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

DONALD HEALEY MEETS GEORGE MASON

In the fall of 1949, wealthy American sportsman Briggs Cunningham bought a pair of Silverstones for competition use. While one retained its Riley powertrain, the other was fitted with Cadillac’s new OHV V-8 backed with a Ford gearbox and torque tube and a Columbia axle, providing much-improved performance.

Intrigued, the Healeys obtained another Cadillac engine and built a similar car for testing purposes. They found that the 5,425 cc (331 cu. in.) Cadillac V-8 was no heavier than the bulky Riley four — if anything, the swap actually improved weight distribution — but even in stock form, the V-8 produced 56 more horsepower (42 kW more) and more than twice as much torque. Geoff Healey and experimental engineer Roger Menadue drove the Cadillac-powered test mule extensively, finding it intimidatingly quick.

Donald Healey was very interested in the prospect of a Cadillac-powered Silverstone not only because of its scorching performance, but also because it suggested a way to crack the American market, where Healey had so far managed to sell only a handful of cars. The U.S., then in the throes of an automotive boom, seemed to offer far richer prospects for expensive, limited-production sports cars than the fractured economies of postwar Britain and Europe, something the Donald Healey Motor Company — by then nearly £50,000 ($140,000) in debt — needed very badly.

1950 Healey Silverstone grille
The Silverstone’s badge features an outline of the famous racetrack for which it was named. Behind the grille is the optional supercharger, a $655 catalogued option. We’ve so far been unable to find any output figures for the supercharged engine; it appears that it was very rare.

In December, Donald Healey boarded the liner Queen Elizabeth, bound for the U.S. and a meeting with Cadillac chief engineer Ed Cole to discuss the possibility of Healey purchasing additional V8 engines. Aboard ship one day, he struck up a conversation with a tall, portly gentleman carrying an elaborate stereo camera rig. The man with the camera turned out to be George W. Mason, president of the Kenosha, Wisconsin-based Nash-Kelvinator Corporation, returning from a tour of the major European auto salons. Healey explained his business, in which Mason was very interested. Mason wished him luck in his meeting with Cole and invited Healey to visit Kenosha if the negotiations with Cadillac didn’t pan out.

When Healey got to Detroit, Cole told him apologetically that Cadillac was already struggling to keep up with demand for the new V-8 and had no capacity to spare. Recalling Mason’s offer, Healey went on to Wisconsin for a meeting with Nash. Nash did not yet have a V-8 engine, but they did have a big 3.8-liter (235 cu. in.) six that Mason was happy to supply. Better still, Mason said Healey could pay Nash for the engines and running gear after the cars were sold rather than demanding the cash-strapped company put up the money upfront. Since Healey didn’t yet have a U.S. distributor, Mason also offered to sell the cars through Nash dealerships. In all, it was a sweet deal for Healey, providing a way into the American market without adding to his company’s outstanding debts.

BIRTH OF THE NASH-HEALEY

By March 1950, Healey engineers in Warwick were busily modifying the Silverstone chassis to accommodate Nash’s seven-bearing, 3,848 cc (235 cu. in.) OHV six along with the Nash three-speed gearbox, axle assembly, and Borg-Warner overdrive. The Nash engine was even heavier than the twin-cam Riley four and the integral intake manifold limited tuning potential, but the big six had good low-end torque and was exceedingly durable. For its new role, Healey engineers fitted the big Nash engine with two 1.75-inch (45mm) S.U. carburetors and a revised exhaust manifold. The cylinder head was subsequently milled to increase compression and the radiator was modified to eliminate overheating problems.

To see how the Nash engine would perform under fire, Donald and Geoff Healey decided to drive the prototype to Italy in mid-April and enter it in the 1950 Mille Miglia. While the car’s outright performance was unimpressive and there were problems with excessive oil temperatures at higher sustained speeds, the prototype, known as X5, finished the arduous 1,050-mile (1,690-km) event a credible ninth in class.

1951 Nash-Healey roadster engine © 2008 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz PD
The early Nash-Healey used the 3,848 cc (235 cu. in.) OHV six from the Nash Ambassador. In production Nash-Healeys, it was fitted with an aluminum cylinder head with higher (8.1:1) compression, a hotter camshaft, and two S.U. H6 carburetors, raising rated horsepower from 115 to 125 hp (86 to 93 kW). Peak torque was 210 lb-ft (285 N-m) at only 1,600 rpm. (Photo: “6-cylinder Ambassador engine in Nash-Healey” © 2008 CZmarlin — Christopher Ziemnowicz; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized by Aaron Severson)

In June, Healey entered the X5 in the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans. For the race, the X5 received a heavily revised body with flared fenders (required by race regulations) and an aerodynamic fairing behind the driver’s seat. New piston rings cured the engine’s oil cooling issues and a new camshaft brought output to 126 hp (94 kW). Despite suffering suspension damage after a minor collision, drivers Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton finished third in the 3,001–5,000 cc (183-305 cu. in.) class and fourth overall, well ahead of Briggs Cunningham’s Cadillac-engined “Le Monstre.”

The production car, dubbed Nash-Healey, made its official debut at the Paris Salon in October. It sported a new aluminum body with integral fenders, designed by Donald Healey and Len Hodges (with input from the designers at Nash) and built by Panelcraft Sheetmetal in Birmingham. At Mason’s insistence, it incorporated various pieces from the Nash Ambassador, including a grille that Donald Healey likened to big-mouthed comedian Joe E. Brown.

