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.
Above The Madding CrowdTo say that the new Healey Hundred was the sensation of the 1952 London Motor Show in October would be an understatement. It had arrived too late to be included in the pre-show publicity, and so show-goers and the press were surprised by the stunning two-seater positioned behind a pillar on the Healey show stand. It didn't take them long to find it, however. Among the interested parties was Sir Leonard Lord, the Chairman of the Austin Motor Company. Sir Leonard immediately recognized the potential of the Healey Hundred, and he and Donald Healey agreed that Austin would take over production of the Healey while Donald Healey would continue its development. The next morning the Healey badge on the nose of the ice-blue prototype on the show stand had been replaced by a new, winged Austin-Healey badge, and a new car marque had been created. Additional prototypes were built and sent on the show circuit. At the Miami World's Fair the design won the Grand Premier Award, and at the New York Motor Show the new Austin-Healey Hundred was voted International Motor Show Car of 1953.
The Austin-Healey 100Series production of the Austin-Healey 100 began at the Austin Longbridge factory in May 1953. The 90-bhp A90 engine provided plenty of torque, and the three-speed transmission with overdrive on the top two gears allowed for five speeds and good performance. The front independent suspension with a live axle on half-elliptic leaf springs looks crude today but was state of the sports car art 50 years ago. By 1955, the three-speed transmission had been replaced with a four-speed unit, still with the Laycock de Normanville overdrive unit.
If the Austin-Healey was unremarkable mechanically, it was a visual feast for any automotive enthusiast's eyes. There is something about the flow of the long nose and saucy curve of that pert tail that screams sports car. It was truly a new look, and it gave away nothing to the best efforts of the Italian coachbuilders. Donald Healey had designed a clever folding windshield that would lay almost flat, giving the car an even more rakish appearance. The cockpit of the Austin-Healey Hundred was strictly functional but was quite comfortable and roomy compared to the Jaguar XK120 or the MGA.
Even before production officially began, the Austin-Healey began its competition career. In March 1953, Gregor Grant and Peter Reece were given one of the original prototypes to run the Lyons-Charbonnieres Rally in France. The car did well on the snow-packed timed hillclimb and special tests before a broken rear shock absorber slowed the team. The next event in May, and one that was probably more appropriate, was the 1,000-mile open road race around Italy, the Mille Miglia. Two factory cars were sent, but both cars retired with clutch problems. Still, competition was an effective way to find the problems before the customer did and was always a mainstay of the Austin-Healey development program.
The 1953 Le Mans 24-hour race in June seemed like the perfect opportunity to show the speed and reliability of the new sports car. Two factory cars were entered and in appearance at least were almost standard. The engines had been breathed upon slightly with a high-lift camshaft, higher compression pistons and some improvements in the intake manifold. The engines put out about 103 bhp, and the cars were capable of almost 120 mph on the Mulsanne straight. The cars finished in twelfth and fourteenth, second and third place in class. By July 1953, production at the Austin factory was approaching 100 cars per week, most of which were shipped to the United States. In fact, during the big Healey's production, nearly 90% of the cars were shipped to the America.
Improved PerformanceBy 1955, some owners were demanding more performance from the Austin-Healey 100. Donald Healey had already created the limited-production 100S racing version of the car, with a four-port aluminum alloy cylinder head giving 140 bhp. But only 55 of these cars were built, and they really were thinly disguised racing cars. A more practical solution was the Austin-Healey 100M. Regular production cars were removed from the assembly line and hotted up with the M package, although dealers could also order the parts as a kit and do the treatment.
The package was based upon the modifications from the 1953 Le Mans race and included larger 1-3/4-in. SU carburetors on an enlarged manifold, the Le Mans camshaft, a distributor with a different advance curve and higher compression pistons. A cold-air box and ducting supplied the carburetors with fresh air. A larger diameter front anti-roll bar and stiffer shocks took care of the suspension, while the hood was given a series of louvers and was restrained with a leather strap, just like those on the Le Mans cars. All factory-modified 100M cars were given a two-tone paint scheme as standard. The engine cranked out about 110 bhp, and the car was capable of 0 to 60 mph in about 10.0 sec. and a top speed of 118 mph with the windshield lowered.
About 1,200 cars were modified to 100M level by the factory, and many were also modified by dealers or owners using the 100M kit.
Six CylindersSix-cylinder engines were first tried in the Austin-Healey in 1955, and it is the six-cylinder cars that most people think of today as the definitive big Healey. The 100 Six began production in September 1956 and through several iterations finally went out of production as the Austin-Healey 3000 BJ8 at the end of 1967. Available with two and four seats, and eventually with wind-up windows, a refined convertible top and a luxurious interior, the six-cylinder Austin-Healey models were comfortable and fast grand touring cars that could also be very effective competition machines.
The big Healey (called that to distinguish it from the diminutive Austin-Healey Sprite that was introduced in 1958) really found its form in international rallies. In its final competition form, it was a fearsome beast with upwards of 200 bhp and was driven by some of the best and bravest in the business. The six-cylinder road cars were much more refined, although perhaps less a sports car than the early four-cylinder Austin-Healey Hundred models. But to Americans who had been brought up on large sedans and lazy V8s, driving any Austin-Healey was an experience that was pure excitement. Before the car finally ended production in 1967, nearly 74,000 big Healeys had been built. Today the six-cylinder models are perfectly capable of keeping up with modern traffic and are more popular among collectors than the four-cylinder cars.
