For a short while, one unseasonably hot thursday, I was the coolest man in the entire world, and my grin made me look like a Canadian on South Park.
Now, I’m not a cool person, at all. Even my knees have an outmoded, unfashionable quality to them. But coolness is sometimes a mindset, and sometimes even the deeply sub-hip can have coolness thrust upon them. And that’s what happened to me. I owe everything to the Jensen Interceptor.
And now I have nothing.
I had seen it burbling around all morning. Every now and again it would be driving head-on towards me, four headlamps blazing, looking magnificent. And every time there would be somebody behind the wheel, who wasn’t me, but was grinning maniacally and, well, looking cool.
And then it was my turn.
It’s an intimidating prospect, the Interceptor, for a number of reasons. First comes the name, Interceptor, which immediately conjures up images of Lightning jet fighters or, if I might go off on a brief tangent, the Lockheed YF-12A. Interceptor is a serious name. It means stuff. It’s also an extraordinarily cool name, and I’ll do what I can to hold off from using that word for the rest of this feature.
Speaking of the YF-12 and its relatives, there are certain shapes and forms that serve up a shot of adrenaline directly to my spinal cord. Standing in the cold shadow of the SR-71 on display at Duxford, I feel that excitement. Standing under the stationary propellor of a ship in dry-dock, all that latent power silenced and made safe, I feel it too. It’s like having a loaded gun sitting on the table in front of you. The very shape means something.
Second reason for fear is the potential firepower lurking underhood. The vast majority of cars that I drive these days do not have seven point two litre V8 engines. And even those with daft displacements and outrageous outputs (Hello, AMG), have modern responses, modern engine management and modern behaviour, for better or for worse. Leaping behind the wheel of the Interceptor from the safety and familiarity of the bland appliances I’m used to could be like jumping from a Cessna to a Spitfire. Time to man up.
And the third reason for fear was that I had heard that you should never meet your heroes. I’m not one for idolism, but I’d be crushed if I found that any of the cars that I worshipped as a kid turned out to be massive disappointments. My over-bed poster during the ’80s was a 288GTO, but there were an assortment of postcards depicting E-Types, Aston DB’s and Jensens. And the shape I see before me, whether it wears Interceptor or FF badges, has been indelibly marked on my mind since then.
Behind the wheel the phrase “fish out of water” and “out of my depth” register strongly at the back of my mind. This is ridiculous. Give me a Ferrari or a Maserati and I’ll dive straight in and perform foolishnesses at the drop of hat, but somehow the Interceptor requires a moment of contemplation first. Fortunately, aside from the long row of rocker switches and the imposing collection of dashboard dials, everything is relatively unprepossessing. And the seats are killer stylish, to boot.
The key looks suspiciously like the one that opens my front door. The engine takes a little cranking, but fires and settles to an evocative, offbeat idle. With the torque-flite selector in park, what surprises me is how freely the big V8 revs when I inadvertently prod the loud pedal; there’s not a load of space in the footwell for size 13 feet.
I’m ready to move off, I disengage the chrome-plated handbrake and pull the stick back into drive. And nothing happens but more engine-revving. A quick look betrays the fact that the markings on the selector don’t actually line up with the stick. I have to pull back beyond D and into second; I think. I just hope I’m not stuck in first.
Fortunately, I’m not. The car obediently pulls forward and second gear arrives a little after tickover. There’s a third gear, too, and pretty soon I’m cruising along at a comfortable amble, that mellifluous warble bouncing off any solid objects nearby. Fear is no longer an issue, I think I can feel a grin coming on.
I spend the first few miles getting into the spirit of things. Savouring the sound, and the smell which is a sense that isn’t usually called for much when driving the sort of cars I usually find myself in. Then I stop, get out and walk a few laps of the car, drinking in all the details. It really is a terrific looking machine, the headlamps and front grille looking almost staid, a bit dull, and making no announcement at all of the long, masculine bonnet and the almost teardrop shaped rear end with that astonishing double-curvature hatchback glass. It’s not exotic in the least, there’s nothing supercar about it, but Vignales’ work carries charisma by the truckload. I grabbed a quick video; some things are worth sharing.
