PART ONE - THE JOURNEY TO JENSEN
Eric's father was known as "Mr Wood" as he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the material and its use in car bodies, which served him well in his job at Austin. He was also a successful inventor, although he made little money from it, and this creative streak was passed on to his sons. It was almost inevitable that his son Eric Neale would be involved with the burgeoning British motor industry, as he was educated at Halesowen Grammar School, in the heart of Britain's car building industry.
On leaving school, Eric served as an apprentice designer at Mulliners in Birmingham where he assisted with body design for Rolls-Royce, Minerva, Daimler, Panhard-Levassor, Stutz, and Packard. This gave him a love of Coachbuilding which never left him, and he was still contributing to books on the subject 40 years later. In what he claimed was a deliberate policy of learning as much about car building as possible, he moved while still a teenager to Holbrook Bodies in Coventry "who made bodies for Alvis, Triumph and Armstrong Siddeley". After only two years he moved on to join Singer in Birmingham as a body designer.
This would have been around 1931, and Mike Hyman, Webmaster and Editor for the Association of Singer Car Owners, supplied me with this information:
"...his first commission was to to style the Nine Sports for the 1933 range. His first design was for a two-seater sports, but this was dropped in favour of a four-seater, which was considered much more promising.
The only criticism was that it looked too high, so Neale lowered the bonnet and radiator by three inches, which also improved the aerodynamics and made it into a real winner, featuring Rudge-Whitworth knock-off type wheels, a large diameter Ashby sprung steering wheel, Andre-Hartford friction shock-absorbers and a matching pair of 6" Jeager speedo and tacho dials. It was priced at £185 - much cheaper than its counterparts. (Above info from 'The Singer Story' by Kevin Atkinson.)
The original design had 'helmet type' wings, as shown in the attached pictures of the side view, taken from 'The Book of the Singer Junior' by G S Davidson (Pitmans), and the white car, as introduced at the 1932 Motor Show, but these were replaced in about mid-June 1933 to a more streamlined, swept design, as on the red car picture."
Mike Hyman, Webmaster and Editor, for the Association of Singer Car Owners.
Around 1936/37, Eric apparently moved to Daimler where he worked on Lanchester and Daimler saloons, then in the late 1930s moved to Austin and then to Wolseley. After a spell in the RAF during the War, he briefly returned to Wolseley before joining Jensen in June 1946, where his travels ceased for the next twenty years.
PART TWO - THE JENSEN YEARS
Meanwhile, back in the UK, Eric was finding he had a lot in common with the two Jensen founders, brothers Alan and Richard Jensen who were born in 1906 and 1909 (only slightly older than Eric). After 5 years roaming the world in the RAF, he had married on his return and would have been looking for a steady job with prospects - unfortunately this was not provided by Wolseley as it was made known that he could not expect the same preferment as those who had stayed throughout the war instead of joining up.
In Richard Jensen, he found someone who could share his dreams for the future - after a mutual friend introduced them, he was taken around the deserted Carters Green works one night while Richard Jensen laid out his ambitions for the firm. "He made me an offer and I accepted. I joined him a fortnight later for a close association that would last for the next twenty years."
The PW model was already well under way when Eric joined in May 1946, and its wood frame construction would have been very familiar to Eric, whose father had head of the Timber section at Austins. Indeed, he was able to make modifications to it including an impressive convertible model.
Eric settled into his job as Body Design and Development engineer, and his first big challenge
would be to create a modern high speed tourer based around the PW's Austin engine.
Richard Jensen petitioned Austin for the supply of Austin A70 chassis as a basis for this, and made such a good impression that Austin commissioned them to design and produce a small open car for them - a model later known as the A40 Sports.
Eric worked on both large & small designs at the same time as he wanted to produce "an Austin and a Jensen from the same stable".
A40 SPORTS: Eric said "We made ten prototypes and got an order for 3,200" [see the Dec 2010 News page for a picture of Eric's own prototype]. Following his usual method, he didn't make a scale model as he feared this would lead to design by committee: "I just used my own method of line development to produce the different sections and handed these out to the panel makers in the experimental shop. The prototypes were all made by hand."
"The assembly of the production A40 Sports was all done at Jensen ... the motorised chassis came from Longbridge and we mounted the bodies, painted trimmed and finished them"
Eric's pre-war stint at Austin helping design the production lines was a bonus, as was his arc-welding equipment knowledge to assemble the aluminium bodies.
Eric remained pleased with the design, his only reservation being the un-sporty ride height specified by Austin so the car could, in his words, "suit veldt, outback and prairie" and thus earn export currency.
