Donald Healey and the History of the Big Healeys

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Donald Healey

Donald Healey
Donald Healey

Donald Mitchell Healey

It could be argued that Donald Healey did more for the prestige of British sports cars than any other man. Healey designed the awesome Healey Silverstone, which did well in sports-car racing after World War 2, and conceived the Healey 100, which later became the Austin-Healey 100 and 3000 models. He was also responsible for the Austin-Healey Sprite, which brought sports-car motoring to the masses and, at the age of 72, he devised the Jensen-Healey.

Born at Perranporth in Cornwall in 1898, Donald Mitchell Healey soon became acquainted with the fledgling motor car when he opened a small garage business in Perranporth and, before long, he began to take part in local competition events using cars like the ABC, Ariel and Triumph Seven. He was an intuitive engineer and in 1930 he joined the Invicta company at Cobham, Surrey, where he assisted in the design of the classic 4.5-litre low-chassis Invicta, which started to commands high prices from collectors as early as the 1960s.

The Triumph Dolomite

Healey also drove works Invictas in rallies with great success, winning the Coupes des Alpes in three successive Alpine Trials and in 1931 he won the, Monte Carlo rally outright. By 1934, Invicta had gone into liquidation, so Healey moved to Triumph in Coventry where, by 1936, he had been made chief designer. He was responsible for the range of Gloria saloons and roadsters, which continued in production up to the start of World War 2. Healey also designed a very advanced sports car called the Dolomite; this had an advanced straight-eight, twin-overhead-camshaft, supercharged 2-Iitre engine and a two-seater sports body.

It was widely alleged that the Dolomites design was copied from that of the current Alfa Romeo, right down to the Zagato-style coachwork. Very few were produced, even though it was cheaper than its Italian counterpart. The Dolomite name was later given to a more conventional sports roadster which was made available with both four and six-cylinder engines. Healey continued with his competition career while at Triumph, finishing third overall in the 1934 Monte Carlo Rally with a Triumph Gloria, while in 1935 he drove one of the Dolomites, only to have a spectacular collision with a train on a level crossing.

Healey continued as technical director of Triumph until World War 2, when the car side of the company went into receivership. He stayed with Triumph during the war, however, working on Air Ministry contracts. When the war ended, Triumph was absorbed by the Standard Motor Company, so Donald Healey decided to go into business on his own account. During the war he had worked with A. C. Sampietro, who had been with Thomson and Taylor of Brooklands fame, and between them they conceived a new model for post-war production. Healey took over a small factory on a trading estate in Warwick and set up production of the new car, which was simply known as the Healey.

The Healey Elliott

The first cars were built in 1946 and demand for the attractive Elliott-bodied cars soon had the tiny factory working at full stretch. The aluminium-bodied Healey Elliott saloon was of advanced shape, with a neatly faired-in body at a time when separate wings were still the norm. That its shape was efficient was indicated by its top speed of 105 mph, which made the saloon the fastest British production closed car for several years. It was powered by the 2.5 litre Riley four-cylinder engine which gave 104 bhp and was mated to the four-speed Riley gearbox. With only fifty workers, the Healey factory managed to build five cars a week by 1947.

The Healey Silverstone

Competition success was soon coming Healey's way, as Count Lurani won his class in the 1948 Mille Miglia, and there were other class victories in the Alpine Trial and the Targa Florio, while Tommy Wisdom had put IO!.7 miles into an hour at the Montlhery track. In late 1948, a re-bodied version of the Healey was announced. This model, called the Sportmobile, had a slab-sided body which did not go down well with the public and it was soon dropped. However, in 1949, a two-seater sports car, called the Silverstone, was announced. This machine was based on the standard Healey chassis, retaining the trailing-arm independent front suspension and rigid rear axle located by trailing arms and a Panhard rod.

The body of the new car was a simple torpedo shaped two-seater of stark appearance with the headlamps behind the radiator grille and the spare wheel placed horizontally in the rear of the body to act as a bumper. This light car was capable of over r oo mph and sold for under £1300, so there was quite a brisk demand both in England and the USA, although the Jaguar XK120 killed off sales after 1950 and only about 100 were sold in all. It went well in club racing and put many drivers on the map, perhaps the best known of all being Tony Brooks. The Silverstone came in two models, the D and the E, the latter having a slightly wider body, adjustable steering and a larger windscreen.

1951 Healey 2.4 litre Sports Saloon
1951 Healey 2.4 litre Sports Saloon. Its streamlined shape helped give the car a top speed of 105 mph, which made it the then fastest British closed production sedan available. It was powered by a four cylinder Riley engine developing 104 bhp.

