"[gallery link="file"] Each August legions of the speed obsessed are drawn to the incredible environment of high salt flats of Northern Utah for Bonneville speed week. The Bonneville Salt Flats, the venue for the historic event, is a salt "
The World’s Fastest Jensen
How to build the world's fastest Jensen
I was trying to think of a title for this article, but then I realised I can’t improve on what it actually is. I am writing about the World’s fastest Jensen, so just use that and keep it simple.
When you think about Land Speed Records, names like Thrust, Bloodhound and Bluebird come to mind. Drivers such as Campbell, Noble and Green – but you would not have heard of a Jensen car becoming a record breaker. And certainly not have heard of the driver, Ian Northeast, who like so many unknown Speed Record holders go about their business purely for their own love of speed and chasing magical numbers.
To achieve these records takes a matter of minutes and seconds, but also a lifetime of dedication. Those that have seen the film the Worlds Fastest Indian, which showed Burt Munro’s journey to get his Indian motorcycle to Bonneville and prove it was fast, will appreciate the dogged commitment of all amateur competitors. That is what the vast majority of record holders are, amateurs who lust for speed and have to combine everyday life, work, relationships with their speed projects, be this two-wheeled or four.
I am going to tell you about Ian’s project and the people who have joined him along the way, some who were already friends, others who are now lifelong friends. I must also add his wife Janine, or I’ll get shot. I met up with Ian at his workshop where his classic Jensen sits, awaiting much-needed work following the catastrophic failure of the gearbox out in Utah.
I asked the normal introductory questions thinking they would be fairly briefly answered but Ian is a storyteller, and I was there a few hours.
Jeremy: “How did you come up with the idea of taking the Jensen to Bonneville? When did you first hear about Bonneville and have an interest in trying to get a car there to break a record?”
“As a long time motorcycle rider that has been fortunate enough to turn it into a living, having spent all day fixing other people’s bikes, the idea of going home and working on your own has very little appeal. As a result, I started trying to get some of the same feelings from cars (a pretty much impossible mission). Step 1 was a Porsche 944, into which I shoehorned a Rover V8. However, this turned out to be so good at everything I found it bland and uninspiring to drive.
“I then started looking for a ‘proper’ British classic. These were pretty much all so overpriced anything interesting (fast) was out of my budget, until I saw a Jensen 541 for sale at an auction. My welding skills are functional at best so the idea of a fibreglass car held a lot of appeal. I was outbid at this auction but I had now done some research on Jensens. The ideal car was the C-V8, a 1960s car with a 6.3-litre V8 engine and fibreglass bodywork. Everything I needed and they were ludicrously undervalued.
“A few weeks later, a friend and I took the 50-mile journey down to Southampton to look at a C-V8. This car was being sold by the son of the original owner, it had 250,000 miles on the clock, a year’s MOT and a large folder of paperwork. I bought the car after a short test drive and we headed home £5000 lighter. Bloody bargain!
“After some very close inspection, the car was rough, no great surprise for this price. The engine had been virtually untouched and the old MOTs showed that it had done only 150 – 200 miles a year for the last few years and had been bodged up to get it through the MOT every year.
“So I started a rolling restoration, the car was my daily driver and most weekends I’d take a part off, repair it or replace it and then carry on driving it. As a complete coincidence this model was celebrating its 45th birthday and the Jensen Owners Club (JOC) had organised a party in Saarburg, Germany, a small town near Trier. Again, a friend and I packed our tent and headed out to Germany. The weekend was very entertaining with maybe a little too much polishing (for the others) and some wonderful sights. The car was amazingly good on the autobahn particularly when you consider it was designed before the motorway had been invented in the UK. The highlight of the trip was a lap around the Nurburgring. This was as much fun as you can have with two other old guys in your car!
“On return, I decided that the standard classic car ownership thing was not for me, the paintwork was rough and it was never going to be a show-winner, so inspired by my trip around the Green Hell I decided to start Sprint racing. The beauty of sprint racing is you are on the track on your own. With a rare and unusual car, I was quite happy to risk the car whilst I was driving but not have some other idiot crash into it because he can’t handle his car. I was particularly proud of driving to race tracks around the country, spending the day racing and then driving home again, followed, of course, by the trip to work the next day.
“Once you start racing it then becomes obvious that your car is not fast enough, so the repairs went from simple maintenance to tuning for performance. Before I knew it I had blown up the original engine, replaced it with another after fitting multi-point fuel injection, a manual gearbox, lowered and stiffened suspension, vastly improved brakes and a race seat and harness. It was still my daily runabout and the car was getting faster and faster. Obviously, I could have saved a lot of money by just having some race driving lessons, but where is the fun in that!?
“One evening whilst chatting down the pub the conversation led to how fast our various cars were. Standard lads’ BS but it got me thinking about how fast I could actually make the car go, and from that point, I started the very slow process of building the top speed of the car.
“A couple of years ago a friend of mine ‘woke up dead’ completely unexpectedly, he was young and fit and there were no precursors at all. The feelings of mortality this event caused me, forced me to announce my plans. I didn’t want to be the chap who says he’s going to do all these things but never actually does them so I hadn’t told anyone what I was up to. By telling someone it became real and I had to commit myself to it.
