A Big Healey History: The Austin-Healey 100, 100-6, and 3000

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.

1960 Austin-Healey 3000 badge


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.

1954 Healey Tickford front 3q © 2009 Clive Barker (used with permission)
Although Healeys were always sporty, they weren’t necessarily sports cars. The company also offered a number of two-door saloons and drophead coupes, all of which were a good deal larger than the ‘big’ Austin-Healeys. This is a late-model Tickford Sports Saloon, named for the Newport Pagnell coachbuilder that built its wood-framed aluminum body. Only about 224 were built between 1950 and 1954. (Photo: “1954 Healey Tickford Saloon” © 2009 Clive Barker; used with permission)

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.

1953 Austin-Healey 100 engine
The first Austin-Healey used the 2,660 cc (162 cu. in.) inline four from the A90 Atlantic. As was typical for British engines conceived during the era of the RAC taxable horsepower formula, the big four was undersquare, with a bore of 87.3 mm (3.44 inches) and a stroke of 111.1 mm (4.37 inches), running in three main bearings. It had 7.5:1 compression and two 1.5-inch (38mm) S.U. H4 carburetors, giving 90 hp (67 kW) and 144 lb-ft (194 N-m) of torque. The optional Le Mans engine kit included a high-lift camshaft, 8.3:1 compression, and two 1.75-inch (45mm) S.U. H6 carburetors. Torque was almost unchanged, but maximum output rose to 110 hp (82 kW).

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).

1950 Austin A90 Atlantic convertible front 3q © 2010 Martin Alford (used with permission)
The Healey Hundred borrowed its engine, gearbox, and suspension from the Austin A90 Atlantic (which in turn shared them with the Austin A70). Front suspension was by double wishbones, coil springs, Armstrong lever-action shock absorbers, and an anti-roll bar. The rear suspension used the A70/A90 spiral-bevel axle on semi-elliptical springs, located laterally by a Panhard rod. The A90 axle was not really up to sports car duty, so it was replaced in 1954 by the hypoid-bevel axle from the new Austin Westminster saloon. (Photo: “Austin A90 Atlantic convertible (1950)” © 2010 Martin Alford; used with permission)


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.

1953 Austin-Healey 100 front 3q
Although the 100 and 3000 are now commonly known as the ‘big Healeys,’ they were big only in comparison to the tiny Austin-Healey Sprite. The original Hundred was 151.5 inches (3,848 mm) long and 60 inches (1,524 mm) wide on a 90-inch (2,286mm) wheelbase, about the same size as a Triumph TR2 and considerably smaller than the earlier Healeys. Curb weight was about 2,200 lb (1,000 kg), although sources are vague about whether or not that figure includes a full tank of fuel.

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.

1953 Austin-Healey 100 windscreen
The original Austin-Healey 100’s folding windshield was Donald Healey’s inspiration, but it fell to Gerry Coker to make it work. Coker did, but properly adjusting the screen was a two-person job and contemporary testers complained that the unit rattled. The folding screen also did nothing for top sealing.

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.

1953 Austin-Healey 100 grille badge
Like almost everything else on the car, the Austin-Healey 100’s ‘flash’ grille badge was designed by Gerry Coker.


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  1. Excellent story Aaron I never managed to get a Healey always wanted one having owne a few mechanical donors in the shape of Westies and an Isis which were good fast comfortable sedans in their day. Healeys pretty much mirrored Westminsters for new developments.

  2. The Healey was, to my mind the most beautiful of 1950’s production sports cars. I never found the TR3 attractive,and the MGA looked nice, but nothing was as instantly appealing as the Healey, especially with the two-tone paint. I went to a lot of SCCA races in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and they were quite common on the tracks. And, now a correction; the driver mentioned is Maurice Gatsonides, not Gastonides. Beyond his motorsport career, he is infamous for his invention, the “Gatso” speed camera, which all sporting drivers hate.