1963 Austin Healey Sprite
1963 Austin Healey Sprite in a club race in the USA. The 2nd generation Sprite was powered by the BMC A-Series engine.

Austin-Healey 100-Six
Austin-Healey 100-Six. Donald Healeys association with Austin lasted from 1952 until 1971, after which time he then retired to his native Cornwall.

Worswick/Bond Austin-Healey 3000 competing in the 1968 Targa Florio
Worswick/Bond Austin-Healey 3000 competing in the 1968 Targa Florio.

Austin-Healey Sprite with modified body, pictured in action during the 1966 Targa Florio
Austin-Healey Sprite with modified body, pictured in action during the 1966 Targa Florio by Clive Baker and Rauno Aaltonen.

1968 Le Mans Healey SR 2-litre prototype
1968 Le Mans Healey SR 2-litre prototype. It was powered by a 2 litre V8 Coventry Climax engine driven through a Hewland five-speed gearbox. The top speed was in excess of 150 mph.

Modified Autsin-Healey Sprite in action during the 1966 Nurburgring 1000
Modified Autsin-Healey Sprite in action during the 1966 Nurburgring 1000.

The Nash Healey

The Elliot-bodied cars were dropped in 1950 to make way for new Tickford saloon and Abbott drophead coupe models which retained the same chassis but were quieter, more refined, heavier and slower. Then in 1950 came the Nash-Healey, a three-seater sports car which Healey built for export, fitted with the six-cylinder, 3.8-litre American Nash engine, which gave 125 bhp. The first prototype was built for the 1950 Le Mans race where Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton drove the car into a promising fourth place. This encouraged the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation to commission Healey to build replicas for sale in the States and for a long spell this was the only model built at the Healey works. It was basically a Silverstone chassis with a wider, slab-sided body to take a three-abreast bench seat. A three-speed gearbox with over-drive on third and top was fitted but otherwise it was mechanically the same as the Silverstone.

The racing versions were tuned to give around 140 bhp at 4200 rpm, while by 1952 the standard engine was a 4138cc unit which gave 135bhp. The Nash-Healey was raced all over the world with a fair amount of success because it was quite light and the engine was relatively unstressed. It gained a 7th place in the Mille Miglia in 1952 and third place overall at Le Mans the same year driven by Leslie Johnson and Tommy Wisdom. Demand for a British version of the Nash-Healey persuaded Healey to build the car with a 3-litre Alvis engine and four-speed gearbox, but it was too expensive for all but the wealthy. and few were made.

The Healey 100

The later Nash-Healey models were fitted with a new body by Pininfarina in Italy, whereas the early models had been built in aluminium by Panelcraft of Birmingham. The turning point in the fortunes of Donaly Healey came in 1952 when his company exhibited a new model at the London Motor Show. This sleek, all-enveloping two-seater, with heavily raked screen and flowing body lines, captured the imagination of the public who crowded onto the stand, pressing orders on the delighted factory personnel. The car had wishbone and coil-spring ifs, a rigid rear axle on leaf springs, and power came from a four-cylinder Austin A90 engine and four-speed gearbox. Called the Healey 100, the car created such a sensation that Donald Healey knew he could never cope with demand, so when Sir Leonard Lord of Austin passed the stand and saw the crowds around the car he was quick to appreciate the problem and soon talked Healey into allowing Austin to build the car. So it became the Austin-Healey 100.

The Healey works at Warwick carried on building the Nash-Healey into 1954 but, under the generous agreement with Austin, Donald Healey would get royalties on each Austin-Healey made and he was retained to develop new models at Warwick and carry on a small competition programme. The first few cars were built at Warwick but in 1953 production was in full swing at Longbridge where the line was kept busy dealing with high demand from the USA. A near-standard car achieved twelfth place at Le Mans in 1953, and in 1954 a highly modified model, running with Dunlop disc brakes, finished a very creditable third at the Sebring 12 Hours.

