Austin Healey SR under construction at the experimental works, Warwick, 1968 1968 Austin Healey SR under construction at the experimental works, Warwick

Austin Healey Motor Cars

example Austin Healey successfully Sold

1962 Austin-Healey 3000 BT7 Mk II
1962 Austin-Healey 3000 BT7 Mk II

The world's fastest production car

Having entered into competition driving, one of his early events was to compete in the Lands End to John O’Groats rally, and although this didn't result in a high finish position being achieved, Healey was certainly taken with the sport.

As his fascination for competition driving developed he started to rub shoulders with some accomplished names, such as the Riley Brothers and Cecil Kimber, the man who was involved with the foundation of MG cars, and over a period of time he began to meet with some success.

In 1929 he entered the Monte Carlo Rally in a Triumph Super Seven family saloon car. However, he was disqualified for being late to the finish. The following year he again entered the race, but this time he came seventh overall.

By now Healey was starting to get noticed for his driving ability and was approached by a man called Noel Macklin, who asked him to drive an Invicta in the Monte Carlo Rally so as to give the marque some public exposure.

Donald M. Healey enjoying a spin in a 1955 Austin-Healey 100S
Donald M. Healey enjoying a spin in a 1955 Austin-Healey 100S

The partnership was successful and in 1930, despite the car only braking on three wheels, Donald Healey came home in first place. During this period, Healey met and befriended Ian Fleming, who later went on to create the James Bond stories, and Fleming actually rode along with Healey as his navigator in an event called the Alpine Trial.

Here, Healey again found some success, but this time in a Riley Brooklands, a car that he had borrowed from the Riley brothers. Afterwards he worked for a while with Riley, helping them prepare their competition cars.

In the years between the two World Wars, for a motor manufacturer to have their car succeed in a major competition was of paramount importance and would make a very large difference in the success rate in selling cars to the motoring public.

The Triumph Motor Company were looking for someone with sound technical knowledge and driving ability to fill a position as Technical Manager at their plant in Warwickshire. Having already sold his garage business in Cornwall, Healey accepted the position willingly and competed in many rallies driving for Triumph, with whom he enjoyed much success.

Brian Healey behind the wheel of a Healey 100S
Brian Healey behind the wheel of a Healey 100S

However, Healey had always wanted to design his own racing car to take on the fierce competition put up by teams such as Alfa Romeo with their Monza 2.3 litre supercharged eight-cylinder car. What Triumph and Healey did was to get hold of a Monza engine, strip it down and then set about copying it. The engine they produced was almost identical and was fitted in the 1934 Triumph Dolomite, a two-seater model with some very impressive chrome exhausts that ran along the outside of the body.

In 1934 the car was entered in the Monte Carlo Rally to prove the design and its robustness. However, Healey’s race prematurely ended when he was involved in a collision with a train on a railway crossing – a collision that totally wrecked the car, but did not injure the occupants.

Priced higher than the 3-litre Bentley, only three Dolomites were ever built. Healey remained with Triumph until the outbreak of WW II in 1939 and when the company went into liquidation.

During the Second World War, Healey was a part-time officer in the Air Training Corps, and also worked for Humber, a company making military vehicles for the British Army. In 1945 he wrote an article entitled, The Enthusiasts Car, in which he outlined the ambition he had to build a high performance car of his own.

The former Donald M. Healey garage at the old cinema at Coton End, Warwick
The former Donald M. Healey garage at the old cinema at Coton End, Warwick

In his piece he spoke of many technical matters, such as power-to-weight ratios, engine design and aerodynamics, further motivating him to realise his ambition. When the war finished, Healey and his colleagues from Humber worked at bringing Healey’s dream car to reality.

In his autobiography he wrote of the pre-war BMW 328, and described it as being, “The best small sports car of all time,” and it was cars such as this that inspired and drove him towards realising his ambition.

Healey wanted the BMW engine, but in those early post-war years, materials and supplies were difficult to obtain, putting the engine out of his grasp. However, by calling in favours, and using the contacts he had built up over his racing years, he met with Victor Riley.