    1. Thanks for the correction — I’ve amended the text. I had no idea he developed the Gatso cameras, although that will certainly help to remember the proper spelling of his name.

  3. Nice article – but a couple of errors in 100S caption. All 100 cars had the swage line – from the BN2 on it continued behind the rear wheel. And the standard 100S colour scheme was Old English White over Lobelia (dark blue) not black.

    1. Thanks for the clarifications. The paint color issue had puzzled me a bit: the lower color looked like dark blue to me, but the paint combination chart in Anderson and Moment’s restoration guide described it (for whatever reason) as white over black. Since each of my computer monitors tends to render colors differently, I was wondering if it was an optical illusion or if it was just a particularly bluish shade of black. I have several print references handy, but unfortunately all their photos of the 100S were in black and white…

    2. Excellent article, well researched and written however, actually Anderson and Moment do have the 100S colour correct in their book [i]Austin – Healey 100/100-6/3000 Restoration Guide[/i].
      Page 14 center column.
      [i]Most of the cars were painted in “United States” racing colours of white over blue, using a distinctive Lobelia Blue for the lower panel.[/i]

      1. Ahh — I was looking at the color chart and missed that reference. In any case, I’ve corrected the text.

    3. The swage line on the side did not extend past the rear wheel of ALL BN2s but came on stream well into that production. Since most four cylinder cars were BN1s the full swage line is thus a rarity before the six cylinder cars. More importantly is the front fender opening, cut much higher on the BN2 for a more rakish look with additional clearance for the wheel in turning. Healeys were slim sided relative to their tread width and that wheel stuck way out when steered.

  4. This article led me to look up more info on the FB60 engine, which I’d been somewhat aware of. I was really intrigued to learn that it was an F-head. Does anyone know why it was?

    The other F-head that came to mind for me was the Willys “Hurricane” engine, which Barney Roos designed by making an existing flathead engine into an F-head. In that case, he was trying to get more power on a very tight budget. A full OHV engine would have been ideal, but given the tight budget, moving the intake vales into the head was more cost-effective than moving the exhausts.

    Rolls-Royce was presumably working on the FB60 some years after Roos was designing the Hurricane, and they wouldn’t have had his cost constraints.

    I also can’t help thinking that the MGC would have been much better with the FB60.

    You mentioned that Healey wasn’t happy with Jensen’s quality control, an issue that also came up with the Volvo P1800.

    1. This is a very interesting question, and it led me to do some additional research and make a small addition to the text (about the abortive ADO30 project, which was also slated to use the FB60).

      The FB60 was developed around 1958. Around that time, Rolls-Royce apparently started being interested in doing a smaller, cheaper (relatively speaking) luxury car, probably to be sold primarily as a Bentley. At the time, Rolls was still using IOE sixes in its other cars (although the V8 was already in development), as well as the B40 and B60 engines used in various trucks and military vehicles. My assumption is that Rolls conceived the FB60 as a smaller, lighter engine that could use at least some of the existing tooling. Since the point of the exercise was to make a cheaper car, not having to invest heavily in new equipment would have been desirable, even for Rolls-Royce.

      I don’t know exactly how much architecture the FB60 shares with the B60 used in earlier Rolls and Bentley passenger cars. It has the same bore, a much shorter stroke, and an aluminum block (the B60 already had an aluminum head). While the FB60 may depart from the earlier engine in other respects, it seems pretty clear that the B60 was the starting point for it.

      Incidentally, Rolls and BMC considered a bunch of possible Bentley-branded smaller cars, including the Bentley Java (which would have been quite similar to the Princess 4-Litre R and probably inspired the styling of the latter), the Bentley Bengal (based on the Austin 3-litre), and a coupe called the Bentley Alpha, based on the ADO30. All would have used the FB60 engine.

