Born on a Boat: Donald Healey and the Story of the Nash-Healey

Inspired by a chance shipboard meeting between Donald Healey and the president of Nash-Kelvinator, the Nash-Healey was one of the first postwar American sports cars and the last of a line of Healey cars originally developed for a postwar revival of Triumph. This month, we examine the birth of the Donald Healey Motor Company and take a look at the history of the 1951-1954 Nash-Healey, including its later Pinin Farina-styled iterations and its short but impressive competition career.

1953 Nash-Healey Le Mans badge

FROM TRIUMPH’S ASHES

In June 1939, the Coventry-based Triumph Motor Company (whose origins we discussed in our article on the TR7) went into receivership after years of operating losses. The receivers, Gibson & Ashford, promptly promoted Triumph technical director Donald Mitchell Healey to the post of interim managing director, assigning him to oversee the disposition of the company and its assets.

Healey was a one-time Royal Flying Corps pilot and noted rally driver; between 1929 and 1937, he had competed in nine consecutive Monte Carlo Rallies, winning outright in 1931. He had been with Triumph since September 1933, first as head of experimental engineering, then as technical director. Among his achievements had been a new line of OHV four- and six-cylinder engines and the spectacular but sadly short-lived Dolomite sports car, powered by a supercharged, all-aluminum DOHC straight-eight. Although he had been lured away by Joseph Lucas Ltd. in 1937, Healey had returned to Triumph months later, gaining a seat on the board of directors. Energetic and charismatic, he was well liked within the company and had an impressive set of connections elsewhere.

By the time Healey became managing director, Triumph production had all but ceased. In September, the company was sold to Thomas Ward & Co., a Sheffield-based steelmaker, which sold one of the automaker’s two factories and leased the other to Armstrong-Whitworth for military work. With nothing left to manage, Healey departed for Hobson Components, a carburetor manufacturer, then to Humber Ltd. (a subsidiary of the Rootes Group) to work on armored cars. Throughout the war, he also served with the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), leading an Air Training Command squadron in Warwickshire.

1950 Healey Silverstone dash emblem
The stylish Healey logo, seen here on a 1950 Silverstone.

Despite the grueling pace of his military work, Healey still entertained notions of reviving Triumph after the war. Restarting production of any of the prewar models was no longer a viable option — much of the tooling had been destroyed in the German air raid on Coventry in late 1940 — but that opened the door to an all-new model. By 1943, Healey and several of his Humber colleagues, including stylist Benjamin Bowden, engineer A.C. (Sammy) Sampietro (later of Willys-Jeep), and fellow RAFVR pilot James Watt, were spending all of their scant spare time on the design of a new postwar Triumph.

Unfortunately, by the time they presented their proposal to Ward management in early 1944, Ward’s board of directors had lost interest in restarting automotive production. Later that year, the remnants of Triumph would be sold to the Standard Motor Company.

THE DONALD HEALEY MOTOR COMPANY

The consolation for Donald Healey was that since his group’s concept was not based on any existing Triumph design, there was no reason they couldn’t continue developing it on their own.

In mid-1944, they persuaded the director of Humber’s Hereford distributor to let them work in his small commercial garage, where A.C. Sampietro developed a chassis for the bodies Ben Bowden had designed. A bespoke engine was of course well beyond their means, but Healey’s extensive connections provided an answer. The head of Coventry’s Riley Motors, Victor Riley (whom Healey had known since 1924), offered not only engines, but also gearboxes, axles, and whatever other pieces they might require. Meanwhile, Wally Allen, a former Triumph director, agreed to lease them office space and a 10,000 sq. ft. (929 m²) section of a concrete mixer factory in Warwick, southwest of Coventry.

1950 Healey Silverstone badge
The Donald Healey Motor Company originally operated in a section of the Benford concrete mixer plant, but after the war, the firm moved to new quarters on a 3-acre (1.2-hectare) lot along Warwick’s Grand Union Canal. Since it was on Lower Cape Street, adjacent to the Cape of Good Hope pub, the new factory became known as the Cape Works.

In March 1945, Healey raised money from his family and several friends, secured a manufacturing license (no easy task in those days), and launched the Donald Healey Motor Company Ltd. The company’s first cars, the Westland roadster and the Elliott saloon (named for the companies that built their respective bodies), were announced in January 1946 and went into production that October. They were later supplemented by a two-door pillarless hardtop saloon and a curious-looking sports car, both built by Duncan Industries in Norfolk, and a four-seat drophead (convertible), the Sportsmobile. Bare chassis were also available for customers who wanted to commission their own coachwork.

The early Healeys were sleek, low-slung, and surprisingly aerodynamic. With wood-framed aluminum bodies on a steel frame, they weighed around 2,500 lb (1,125 kg), depending on coachwork. They used Sampietro’s independent front suspension with trailing arms and coil springs while the rear suspension was a Riley torque tube carried on coil springs and located by twin radius arms and a Panhard rod. The four-speed gearbox was also provided by Riley, as was the engine, an unusual 2,443 cc (149 cu. in.) inline four with hemispherical combustion chambers and twin in-block camshafts. Rated output was 104 hp (78 kW) and 132 lb-ft (179 N-m) of torque.

