The Jensen 541 was stylish and innovative. We uncover the appeal of this delightful British classic.
The first thing to strike you when you settle behind the 541’s wheel is the simplicity of the interior. There are enough dials to keep you informed but everything is easily visible and switches are within easy reach. It’s comfortable too, and many owners are happy to cover substantial mileages without complaint. The fact that it is hard wearing is an added bonus.
A properly sorted example should start easily and settle to a steady tickover, so be wary of a rough-running car. Out on the road, the torquey Austin lump makes for relaxed progress but the 541 was pretty rapid for its time, with a top speed of over 120mph in higher states of tune helped by the smooth bodywork.
You won’t keep up with a modern car on a twisty road but the Jensen is safe and surefooted, while those standard disc brakes inspire confidence. The simple and proven mechanicals mean the 541 may not have been at the cutting edge of technology but if you are looking for a British GT that can act as a sports car when required, it’s well worth considering.
1954 JENSEN 541
Power (bhp@rpm) 130bhp@3700rpm
Torque (lb ft@rpm) 209lb ft@2200rpm
Top speed 116mph
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
BODYWORK & CHASSIS
The body is mostly GRP, but while rust isn’t an issue, it does need checking for signs of stress cracks, crazing, and bodged repairs. The door skins are aluminium and need checking for signs of bimetallic corrosion where they meet the steel door skin. Another area worth checking is the pivoting flap that acts as the radiator grille. This is a simple cable-operated affair controlled by a lever in the cabin, but you’ll want to ensure it moves freely since it manages engine cooling.
Rot can set-in around the boot-mounted battery tray, and around the shackles for the rear leaf springs. Check the chassis tubes beneath the sills, and take a good look at the marine ply/aluminium sandwich floorpan which can harbour rot. It pays to spend plenty of time checking the chassis of a potential purchase though should it be too far gone, new chassis are available. That said, you’ll need to budget around £8000, so negotiate the asking price accordingly.
The 4.0-litre straight six Austin engine started out as a truck engine and is generally bullet-proof given proper maintenance. In fact, comfortably over 100,000 miles is often possible before major work is needed so quiz the previous owner about their maintenance regime. Cooling systems can weaken and blow the head gasket – check for oil or water leaks, or any signs that the two fluids are mixing. Oil leaks are an occasional problem but rarely serious. Standard ‘DS5’ engines had three SU carburettors, the ‘DS7’ unit fitted to ‘R’ models just two, though there is little to choose between them for longevity.
Manual gearboxes are either a four-speed Austin unit with overdrive, or a four-speed Moss. Each is fairly slow, but robust – any whines or rumbles means problems. The rarer GM automatic is tough, but will cost £2000 to recondition. Clutches and rear axles shouldn’t give any problems, but replacements are easy to source.
The front suspension uses lever-arm dampers and is derived from the Austin Cambridge, so parts availability is good. Likewise the rear leaf springs. There are plenty of greasing points that need regular attention so ensure this has been done. Stiffness in the steering (early cars used a cam and roller set-up, ‘R’ models rack and pinion) could mean the king pins haven’t received the required 1000-mile lubrication.
The 541 was the first British four-seater to use Dunlop disc brakes all round, and apart from a tendency among sparingly-used cars for the pistons to seize, shouldn’t give any trouble. Unusually, vacuum pressure for the Lockheed servo system was stored inside the left-hand chassis tube, so weak brakes could be a sign that rotten chassis tubing is allowing air to escape. A ‘Coopercraft’ brake upgrade is a popular addition and further improves efficiency; consider it a bonus if this has already been done on a given car.
Interiors are simple, robust and trimmed in vinyl, leather, or a combination of the two. There is little to watch for apart from normal wear and tear, but avoid any that are very tatty or incomplete. Items such as replacement switches are hard to come by and will mean a likely extensive and time-consuming hunt for second-hand parts. It will be cheaper in the long-run to find one in good condition to begin with than to restore a tired example
When you consider the ingredients – a great British marque, a stylish yet robust four-seater sports car and a dash of innovation – it is hard to see why you wouldn’t want a Jensen 541.
With an incredibly thick GRP body, simple steel tube chassis and proven mechanicals, the 541 is a reliable and comfortable classic car. Resisting the temptation to make a complex car with specialist underpinnings, Jensen created a car that, almost 50 years on, still doesn’t break the bank.
Like any British classic of the period, there are things to consider before taking the plunge, but there are fewer pitfalls than you might expect of a car of this vintage. Which makes it a very tempting ownership proposition. The thriving JensenOwners Club and plenty of specialist support available seals the deal as far as the lovely 541 is concerned. If it is a Jensen you want but are put off by the complexity and thirst of the Interceptor, the quintessentially British 541 is well worth a closer look.
A 541, well-sorted, makes a glamourous and reliable car. There are areas that need careful checking, but while a substantial restoration isn’t too scary a prospect, you shouldn’t spend too much on an example that needs fettling. Buy the best you can find and enjoy that film-star feeling.