INTERCEPTOR 4-litre: The A40 Sports might be bringing in the money, but the brothers had their heart set on a grand tourer worthy of the Jensen name. Eric explained that for financial reasons he had to prioritise the development of the A40, but it was still a "combined and integrated operation" and they managed to meet their target of putting the new Jensen into the 1949 Motor Show. The enthusiastic Lord Strathcarron (known as "the motoring peer") was a family friend and loyal customer of Jensen and he suggested the name "Interceptor" for Erics's new design. (17 years later that name was dusted off again for the V8 engined, Italian bodied supercar, but its inital use was on something much more sober and British). With chassis and engine supplied by Austin, it had aluminium panels like the A40 sports and a radical new material for the bootlid called "glass-fibre", which pointed the future path of the company. Autocar described the lines of the car as "clearcut and decidedly graceful, attracting considerable admiration", but this handsome tourer has long been overlooked by the classic car world. Only in the past year has its value started to rise to reflect its qualities.
The 541: Richard Jensen was convinced there was a place for a sportier, lighter car using the Interceptor drivetrain. In February 1953, he started a project for "The New Car". Eric felt that a name with a continental flavour was called for, and suggested it be called 531 as it was a 1953 model, first series. His suggestion was accepted with the proviso that, in common with practice in America, a model launched at the '53 Motor Show was actually a '54 model. The name 541 was thus adopted.
The first steps were taken by Colin Riekie's design team - ditching the A40 Sport's cruciform chassis in favour of a stiff ladder frame with space for four seats. Once the layout and dimensions were fixed, calculations on performance were made and it was realised that the 4-litre Austin was not especially powerful and would need an aerodynamic shape to achieve the desired top speed and a full four seats.
The dimensions and requirement for a fastback shape were passed to Eric, who produced some airbrush sketches and then a fullsize drawing. His first revolutionary idea was to blank off the radiator grille when it was not needed, and a simple ring of chrome circled the grille flap area. (Remember most cars still had traditional radiators when this project was started) From the grille, lines flowed out and around to the tail of the car. The headlights and cabin were blended into this shape. Glassfibre is weak when used as a flat panel, so moulded shapes were used over the arches, which also helped keep air flow and road spray in their place. When tested by Austin in their wind tunnel, it was found to be highly aerodynamic with a Cd figure of just 0.39, rivalling modern sports cars.
Eric's drawings were transferred straight to a full size wooden jig, from which the prototype's aluminium panels were formed. The photo above shows Eric trying out the aluminium prototype with a bevy of local lovelies. In subsequent cars, most panels were fabricated in glass-fibre.
FACTORY FOR HIRE: Alongside his work on Jensen cars, Eric was kept busy with the work on preparing other makers’ cars for production in the Jensen factory.
With their close ties to Austin, Jensen were in with a good chance of producing an export creating sports car for the 1950's, which Austin required to use up A90 components and production capacity. Three companies were in the running, but Frazer Nash did not produce a commercial enough product.
It was down to Healey and Jensen – Eric designed a 2-seater powered by a 1.5 litre MG engine and with a cruciform chassis. They actually produced a prototype, but as they were let down by some suppliers they did not exhibit at the 1952 Motor Show. On a stand there was the new Healey - this was immediately adopted as their new model by Austin. Dick Jensen broke the news to Eric that Leonard Lord had signed a contract with Healey, to which Eric responded “All right, if we’ve missed out, tell Lord that we’ll make the bodies for him at anything up to 150 a week.” Once the Jensen prototype was finished [it still exists in much modified form], Eric personally drove it to the Austin HQ while the Jensen brothers followed in an Interceptor (4-litre Austin).
Lord tried it out and turned to Neale saying “I’m afraid it was born in the vestry this one – just too late”. Nevertheless, this was no disaster as, following discussions on the spot between Len Lord and the Jensens, Dick Jensen rushed back to Eric to say “We’ve got it – we’ve got the contract for the Healey”. Indeed, every subsequent Big Healey - even the pre-production models - passed through the Jensen factory. This contract to manufacture the Austin Healeys at West Bromwich was the making of Jensen as a major car manufacturer.
Major Projects in which Eric Neale had a hand:
Once the decision was made to install the assembly line in West Bromwich there was much work for the Jensen engineering team, led by Eric Neale. The first 20 Healeys had been hand built in Warwick (using bodies supplied by Jensen), and although Austin was happy to provide the industrial might to provide the major units required, it was up to Eric Neale at Jensen to productionise it efficiently. The body assembly line, assembly jigs and small details were all part of his responsibility. The ingenious friction door check shown here was one of Eric's inventions.
The Rootes Group had a close relationship with Jensen for many years, with Jensen providing help with designing, productionising and costing prototypes. With the Tiger, Rootes had already commissioned two prototypes, from Caroll Shelby and Ken Miles, who proved that the Ford V8 could be shoehorned into the tiny Alpine shell, but without too much consideration for handling and practicality.
