THE HUNDRED BECOMES THE AUSTIN-HEALEY 100
In October, Healey entered the prototype Hundred in the 1952 International Motor Show at Earls Court in London. Shortly before the show, Donald Healey had an attack of last-minute second thoughts about the design, particularly the front end. Since it was too late to make any more changes, he positioned the prototype on its stand so that the nose pointed toward a row of ornamental shrubbery, making it difficult for spectators to get a close look.
Healey needn’t have worried. Once he was persuaded to move the car into the open, the Healey Hundred became the hit of the show. The prototype’s styling was much praised; Coker, understandably gratified, was both flattered and bemused that many observers assumed the design was Italian. John Bolster’s glowing write-up in Autosport, published a few days earlier, probably added to the general enthusiasm; Healey arranged for reprints of that article to be handed out at the show.
Healey initially announced that the Hundred would be built in Warwick with bodies by Tickford and a base price of £850 (£1,323 14s 5d with purchase tax), not including overdrive. However, throughout the show, he had a series of meetings with Austin executives about the possibility of offering the car on a much larger scale. Austin’s Leonard Lord, who had recently become managing director of the newly formed British Motor Corporation, pointed out that with the reception the Hundred had received, demand would greatly exceed the capacity of Healey’s tiny factory. Lord proposed that they make the Hundred a co-branded product, built by Austin from Healey’s design.
Healey, Lord, and BMC chairman Lord Nuffield negotiated an agreement over drinks on the evening of October 21. Afterward, Healey asked Coker to design an “Austin-Healey” badge, which was made by a local jeweler and hastily added to the prototype.
LAUNCHING THE HUNDRED
Healey’s agreement with BMC called for the first 20 Hundreds to be built in Warwick, which would also be responsible for competition and special projects. Austin’s Longbridge factory would take over production in the spring of 1953, but all cars would still be built to Healey’s specifications. There were very few changes to Coker’s original design, but the grille was reshaped to assuage Donald Healey’s ongoing doubts while the front fenders were raised to satisfy U.S. requirements for headlamp height. (Coker performed both modifications himself.)
Originally, the body shells were to come from Tickford, but Jensen Motors in West Bromwich won the contract after Dick Jensen convinced Lord that Jensen was capable of much higher volume than was Tickford. The Healeys, however, were never entirely satisfied with Jensen’s work, annoyed by what they saw as attempts to bolster profit margins by cutting corners. Coker was dispatched to Jensen many times to address these problems, putting him in the awkward position of communicating the Healeys’ displeasure in some diplomatic way.
One significant mechanical change to the production cars was the gearbox. Concurring with Bolster that first gear was useless, Healey decided to simply block it off, effectively making the transmission an all-synchro three-speed. To compensate, Laycock de Normanville overdrive became standard equipment, providing a total of five forward speeds. This was not an entirely satisfactory solution; the resultant shift pattern was very peculiar and the A90 gearbox proved troublesome and somewhat fragile in service.
The first few cars were built for the U.S. auto show circuit, where the Hundred was just as well received as it had been in London. Adding to its appeal was its U.S. price, a reasonable $2,985 POE. As Healey had intended, that put the Hundred about halfway between the MG TD and the Jaguar XK-120, leaving it — albeit briefly — with no obvious competition. (In fact, the Hundred had inadvertently stymied plans to replace the aging TD with a more modern sports car; Leonard Lord canceled MG’s EX175 project three days after the Healey deal.)
Experience with the early Hundreds revealed a number of deficiencies, which led to various minor modifications before regular production began at Longbridge in May. Chief among those was the decision to trade the vulnerable aluminum bodywork for heavier but more durable steel panels, although the aluminum bonnet and decklid would survive into 1954. The switch to steel may have contributed to another welcome change: a £100 decrease in the list price, to £750 ex works, £1,063 12s 6d with purchase tax. (The U.S. list price was not changed.)
LE MANS AND BONNEVILLE
Four of the early production models were lightweight “Special Test” cars, intended for competition and record attempts. All had Birmabright aluminum panels, aluminum bumpers and radiators, and specially built engines with nitride-hardened crankshafts, hotter cams, and various tuning changes. In place of the jerry-rigged A90 gearbox, the Special Test cars were fitted with the heavy-duty unit from the FX3 taxi, which had a much stiffer, slower action, but was considerably stronger.
Three of those cars went to France in June 1953 for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. One car was driven by Gordon Wilkins and Marcel Becquart, a second by John Lockett and Maurice Gatsonides, with the third intended for practice. Although the event was fraught with problems, including a traffic accident that badly damaged one of the cars before the race, Lockett and Gatsonides managed 12th place overall, Becquart and Wilkins 14th. Both were a few paces behind the Nash-Healey of Leslie Johnson and Bert Hadley, which came in 11th overall.
Although the modified engine acquitted itself very well throughout the race, output was still only about 100 hp (75 kW). After Le Mans, Healey requested a more powerful version, which was developed by Austin engineer Don Hawley (who would go on to design Triumph’s slant four and Stag V8) using a new high-compression, four-port head designed by BMC consultant Harry Weslake. The changes raised output to a healthy 132 hp (98 kW).
One of the four-port engines was installed in the fourth Special Test car, which received modified bodywork (designed by Coker) to improve its aerodynamics. In September, that car went to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where Donald Healey drove it to speeds of up to 142.6 mph (229.6 km/h). Although the engine blew during a subsequent trial and had to be replaced, the car nonetheless captured a host of U.S. and international Class D speed records.
Such achievements did wonders for the Hundred’s image, particularly in the U.S., where the car became available in quantity that fall. The press reaction was very favorable. The Hundred was no all-purpose GT — the folding windscreen tended to rattle, weather protection was meager, and engine heat soaked into the cabin — but reviewers praised the fast steering, neutral handling, and strong performance. The Hundred was quick for its era and the big four’s low-end torque made it far more flexible than most small sports cars. Late in the year, owners could also order a kit to modify their engines to the same level of tune as the Le Mans cars, using larger S.U. H6 carburetors, a cold-air intake system, and a high-lift camshaft. (Some of these kits were fitted in Warwick prior to delivery to dealers.)
The Austin-Healey now had a serious rival in the new Triumph TR-2, which was about the same size, had a very similar power-to-weight ratio, and cost a full $500 less. Nonetheless, the Hundred was the most successful Healey to date. More than 1,200 were sold through the end of the year — very close to the total number of cars built in Warwick since 1945.