It's kind of hard to imagine a bunch of guys sitting down in the back of an old warehouse to design a sports car. We are used to the idea that cars must be created by teams of engineers, working their precise calculations to create a near-perfect product that the marketing department's re-search has shown will sell well in its segment.
However, 50 years ago such cars as the Jaguar XK, Triumph TR, Aston Martin DB, MGA, Porsche 356 and the Austin-Healey appeared without benefit of engineering CAD systems or marketing focus groups. In place of high-powered computers and opinion polls, designers and builders used sweat and ingenuity and passion to create some of the greatest sports cars of all time.
Simple BeginningsIn that era of charismatic cars, one that stands above the pack, then and now, is the big Austin-Healey. The brainchild of racer, rallyist and car builder Donald M. Healey, the genesis of this definitive sports car of the 1950s is an interesting one. In 1951, Donald Healey was already manufacturing a line of his own Healey sports cars and sedans as well as a British-built hybrid sports car. Called the Nash Healey, it was powered by a six-cylinder 3.8-liter Nash engine made in Kenosha, Wis.
But Healey's cars were fairly expensive, and from his trips to the United States Donald Healey recognized that a mid-priced high-performance sports car just below the ultra-hot Jaguar XK120 would be a success. A suitable engine was found in the 2.6-liter four-cylinder unit Austin was building for the slow-selling Austin A90 sedan. The elder Healey laid out the outlines of the body, while son Geoffrey worked out the design of a simple ladder frame. Austin provided some drawings of the engine, and, after the basic layout seemed right, it was given to two of Healey's draftsmen-Barry Bilbie to work on the chassis and Gerry Coker to work out the final details of the body.
The Development ProcessTwo bare prototype chassis were fabricated and brought to a small shed at the back of the Healey factory, where the driveline and brakes were added. Four crude fenders, seats and a windshield were attached so the chassis could be tested, even before the body was ready. After these successful tests the chassis was driven to Tickford of Newport Pagnell, where the prototype body was built. Donald Healey made a number of alterations as this work progressed until the car was more or less complete. It was then driven back to the Healey factory, where Donald Healey called in a local bodyman to reshape the grille and add some stiffening to the door area. A soft-top was designed and an overdrive unit was fitted after testing showed the top gear ratio was too low for high-speed running.
The car, now called the Healey Hundred, was taken to the Jabbeke motorway in Belgium, where journalist Gregor Grant and John Bolster drove the unknown sports car to a two-way average speed of 106.05 mph on the stretch of highway that was already famous for speed-record attempts. The same car was then improved and tested some more, including a run at 111 mph in Belgium by Donald Healey, before it was cleaned up and sent to the 1952 International Motor Show at Earls Court in London.