Riley had agreed to supply Healey with a new and advanced 2.4-litre four-cylinder 100bhp engine, developed from the engine used to power a competition car driven with some success by Raymond Mays, and with gearboxes and axles.

In March 1945, Healey had won permission from the Board of Trade to proceed with a prototype chassis and leased a workshop in Warwickshire where the development work began marking the birth of the Donald Healey Motor Company limited.

His first car, an open sports model, had a body and chassis of his own design and mechanical parts that came mostly from Riley, with others being supplied by companies such as Alvis and Nash.

Healey had two brilliant and willing associates in the form of Ben Bowden, a body engineer, and Sammy Sampietro, a chassis engineer, both of whom had worked with him at Humber. The mechanics were people he managed to poach from other car manufacturers.

Despite a shortage in materials, a chassis was produced featuring an unusual and advanced suspension unit, incorporating trailing links, upon which he mounted an open sports body, panelled by Westland Engineering of Hereford.

Healey had plans to build another car, a model with a closed body design, and in November 1945, he approached a prestigious joinery firm located in Caversham, just outside Reading in Berkshire, called Samuel Elliott and Sons, asking them to for assistance to build motor bodies.

Alfred Stott and Jack Collier from Elliotts went to visit the Donald Healey workshop in Warwickshire to discuss the proposition, and as a result Elliotts decided to invest £ 1,000 into Donald Healey Motor Company limited.

The chassis for the car, made from a revolutionary steel box section design, was sent to Elliotts and work began in building an aluminium alloy panelled body that was fitted over an ash wood frame.

The finished car emerged in late 1946, and was called the Elliott Healey Saloon. Using the same 2443cc Riley engine as the sports model, in 1947 the car became the fastest 4-seater saloon in the world to complete the flying mile, reaching a speed of 110.8mph.

Between 1946 and 1950, 104 Elliott Healey saloons were manufactured, each selling for £1,598 and were sold along side the Westland Healey sports model. In the market place the saloon was competing with the likes of Armstrong Siddeley and Aston Martin, and it was seen as being very expensive compared to these and other vehicles within its class at the time.

The car had some unique design features with a hinged instrument panel and an unusual design in seats, these being built of tubular alloy and sleeved with leather covers. The design was later copied by Riley. A publication in circulation at the time, called Wood Magazine, featured the building of the ash frame of the Elliott Healey saloon car body in their October 1947 edition.

The relationship between Healey and Samuel Elliott and Sons was not all that it could have been. Two main reasons for this were that Healey was not receptive to other people’s opinions and ideas, and he was also not good at paying his bills.

In 1947 it was reported to the board of Directors at Elliotts that some completed cars were being held back until they were sold as a form of security to ensure that Elliotts would receive their due funds.

In 1948 Elliotts broke formal ties with the Donald Healey Motor Company limited by selling their shares in that company, marking the beginning of the end of a relationship that may have otherwise been a continued success.

Certainly the cars that were produced after this era had lost a lot of character and quality. Although production of the Elliott Healey saloon ceased in 1950, spares were still available for a further 10-years. An example of the car is currently displayed at the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu.

Early in 1990, Ken Willett, formerly of Elliotts, was able to purchase the first Elliott Healey Saloon car made at Elliotts in 1946, which he restored using his own and original drawings.

In 1949 The Donald Healey Motor Corporation produced something quite spectacular in the form of the Healey Silverstone. This sports car sold for less than £1,000, and soon became a popular choice among the sporting driver's of the day, due to its superb handling qualities.

This was a thoroughbred sports car powered by the twin camshaft version of the Riley 2.4-litre engine, in which a driver by the name of Tommy Wisdom broke the World Hour Speed record at Monthléry in 1952.

After that the name Healey became known for quality sporting saloons and roadsters, with chassis’ often being supplied companies such as Abbot of Farnham, Tickford, and Duncan Industries of North Walsham. Healey had made a name for himself and the business was going well, but Donald Healey wanted to move away from his current production methods had set his sights on volume manufacture.

In December 1949 he went on a sales mission across the Atlantic to the USA to promote his cars and hopefully return with orders. Whilst sailing to the States he had a chance meeting aboard the Queen Mary with Nash, the president of the Nash Kelvinator Corporation.