    2. The web has someplace a long article on Rolls Royce engines by one of their principals in the engineering ranks. In it there was a statement that the FB alloy F-head was dimensionally close and sometimes identical to the last 4.25 liter RR iron six. Of course, Rolls had already forsaken sixes for their huge V8. Perhaps this explains the retrograde F-head being found on the units being supplied to the Princess?

      1. In the late fifties and early sixties, Rolls-Royce seriously considered doing one or more cheaper Bentley models as a way of boosting sales volume and making up for slower sales of the ‘senior’ cars (analogous to Packard’s move with the original One-Twenty in 1935). There was the Bentley Burma, which I believe ended up being more or less the ancestor of the Silver Shadow, followed by the Bentley Java (based on the Austin Princess 3-Litre) and the Bentley Bengal, which would have been a Bentley version of the Princess 4 Litre R.

        As far as I know, the rationale of the FB was to give these cheaper cars (at least the latter two of which would have had a lot of BMC hardware) proper Rolls/Bentley engines without the expense of tooling a new ‘small’ engine for those cars. The F-head six might have been retrograde technologically, but it compared pretty well with contemporary OHV sixes in terms of output and the DOHC version, which never got past the prototype stage, would have given the Jaguar XK engine a run for its money. So, it made a fair bit of sense.

        Of course, for various reasons, none of the Bentley cars ever materialized and a lot of Rolls-Royce’s FB capacity went unused.

  5. -One of the first cars I drove, illegaly, of course, was a friend’s 100-4. It had a three speed transmission with electric overdrive that was supposed to make it a five speed.
    -The shift pattern was also reversed from US normal, that is, second and third

    1. Yes, the shift pattern on the BN1 cars was very odd. I think they resolved that with the BN2, with the taxi gearbox.

    2. . . . . . because, at age 17, it was the first antique auto I helped restore (I didn’t have my own antique car for another year) and the beginning of my 45 year involvement with antique vehicles (cars, motorcycles and bicycles). I still remember the car, helping the owner sand down the primer for painting.

  6. Very interesting as usual Aaron. I suppose it would improve with familiarity but the 4000 prototype looks ‘odd’, really time for a new bodystyle even if it was only an early prototype. There was a car built locally with a Rover V8 (from memory) that had a similar body widening mainly to fit wider tyres, I think they might have altered the grille a bit to keep it more in proportion.

    1. Well, the initial prototype was created by essentially slicing a BJ8 body in half and splicing in a 6-inch section. If it had made production, I suppose they might have come up with a new grille — it would probably have been relatively cheap to do. Still, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the 1953-vintage design had been nipped and tucked a few too many times by then.

      1. Hi Aaron, the above comment was mine.

        Last weekend I actually saw the featured 4000 prototype, as well as Lance Macklin’s Le Mans NOJ 393 a replica of one of the streamliners amongst dozens of other A-H’s at a car show. I’d say the 4000 looks better in the flesh, but it is still a significantly wider car that would not have the same sporty feel of the original.

        1. The people who’ve driven it tend to say the same thing. It was reportedly a lot more comfortable than the 3000, with a better driving position and more elbow room, but felt and sounded less sporty, particularly with the automatic. Perhaps too civilized for its own good.

  7. Another excellent article – just wanted to say how much I appreciate the effort that goes into this and the skill at presenting it in an interesting and cogent manner.

    And no, I don’t want to borrow any money.


  8. Aaron,

    Will you be moving forward with this amazing historical portrait, looking at the Jensen Healey?

    1. I will, although I decided that three Healeys in a row might be a bit much.

  9. Familiarity with early Healey Hundreds suggests there were at least two front wheel arches during their production. The red one depicted, a BN1 is a very much chunkier section than the BN2. It might have fouled the tire (tyre) at steering lock at least with the tall spec tires of the era. The car officially got a larger valence that looked sleeker as a running change. The difference in height causes problems in terminating the two toned flanks which are often found on LeMans replica cars. The swage line does not truly intersect the top of the arch on early ones but requires a looped return, which anyhow works out okay in practice.

