AUSTIN-HEALEY 3000 CONVERTIBLE
Despite its impressive rally record, by late 1961, the 3000’s showroom performance had dropped off dramatically. Although 40% cheaper than the glamorous new E-type Jaguar, the Austin Healey’s base price had crept up to more than $3,400, which made its troublesome side curtains and spotty weather protection that much more difficult to accept. Even much cheaper sports cars like the MGB, Datsun Fairlady, and Triumph TR-4 now had roll-up windows.
In early 1962, BMC addressed these complaints by introducing a new body style: the Sports Convertible, chassis code BJ7. Offered only as a 2+2, the convertible featured a new windshield, a new folding top, and proper wind-up windows. At the same time, the engine traded its three carburetors for an easier-to-tune pair of 1.75-inch (45mm) S.U. HS6s.
The BN7 and BT7 roadster body styles were both gone by summer, but the rally team retained the BN7 through the rest of the 1963 season, collecting more class victories at the Monte Carlo Rally, the Tulip Rally, the Liège, and the RAC Rally.
The introduction of the convertible perked up 3000 sales somewhat, but they remained well below those of the early Mark I cars. In October 1963, the Mark II was upgraded to Mark III form, chassis code BJ8, which featured a revamped engine with bigger carburetors and a dual exhaust system. The big news was a revamped interior; intended to take the 3000 upscale, it featured a wood-trimmed dashboard, a center console, and a racy-looking but confusing array of toggle switches. The changes made the BJ8 a bit heavier than its predecessors, but it was faster than all of them except the 100S, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 10 seconds and a top speed of nearly 120 mph (192 km/h). Base price was only about $30 higher than the BJ7 DeLuxe, although wire wheels reverted to the options list.
The rally team adopted the BJ8 in 1964, adding even more luster to an already impressive record. Pat Moss was gone — in March, she married Saab driver Erik Carlsson and defected to the Saab team — but the Morley brothers, Rauno Aaltonen, and Timo Makinen took six class victories, winning the Austrian Alpine Rally outright.
Although the big Healey retained the Mark III name and BJ8 chassis code for the remainder of its run, the 3000 received additional modifications in May 1964, including a new frame and a heavily revised rear suspension, intended to improve axle location and ride. There were also various lighting changes to comply with changing U.S. laws; about 80% of production went to the States, only about one in 20 cars remaining in the U.K.
Around this time, Healey developed a fixed-head coupe body style intended to be sold alongside the convertible. Geoff and Donald Healey designed the coupe themselves with the help of Doug Thorpe, and a single prototype was assembled in Warwick, using the modified chassis developed for the 12 Hours of Sebring, with four-wheel disc brakes and a detuned racing engine with about 170 hp (127 kW). BMC chairman George Harriman liked the coupe, commissioning Austin stylist Dick Burzi to refine and productionize the design. A second prototype was built, but plans for production collapsed when Harriman saw Jensen’s exorbitant estimate for tooling the new body. The project was canceled, although the Healeys subsequently bought both prototypes for their own use.
(During this period, BMC also considered another coupe as a possible replacement for the big Healey. Known as the ADO30, it was based on a Pininfarina-built coupe developed by three design students, Michael Conrad, Pio Manzù, and Henner Werner, for a 1961 Automobile Year contest. While the original concept car was based on an Austin-Healey 3000 platform, the ADO30 was intended to be powered by the Rolls-Royce FB60 engine — about which we’ll have more to say below — and use BMC’s Hydrolastic suspension system. The ADO30’s development continued in fits and starts for several years before it was finally canceled in 1967.)
THE ADO 51 AND THE AUSTIN-HEALEY 4000
From a practical standpoint, the 3000 Mark III was the best of the Austin-Healeys, but sales continued to fall. For all its incremental changes, the big Healey’s basic styling was now almost 10 years old and it took a careful eye to distinguish the latest version from its progenitor. We suspect that familiarity was becoming a significant handicap, particularly in fashion-conscious markets like California, which accounted for nearly half of all big Healey sales.
After the cancellation of the fixed-head coupe, BMC presented a new plan: replacing the 3000 with a six-cylinder version of the MGB that could be sold in Austin-Healey and MG versions. Both versions (known as the ADO 51 and 52, respectively) would offer both drophead and fixed-head coupe body styles, allowing BMC to better amortize the tooling for the soon-to-be-released MGB GT coupe.