This resulted in a commission, funded by Nash, to develop a car for the US market that would be based on Healey’s chassis and with the 3.8-litre Nash engine, so paving the way for the Healey-Nash. This was the turning point for The Donald Healey Motor Company, an event which supplied sufficient revenue for him to set about developing a new model.

Healey made many visits to the USA and identified a market opportunity for a sports car that would fit between the Jaguar XK series and the MG. Upon his return to the UK he set about developing a prototype sports model, secretly building it at his home so as to conceal it from Nash.

Although Nash was working with him at the time on the Healey-Nash project, Healey was planning to compete against him, and Morris who was the very company supplying the Riley engines.

The new car, he decided, would have a different engine and after discussions with Leonard Lord, head of The British Motor Corporation (BMC), Lord agreed to supply Austin A90 power units. This was the beginning of a car, the eventual production of which would make Donald Healey an absolute legend in sports car manufacture.

The four-cylinder 2.6 litre unit supllied by Austin was ideal, but Healey disliked the ratios of the gearbox that came with it. To solve this perceived problem he blanked off the very low first gear, making the unit into a 3-speed gearbox, and then fitted an overdrive unit that operated on second and third gears.

This had the effect of turning three gears into five. The result of Healey’s efforts was the Healey 100, a stunning 100 brake horsepower, 100 mile an hour two-seater sports car that he introduced at the 1952 London Motor Show at Earls Court.

Before the show opened, Leonard Lord had a look at the car and was smitten by it. The Austin Motor Company desperately needed a sports car to compete with MG, the new Triumph TR2 and the Jaguar XK 120, and this car appeared to be have the potential to do just that.

Legend suggests that prior to the show, Leonard Lord had set a task for three manufactures to each produce a sports model for this exhibition, where he would make a judgment as to which manufacturer he would award a production contract to.

The two other competitors, apart from Donald Healey, were Jensen and Fraser-Nash. However, the Jensen car was not finished and so was not shown, which just left Fraser-Nash as the only other manufacturer in the running.

When the show opened the Healey 100 took the crowd by storm and won rave reviews from the motoring press. Leonard Lord decided there and then that this was the car he wanted and to be produced under the Austin name, inspired by the reception the car received. All the ingredients were there.

Healey wanted the production capacity of an established car manufacturer to produce his design and Lord wanted to produce the car because he believed it would sell in large numbers. What resulted was a partnership between BMC and The Donald Healey Motor Company that was to form the name of Austin-Healey, and marked the start of a relationship that would last for sixteen years.

The construction of the car did not just involve Austin and Donald Healey. The first 20 pre-production Healey 100’s were assembled at Healey’s small plant in Warwickshire and then, in 1953, assembly moved to the Austin factory at Longbridge.

Whilst the engine and transmission was manufactured by Austin, the chassis was constructed by a company called John Thompson Motor Pressings. The bodies were supplied, assembled and trimmed by the Jensen Motor Company. Jensen had the capacity to produce these in the numbers required, whereas Austin could not, but could at least assemble the car at its Longbridge plant.

Also in that year The Austin Healey 100 won the Grand Premium Award at Miami's World Fair in the United States and was voted the International Motor Show Car of 1953 in New York. As a publicity stunt a standard production car was taken to Utah Salt Flats and recorded an average speed of 103.94 mph over a 5,000km endurance run.

By the summer of 1954 the production of the Healey 100 at the Longbridge plant exceeded 100 cars per week for the first time, in fact over the first three years since its launch, 14,600 of them were made, 3.5% only remained in the UK.

Donald Healey couldn’t seem to let go of his racing past and motor sport was still very much in his blood. In 1956, to further publicise the car, he achieved almost 193 mph over a flying kilometre in a 224bhp supercharged and streamlined version of his car, while Carroll Shelby, who would later build and produce the AC Cobra, went on to break sixteen U.S. and international speed records with it.

These record-breaking achievements and motor racing successes resulted in the further development of the car, which produced the famous Austin Healey 100S, the - S - standing for Sebring. Such was Healey’s confidence in the strength of his car the Austin-Healey 100S was entered in many competitions, including the prestigious Le Mans 24-hour endurance race, where it enjoyed substantial success.

