Donald Healey

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Donald Healey

Donald Healey
Donald Healey was around the motoring industry a long time and he sure accomplished a lot of things - so much so that no article here on Unique Cars and Parts could possibly do him justice. There were not too many front line Royal Flying Corps pilots, fewer still many pre-World War 2 winners of the Monte Carlo Rally. And there have never been many men who have given their names to a great line of sports cars.

Donald Healey was born at Perranporth, in Cornwall, in July 1898. His first encounter with the motoring world came a few years past the turn of the previous century, when his father went to London and came back with a four-cylinder Panhard-Levassor. This cranky machine took three days to cover the distance and Healey Snr. later broke his arm trying to crank it. Still, it apparently sowed the seeds of his son's later enthusiasms.

An Apprentice at Sopwith

But to start with Donald Healey was drawn toward aviation. When he left school he joined Sopwith as an apprentice. He learned to fly there, and after the war broke out in 1914 he added a couple of years to his age and got into the RFC. He served in a home defence fighter squadron and in a bomber squadron in France. In 1917 he was badly hurt in a crash after a run in with some "friendly" anti-aircraft fire, and he was taken off flying duties.

After the war Healey returned to Perranporth and opened a garage. He joined the local car club and started driving in hillclimbs and trials. His first competition success was fastest time of day in a hillclimb with a six-cylinder Buick in 1922. Later he performed in an ABC light two-seater with an air-cooled two-cylinder engine. Healey then started aiming higher in competitions. In 1923 he entered the ABC in the classic London to Lands End trial, and in 1924 he won a gold medal in it. He repeated this success with various other cars in 1925, 1926, 1927, 1929 and 1930. He drove a supercharged Triumph Seven for a class win in the Royal Automobile Club Rally in 1928.

The Monte Carlo Rally

In 1929 Healey used the Triumph Seven for his first try in the Monte Carlo Rally. He finished just outside the time limit, but he won his class in the Mont des Mules hillclimb that followed. With this experience behind him, he took the Triumph again in 1930 and finished seventh overall in the best showing by a British entrant. In late 1930 Healey switched to a 41/2 litre Invicta for international competitions. This turned out to be a good move. The big car won him a Coupe des Glaciers in the Alpine Rally that year, and first place in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1931.

Healey started from Stavanger in Norway, which was the second toughest route and the likeliest route for cars after the main prize. Soon after the start the Invicta knocked over a Norwegian telegraph pole and bent its rear axle, but Healey disconnected the brakes on that side and pushed on. The Invicta was one of six Stavanger starters to reach Monaco without losing any time at the control points, and it beat the others in the speed and braking tests to win outright.

Four Coupes des Glaciers

The years around 1930 were the peak of Healey's competition career. Apart from the Monte Carlo win, he took four Coupes des Glaciers in the Alpine Rally in successive years, won a First Award in the 14-day International 10,000 Kilometre Trial in a 2 litre Riley, and won another cup in the Austro-Hungarian Alpine Trial in an Invicta. In 1931 he entered the trusty Invicta in the Monte Carlo Rally again and finished a good second overall. Healey had become known to the people at Triumph, Invicta and Riley through driving their cars so well. In 1932 he joined the experimental department at Riley, and the next year he switched to Triumph as Experimental Manager.

While at Triumph Healey worked on the designs of the 1100 cm3 Triumph Glorias arid 1800 cm3 Dolomites, and in 1934 he and Tommy Wisdom drove a specially prepared Gloria in the Monte Carlo Rally. They went by the Athens route and came third overall to win their class. Healey was also responsible for the advent of the 1934 Triumph Dolomite straight-8. This fast, refined, expensive sports two-seater appeared at the London Motor Show that year. It was styled like the current 2.3 litre Alfa Romeo sports racer and the engine was an obvious copy, and many people guessed it was a pirated design.

Actually, Alfa had approved the copy. Healey had approached the Italians after Sir Henry Birkin and Lord Howe had told him drivers like themselves needed British sports racers to replace their old Bentleys in international racing. The Alfa management reckoned the 2.3 would soon be obsolete anyway and they were interested in getting the rights to Triumph motorcycle designs as part of the deal. Obsolete or not, the Alfa derivatives might have become the foundation of a great new British sports racing make. Healey made the deal and started on three prototypes, but while they were building things started to go wrong.

