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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.