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.

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.

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.

A NASH-HEALEY HARDTOP AND A LAST RUN AT LE MANS

A year after the debut of the Italian-built convertible, the final iteration of the production Nash-Healey was unveiled at the 1953 Chicago Auto Show: a fixed-head coupe called Nash-Healey Le Mans. The name was probably intended to suggest a connection with the X6 racer, although the Le Mans bore little resemblance to that car. Again designed by Pinin Farina, the coupe was a handsome pillarless hardtop, attractive enough to take the first-place trophy in the Foreign Car Custom Body Division of the 1953 Italian International Concours d’Elegance. However, the hardtop’s stylish looks were matched with an eyebrow-raising price tag: $6,399 POE, over $500 more than a C-type Jaguar.

1953 Nash-Healey Le Mans front 3q
The Nash-Healey Le Mans hardtop was longer, wider, and higher than the sports convertible: 180.5 inches (4,585 mm) long on a 108-inch (2,743mm) wheelbase, 65.9 inches (1,673 mm) wide, and 55 inches (1,397 mm) high. All coupes had the larger 4,138 cc (253 cu. in.) engine with 140 hp (104 kW) and 230 lb-ft (312 N-m) of torque.

Despite its name, the Farina-styled Nash-Healey Le Mans was not used in competition. However, Healey body engineer Gerry Coker did design a new, more streamlined roadster body for two new lightweight race cars, designated X14 and X15. The troublesome experimental hemispherical combustion chamber head was abandoned (it had been shipped to Kenosha for Nash engineers to analyze), but the new cars were fitted with special heavy-duty Laycock de Normanville overdrives, which had quicker, more positive engagement than the earlier Borg-Warner unit.

In April, racing driver John Fitch entered one of the new lightweights in the 1953 Mille Miglia, but he was sidelined after suffering both a minor engine fire and a broken axle at the beginning of the race. Both cars went to Le Mans in June, one driven by Leslie Johnson and Bert Hadley, the other by Pierre Veyron and Yves Giraud-Cabantous, but the French drivers were no luckier than they had been in 1952, dropping out after only nine laps due to oil pump failure. Johnson and Hadley pressed on, finally managing 11th place.

1953 Nash-Healey Le Mans rear 3q
With its larger dimensions, the Nash-Healey Le Mans was about 220 lb (100 kg) heavier than the sports convertible, tipping the scales at 2,970 lb (1,350 kg). Since it had the same engine as the open car, we assume its acceleration suffered commensurately, although we’ve found no performance figures for the coupe.

Even after the addition of the Le Mans coupe, 1953 production totaled only 162 units, of which about 100 were convertibles. However, the Nash-Healey did attract various celebrity owners, including New York Yankees baseball player Phil Rizzuto, pro golfer Sam Snead, and actor-director Dick Powell, whose convertible appeared in four 1953–1955 episodes of The Adventures of Superman TV series, driven by actor George Reeves in his role as Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent. Nash-Healeys also appeared in at least four other movies of the period, including Sabrina and The Desperate Hours.

1953 Nash-Healey Le Mans dash
All Nash-Healeys had a well-appointed interior with leather upholstery and a standard tachometer. The only major option was Nash’s excellent Weather Eye heater; some sources suggest the Borg-Warner overdrive was optional, although most indicate that overdrive was standard equipment. Like most Riley- and Alvis-engined Healeys, the Nash-Healey also had a telescoping steering column, an unusual feature in this era.

END OF THE LINE

The 1954 model year would be the Nash-Healey’s last. Designers in Kenosha had been toying for several years with ideas for future models, but Nash ultimately abandoned the idea of a second generation, mainly for cost reasons. The Nash-Healey was very expensive to build, something that was difficult to avoid at such a small production volume.

In late 1953, George Mason investigated the possibility of building the body in fiberglass, hoping it would be cheaper, but found that it would cost even more than steel. In any case, by early 1954, Nash was preoccupied with its pending merger with Hudson, which resulted in the formation of the American Motors Corporation (AMC) in May.

The original Healey chassis was also on its way out. Its trailing-arm front suspension was expensive to produce and arguably obsolete — the Austin-Healey ‘Hundred’ had gone to double wishbones — and many of the Riley components were disappearing in the wake of the 1952 merger between the Nuffield Organization (Riley’s parent company) and Austin Motors. Production of the Alvis-engined Healey Sports Convertible ended in late 1953, the Tickford and Abbott following early the following year. The Nash-Healey expired in August, about two months before the death of George Mason.

1954 Nash Ambassador Custom side
As of this writing, we don’t have photographs of the 1954 Nash-Healey, but this shot of a 1954 Nash Ambassador Custom will give you a sense of what its three-piece backlight and reverse-slant sail panels were presumably intended to resemble. It’s worth noting that both of those features were part of Pinin Farina’s original proposal for the 1952 Golden Anniversary Nash — among the few elements from Farina’s design that made it to production.