In fact, at the 1955 Le Mans meeting, it was a Healey 100 Sebring model, raced by Stirling Moss and Lance Macklin, that was involved in famous and terrible accident where a Mercedes catapulted over the rear of the car and flew into the crowd, killing 50 spectators and injuring many more.

The 100 Sebring was constructed from Aluminium body panels and had a heavily modified engine and only 50 of them were ever built. The Austin-Healey 100 went through several technical development changes, until in August 1956 the four-cylinder 2.4 litre Austin engine was discontinued and replaced by a six-cylinder unit of the same cubic capacity, and as fitted to the Austin Westminster.

Donald Healey thought he had identified a market for a sports car that could carry four people instead of just two, and so the updated car was given a new 2+2 body. The name of this model was the Austin-Healey 100/6, but it proved not to be so popular as the previous two-seater model.

The problem for the power output of only 104 bhp was that the cylinder head had an integral two-port inlet manifold, which meant it was not able to get an adequate amount of fuel and air into the combustion chambers.

Being made of cast-iron this power unit was also very heavy, the combination of which made the performance of the new car worse than the old one it had replaced.

Due to the dimensions of the new six-cylinder unit, extra space had to be found within the engine compartment and a bulge with an air scoop was put into the bonnet panel to provide sufficient clearance at the top and front of the engine.

The familiar shield-shaped radiator grille was now replaced by a new oval style, having wavy horizontal bars, a feature on all the Austin models of that period. Other alterations included modifications to the chassis, which saw the removal of the front cross-bracing so that the radiator, being taken from a Healey saloon, could be fitted beneath the front of the bonnet with only the top header being exposed when the bonnet was raised.

Additional engine mountings were welded in behind the original four-cylinder mounts and the passenger side bulkhead ceiling was lowered to allow space for the carburettors. The transmission tunnel was enlarged at the front to make space for the engine itself, to the extent that there was 4 inches less width to the footwells, making them very narrow indeed.

In addition to the new six-cylinder engine, the length of the chassis was increased by two inches between the axles to allow room for the new rear seats. To accommodate these the rear panel behind the cockpit was made smaller to make more room in the car, but with a loss of a large proportion of the boot space. The twin 6-volt batteries, that had been positioned within the engine compartment on the 100/4, were now replaced by a single 12-volt unit housed in the boot, with the spare wheel being stored on the boot floor.

Unfortunately, the rear seats did not work well with the car, on account of there being very limited leg-room, and those that did manage to squeeze into the back found that their heads were placed directly in the slip stream of air coming off the top and around the sides of the windscreen, making their travelling experience most uncomfortable.

Since there was very little room in the downsized boot for luggage, this now having to be carried on the newly fitted rear seats, the car was only really ever used as a two-seater anyway. It was in the form of this Four-Seater Sports Tourer that the 100/6 made its debut at the beginning of 1957 to a very lukewarm reception. The press were unusually kind to the car, trying to look at the positive aspects of the new design, suggesting it to be more practical and smoother than the model it replaced, rather than slating it as a bad idea.

Late in 1957, so as to counter customer complaints concerning the meagre performance of the 100/6 engine, the cylinder head was revised and improved, but it had taken a year to do it. The new head, however, made a big difference, and now had a separate six-port manifold, which increased the power output to 117bhp and with a very useful increase in torque.

After the introduction of the 100/6, the older four-cylinder cars were dubbed as the 100/4, an unofficial title and one that was never used by the factory. This was also the year in which production of Austin-Healey cars moved from Longbridge to the MG factory in Abingdon in Oxfordshire, where they were built along side the MGA and Riley saloons. It was from here the two-seater version was re-introduced to run along side the 2+2.

1958 saw the introduction of another Austin-Healey car. The new model was also an open-top sports car, but much smaller in size than its big brother. Having apparently identified a gap in the sports car market, Donald Healey and Leonard Lord set about producing a small budget sports car built largely from the components of the Austin A35 saloon. This resulted in the launch of the Austin-Healey Sprite, or the Frog-Eye Sprite, as it became affectionately known on account of the positioning of the headlights above the mouth-shaped grille.