Later in 1954, a much-modified version called the 100S was announced; this was developed from the Sebring car, hence the S. The engine had its power output boosted to 132 bhp from the standard 90 bhp and the engine was mated to a new 4-speed gearbox. The suspension was considerably modified and Dunlop disc brakes were fitted, while the body was given many aluminium panels and reshaped to improve the streamlining. This car was built at Healey's Warwick works and there was a steady demand from enthusiasts. It never finished very high in International events because of its greater weight compared with the specialised sports/racing cars but it invariably finished well up on sheer reliability. A supercharged version of the 100S with a fully streamlined body was used in record breaking attempts in November 1954; driven by Donald Healey himself, the car achieved a speed of 192.6 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

The Austin-Healy BN1 and BN2

In 1955, the 100 was improved by fitting a four-speed gearbox in place of the 3-speed and overdrive which Austin had been fitting, but overdrive was also available on the four-speed box. The brakes were enlarged on this BN2 model as well (the earlier model had been known as the BN1). Also announced at this time was the 100M which featured a tuned engine (110 bhp against 90 bhp), a front anti-roll bar and a louvred bonnet with a safety strap. This was largely designed for the American market but a number were also sold on the home market. In October 1956, the 100 models gave way to the 100-Six which was powered by the Austin six-cylinder 2.6-litre engine which gave 102 bhp. The car had a new, longer body which allowed the fitment of small children's seats behind the two bucket seats, while the body was restyled with a new wide, oval grille. The new model was heavier and less sporty than its predecessor but it was almost as fast and appealed to a wider clientele.

The 'Frog Eye' Sprite

Donald Healey drove a prototype supercharged version of this car at over 200 mph at Bonneville in August 1956. In 1958, an entirely new Austin-Healey was announced. This was the Sprite, which introduced sports-car motoring to many thousands who could not afford the more expensive reo-Six models. Priced at little more than £600, the Sprite became affectionately known as the 'frog eye' because of the pods on the bonnet which housed the headlamps. The car was cleverly designed to use existing components from the BMC range such as the 948cc, 42 bhp 'A' series engine and four-speed gearbox, wishbone front suspension and a live rear axle mounted on quarter-elliptic leaf springs. The light little two-seater was good for 80 mph and once again BMC were kept busy turning them out for world markets.

Donald Healey built tuned versions for road use and also entered them for races, notably Le Mans, where they usually ran consistently. In 1959, the 100-Six model became the 3000 because it was now available with a 2912cc version of the 'C' type engine which now gave 124 bhp at 4600rpm. A number of other modifications were made and the body was slightly restyled, but more importantly it would do over 120 mph and return better than 20 mpg. Gradually, Donald Healey slipped out of the picture as far as BMC was concerned, as most of the development was now done either at Longbridge or the MG factory and BMC's own competitions department began to do very well with the sports cars, especially the big Healey, which they developed to give over 200 bhp.

The. 'frog-eye' Sprite gave way to a more conventional-looking model in May 1961 and it dropped out of the competition scene, while over the years the Austin-Healey 3000 put on weight and gradually lost its appeal to the sports enthusiasts who preferred lighter, more nimble cars like the Triumph TR4 and MGB. The increasingly stringent safety and pollution regulations introduced in the USA gave BMC an excuse to abandon the 3000 in 1968, although a Mk IV version with a 4-litre Rolls Royce engine did reach prototype stage. The little Sprite was phased out by 1971 as it had grown to be identical to the MG Midget. So, by 1971, the Healey name had dropped from catalogues and the Warwick factory was left only with tuning work on various Healey models, although the company had built a rear-engined sports/racing car for Le Mans in 1968.

The Healey SR

Called the SR, the car was rather heavy, and its VS Coventry-Climax 2-litre engine gave it insufficient performance. It retired at Le Mans both in 1968 and 1969 and was substantially modified for 1970 when it was fitted with a Repco 3-Iitre V8 engine. This time, the Healey ran more reliably, but was eventually put out of the race only a few minutes from the end with ignition trouble. Donald Healey retired to his native Cornwall, leaving his sons, Geoffrey and Brian, in charge of the Healey works, but he was far from finished with the motor trade for he had been quietly developing a new version of the Austin-Healey 100.

This was to be a conventional, cheap, sports two-seater using fairly mundane components, so Healey settled on Vauxhall parts for the car. He used a Vauxhall Victor engine and gearbox, front suspension and rear axle, all grafted onto a monocoque chassis/body unit. The owner of Jensen Motors of West Bromwich, the Norwegian born Kjell Qvale, was impressed with the design and he quickly signed an agreement with Healey to develop the car. After much development it appeared as the Jensen-Healey, fitted with a Lotus 2-litre engine, Sunbeam Rapier gearbox and Vauxhall suspension. Although not greeted with quite the same enthusiasm as the Healey 100, the Jensen-Healey was sold all over the world, with 1974 production nearing 200 cars a week. Donald Healey died in Perranporth at the age of 89.

Also see: Honour Roll - Founding Fathers Of The Automotive Industry | Austin-Healey Car Reviews
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