Only 90 Nash-Healeys were built for 1954, all of them Le Mans hardtops. They were distinguished from the 1953 Nash-Healey by new reverse-slant C-pillars and a wider, three-piece backlight, which made the coupes look a bit more like Nash’s contemporary sedans. Production of the convertible had already ended, although it remained on sale. Nash repeatedly slashed prices in an effort to clear unsold stock, but some leftover cars may have lingered into the 1955 model year.

Including the Panelcraft roadsters, the final tally was 506 production Nash-Healeys, not including the lightweight competition cars and various prototypes, some of which survive in the hands of private collectors. A few of the production cars were fitted with other engines, including AMC’s later 327 cu. in. (5,354 cc) V8.

POSTSCRIPT

Despite the lofty prices, many historians believe Nash lost money on every Nash-Healey it sold, particularly the Italian-built cars. While the exercise had obvious prestige and publicity value (and we think it was certainly the best thing to come out of Nash’s connection with Pinin Farina), it didn’t translate into sales, nor did it appear to have done much to boost interest in Nash’s bread-and-butter cars. The company’s total production was up only slightly for 1951 and continued to decline in each subsequent year. Nonetheless, the project may have inspired George Mason to take production of the subcompact Metropolitan (which was designed in the U.S.) to a British company, using Austin engines and running gear.

In contrast, the Donald Healey Motor Company made out rather well on the deal. While Nash-Healey production was negligible by Nash standards, it was the most successful of the early Healey models; the runner-up was the Tickford, which accounted for only 224 units. Not only did the Nash-Healey provide much-needed income, it helped to establish the Healey name in the U.S., paving the way for the Austin-Healey 100 and Sprite (some 80% of which would be sold in America). The Nash-Healey project appears to have been a good experience for the Healeys, and in later years Donald Healey spoke very highly of George Mason.

1953 Nash-Healey Le Mans rear
The Nash-Healey Le Mans hardtop is one of the rarer Nash-Healey models. Production totaled no more than 150–155 units: 60–65 in 1953, 90 in 1954.

The Farina-built Nash-Healey is certainly the best remembered and most recognizable of the early Healeys, even to non-enthusiasts. In 2005, the 1952 model was even featured on a U.S. postage stamp. Unlike the saloons and dropheads, whose wood-framed bodywork didn’t easily endure decades of wet British weather, the Nash-Healey’s survival rate seems to be fairly good and survivors have become quite valuable — not surprising given the car’s combination of rarity, style, and competition pedigree. If it’s been overshadowed by the later Austin-Healeys (which we’ll cover at greater length in future articles), it remains a high water mark of the Donald Healey Motor Company’s early efforts.

# # #

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank Mike Garland, Pat McLaughlin, Paul Woodford, and ‘tz66’ for the use of their photos and Jim Bracewell and Jim Walton of the Nash Car Club of America for their thoughts on the paint/color selections for the Italian-built Nash-Healeys.