“Since I was a very young man I had wanted to go to Bonneville. To me, this was the Mecca of land speed racing. I am very aware that higher speeds have been achieved at other sites like Black Rock in Nevada but to be there for speed week on the salt was a very long-held dream. The idea of actually competing and not just spectating was impossible to ignore.
“One of the first people I mentioned my idea to was the incoming president of the JOC. He was looking to make an impact and alter the (staid) direction of the owners club. A very newsworthy project fitted his bill perfectly. As well as offering me some money he also allocated me some space on the stand at the December 2017 Classic car show at the NEC. This is a huge show and was a massive launch pad for the project. The journey home was also the last time I drove the car on the road.
“So a plan was hatched, I bought a set of rules from the SCTA (the organisers of speed week) and spoke to the straightliners organisation to organise a test day at Pendine Sands in Wales. Work then began on modifying the car.
“The original engine was stroked from its original 6.3 to 8.2 and the bottom end was strengthened to cope with the increase in power. A turbo and associated plumbing were all arranged and fabricated but we decided to run without it in Wales.
“The compulsory huge, heavy and over-engineered roll cage was delayed as there was a change in the rules for 2018 which demanded larger tubing so the trip to Pendine turned into a bit of a last minute rush. This was not the last of our last minute rushes.
“Mid-March we ran at Pendine, we achieved a top speed of 120mph on the sand, but more importantly, we developed team procedures and routines for safe running. Whilst the beach (as it turns out) is absolutely nothing like driving on the salt it did give me a lot of confidence once we got to Utah.
“The list of work that was carried out between our Pendine adventure and getting the car to the shippers for the boat to America is quite literally unbelievable, I have a list and I did it and I still don’t believe we got all that done in the space of a couple of months, without taking any time off work. The only negative was we failed to get the engine tuned with the turbocharger. As a result, we took the heartrending decision to run without it, with an engine we knew was strong and fast. This meant lowering our optimum top speed but we really were just along for the ride. Setting records was never the plan, having said that we had an ace up our sleeve. No-one had ever raced a Jensen of any kind at Bonneville so with a good run we really would have the world’s fastest Jensen.”
The car ran well and Ian achieved 143.887 at mile 3. Becoming the Worlds Fastest Jensen. This was on 14 July 2018.
Sadly the last time the car ran was on the start line, on the last day of speed week when the gearbox exploded.
Once the car made it back to the UK, Ian stripped all of the suspension components and underside of the car, removed all of the salt and repainted the entire underside of the car. He planned to start a full repair of the Jensen, but he had to return to the reality of working and daily life. The 2018 trip used up lots of finances, so 2019 is now a year of regrouping.
Ian has found there is a lot of interest in seeing the car in the condition as it came off the salt, so he is currently booked into four events, which will act as promotion of the project and hopefully attract more sponsors. These bookings have encouraged him to start working on the Jensen again, which has been cleaned and repaired. The underside of the car and the engine bay, as well as the inside of the car, are covered in a thick layer of rust and salt damage.
I can’t write about the World’s fastest Jensen without a nod to Ian’s dedicated team. All of whom are volunteers paying their way for travel etc.
Pete Riley, Ian’s best friend from their school days who was sharing the mid-life crisis and became the team Grease Monkey. (he’s currently building a bike to compete in 2020).
Andy Best, a fellow Jensen owner who also wanted to live the dream, he took on the thankless task of team manager, also known as Tea Boy.
Harry Smith is the fabricator who won’t sit still and is really looking forward to being able to keep everyone’s vehicles running next year. Penny, Harry’s wife was crucial in keeping the team hydrated and fuelled throughout the week.
Bruce Bridges who also owns a Jensen heard about what Ian was up to and drove up from San Diego, California to help on the project. None of the team had ever met him, but he gave up an entire week to assist. He proved superb at fabrication and benefitted the project enormously.
Teddy Delaney, an old friend of Ian’s, lives in Florida and she offered to share the drive from Houston to Utah just for the kicks. Teddy became official Translator when the Brits interacted with the Yanks.
Janine, Ian’s wife is perhaps the most important member of the team and certainly to Ian, as without her, he wouldn’t even own the Jensen.
Ian also co-opted the bend in the road gang, a group of older gentlemen that have been meeting at Bonneville for over thirty years. They have some real stories!!
Ian and his team are intending to return to Bonneville in 2020. They are looking for sponsors who are needed to support these pursuers of speed.
I will leave you with this poignant letter sent to Ian, it justifies his ethos of using the car as it was meant to be.
“My name is Peter Smith and my father was the original owner a Mr Clarence Ewart Smith.
“I seem to remember 1967 having something to do with it anyway the M6 motorway was about to open to the general public and I seem to remember that my father got the permission of the Manchester Chief Police Constable for him to drive his car down the motorway at speed before it opened to the general public.
“I am not absolutely certain if it was on this occasion or at another occasion but I do remember being chauffeur-driven down the motorway to school in this car and the chauffeur putting his foot down and the car reaching 126 miles an hour which seemed like a bullet ( and just a little bit frightening).
“So I think the car has always had speed in its bones. I am very pleased and just a little amazed to see what you have done with it.”
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