Driving TimeSo what's it like to drive an Austin-Healey 100? In a word, it's fantastic, especially if the car in question is a higher performance 100M. It's all very vintage feeling. The seats are low-back buckets, a large tachometer and speedometer dominate the metal dash, and the starter is engaged with a pushbutton on the dash. As the car idles, the flexible chassis shudders slightly, like a nervous racehorse ready to take to the track. The exhaust burbles a muted tone that is unique to four-cylinder Austin-Healeys. The view over that long curving hood is enticing, and it's easy to imagine the tree-lined back road is the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans. With so much displacement, the 2.6-liter four cylinder provides plenty of torque, and the car moves away effortlessly when the light-feeling clutch is disengaged. The gearbox, while not as precise as that in a modern car, has a wonderful, direct feel to it, and you are always aware that you are moving big metal gears through hot oil while you shift.
Big Healeys are known for their harsh ride, but on a relatively smooth road the car is well composed and absorbs imperfections easily. Shift into top gear and click the dash-mounted switch for the overdrive, and the car lopes along effortlessly. Curves can be negotiated by switching out of overdrive and allowing the big four to take away some speed before rolling back onto the throttle to power out of the bend. It's motoring like it was meant to be and is quite removed from the frenetic attention more modern cars require. The fact that the ultimate limits and speed through the corners can be easily bettered by any modern economy car never enters into the equation.
Big Healeys TodayBig Healeys aren't for everyone. First of all, they've gotten quite expensive, and a perfect car can easily run into the middle of the five-figure range. A big Healey is a difficult and expensive car to restore, so buying a basket case and rebuilding it is rarely economically viable. You should also be aware that these are not cars that you just jump in and drive. They require care and maintenance far in excess of any modern car. And for all of the expense and care they require, they really aren't very fast by today's standards. A Honda Civic is both quicker and more reliable. But for the right person, nothing will ever come close to the distinctive burbling sound and those sublime curves of a big Austin-Healey.
Austin-Healey 100MDon Schneider, whose 1956 Austin-Healey 100M graces these pages, is no stranger to the marque. In the 1960s he owned a 3000 Mk1 that he later traded for a Triumph TR4. Business pressures and a growing family eventually moved Schneider out of sports cars and the bug lay dormant until 1983 when he bought a restored 1965 Austin-Healey 3000 that he still owns. This was followed by a 1956 Austin-Healey 100 that he took to car shows in the mid-1980s.
In 1988 Don Schneider found a true basket-case Austin-Healey stuck in a mechanic's garage. After dragging it home on a rollback truck, he began the long, slow process of bringing the sorry old car back to life. The frame was broken and rusted, the floors and body outriggers had succumbed to corrosion, and the engine was in need of a complete rebuild. Most people would have questioned the choice of a restoration candidate, but the records show that the car left the factory in January 1956 with a very rare color combination of Florida Green over Old English White. Schneider determined that resurrecting the car in its original colors would make it a candidate for concours wins.
After doing most of the rough bodywork himself, Don Schneider sent the chassis to a body shop where it took more than a year to get the paint work just right. In the meantime, Schneider scoured the countryside to collect all of the correct factory parts to turn his standard BN2 Austin-Healey into a 100M model. This modification could be performed at the factory or by a dealer, so as long as he used original parts, the upgrade was appropriate.
After more than six years in restoration, the car was finished in 1997. Although the car certainly can be driven, Schneider doesn't drive it any long distances and he uses a trailer to bring it to major concours d'elegance events. This year at the prestigious Amelia Island Concours, his green over white 1956 Austin Healey 100M proved Don Schneider's faith in his choice of restoring this particular car when it won best in class, winning the only award given to an Austin-Healey at the event.-KM
The Austin-Healey Club of AmericaFrom its beginnings in the 1960s, the Austin-Healey Club of America has grown to a membership of well over 3,800; it is the largest organization of Healey owners and enthusiasts in the world today.
Presently, there are 46 regional clubs of the AHCA, including four in Canada. Each region hosts local meetings, technical sessions, and various events including car shows, rallies, tours, and social gatherings.
The annual AHCA national event, Conclave, hosted by regional clubs, attracts members and their cars from across the USA and Canada, and even from abroad. Conclave 2003 will be in the Washington, D.C., area with Austin, Texas., as the location in 2004.
Membership in the AHCA includes a subscription to its monthly magazine, Healey Marque, which provides colorful coverage of Healey events, history, racing, people, regional clubs, technical information, and major British car events throughout the USA and Canada. Healey Marque also provides advertising for a wide range of services and parts, as well as the "Marketplace" column for cars and parts offered for sale.
Whether you already own an Austin-Healey, are looking for one, or are just a friend of the marque, you are welcome to become a member of the Austin-Healey Club of America.
Austin-Healey Club of America P.O. Box 3220 Monroe, NC 28111-3220(877) 5-HealeyFax: (704) 283-7765www.healeyclub.org.