    1. Thanks for the info. There are a lot of minor details that I’m only able to touch on in these stories.

      1. I’d hope I had mentioned once before referencing a Mustang article, but will enjoy doing so again. Your monographs are amazingly concise distillations of complex stories, done with great adherence to, and respect for facts. I recommend them to all my friends.

  10. The “Haldane” was a rather proper looking replica Hundred out of fiberglas with Ford Kent motivation, differing only in a lower hood line. The “Harrier” was an upmarket effort with Rover V8 and independent suspension that I believe Geoff Healey was pleased to endorse. Both were better looking, or at least more authentic appearing than the 4000 prototype with the half a foot widened body shell. Sad that larger customers and side impact requirements dealt such a blow to the original aesthetics of the first car. Look to the Ford GT to understand how an enlargement if required should be undertaken in EVERY dimension so that proportions that initially delighted can be maintained.
    One must mention in passing the Saxon and Sebring kit cars that hint of the Healey legacy in rather unconvincing ways.

  11. The Healey Hundred has more shape in its flanks than people realize. It swells in width at the cockpit and is already narrowing over the rear fender. That shows Jerry’s modern three dimensional spatial thinking.
    To have gotten more width where necessary for the cockpit without destroying the lithe appearance from the three quarter view might only have required wedging out the fore-body. That would have allowed a front track perhaps 2 inches wider than the rear, whereas it is actually a half inch shy of the rear on the existing cars. At that point it would have virtually equalled the later Jag E-type series III cars track. The span of the headlamps of the Healey could have been increased without visual harm though not by a half a foot.

  12. In 1972 & 73, I worked in the service department of Donald Healey Motor Co in Warwick and was lucky enough to drive one of the manual 4000R’s The car had been re-chassed following a road accident by the then owner, a gentleman who lived in Wales, I think. I road tested the car over several hundred miles and so was able to understand the car well. I had driven a number of E-types up to that time and the comparison was most interesting. The 4000R had excellent road holding and outstanding handling. The acceleration was good as the engine revved well, the gearchange and ratios good too. Performance was good, I saw over 125mph on a number of occasions. The car braked well and overall, I enjoyed the car more than E-types. I would be happy to hear from anyone else who drove these cars and hear their views.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Tony. The consensus of all the accounts I’ve heard of people who’ve had the chance to drive the 4000 was that it was a definite improvement in all-around performance (although one can easily imagine the carping the automatic would have provoked at the time). I think the downfall of the car, had it made production, would have been the styling. Combining the new engine with the fixed-head coupe might have been a different story, although then the 4000 would most definitely have been an E-type rival…

  13. Aaron

    I have tried in vain to contact Tony Pomfret for the last four years and now find he has contacted you recently. As he drove my 4000 when in the UK I would love to talk to him, may I have his email or could you send him mine so we can chat please.

    Regards Peter Rowland Melbourne Australia

  14. i thoroughly enjoyed reading your well researched article and it got me thinking about some unexplained unusual features and history facts surrounding our 100/6 BN6. We recently bought her as my wife spent much of her youth around the Warwick area and she happens to be of the same vintage as the car!
    According to the build records the car was built in June ’57 but according to a copy of the original owner log book was not registered to her first owner until January ’58. This in itself is unusual as cars were generally built to order.
    This brings me to the next unusual feature that she was supplied to her first owner with Dunlop disc brakes on front and rear axles. Trying to find any documented information about the 100/6 on disc brakes seems to be a bit of a best kept secret so I am wondering if anyone reading this might have some answers?
    I recently spoke to the UK A-H Club marque model expert who said he was aware of only two other examples, both of which are BN6, here in the UK and he referred to them as being the ‘homologation specials’ of which he said approximately 40-50 cars were retro equipped by the Healey Works at Warwick and at a time in ’58 when much Works backed rallying was taking place. Are any examples of these BN6 cars known to exist in the U.S. Or other markets?
    If some facts could be brought to light, then this would make for an interesting twist to the Big Healey story