From a corporate standpoint, the ADO 51/52 project made perfect sense. The Austin-Healey and MGB were built in the same factory and there was already similar commonality between the smaller Austin-Healey Sprite and the MG Midget. Nonetheless, the Healeys were very dubious. Budget constraints meant that the two versions would differ only slightly and both would be obvious derivatives of the MGB. Moreover, after working with MG’s Syd Enever on ADO 51/52 development, Geoff Healey concluded that stuffing the heavy C-series engine in the MGB was a mistake. Donald Healey told BMC in no uncertain terms that he would not put his name on the project and the ADO 51 was finally canceled, although the ADO 52 survived, emerging in 1967 as the MGC.
The demise of the ADO 51 left the thorny question of what to do about the 3000. Aside from its shrinking sales, the existing BJ8 car could not easily meet the new U.S. federal safety and emissions standards slated to take effect in January 1968. The long-term future of the C-series six was also in doubt. Although a lighter seven main bearing version was in development for the MGC and Austin 3 litre, the only other BMC cars to use the existing four-bearing engine were the aging Austin A110 Westminster and its Wolseley 6/100 cousin, both of which would expire by 1968.
At the suggestion of Austin officials, Donald Healey explored the possibility of revamping the 3000 to accept a new engine: the 3,909 cc (239 cu. in.) FB60, an all-aluminum six designed and built by Rolls-Royce. BMC and Rolls-Royce had signed a contract back in 1962 for BMC to buy the FB60 for its large cars, but the only production model to actually use the aluminum engine was Austin’s Vanden Plas Princess 4 Litre R, which had been a commercial disappointment. As a result, BMC had never purchased anything close to the originally agreed upon number of engines, leaving Rolls with a good deal of excess capacity.
In the fall of 1966, Healey engineers widened a BJ8 convertible by 6 inches (152 mm) and installed the engine, automatic transmission, and rear axle from Princess 4 Litre R. To those, the team added a new padded dashboard and door panels, a collapsible steering column, new seats, and other features required by U.S. regulations. The changes transformed the car. The FB60 had never been intended for sports car duty, but it was some 160 lb (73 kg) lighter than the C-series engine and even in a mild state of tune offered a healthy 175 hp (131 kW) and 218 lb-ft (297 N-m) of torque. The FB60 was also refined and quiet in a way the C-series could never match. The re-engined car was much easier to drive, too, with a more comfortable driving position, a better ride, and more secure handling, thanks to the wider track and superior weight distribution.
Austin executives were very impressed when the Healeys presented the modified car in Longbridge in early 1967. BMC’s cost analysis found that the FB60-engined car would be no more expensive to build than the 3000 while elevating the big Healey to a new level of luxury and refinement. BMC commissioned six additional prototypes, which were assigned the code number ADO 24. The production version, to be called Austin-Healey 4000, was expected to replace the 3000 in early 1968.
Unfortunately, the ADO 24 was canceled less than six months later. There were several reasons, the most pressing of which was probably BMC’s increasingly grim financial condition. Another factor was that the FB60 turned out not to be available in the expected numbers. Although Rolls-Royce engineers were aware of the ADO 24 and had worked with the Healeys on its development, Rolls-Royce management had apparently concluded that BMC was unlikely to order many more engines than it already had, so the factory in Crewe had already begun disposing of the tooling. Geoff Healey also suspected that the ADO 24 ran into significant internal opposition from Jaguar’s Sir William Lyons, who had gained a seat on the board after the 1966 merger of BMC and Jaguar. The Austin-Healey 4000 would have given the E-type a run for its money, offering comparable performance for some £700 (about $2,000) less.
The Healeys retained the original FB60-engined car and later finished the two partially completed prototypes at the family’s home in Cornwall at their own expense. All three cars were eventually sold to private collectors. Geoff Healey believed there was also a fourth chassis, although its ultimate fate is unknown.
It’s an open question whether the Rolls-Royce engine would have been enough resuscitate the big Healey’s sales. Despite its “Powered by Rolls-Royce” badges, the 4000 would have looked much like the 3000: new wine in an old bottle. Some of those who’ve driven the prototypes also wondered if the 4000 would have been too refined for its own good, more of a boulevardier than a real sports car.