In 1959 the Austin Healey 3000 was launched, a car that was quickly christened the Big Healey by the public and the press alike. The car was a sensation, as not only did it look fantastic, it sounded good as well as performing very well on the road. The engine was a development of the 100/6 2.6-litre unit and now had a capacity of 2912cc and produced 124bhp.

The front brakes were uprated to discs, a relatively new idea at the time, and the body was offered in both a two-seater and as a revised 2+2. The re-introduction of the 4-seater, which had been modified in its design to give the occupants and their luggage more space, was much more acceptable to the buying public and eventually it was outselling the two-seater version.

In 1961 the Mk II was launched featuring a triple carburettor set up on the engine. This significantly increased the engine power output to 132 bhp, as well as its thirst for fuel. However, in January 1962 the Mk IIa emerged with two large carburettors replacing the triple carburettor design, and for the first time the car received wind-up side windows.

In 1963, and for the Austin-Healey 3000 Mk III, the 3-litre engine received a new design in camshaft, coiled valve springs and bigger twin HD-8 carburettors, increasing the power output to 148bhp. The car received a whole new interior, including a new dash panel layout. Another innovation was that the car was no longer started by use of a button, but by use of the ignition key.

In May 1964 the Big Healey was again modified, with alterations being made to the chassis to give the rear axle more vertical travel on the suspension, so as to improve the ride quality of the car, and with the leaf-spring suspension increased to six-leaves.

On the outside the auxiliary flasher lamps at the front were enlarged in size to match the headlights. 1967 was the last full year in which the Big Healey was produced, with 3051 of the cars being made.

The Big Healey was now showing its age and required some serious financial investment to replace it with a new model if the car was to meet both the US emissions regulations and safety standards. This was at a time when BMC had recently been taken over by the British Leyland Motor Corporation (BLMC) and who now owned the Austin Healey plant.

It was also at a timewhen MG cars were selling in large numbers, in the form of the MGB and MG Midget, and the Triumph wing was doing equally well with the Spitfire and developing a new project to replace the Triumph TR5 with the later-to-be launched TR6.

BLMC could not justify the expense of developing yet another sports car and made the decision to axe the Austin Healey range altogether, a decision that understandibly Donald Healey was not best pleased with. Relations at this point between Donald Healey and BLMC broke down completely and the association between the two ended.

In March 1968 production of the Austin-Healey BJ8 ceased with only one right-hand drive car being released in that year; all the rest being for export. The car was issued with chassis number 43026 and was finished in Ivory White and marked the end of a special era in British sports car manufacture.

There is a common myth that the lastfew BJ8 Healey's were painted in a gold finish. The truth is there were indeed a number of cars that were finished in a metallic golden beige, which was an MGB colour, with either red or black interior trim. The Golden Healey’s, as some refer to them, were not all manufactured in chassis number sequence, but were interspersed with other colours. The lowest chassis number for the MGB gold painted cars was 40190, built in January 1967, with the highest chassis number 43025 being manufactured in November 1967, makingup a total of 553 Gold coloured cars.

This was not the end of Donald Healey’s involvement in car production. In the closing years of the 1960s, the Jensen Motor Company was in deep financial difficulty. Compounded with that there were build quality problems with the Interceptor, a factor that was putting many potential buyers off the car.

To get away from this heavy financial burden, the Norcross Group, owners of Jensen, sold the company to merchant bankers, William Brandt Sons & Company limited, and through careful management the production of the Interceptor was increased to try and improve sales - and then decreased later to improve build quality.

However all of this was futile and the Jensen Motor Company looked like it was going nowhere, seemingly destined for collapse. However, having been severely battered by his experience with the new British Leyland Motor Corporation, who had pulled out of the production of Austin-Healey sports cars, Donald Healey once again formed an association with Jensen and went on to build a new sports car, together with a San Fransisco businessman, Mr. Kjell Qvale.

Qvale operated a very successful company selling Jaguar, Rolls-Royce and other British cars in the United States. He too was dismayed at the discontinuance of the Austin-Healey 3000 and learning of the role played by Jensen in the construction of the big Healey, he was interested in Donald Healey’s plans to build a new sports car.