Special Bodied Austin-Healey Sprite
One of several special-bodied Sprites built by the Healey team (on the Sprite floor-pan) in the 1960s.

Donald Healey sitting inside the Jensen-Healey
Donald Healey sitting inside the Jensen-Healey. The car never really reached its full potential as Healey wanted a Ford V6 engine, but his associates wanted Lotus, and this engine suffered many teething problems, which tarnished the reputation of what was otherwise a very good car.

Geoffrey Healey with the supercharged Austin-Healey
Geoffrey Healey with the supercharged car during tests before shipping it to Bonneville where it ran 327.6 km/h

First Sir Henry Birkin, the leading British user of sports racers, died of blood poisoning after an arm injury from the Tripoli GP turned septic. Then the Triumph management had second thoughts about the whole project. The straight-8s would have no parts in common with any other Triumphs so they'd be expensive to build. The market for them would be very small even if they were a success. In the end there was a boardroom fight and the plan was cancelled. The prototypes were finished and Healey drove one in the 1935 Monte Carlo Rally, but lost it in a level-crossing smash in Denmark. It was repaired and sold off privately along with the other two and the spares.

Triumph Goes Into Receivership

Donald Healey stayed with Triumph as technical director through the 1930s. Triumph built good middle class cars with a strong sporting look, but like other British companies at the time it tried to sell too big a range of models. The quality stayed high but business declined, and in June 1939 the firm went into receivership. By then Healey was managing director. He arranged Triumph's sale to a steelmaking firm, and a few weeks later war broke out. Healey ran the works for the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and after they were wrecked in the blitz on Coventry he went to Humber to work on armoured cars.

When it became apparent that the Allies were winning, Healey started to use his (limited) spare time planning for peace. He got together a small design team and they drew up an advanced high performance car with a light chassis and a medium sized engine, independent front suspension and streamlined open and closed bodywork. In 1944 he took the plans to Triumph, but the steelmakers in control there turned him down. Healey and his team started to collect material to make their own prototype. A friend at Riley offered to sell them 2.4 litre Riley engines, a former Triumph director offered them space in a cement mixer factory, and in 1945 they started to put together the first Healey.

The Donald Healey Motor Co Ltd

According to his son Geoffrey, Donald Healey wasn't keen on putting his own name on the car. He tried to get the use of some extinct make names, but there were legal objections. His company had to be the Donald Healey Motor Co Ltd, his cars had to be Healeys, and he named the different models after the firms who built their bodies. The prototype four-seater roadster was finished by Westland Aeroparts of Hereford, so that became the Healey Westland. The Westland was shown to the press early in 1946, and the response was very favourable. A line of chassis was laid down and the Riley engines started to arrive, and the first batch of 50 closed bodies was ordered from Elliots in Reading. That style became the Healey Elliot.

British industry had been disrupted by six years of war, and there were shortages of steel, ball bearings and rubber. But the aircraft industry was being run down, so there was plenty of light alloy metal around and it was possible to use that instead of steel and save weight. Wood for body frames and floors was hard to get, but it was found the British civil authorities had overstocked on coffins and these were cut up for parts. There was a shortage of chrome and the first Lucas lamps came with painted shells and rims.

Anthony Eden Assists The British Motor Industry

Luckily the local Member of Parliament was Anthony Eden, and in between foreign affairs debates he used his prestige to help local industry. Enough parts came in to beat the bottlenecks and by early 1947 Westlands and Elliots were on sale. British motoring writers were impressed by the specifications of the Healeys and in December 1946 the editor of "The Motor" took a standard Elliot to Italy for a road test. On the Como-Milan autostrada it did a standing quarter mile in 17.8 seconds and covered a flying quarter mile at 168 km/h, which showed it to be the fastest British car in production. In August 1947 Donald Healey took another Elliot to the Jab-beke highway in Belgium and drove it at 178 km/h over a flying mile.