[youtube width=”720″ height=”405″]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eszg9mC-cXs[/youtube]
And now that we’re properly acquainted, I can take our relationship to the next level. A few laps of the Hill Route should do it. First thing I notice, and relish, is that there’s oversteer waiting at every corner. Truth be told it’s probably just my driving habits being wrongly calibrated. I’m used to even the lamest of cars wearing ridiculously wide tyres that allow you to be as ham-fisted as you like and get away with it every single time. Here you have 427ci of twist being put to the road through tiny wheels with big, deep tyre sidewalls; the grip you usually rely on just isn’t there. This said, with a little practice you could probably use this to your advantage and spend a lot of your time drifting most impressively.
Second thing I notice is that the responses aren’t exactly lively. If I was feeling harsh I could say that the controls suffer from forty years of accumulated wear and tear; it probably didn’t feel like this straight out of the box. But then it occurs to me that this car has been maintained by a succession of people over the years, and every person who’s been in charge of under-bonnet tinkering has probably set this car up to be absolutely perfect for themselves. There’s probably a wise gentleman out there who vibes directly with this car, as if sharing its DNA. I can respect that.
So I learn to dial in a bit more sympathy for the controls; that there’s a lot of travel in the accelerator and that the brakes need an assertive shove for any meaningful reaction. The steering, by contrast, is a delight. Though not overly direct or informative, the way it responds is like the tiller on a fast boat, weight building up more as lock is applied. It’s properly involving and gives the sensation that the car would be nothing without the man behind the wheel. The steering alone probably contributes to about 20% of my grin.
The noise adds at least another 1/3rd. There’s that mellifluous warble at idle which evolves into a determined grumble at cruising speed, but give it a good kick of provocation and it mutates into an angry war-cry that of the NASCAR or Top Fuel variety. Of course, you already knew this; big carburetted V8s have behaved this way since the horsepower wars begun in the middle of the last century; but every now and again its good that we remind ourselves what we’re missing now all our fun is governed by computer.
I’m actually glad that this is an automatic. My habitual modus operandi in a two-pedal car is left-foot stop, right-foot go. This way every car becomes a go-kart, and my hands remain on the wheel at all times to concentrate on keeping the car pointing in a suitable direction. This works well with the Interceptor; the steering is quite low geared and, though I’m not trying unreasonably hard, a smidge of opposite lock is called for every now and again.
I’m not sure if this particular Interceptor is actually set-up at all properly; certainly I feel a modest distrust of the speedometer and tachometer, which seem not to move proportionally with the speed the car accumulates. Acceleration isn’t brutal like I had expected, it’s just relentless. I often find myself zeroing down on a corner with a lot more velocity to scrub off than I had realised. It’s here that I remember that the Interceptor III didn’t have the anti-lock system, nor the all-wheel-drive of the FF; it’s literally you and two tonnes of metal versus physics. The brakes are none-too fade resistant, either, and there’s a lot of manual labour required to achieve a positive result.
Yeah, I locked them up a few times, including once where there’s a reflex bend with a rather nasty barrier immediately after a long downhill section, but the brakes and steering all came good and disaster was abated, with a celebratory wiggle of the hips on the exit, and an infantile shout of “I love this car!” from yours truly, which was probably drowned out by that V8 thunder.
All too soon it was time to gently thread the Interceptor back to the other side of the complex so it might make another grinning fool out of somebody. I felt much better for the whole experience; a car that I had loved for all these years hadn’t let me down. Sure, it has its limits, and they’re not high, but so do we all. As a tactile process, as a full-body cardiovascular workout, taking the Interceptor to task is a thoroughly rewarding thing to do.
Granted, it’s more at home loping along at five-tenths so you can just enjoy the music and bask in the admiring glances, which you will receive. And every now and again you can drop the hammer and intercept somebody. It’s only right for the Jensen to tell the youngsters a thing or two, even if only about matters of coolness.
(Disclosure: Thanks to Newspress who generously passed me the keys to the Interceptor as part of their 40th anniversary celebrations. )