At a pinch, you might find some old footage of Donald Stokes selling buses to Cuba, or Len Lord playing golf, but one car industry boss had a richer celluloid catalogue.
The only new car launch I have attended was in 1969. It took place in Harrods, and all I knew was that it was to be a Jensen. Jensen had introduced their Interceptor and FF three years previously, so I wondered what this could be. A four door version? A mid-engined sportster? A convertible? I was intrigued.
In the event, my anticipation was ill-placed. The launch was for the Jensen Director. This was an Interceptor, finished in a fetching blue, with an interior created under the direction of top yacht designer, Jon Bannenberg. A car whose emphasis is on catering to business people might seem a bit odd today, since practically anything on wheels seems to try to give the idea that the driver has a rich and varied leisure life, to which their work is inevitably secondary. You might drive 1,000 km to that meeting in Munich, but only so that you can drop in to the ‘Ring on the way back. Back then business was more exotic. The Bristol was ‘The Businessman’s Express’. Top Fords were ‘Executive’. The idea of pounding along the M1, dictating letters, was sexy – you were building tomorrow.
The fine rear seats had been removed to accommodate an office on the move, comprising a dictating unit, a portable ‘deluxe’ typewriter, a small filing system, an Air-Call radio telephone, an insulated food container, a portable TV, colour-matched blue attache and overnight cases and an electric razor. This last item confirms that the Director in question was unquestionably a man. Of course the Passenger was, equally unquestionably, a young woman who was, from the picture above, also colour-matched.
Obviously this was really just cost-effective publicity involving a week’s work for the trimming department to get some decent column inches showing that Jensen had done for executives what Aston Martin had done for spies. No-one probably ever expected the car to sell and, quite soon after the ‘launch’, the sole Director was returned to standard specification and sold to a customer.
The reason I was there in the first place is that my Dad knew the Managing Director of Jensen at the time, Carl Duerr, or Fred to his friends. Fred was a very interesting man, an American who, as a colonel at the end of the War, had been appointed Chief of Industry for Austria under the Marshall Plan, involved in restarting that country’s industry. He had stayed in Europe, marrying a German actress and, as well as becoming a businessman, also had a short career as an actor around the start of the 60s appearing, as Fred Dur, in The Longest Day and Town Without Pity as well as some German language films. Following this he’d worked with my Dad for a few years, then got himself an image as a ‘Turnaround Man’, someone brought in to ailing businesses to sort them out.
This was his role at Jensen. Despite the slick looks of the Touring designed Interceptor and its previous contracts building the Volvo P1800 and Sunbeam Tiger, Jensen had the typical UK motor industry problems of underinvestment, ageing facilities and a somewhat diffident management structure. He made positive changes at Jensen, identifying points where quality and efficiency were being affected, but it also helped Jensen’s image that Fred was charismatic. He had an actor’s good looks, he was a good communicator and had a fine sense of humour. His less paternalistic Euro-American manner endeared him to the workers as much as it antagonised some of the existing management.
In the end, his tenure was cut short by a change of direction for Jensen. Ironically, investment from another American, Kjell Qvale meant there was no place for Fred and he left to turn around somewhere else. At the time I thought it would have been just another job for him, but apparently he was sad at leaving and retained affection for Jensen, keeping his personal Interceptor, becoming a member of the Jensen Owners Club and even returning his car to Jensen (by then yet another company) for restoration in the late 80s. Unfortunately, though, he died soon after.
My Dad had lost touch with him by then, so this last information came to me from Jensen guru Richard Calver, as did the charmingly quaint photo of the Jensen Director at the head of this piece. The enthusiasm and energy of people like Richard put one’s own interest in the industry to shame. He spent weeks in the old factory archiving Jensen’s factory records and is a fantastic source of information, as well as a friendly correspondent to odd people contacting him out of nowhere as to the whereabouts of Sixties Turnaround Men.
I was sad to hear about Fred. I remember him fondly, mainly through my Father’s stories, although I met him on several occasions, notably when he let me have an underage drive in an FF, and later a longer, legal go in an Interceptor. Of course, today’s industry is completely different, generally run by people who have been purpose trained. Nevertheless they often make irrational decisions and stupid mistakes, so it’s not entirely ridiculous of me to wish that there were more people like him around today.
The other day I came across an ill-composed photo of me sitting in the FF, self consciously holding the steering wheel like I was setting out for Antibes, not going for a clandestine drive round the block. From the registration, I found that it too had a minor film career, appearing in an episode of The Saint, with Roger Moore.