The Healeys made their speed thanks to an efficient and well developed engine, light weight, and careful streamlining tested in a wind tunnel. The streamlined styling showed most. It's hard to say whether it was truly ahead of its time, because six years of total war had distorted the natural course of events and most car makers were rushing out warmed-over pre-war models for a hungry and uncritical market. But no British car came near them for looks or speed until the Jaguar XK 120 was shown in 1948. The tiny company brought out more models by using different bodies to ring the changes on the same fine chassis and engine. The Duncan had a closed four-seater body styled rather like the Elliot, but with pillarless side windows and more space inside. The Tickford was a four-seater sports saloon replacing the Elliot and the Abbott was a drophead coupe replacing the West-land. Both were lower and roomier than the earlier cars.

The Healey Silverstone

The best remembered and most popular Healey was the Silverstone, a large open two-seater with a long blunt body, based on the standard Healey chassis with the engine moved back 20 cm. It had shaped cycle guards, close set headlamps inside the radiator grille and a spare wheel that lay flat in a slot and served as a back bumper. It could do nearly 160 km/h like all its half sisters, but it was never meant for a first class sports racer. It was a simple, efficient car for keen amateurs to enjoy on the road and to use in club races, and it turned out to be ideal for this.

The Healey Sportsmobile was a shot at an alternative open four-seater. It had a squarish heavy-looking body on the usual chassis, with plenty of cockpit space, a big boot and an elaborate convertible top. It was interesting and the press thought a lot of it, but it wasn't exactly what most people expected from Healey and not many were made. Donald Healey was interested in the American market. He made a reconnaisance across the Atlantic with his son Geoffrey and a Westland roadster early in 1948. He sold some Silver-stones to European-minded enthusiasts, but he found that wasn't the car for the job. Most Americans weren't so interested in its fine handling and they wanted more power under the lid.

He reckoned something with a big American engine in a well-designed European chassis would suit them better, and on his next trip across he met George Mason, then president of the Nash Kelvinator Corporation, and put the plan to him. He'd already experimented with a V-8 Cadillac engine in a Silverstone chassis, and Mason promised him a supply of 3.8 litre six-cylinder Nash engines for a new model. The Nash engines were shipped from America to the Healey works at Warwick, fitted into chassis and tested. Then these assemblies were sent on to Italy for Pininfarina bodies, and the complete cars were shipped to America for sale. Healey built a few Alvis-Healeys with 3-litre Alvis engines in the same body for the home market.

Racing in the in the Mille Miglia

When he started making cars, Donald Healey was best known for his rally performances in the 1930s. In 1948 he got back into competition driving to help publicise his company. That year he and Geoffrey drove a Westland in the Mille Miglia against a field of nearly 200 Italian entries and finished fourth in the unlimited sports car class and ninth overall. Count Lurani won the touring class in an Elliot. He used a Westland again in the 1948 Alpine Rally, but lost his chance of another cup when he stopped on the last leg to help the crew of a crashed Sunbeam. In 1949 he used an Elliot in the Mille Miglia and came fourth in the touring class, and Geoffrey won the class in a Westland. Later that year he drove a Silverstone in the Alpine Rally and finished first in his class and second overall.

He and Geoffrey drove in three more Mille Miglias as a team. They used Nash-Healeys and their best showing was fourth in class in 1951. The following year they were lying seventh overall when a tyre burst at a bridged corner. They hit the side and wrecked the car. They weren't injured, but there was a nasty aftermath. "Some journalist rang my mother in England," Geoffrey Healey wrote later. "Seeking a sensational story, he asked her how she felt at having her husband and son killed at one go. After that event we did not compete again - our accountants pointed out that an accident like that could wipe out the whole family business."

Racing The Nash-Healey at Le Mans

Donald Healey campaigned the Nash-Healey in various forms in the Le Mans 24-hour Race. In 1950 Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt drove the prototype to come third in class, fourth overall. The best result was in 1952, when Leslie Johnson and Tommy Wisdom finished third and won their class. In the early 1950s the Healey company was in a sound position. The Riley-engined cars sold readily to rich enthusiasts and the Nash-Healeys earned export dollars. But these cars were coming under pressure in the market from Jaguar's XK 120 and Mark VII, which were bigger, stronger and roomier and just as fast. Donald Healey decided it was time to try a new tack.