  15. What was the weight of the 2660 cc 4 cylinder engine out of the BN1 and BN2?I’am considering putting a 427 CI Chevrolet V8 into my BN2

    1. That’s a good question — I don’t think I’ve ever seen a figure for the four, and because the BN4 was also a physically larger car, simply comparing BN2 and BN4 figures doesn’t give much indication. The C-series engine was a big sucker, though (more than 600 pounds in 2.9-liter form), so even if the 2,660cc four were more than 100 pounds lighter, it may still have been in the neighborhood of 500 pounds. My very rough guess would be that an iron-head SBC would about split the difference and an iron big clock would be at least 70 pounds heavier up front than the BN4, but someone may have a more specific answer.

  16. Can anyone supply me with information (or direct me to information) on the twin cam cylinder head that was developed by Austin Canada for the 2660cc BN1 engine in the early 1950’s. I remember seeing an article on the subject many, many years ago. I understand 2 or 3 were built before management killed the project. Apparently, the performance was very impressive.

  17. Good article.

    Have actually driven a 3 carb Healey 3000 back in fall 1963. Followed by a TR3, then a couple of years later an old MGA, followed by innumerable MGBs. Good time to enter college and meet rich boys from Montreal whose Dad’s could afford to give them such things.

    The Healey had a very twitchy rear suspension, quarter elliptics maybe? Steered on the throttle. Seemed very fast, but 2 1/2 inches of ground clearance helped that illusion. The TR3 was an old brute that seemed to have almost no suspension at all. The MGA was actually not bad, and I found the later mid ’60s MGBs a bit sterile, probably because it had an actual torsionally strong unitbody and behaved itself. Preferred the Volvo 544.

    Then I tried the Alfa 1750 Giulietta a few years later when studying in the UK. Different and far better league altogether.

    Memories. Pretty good ones as well.

    1. The big Healeys had semi-elliptical rather than quarter-elliptical springs — it’s just that they didn’t indulge in a lot of faddish niceties like compliance or wheel travel. It’s also conceivable that the owner also delved into competition parts or aftermarket accessories; given how stiff the stock rear springs were, I suspect trying to add a rear anti-roll bar would make the car particularly twitchy.

  18. Dear Sir, could you give me some informations about the story that the original 6-cylinder Healey engine was a formel Austin Tipper engine. In that time I was working for Austin in Amsterdam (The Netherlands) and later for Leyland Vehicles Benelux in Malines(Mechelen) and we have (my memories?) used spare parts for a Healey BT7 from a Austin truck engine. Because there is a Healey museum in Vreeland (The Netherlands) and they tell the visitors all about the history of (Donald)Healey and that part is missing. In that museum we have seen an AEC petrol engine (6-Cyliner), so we could accept this truck history. Please inform us, thank you in advance for your cooperation.

    1. All the big Healeys used BMC “corporate” engines, some of which were also used in trucks — the 2,660 cc big four definitely was. I’m not sufficiently familiar enough with BMC’s commercial offerings of that period to know offhand if the 2.9-liter C-series was used in trucks, although I wouldn’t be surprised. The truck and car versions of most of those engines were not dramatically different, although I presume the truck versions had some stouter components to suit more strenuous duty. It would make sense that where possible, the Healeys would have specified the heavier-duty truck components for reasons of durability. I would have to go back and do more research on the detailed engine specs to confirm that, but again it seems plausible.

      1. Dear Aaron, thank you very much for your assistance and reply in this matter. I will follow your comments and/or reply.

  19. As a matter of interest, the Riley engine used in the Healey Tickford and Abbott was indeed a twin-cam engine, but it wasn’t a twin-overhead-cam engine. The camshafts were mounted high in the block, and the pushrods were shorter than in most engines. But it was a pushrod design.

    1. Yup — a novel approach to solving the problem of how to actuate the valves with a hemispherical combustion chamber.

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