Nash publicists announced that the prototype’s strong performance at Le Mans had convinced the company to put the car into limited production and sell it through Nash dealerships — which of course had been Mason’s plan from the beginning. Regular production began in December, replacing the departed Silverstone, and the first cars went on sale the following spring, after their U.S. introduction at the 1951 Chicago Auto Show.

1951 Nash-Healey roadster front 3q © 2009 tz66 (used with permission)
The 1951 Nash-Healey was available in only two colors, Champagne Ivory and Sunset Maroon, with standard leather upholstery and whitewall tires. It was a true roadster, with snap-in Perspex side curtains that had to be stored in the trunk when not in use. It rode the same 102-inch (2,590mm) wheelbase as other Healeys and had an overall length of 170 inches (4,318 mm); curb weight was around 2,600 lb (1,180 kg). (American Motors later cited a weight of only 2,400 lb (1,090 kg), but we believe that was a shipping weight measured without fuel.) Note the chrome-trimmed hood scoop, adopted to provide clearance for the engine’s valve cover. (Photo: “nash-healey-01” © 2009 tz66; used with permission)

A SLOW START

The Nash-Healey bowed to mostly positive reviews. Although it was actually somewhat slower than the Silverstone (mostly because it was significantly heavier), it was still capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in about 12 seconds and a top speed of around 104 mph (167 km/h), excellent for 1951. The heavy engine made for substantial understeer, but the Nash-Healey still had competent handling, combined with a surprisingly comfortable ride. The Anglo-American sports car’s biggest weaknesses were the standard bench seat, which provided no lateral support whatever, and the 10-inch (254mm) Bendix drum brakes, which were inadequate for really fast driving.

Nash salesmen were reportedly enthusiastic about the new car, which promised to be an excellent showroom traffic builder. However, they were less sanguine about its $4,063 price tag, which was over 60% more expensive than any other Nash model. Orders were limited and 1951 Nash-Healey production totaled only 104 units.

1951 Nash-Healey roadster front 3q © 2009 Paul Woodford (used with permission)
In addition to its six-cylinder Nash engine, the Nash-Healey used many other components from the contemporary Ambassador. The most obvious are the grille, headlights, bumpers, and wheel covers, but the Nash-Healey also used the Ambassador’s Bendix drum brakes (replacing the Lockheed units on Riley-powered cars), three-speed gearbox, and axle assembly along with a shortened Ambassador torque tube. We don’t know if Healey adopted the Ambassador drivetrain for the sake of convenience or because the Nash engine exceeded the torque capacity of the Riley gearbox and axle; perhaps both. In any event, Geoff Healey noted that the Nash axle provided better handling grip than the Riley setup, although the heavier engine exacerbated the substantial understeer produced by the trailing link front suspension. (Photo: “1951 Nash Healey” © 2009 Paul Woodford; used with permission)

In April 1951, the Healeys took another crack at the Mille Miglia, this time in a production car modified with Girling racing brakes and the grille from a Nash Statesman, which allowed better airflow than the Ambassador unit. They came in fourth in class, 30th overall. Weeks later, Tony Rolt drove the same car at Silverstone, managing sixth place.

In June, Rolt and Duncan Hamilton returned to Le Mans, this time driving a special lightweight car, the X6, with a one-off fixed-head coupe body and a massive 48-gallon (U.S.; 40 Imperial gallon/182 liter) fuel tank. After an exciting and very close battle with an Aston Martin DB2, Rolt and Hamilton came in sixth place, taking fourth in their class. (It’s worth noting that their car was driven from Warwick to the event on public roads and then driven back the same way after the race!) Later that year, another Nash-Healey also served as the course car for the grueling 1951 Carrera Panamericana road race, although to our knowledge it did not actually compete.

The Nash-Healey was sold only in the U.S., but its racing exploits had created considerable interest in the U.K. In the fall of 1951, Healey commissioned Panelcraft to build a similar-looking drophead coupe body with right-hand drive, a different grille, and no Nash components. Christened Healey Sports Convertible, it rode an updated (G-type) chassis and used the 2,993 cc (183 cu. in.) inline six and four-speed gearbox from the Alvis TB21. About 25 of these cars were built in all along with three bare chassis.

1952 Healey Sports Convertible front 3q © 2011 Mike Garland (used with permission)
The Alvis-powered Healey Sports Convertible rode Healey’s G-type chassis, with Girling drum brakes, a Salisbury axle, and an open driveshaft, rather than the Nash-Healey’s torque tube. It was a bit longer (174 inches/4,420 mm overall) and slightly narrower (65 inches/1,651 mm) than the Farina-built Nash-Healey, weighing around 2,730 lb (1,238 kg). With 106 hp (79 kW) and 150 lb-ft (203 N-m) of torque, it was slower than the Nash-engined car: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) took more than 13 seconds while top speed was around 100 mph (161 km/h). (Photo: “Brooklands – 1952 Alvis-Engined Healey G-Series (MXF 124)” © 2011 Mike Garland; used with permission)

By the time the Sports Convertible was introduced, the Westland, Elliott, and Sportsmobile had all been dropped, but Healey continued to offer a two-door sports saloon, made by Tickford, and a four-seat drophead, bodied by Abbott. Healey had also started work on a cheaper sports car that could fit into the substantial price gap between an MG TD and a Jaguar XK120. This would emerge in October 1952 as the Healey ‘Hundred,’ subsequently known as the Austin-Healey 100.

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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