There was a wide gap in the popular sports car market between the 3.5-litre Jaguars and the 1.5-litre MGs and he designed a new car to fill it. The 2.4-litre Riley engine was going out of production, but the 2.6-litre four-cylinder Austin A90 engine was easy to get hold of. Its specifications weren't exciting but it was cheaper and lighter than the Riley. Healey reckoned it was a sound unit that would stand a lot of tuning. The design's most outstanding point was its styling. It was low and smooth with a version of the familiar Healey grille between long rounded wings that suggested the lines of the saloons and roadsters. Early sketches and models showed a crudely flashy tail with creases down the sides and little fins, but Healey cleaned this up on the prototype.

International Show Car of the Year

Otherwise, there were few troubles with the car. It was first seen at the 1952 London Motor Show as the Healey 100 and had a terrific reception. The Healey salesmen took orders for more than 3000 cars, mostly for the American market. Later it won the Grand Premier award at the Miami World's Fair, and at the New York Motor Show it was named the International Show Car of the Year. There was no chance of Donald Healey's little factory building enough cars to satisfy this demand, but before the London show was over the problem was solved. Sir Leonard Lord, chairman of Austin, had followed the development of the 100 almost from the start. Once he saw it was a winner, he stepped in with an offer to take over production and back it with the huge Austin sales and service network. Overnight the show car's Healey badge was swapped for one saying Austin-Healey.

Production started to wind down in the Healey works at Warwick. The company had built 101 Elliots, 64 Westlands, 39 Duncans, 224 Tickfords, 77 Abbotts, 23 Sportsmobiles and 105 Silverstones, and the last of 404 Nash-Healeys and 25 Alvis-Healeys were coming off the lines. Two batches of 25 Austin-Healeys were built there for showing and testing while the assembly line in the Austin works at Longbridge was being set up. For the next few years Donald Healey concentrated on developing, testing and racing the car. Two entries in the 1953 Mille Miglia dropped out with mechanical trouble, but the works learned from that. The two works entries at Le Mans a couple of months later had trouble-free runs and finished 12th and 14th against some highly specialised sports racing opposition.

Speed Records Set At The Bonneville Salt Flats

At the end of the year Healey and Captain George Eyston took two Austin-Healeys to the Bonneville Salt Flats. They set more than 100 international and American records over distances up to 4800 km and times up to 24 hours. Healey drove the more highly tuned car at 229 km/h (142.6 mph) over the measured mile and showed it to be the fastest production 3-litre car in the world. In 1954 he withdrew the Austin-Healeys from international racing as a protest against the trend toward fields of sports racing specials getting farther and farther away from production models. To fill in time, he took another brace of cars to Bonneville for another shot at the records. One of these was the faster car from 1953, and the other was a special supercharged streamliner with a bubble cockpit.

This expedition was another big success. With Healey and Carroll Shelby driving, the modified 1953 car improved on the old records by about 16 km/h all round. The streamliner was meant to find out just how fast an Austin-Healey could be made to go, and Healey took it over the mile at 309.98 km/h (192.6 mph). The record runs proved the new modifications to the unstreamlined car and it went into limited production at Warwick as the Austin-Healey 100S. It had a top speed of about 200 km/h and it could shoot from 0 to 96 km/h (0 to 60 mph) in 9.8 seconds. It was the fastest Austin-Healey production model ever. In 1955 Donald Healey drove one when he had a last fling at racing in the Mille Miglia. He had to retire late in the race, but George Abecassis pushed on with another to finish 11th overall and first in its price class.

Bad Publicity Following Le Mans

Austin-Healeys had bad publicity later that year when they were associated with the terrible Mercedes crash at the 1955 Le Mans and with another fatal accident in the TT at Dundrod. In any case the Austin four-cylinder engine was getting out of date and racing success was hard to come by. The Healey works was already working on the 100/6, with the new BMC six-cylinder 2.6-litre C-type engine in the same shape body. The new model was publicised by another outbreak of record-breaking at Bonneville, and the re-engined 1954 streamliner with Donald Healey up managed one timed run at 326.78 km/h. In 1957 Tommy Wisdom drove one to win its price class in the Mille Miglia, and in the Liege-Rome-Liege Rally in 1958 Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom drove brilliantly to finish fourth overall, win their class and take the Coupe des Dames.

