreasing the number of baffles in the muffler. This way I can run a (reasonably) quiet exhaust on the street, but after spending about 10 minutes adding 12 more baffles on each side I can run a straight exhaust at the track. When I am finished, I just take out the extra baffles and drive home. It really is a great system. It is amazing how much different adding or removing baffles affects the sound and horsepower. I have a computer desktop dyno program where I can model different aspects of engine performance and this alone adds about 15-20 hp.
Of course I went with the 45 mm Dellorto's and the 104 (.420 lift and 280 degree duration) camshafts from Dave Bean. I added some adjustable cam gears with deeper grooves for the cam belt to replace the stock gears, also from Dave Bean. These are much safer at high rpms- I have had my engine up to 8000 rpm with no problems. I had the race shop install some stainless steel oversize intake and exhaust valves and stiffer valve springs. I built a ram air/cold air box out of some heavy gauge aluminum; this fits over the carbs and is fed by a 5" hose ducted to a scoop under the front of the car. This scoop also ducts air for the front brakes and acts as an air dam to keep air from under the car. I am still not happy with the way it looks, so that is another long-term project. The carbs came stock with 36 cm venturis, so I pulled these and replaced them with 40 mm venturis because the engine was capable of breathing so much more air. This has led to an interesting problem with the main jets. The carbs came stock with 1.60 mm jets, and the stock cams had 1.30mm jets. I put in 1.80 mm jets with a 2.00mm air corrector, and was running way too lean. Since I already had four sets of jets I decided to drill them out to larger sizes. Right now I am running 2.30mm main jets on the street, and that still seems to be a little lean. I was using 2.40mm jets at the track (the largest I had), and those were really too lean. So I am still working on this problem. Over the winter I intend to drill out some 2.60's, 2.70's, and 2.80' and see if that works. I am hoping to run about 220 to 240 hp at the track when I get everything working right, which is a fair amount for a 2,200 pound car.
With all this work on the engine breathing and the overlap of the cams the vacuum booster for the brakes would run out of vacuum after very brief usage, requiring much more pedal effort on the brakes to maintain brake pressure. This is typical of more radical cams and the solution was to add a vacuum storage canister between the brake master cylinder and the fender. I took the vacuum off both #1 and #4 and plumbed to the canister, which has an outlet for a vacuum gauge built in. This provides much more brake assist than the stock setup and is very cheap (about $100 not counting the gauge).
I had had some problems with the engine throwing oil out of the breather tank on the firewall so I replaced it with a Moroso breather with a filter on top. I cut the tank in half, put in some screen for baffling, welded the tank back together and that solved the problem.
Since I wasn't happy with the electrical system, I had a friend of mine who was working in the wire shop at Boeing rewire the car. Instead of fuses we put in a circuit breaker box with aircraft quality circuit breakers. This mounts where the battery used to be, and the battery was moved to the passenger side of the trunk.
I am going to have the car professionally painted when I am satisfied with the bodywork and everything else is working properly. Even with the way it looks now (a little ragged and unfinished) I have to admit I get an enormous kick when people ask me "What kind of car is that, I have never seen one like it before?" I always proudly respond, "It's a Jensen." I am 45 and the car is about 28; I am looking forward to driving around when I am 67 and the car is 50 years old. I can't wait for the questions that will pop up, I just hope I can get it finished by then!
I confess that I have been to the track 7 or 8 times and something has always gone wrong with the car. But I put this down to the vast difference between driving on the street and driving on the track; every track episode is a learning experience and I am not discouraged at all. The most interesting thing to me about my J-H is that when I see other cars, either on the street or vintage racing, in books, whatever, I don't think to myself "I wish I had that car." I think "God, I just wish I could get my car finished."