NOTES ON SOURCES

Information on the life and career of Donald Healey, the early Healey cars, and the Nash-Healey came from “1946-1950 Healey Silverstone” (no date, Octane, www.classicandperformancecar. com, accessed 11 February 2012); “1949 Healey Silverstone” (no date, PAS Classic Cars, www.auto-classic. fr, accessed 15 February 2012); “1951 Nash Healey Roadster” (8 December 2007, Finecars.cc, www.finecars.cc, accessed 8 February 2012); David Traver Adolphus, “The Green Goddess: A rocket scientist restores a car,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #48, August 2009, pp. 72-77; the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1950 Healey Silverstone” (24 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1950-healey-silverstone.htm, accessed 11 February 2012), and “1951-1955 Nash-Healey” (27 October 2007, HowStuffWorks.com, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1951-1955-nash-healey.htm, accessed 8 February 2012); Griff Borgeson, “Pininfarina: Man, Myth, & Monopoly: Part One: The Early Years,” Road & Track Vol. 15, No. 4 (December 1963), pp. 34–39; Arch Brown, “1953 Nash-Healey: America’s First Postwar Sports Car,” Special Interest Autos #71, October 1982, pp. 10-17, 52-53; Peter Browning and Les Needham, Healeys and Austin-Healeys including Jensen-Healey (Sparkford, Yeovil: J.H. Haynes & Co., Ltd., 1970, 1976; second edition); John A. Conde, “Meet the Met,” Special Interest Autos #6 (July-August 1971), p. 35–37, 56; and “Nash Healey (1951-54),” [press release], American Motors Corporation, 8 September 1975, www.carmemories. com, accessed 10 February 2012; “Donald Healey” (2012, Austin Healey Club, www.austinhealeyclub. com/ Pages/Donald-Healey.html, accessed 8 February 2012); “Donald Healey and the History of the Big Healeys” (no date, Unique Cars and Parts, www.uniquecarsandparts. com.au, accessed 8 February 2012); Craig Fitzgerald, “Donald Healey,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #8, April 2006, p. 56; Patrick Foster, “Nash-Healeys You Never Knew,” Hemmings Classic Car #22, July 2006, and The Nash Styling Sketchbook (Milford, CT: Olde Milford Press, 1998); John Gunnell, “Nash-Healey love affair started in ’54” (9 January 2009, Old Cars Weekly, www.oldcarsweekly. com, accessed 16 February 2012); John Gunnell and Tom Collins, Standard Guide to British Sports Cars (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2004); “Healey Silverstone Datenblatt Chassis-Nr.: D 37” (no date, Zurück zum Register, www.healey-classic.de, accessed 15 February 2012); Geoffrey Healey, Healey, The Specials (London: Gentry Books, 1980); Charles K. Hyde, Storied Independent Automakers: Nash, Hudson, and American Motors (Detroit, MI: Great Lakes Books/Wayne State University Press, 2009); Richard M. Kaufmann, “Nash-Healey at Le Mans,” Special Interest Autos #1, October 1970, pp. 44-47, 52; Steven Kingsbury/Air Tight Productions, “A Conversation with Gerry Coker: Austin-Healey Style,” 3 July 2008, YouTube, “Gerry Coker Part 01,” https://youtu.be/D-68_4xzHo0 and “Gerry Coker Part 02,” https://youtu.be/ANWoaOZPN9I, uploaded 12 April 2011, accessed 10 February 2012; Lou Koza, “This is a car for…SUPERMAN!!” (15 April 2006, The Adventure Continues, www.jimnolt. com/ nashhealeyJWp1.htm, accessed 16 February 2012); Alex Meredith, “SIA Interview: Donald Healey,” Special Interest Autos #67, February 1982, pp. 58-62; “Nash Builds a Sports Car,” Popular Mechanics, March 1951 (Vol. 95, No. 3), pp. 107-109; “Obituaries: Donald Healey, British Sports Car Designer,” Los Angeles Times, 20 January 1988, latimes. com, accessed 8 February 2012; “Obituary: Benjamin Bowden, 91, Auto and Bicycle Designer,” New York Times, 23 March 1998, www.nytimes. com, accessed 10 February 2012; ProfessCars, “1950 Healey 3-Litre Sports Convertible” (no date, Automobile Catalog, www.automobile-catalog. com, accessed 9 February 2012); Patrick Quinn, “Healey Duncan” (no date, Clan Duncan Society, www.clan-duncan. co. uk/ duncan-healy.html, accessed 11 February 2012); Graham Robson and Richard Langworth, Triumph Cars: The Complete Story (Pitlake, Croydon: Motor Racing Publications Ltd., 1979, 1988; Second Edition); “Shapers of Nashdom: Donald Healey,” The Nash Times, January-February 2012 (Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 36-37; Nick Walker, A-Z British Coachbuilders, 1919-1960 (Beaworthy, Devon: Herridge & Sons Ltd., 2007); Jonathan Wood, “Obituary: Geoffrey Healey,” The Independent, 16 May 1994, www.independent. co. uk, accessed 15 February 2012; the Healey Museum website, www.healeymuseum.nl, accessed 10 February 2012; the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) entry for The Adventures of Superman (www.imdb. com, accessed 16 February 2012); the Nash-Healey Registry (nashhealeyregistry.com, accessed 16 February 2012); and the following Wikipedia® entries: “1950 24 Hours of Le Mans” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1950_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans, accessed 12 February 2012); “1951 24 Hours of Le Mans” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1951_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans, accessed 13 February 2012); “1952 24 Hours of Le Mans” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1952_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans, accessed 15 February 2012); “1953 24 Hours of Le Mans” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1953_24_Hours_of_Le_Mans, accessed 16 February 2012); “Donald Healey” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Healey, accessed 8 February 2012); “Donald Healey Motor Company” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Healey_Motor_Company, accessed 11 February 2012); “Geoffrey Healey” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Healey, accessed 8 February 2012); “Mille Miglia” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mille_Miglia, accessed 12 February 2012); “Monte Carlo Rally” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monte_Carlo_Rally, accessed 10 February 2012); “Nash-Healey” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nash-Healey, accessed 8 February 2012); “Perranporth” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perranporth, accessed 10 February 2012); and “Riley Motor” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riley_Motor, accessed 10 February 2012).

Additional information on contemporary Nash models came from John A. Conde, “Golden Anniversary Nash,” Special Interest Autos #46, July-August 1978, reprinted in Richard A. Lentinello, ed., The Hemmings Book of Nashes (Bennington, VT: Hemmings Motor News, 2002), pp. 96-101, and Michael Lamm, “Bathtub!” Special Interest Autos #9, January-March 1972, reprinted in ibid, pp. 90-95.

Some exchange rates for the dollar and British pound were estimated based on Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2012, Measuring Worth, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of British and U.S. currency at the time, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all exchange rate equivalencies cited in the text are approximate, provided solely for the purposes of illustration and general reference; this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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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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