In 1959 the C-type engine was enlarged to 2.9-litres and went into a new model, the Austin-Healey 3000. This was tested in racing and rallying and scored class wins, and in the hands of Miss Moss and Miss Wisdom it won the 1960 Liege-Rome-Liege outright. The next year the Morley twins used one to win the Alpine Rally. The 3000 was raced and rallied with some success through most of the 1960s. Meanwhile, Donald Healey had found another hole in the sports car market. The Triumph TR series had successfully plugged the rather small gap between the 2.6-litre Austin-Healeys and the 1.25-litre and 1.5-litre MGs. But the MGA was putting on weight and gaining power, and it looked like there might be room for something lighter.

He took the engine and gearbox from the popular little Austin A35 saloon and the rear axle and rack-and-pinion steering from the Morris Minor, and fitted them in a simple and compact two-seater body. The 948 cm3 engine didn't give it an outstanding turn of speed, but it was pleasant and handy to drive and it was cheap to buy and economical to run. Its bugeye headlamps gave it great character. It sold well for three years and the rebodied Mark II was adopted by MG as the new Midget. The big and small Austin-Healeys stayed in production until BMC merged to form British Leyland in 1967. The new management rationalised its sports car lines by phasing out Austin-Healey in favour of Jaguar, Triumph and MG.

The last Austin-Healey 3000 left the sports car works at Abingdon in December 1967 and Austin-Healey Sprite production was cut back in favour of the Midget. When Healey's royalty agreements ran out in 1971 the Sprite died too. For 15 years Donald Healey had had good relationships with Austin and BMC. At the Warwick works he produced the ideas, Geoffrey drew the plans and worked on the prototypes, and his other son Brian dealt with marketing, public relations and clubs. Apart from the two strings of Austin-Healeys, they built experimental models with engines of up to four litres and prepared most of the racing and rally cars.

From the start the Healey company had been responsible for all the details of its designs. Sir Leonard Lord had told Donald Healey he didn't want his own people ruining things. Healey was paid as a consultant and the company was given a proportion of the right-hand-drive Austin-Healeys to sell. In the late 1960s all that came to an end. But Healey was still keen to build cars, and a new design using Vauxhall parts was laid out. Kjell Kvale, an American businessman, heard of it and agreed to buy the Jensen company so he could build and market it.

The Jensen-Healey

The Jensen-Healey was designed to take a 2.3-litre Vauxhall engine, but this lost too much power when modified to meet American emission standards. Donald and Geoffrey Healey wanted to replace it with a 3-litre V-6 Ford engine, but Kvale and the Jensen engineers decided on a new 16-valve 2-litre engine from Lotus. The Jensen-Healey was shown in 1972 wearing a neat flat body, looking something like a leaned-down MGB and not much like earlier Healey designs. It had a lot of teething troubles under the bonnet, but by 1974 these had been fixed and the Healey team was working on a range of new Jensen models. However Jensen suffered sorely from the oil crisis of the early 1970s, demand dropped, production was cut and the directors had to ask the bank to appoint a receiver.

Donald and Geoffrey Healey were still keen to design sports cars but they found they couldn't find a maker to put them into production. They denied a rumour that they were working with Honda on one. They'd already sold the Donald Healey Motor Co Ltd, but they kept control of Healey Automobile Consultants Ltd, Healey Cars Ltd and the use of the Healey name. Latest reports say the companies are working on other engineering projects and a new Healey is unlikely. Donald Healey had already worked 15 years past the standard retirement age. The Healey SR was to follow, but we cover that in more detail in our article - Fouding Fathers of the Automotive Industry: Donald Healey.
Donald Healey with co-drivers Carroll Shelby and Roy Jackson Moore
Donald Healey with co-drivers Carroll Shelby and Roy Jackson Moore after setting a string of records in the endurance version and doing over 320 km/h (200 miph) in the supercharged model.
Donald Healey signing autographs
Donald Healey signing autographs.
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