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

THE PININ FARINA CONNECTION

In the fall of 1950, Mason repeated his circuit of major European auto shows, where he had been very impressed with the latest designs by Turin’s Battista “Pinin” Farina, including the sleek new Lancia Aurelia B10. As soon as Mason returned to the U.S., he dispatched his special assistant, George Romney, to hire Farina as a Nash consultant. Nash actually ended up using very little of Farina’s proposals for its full-size models, but the production cars were publicly credited to him and Nash went to great lengths to promote the Pinin Farina brand in the U.S.

1953 Nash-Healey Le Mans Pininfarina badge
Giovanni Battista Giuseppe Farina had been called Pinin (a diminutive for Giuseppe) since he was a child, but it was not until 1960 that the Italian government approved his request to formally change his name to Pininfarina. Many early-fifties Nash models carried Pinin Farina badges, although the cars were primarily the work of Nash design chief Edmund Anderson and his small in-house staff. Most of Farina’s proposals were deemed too impractical for mass production, although Anderson was asked to borrow a few of their details.

Nash also commissioned Farina to revamp the styling of the Nash-Healey, with which no one — including Donald Healey — was particularly thrilled. Farina’s proposal was much more satisfactory, with a modern one-piece windshield, a new grille with distinctive inset headlamps, and flared rear fenders that eliminated the slab-sided look of the original car. It was no longer a roadster, but a proper convertible with wind-up windows. It would be paneled in steel rather than aluminum.

Production of the Panelcraft body was halted in April 1951 while the chassis was modified to accept the heavier Farina-designed body. Chassis and running gear continued to be assembled in Warwick, but Nash commissioned Farina to build the new bodies at his factory in Turin, which would also handle final assembly before shipping completed cars to the U.S. Regular production resumed in January 1952.

1952 Nash-Healey sports convertible front 3q © 2007 Writegeist (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)
The Farina-styled Nash-Healey sports convertible was fractionally longer (170.8 inches/4,337 mm), significantly lower (48.7 inches/1,236 mm overall), substantially wider (64 inches/1,626 mm) and somewhat heavier (around 2,750 lb/1,250 kg) than the 1951 model. The convertible was also available in more colors, although red remained one of the most common choices. Note the curved, one-piece windshield and of course the grille-mounted headlights, the Italian-built cars’ most recognizable feature. (Photo: “1952 Nash Healey” © 2007 Writegeist; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

The redesigned Nash-Healey sports convertible bowed at the Chicago Auto Show in February 1952. While the new styling was very well received, the new body and the inevitably high transportation costs of its multi-national production had conspired to push the list price even higher than before: a daunting $5,868 POE. The Italian-built cars had exceptional workmanship, but they now cost as much as two Nash Ambassadors. A Nash-Healey was almost $1,900 more expensive than a Jaguar XK120 drophead, which had considerably better performance.

THE NASH-HEALEY’S FINEST HOUR

In May, Healey fitted both the original X5 prototype and the X6 Le Mans car with the latest 4,138 cc (253 cu. in.) version of the Nash six and entered both cars in the 1952 Mille Miglia. The X5, driven by Leslie Johnson and Bill McKenzie, achieved seventh place overall, but the X6, driven by Geoff and Donald Healey, proved less fortunate, suffering a serious crash after losing control on a patch of wet road. The X6’s unique coupe body was a write-off, but its chassis was recovered and shipped back to Warwick, where portions of it were used for the new X8, with a lightweight roadster body.

Healey entered both the X5 and X8 in the 1952 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. The X8 would be driven by Leslie Johnson and Tommy Wisdom, the older car by Pierre Veyron and Yves Giraud-Cabantous. The X8’s engine was relatively stock, tuned for about 135 hp (101 kW), but the X5 was fitted with an experimental cylinder head designed by A.C. Sampietro, with angled valves and hemispherical combustion chambers for better breathing. The new head’s extra weight did nothing for the Nash-Healey’s balance, but early dynamometer testing found that the experimental head was good for at least 160 hp (119 kW), with the potential for as much as 190 hp (142 kW). Unfortunately, the new head was not sufficiently developed for competition, suffering a broken rocker shaft early in the race that put Veyron and Cabantous out of the running.

1953 Nash-Healey sports convertible front 3q (c) 2010 Patrick McLaughlin (per)
Initially, the Italian-built Nash-Healeys had the same 3,848 cc (235 cu. in.) six as the Panelcraft cars, but it was replaced later in 1952 with the more powerful 4,138 cc (253 cu. in.) engine. Around the same time, the base price of the sports convertible rose to $5,908, up $40 from 1952. (Photo © 2010 Patrick McLaughlin; used with permission)

Johnson and Wisdom had no such problems. After a deliberately conservative start, they began to advance through the ranks, methodically dispatching a host of formidable rivals that included Cunningham, Aston Martin, and Ferrari. Although Johnson and Wisdom couldn’t match the all-out speed of the winning Mercedes 300SLs, their Nash-Healey managed a strong third place, first in class.

Naturally, the production cars weren’t as fast as the racers, which had touched 130 mph (209 km/h) on the Mulsanne Straight, but later in the year, standard Nash-Healeys also received the 4.1-liter (253 cu. in.) engine, which Nash had proudly christened “Le Mans Dual Jet Fire.” In street form, the big engine had two Carter side-draft carburetors and was rated at 140 gross hp (104 kW) and 230 lb-ft (312 N-m) of torque, a healthy increase on its 3.8-liter (235 cu. in.) predecessor. Unfortunately, the greater weight of the Italian-built steel body meant that the big-engined cars were only slightly quicker than the earlier roadsters.

1954 Nash Ambassador Custom Le Mans badge
The Le Mans Dual Jet Fire engine was also available on Nash’s big sedans, as indicated by the rear fender badge of this 1954 Nash Ambassador Custom. It carried the same 140 hp (104 kW) and 230 lb-ft (312 N-m) ratings as in the Nash-Healey.

For all its racing achievements, the Nash-Healey was still not a hot commodity for Nash dealers. The 1952 car did sell better than the 1951, but the final tally was still only 150 units.

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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