Before long Qvale became a majority shareholder within the Jensen Motor Company and took control, appointing Donald Healey as Chairman, with Geoff Healey as one of the directors, an event that completely and finally severed all involvement between Donald Healey and British Leyland.

From the newly formed relationship there came a car with a new brand name, the Jensen-Healey. This was a whole new vehicle that promised much, but turned out to be very disappointing. Right from the outset there were problems with the build quality and with engine reliability. First the car had a Vauxhall engine, and when that was found to be unsuitable, one from BMW was considered, before an untested and under developed Lotus unit was used.

This engine seemed a wise choice as not only did it satisfy the new US exhaust emission regulations, but it was designed to be fitted at an angle of 45 degrees, which not being very tall, provided the opportunity to use a low profile body. However, Qvale was impatient and insisted upon the engines being delivered early, way before they had been fully developed, and the finished car made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1972 to the initial approval of the motoring press.

It wasn’t long though before the flawss in the car became apparent, something that cost the Jensen Motor Company a considerable amount of money, money they could ill afford to spend. In August 1972 the Mk II version was released. This was a vastly improved car and was improved again in November 1974 with the fitting of the German Getrag five-speed gearbox. However, Donald Healey had become totally disillusioned with the whole Jensen organisation and resigned from the Jensen Board, refusing to allow his name associated with the fixed-head, hatch-back GT version of the Jensen car, as introduced in July 1975.

With Donald Healey's association with Jensen and Austin being a distant memory, Jensen lurched from one problem to the next, but it was the energy crisis of 1974 that carried Jensen to the brink of total collapse. A plea for help made to the serving Labour Government at the time was rebuffed and in May 1976, Jensen Motors Ltd ceased trading.

Following the demise of Jensen, Kjell Qvale purchased the company assets from the Official Receiver and went on to form another company that specialised in servicing and renovating Jensen cars, a project supplemented by the importation and distribution of Subaru and Hyundai vehicles.

After the demise of the Austin Healey 3000 in 1968 it later transpired that The Donald Healey Motor Company had been secretly dabbling with a new model to succeed it – a car that never made it as far as production. It appears that three examples were built, and although it may have looked familiar from a distance, upon close inspection it really was quite a different animal.

What Donald Healey had done was to take the body from an Austin Healey 3000, cut is in half length-wise and weld it back together with a six-inch fillet inserted between. Rumours have suggested that there had been a fourth car, but so far this has been found not to be true. Under the bonnet was a Rolls Royce engine, complete with Rolls Royce markings, the same engine as that fitted to the Austin Princess R.

It makes sense for this to have been the choice of the factory because of the past association between Healey and Austin, and for its availability. The power unit was made from Alloy, making it somewhat lighter than the cast iron example of the old cars. This would mean that the weight distribution would be better, and with the widened track, would undoubtedly have been blessed with better handling properties.

The gearbox appears to have been from Jaguar, as fitted to the E-Type, and the rear axle was either a normal Healey 3000 item, or the one from the MGC. Two of the three cars were fitted with automatic gearboxes, the third being a manual with an overdrive unit, but acting only on fourth gear.

The story of the secret building of these three cars by the old Donald Healey company is indeed a magical one, and of a kind that fairytales and dreams are usually made of, except that this one was real. No doubt, if the car ever had been taken into production, the Rolls Royce powered model would have gone down very well, especially in the USA.

Long after the demise of all those great British sports cars that had made British car manufacture so great, the Big Healey is still regarded as perhaps the epitome of that era and is undoubtedly one of the most sought after classic cars of today – an observation supported by the huge sums of money they fetch when occasionally appearing for auction. As long as there are those that are enthusiastic enough to look after the remaining cars they will always continue to invite awe and admiration as one of the greatest sports cars of the twentieth century.

As for Donald Healey, on 15th January 1988, in his native village of Perranporth in Cornwall, he passed away a few months before his 90th birthday. A legend to motoring enthusiasts the world over his cortege fittingly included many representatives of the cars that bear his name.


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