1949 Healey Westland roadster front 3q © 2009 DeFacto CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
Healey’s first production car was the Westland roadster, named for the Westland Motor Company, which built its aluminum body. It was 168 inches (4,267 mm) long on a 102-inch (2,591mm) wheelbase, standing 55 inches (1,397 mm) high and weighing about 2,535 lb (1,150 kg) all up. It was capable of reaching 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 15 seconds and a top speed of 102–104 mph (164–167 km/h). This is a 1949 B-type chassis, which had a telescoping steering column and the battery relocated to the boot for better weight distribution. (Photo: “Healey Westland 1949” © 2009 DeFacto; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

The Healeys were among the fastest cars sold in Great Britain in 1946–47, capable of more than 100 mph (165 km/h) in stock form. They soon amassed an impressive competition record, including class victories in the 1947 and 1948 Alpine Rallies, the 1948 Targa Florio, and the 1949 Mille Miglia. However, they were also quite expensive — a Westland roadster, for example, ran to £1,566 (about $6,300 at the contemporary exchange rate) — exacerbated by the hefty British purchase tax, which in 1947 was raised to 66.7% on cars over £1,000. Production was understandably limited, amounting to 227 cars and 120 bare chassis through October 1950.

THE HEALEY SILVERSTONE

In the summer of 1949, Donald Healey (now joined by his son Geoffrey, a veteran of the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) introduced the company’s first true sports car. Inspired by an earlier experimental model called the Red Bug, it was dubbed Silverstone, after the famous British racetrack. Although it used the same engine and running gear as other Healeys, the Silverstone had a modified chassis with the engine mounted farther back for better weight distribution and was clad in a lightweight roadster body made by the Abbey Panel & Sheet Metal Co.

Since it was substantially lighter than the saloons, the Silverstone was a fast car for its day, capable of a claimed 110 mph (177 km/h). It was also the cheapest Healey model, with a base price of £975 ($2,730), rising to £1,246 11s 8d (about $3,500) with purchase tax. Cars sold in the U.S. listed for $3,995.

1950 Healey Silverstone side
Cut-down doors, cycle-type fenders, a fold-down windshield, and minimal weather protection made the Healey Silverstone significantly lighter than the Westland, weighing around 2,100 lb (950 kg). The bonnet scoop and front bumper mark this as a 1950 E-type, which were slightly more suitable for street driving than the earlier D-type, which had no bumpers and a smaller windscreen. The Silverstone’s headlamps were normally mounted behind the grille, but on this car, they’ve been displaced by the very rare optional supercharger.

The Silverstone had obvious appeal for racers, and its competition career began even before it went on sale. In July 1949, Donald Healey and Ian Appleyard entered the prototype in the Alpine Rally, taking second overall, and preproduction Silverstones made a respectable showing at the Silverstone Production Car Race in August. In the hands of private owners, the Silverstone remained competitive for several years, racking up an outright victory at Watkins Glen in 1950 and a class victory at the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally in 1951.

The Silverstone was in production for only a year, but it received a minor makeover in April 1950, when the initial chassis, known as the D-type, was superseded by the revised E chassis. Highlights of the E-type Silverstone included a larger windshield, a hood scoop, and a slightly roomier cockpit with better weather production; bumpers were now included for street use. Total production amounted to 105 units through September 1950, split roughly evenly between the D- and E-type chassis.

1950 Healey Silverstone rear
The Silverstone’s all-aluminum body was extremely low, standing only 43 inches (1,092 mm) overall. Like the Westland and Elliott, its suspension used coil springs all around with trailing arms in front and a torque tube in back, the latter located by radius arms and a Panhard rod. Most early Healeys had lever-action hydraulic dampers, which according to Geoff Healey were inadequate for competition use. The Silverstone substituted Woodhead-Monroe telescopic rear shocks, although their travel was obviously very limited.

7 Comments

  1. Yet another great read. I always look forward to another article. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for the nicely presented story on a unique car! I had never heard of the Cadillac connection before.

  3. Interesting article about a car I didn’t know much about. How things might have been different had Cadillac been able to supply drivetrains! More like the Allard J2R perhaps?

    1. Very likely. The prototype was much more hotrod-like than the Nash-Healey ended up: Cadillac engine, Ford gearbox and torque tube, Columbia quick-change axle. Had it been built in California, it would probably have had flames painted on the bonnet…

      1. I believe the Cad Healey prototype is in the hands of Tivvy Shenton who has a race shop on the premises of Virginia International Raceway. At least you can contact there to learn about it. I saw it on the track once about seven years ago, but have not been back since.

  4. I have a little info on supercharged Healey Silverstones. The green Silverstone in your photo is the only factory supercharged Silverstone. From the factory the blower ran 1 to 1 crankspeed and produced about 4psi boost and 140hp. At 12psi, 1 to 1.5 crankspeed, about 215hp. It’s been detuned twice since, running 1.25 to 1 crankspeed producing 8 to 10psi and maybe 180hp, currently 1.2 to 1 crankspeed, 6psi boost and maybe 160hp. More than most people want to know, but I do get asked this occasionally.
    John

  5. Nice article. My first car was a 1956 100-6 I got during 1959. Uncle Sam and the draft required its sale in 1960, much to my disappointment. In 1961 I came across a 1952 Bertone bodied Nash Healey in Germany priced within my range, which I drove for several years. I enjoyed both cars and often think about the adventures of my youth, and the utter amazement at German gas stations at any private automobile holding 160 liters of gasoline. It’s a shame that the Healey is only a footnote to automotive history. Glad I had a chance to be a part of it.

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