In October 1952, Donald Healey introduced what was to be the most famous car bearing his name: the Austin-Healey 100. It would survive for 15 years in three distinct incarnations, along the way gaining a six-cylinder engine and a formidable competition record. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we examine the origins and evolution of the “big Healeys”: the 1953-1967 Austin-Healey 100, 100-6, and 3000.
BUILDING A CHEAPER HEALEY
By late 1951, the tiny Warwick-based Donald Healey Motor Company offered four distinct models: the luxurious Tickford saloon and Abbott drophead (convertible), both powered by a 2,443 cc (149 cu. in.) Riley four; the Anglo-American Nash-Healey with its big Nash six; and the new Healey Sports Convertible, powered by a 2,993 cc (183 cu. in.) Alvis engine. All used variations of the same chassis and all were quite expensive, selling in very modest numbers.
Donald Healey was well aware that the company’s products had a limited audience in the U.K. and were too costly to make a big impression on the American market. The Nash-Healey, for example, cost nearly $2,000 more than a Jaguar XK-120, itself far from cheap. After a trip to the U.S. in the fall of 1951, Healey concluded that what his company really needed was a sports car to fit into the sizable price gap between the Jaguar and the MG TD.
A cheaper car would need a different engine, ideally one less bulky than the Riley four, which weighed some 600 lb (272 kg). That engine was not long for the world, in any case. According to Healey’s son Geoff, DHMC’s head of engineering development, Riley was eager to phase out the twin-cam four, whose design dated back to the 1920s.
An interesting alternative was Austin’s big OHV four. Introduced in the 1945 Austin 16, it had seen duty in the A70 saloon, the K8 van, the ubiquitous FX3 taxicab, and civilian versions of the Austin Champ truck. Bored out from 2,199 to 2,660 cc (134 to 162 cu. in.) and fitted with two S.U. carburetors, that engine had powered the A90 Atlantic, Austin’s ill-fated attempt to crack the U.S. market. The big four was not a particularly racy engine, but it was sturdy, dependable, and readily available. Although the Atlantic had been a commercial failure, Austin chairman Leonard Lord still liked the idea of an Austin-powered sports car (during the same period, he also considered proposals from Frazer-Nash and Jensen) and was happy to provide whatever Healey required.
The new car also required an updated chassis. The existing chassis, designed by A.C. Sampietro during the war, was expensive to build and its trailing-arm front suspension suffered heavy understeer, so Healey engineer Barry Bilbie started over from scratch. The new chassis would have semi-unitized construction, using a self-supporting frame to which were welded two large sub-assemblies comprising most of the inner body structure. Although the combination was heavier than a true monocoque, it was very sturdy, providing a solid foundation for the suspension. Most exterior panels would be aluminum, helping to keep the car’s dry weight to only 1,850 lb (839 kg).
THE HEALEY HUNDRED
The task of clothing the new chassis fell to Gerry Coker, who had joined the company as a body engineer in 1950. Although Coker was not a stylist, the Healeys thought highly of his sense of line and he was adept at creating details that were attractive but still practical for production, a vital point for a company with Healey’s limited resources. Coker had never designed a complete car before, but he promised to do his best.
Donald Healey was not exactly brimming with confidence and micromanaged Coker relentlessly throughout the design process. The new car was an enormous gamble and Healey couldn’t afford to fail; we assume that even building a prototype represented a huge investment. In a 2008 interview with Steven Kingsbury, Coker said he had eventually had to refuse to make any more changes, realizing that the process had reached the point of diminishing returns. Healey accepted Coker’s final full-size drawing, albeit not without reservations.
Healey commissioned John Thompson Motor Pressings Company in Wolverhampton to build a prototype chassis and engaged Tickford to build its body shell from Coker’s scale drawings. The initial prototype, painted light blue, was completed in September 1952 and used for road testing. It reached speeds of up to 106 mph (171 km/h) on Belgium’s Jabbeke highway, as good as the larger Nash-Healey could manage with a six-cylinder engine of 50% greater displacement. Small sports cars capable of more than 100 mph (161 km/h) were not abundant in those days, so the prototype’s performance gave the car its name: the Healey Hundred.
A few weeks later, John Bolster of Autosport magazine took the prototype back to Belgium, where he reached a highly respectable 112 mph (180 km/h) with the windscreen folded and a tonneau cover over the passenger seat. Bolster praised the car’s well-balanced handling and road manners, although he complained that with the Hundred’s light weight, the A90 gearbox’s low first gear (with an overall ratio of 14.8:1) was basically useless, producing nothing but wheel spin. Still, Bolster’s impressions were extremely favorable, boding well for the Hundred’s future.