However, Jensen's chief engineer, Eric Neale, started again from
scratch by producing a side elevation drawing and laying on top of this the dimensions of the Ford engine and gearbox. From this it could be seen where alterations would have to be made to the bodyshell. Evidence of the distinctive craftmanship used by Jensen in this process is the use of "production forensics" which collectors now use to distinguish between original cars and Alpines with Tiger running gear added. The "forensics" can detect, amongst other things, the way the body shell was panel beaten out to give room for the V8!
Volvo also famously entrusted the assembly of its 1800 sports car to the experienced team at Jensen. The subsequent early termination of the contract was not really the fault of the Jensen team as the body shells were supplied by Pressed Steel of Linwood in Scotland, and they seemed unable to provide the quality of panels that Jensen had been used to receiving from the Midlands manufacturers. The picture alongside was taken by Jensen and shows the poor fit of panels as received -each would have to be beaten into the correct shape.
The CV8: Meanwhile, styling work on the main Jensen models was continuing. Eric's update of the 541 to the "S" model was not universally popular, with Kevin Beattie being a particularly strong critic.
It was perceived to have “lost focus”, a view which was echoed by the blunting of performance caused by the introduction of a standard autobox, and more weight from the increased height and width. It is only in recent years that these cars have become fully appreciated, and the body shape really benefits from modern metallic paints to display itself to full advantage. The situation was not improved by the distinctive "love or hate" appearance of the CV8 Mk1. Eric personally confirmed to me the story that he had designed the car to have a transparent cover over the two slanted headlights, combining them into one cluster. The E-type Jaguar had just been introduced and was criticised for the way its similar cowling misted up, and the Jensens decided that performance should not be sacrificed for looks. One owner has modified his CV8 to look as Eric originally planned, and received the approval of the designer! Eventually, the Mark III CV8 was released and Eric remedied the situation with evenly sized headlights integrated smoothly into the body shell.
The P66: Eric Neale was a keen follower of continental trends, and his swansong had a distinctly European feel to it.
He was asked to produce a car that had much in common with the CV8, but would sell for much less and have contemporary smooth lines. At the 1965 Motor Show, the P66 appeared for the first time, as a convertible with distinctive "strakes" over the arches, like the early 541. Plans were well advanced for this model when, as will be explained below, it was cancelled in favour of the Vignale Interceptor. The Convertible was scrapped, but a second car with a hardtop lives on and can be seen at modern club events as a taste of what could have been.
END OF AN ERA: When the individual shape of the CV8 received adverse comments in some press reports, (“A superb concept carefully disguised as the ugliest car in the world” – Autocar magazine) Kevin Beattie decided that the next model would not be internally designed. The job was eventually given to Touring of Milan, and built by Vignale. Eric Neale used his many years of experience to "productionise" the Touring design and modified some proportions, but he felt rejected by the company in which he had spent two decades. In a major upheaval, he left Jensen, shortly followed by the Jensen brothers themselves, and the Interceptor was born without their presence.
After Jensen, Eric Neale had a position with Hallam Sleigh and Cheston Ltd, trading as Widney, a major Midlands producer of all manner of car body parts where his expertise must have been invaluable.
Despite his unfortunate departure, Eric maintained his love of the Jensen marque:
"I was always anxious to get on to the next design, each project being a stepping stone along the way. Jensen was a great period in my life."
He later became an enthusiastic member of the JOC, gracing the Norfolk meetings with his frequent presence. In fact, in the early 1990's he presented the club with a painting of a 541 against a Norfolk setting, which was auctioned for charity - his first car artwork in over 20 years. His family continue to promote the 541 - two of his sons own matching red 541s, although on opposite sides of the Atlantic. (UK and Canada). In both cases, his Grandsons are eagerly anticipating taking ownership of the cars when the time is right - a fine tribute to Eric Neale, 1910-1997.
Acknowledgements: This mini biography has been as much about what to leave out as what to include. I have tried to concentrate on the lesser known parts of Eric Neale's life: those wanting to know more would be well advised to get a used copy of Jensen by Keith Anderson - I have tried to avoid covering the same ground as that book. Other publications and individuals that have been of help in this item are: Men and Motors of the Austin by Barney Sharratt; Classic and Sportscar magazine; Thoroughbred and Classic Cars; Autocar; Motor Magazine; Austin-Healey by Graham Robson; Jensen Cars 1946 to 67- Brooklands Books; Association of Singer Car Owners; The Jensen Healey Stories by Browning & Blunsden; Jensen and Jensen-Healey (Sutton's Photographic History) by Keith Anderson; Peter, Derek, Tom and Ben Neale; John Lane; Mike Byrne; and at least one JOC picture from Nic Cooper. Please let me know of any omissions or amendments necessary. This item will be given a permanent home on the Jensen541.com site. Stephen Carter 2010.