In October 1952, Donald Healey introduced what was to be the most famous car bearing his name: the Austin-Healey 100. It would survive for 15 years in three distinct incarnations, along the way gaining a six-cylinder engine and a formidable competition record. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we examine the origins and evolution of the “big Healeys”: the 1953-1967 Austin-Healey 100, 100-6, and 3000.
BUILDING A CHEAPER HEALEY
By late 1951, the tiny Warwick-based Donald Healey Motor Company offered four distinct models: the luxurious Tickford saloon and Abbott drophead (convertible), both powered by a 2,443 cc (149 cu. in.) Riley four; the Anglo-American Nash-Healey with its big Nash six; and the new Healey Sports Convertible, powered by a 2,993 cc (183 cu. in.) Alvis engine. All used variations of the same chassis and all were quite expensive, selling in very modest numbers.
Donald Healey was well aware that the company’s products had a limited audience in the U.K. and were too costly to make a big impression on the American market. The Nash-Healey, for example, cost nearly $2,000 more than a Jaguar XK-120, itself far from cheap. After a trip to the U.S. in the fall of 1951, Healey concluded that what his company really needed was a sports car to fit into the sizable price gap between the Jaguar and the MG TD.
A cheaper car would need a different engine, ideally one less bulky than the Riley four, which weighed some 600 lb (272 kg). That engine was not long for the world, in any case. According to Healey’s son Geoff, DHMC’s head of engineering development, Riley was eager to phase out the twin-cam four, whose design dated back to the 1920s.
An interesting alternative was Austin’s big OHV four. Introduced in the 1945 Austin 16, it had seen duty in the A70 saloon, the K8 van, the ubiquitous FX3 taxicab, and civilian versions of the Austin Champ truck. Bored out from 2,199 to 2,660 cc (134 to 162 cu. in.) and fitted with two S.U. carburetors, that engine had powered the A90 Atlantic, Austin’s ill-fated attempt to crack the U.S. market. The big four was not a particularly racy engine, but it was sturdy, dependable, and readily available. Although the Atlantic had been a commercial failure, Austin chairman Leonard Lord still liked the idea of an Austin-powered sports car (during the same period, he also considered proposals from Frazer-Nash and Jensen) and was happy to provide whatever Healey required.
The new car also required an updated chassis. The existing chassis, designed by A.C. Sampietro during the war, was expensive to build and its trailing-arm front suspension suffered heavy understeer, so Healey engineer Barry Bilbie started over from scratch. The new chassis would have semi-unitized construction, using a self-supporting frame to which were welded two large sub-assemblies comprising most of the inner body structure. Although the combination was heavier than a true monocoque, it was very sturdy, providing a solid foundation for the suspension. Most exterior panels would be aluminum, helping to keep the car’s dry weight to only 1,850 lb (839 kg).
THE HEALEY HUNDRED
The task of clothing the new chassis fell to Gerry Coker, who had joined the company as a body engineer in 1950. Although Coker was not a stylist, the Healeys thought highly of his sense of line and he was adept at creating details that were attractive but still practical for production, a vital point for a company with Healey’s limited resources. Coker had never designed a complete car before, but he promised to do his best.
Donald Healey was not exactly brimming with confidence and micromanaged Coker relentlessly throughout the design process. The new car was an enormous gamble and Healey couldn’t afford to fail; we assume that even building a prototype represented a huge investment. In a 2008 interview with Steven Kingsbury, Coker said he had eventually had to refuse to make any more changes, realizing that the process had reached the point of diminishing returns. Healey accepted Coker’s final full-size drawing, albeit not without reservations.
Healey commissioned John Thompson Motor Pressings Company in Wolverhampton to build a prototype chassis and engaged Tickford to build the body shell from Coker’s scale drawings. The initial prototype, painted light blue, was completed in September 1952. Road testing on Belgium’s Jabbeke highway demonstrated the prototype’s 100+ mph (161 km/h) capability. In fact, the light blue car could reach speeds of up to 106 mph (171 km/h) — as good as the larger Nash-Healey could manage with a six-cylinder engine of 50% greater displacement. Healey decided to christen the new model the Healey Hundred.
A few weeks later, John Bolster of Autosport magazine took the prototype back to Belgium, where he reached a highly respectable 112 mph (180 km/h) with the windscreen folded and a tonneau cover over the passenger seat. Bolster praised the car’s well-balanced handling and road manners, although he complained that with the Hundred’s light weight, the A90 gearbox’s low first gear (with an overall ratio of 14.8:1) was basically useless, producing nothing but wheel spin. Still, Bolster’s impressions were extremely favorable, boding well for the Hundred’s future.
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.
Four more Special Test cars were built in 1954. All had the four-port engine (plus an oil cooler to alleviate an oil temperature issue noted at Le Mans) along with a David Brown close-ratio gearbox and new Dunlop disc brakes, fitted at all four corners.
Lance Macklin and George Huntoon took the first of these cars to the 12 Hours of Sebring in March, managing first in their class and third overall despite a broken rocker arm that left them down one cylinder. Their strong performance actually proved a handicap in future events — at the Mille Miglia in May, race officials insisted the Hundreds had to run in the over-2-liter sports car class, pitting the Healeys against far more powerful competitors like Ferrari and Maserati. The company faced a similar challenge at Le Mans, where the disc-equipped Hundreds were pushed into the sports car prototype class. Healey opted to withdraw, issuing a public statement lamenting the growing gap between racers and production cars.
That summer, two Special Test cars were prepared for another round of record attempts at Bonneville. One of the entries was the previous year’s record-setter, fitted with disc brakes and a new 142 hp (106 kW) engine. The other had a heavily modified streamliner body, another Gerry Coker creation, with a bubble canopy and a dramatic but purely cosmetic dorsal fin. Intended to reach 200 mph (320 km/h), the streamliner had a Shorrock supercharger, giving 224 hp (167 kW) on a mixture of Benzole, methanol, and castor oil. While the streamliner set a new array of speed records, it didn’t quite hit the target; its best speed was 192.7 mph (310.2 km/h). The endurance car achieved 53 records of its own, maintaining more than 132 mph (212 km/h) for over 24 hours.
That fall, Healey announced that the Sebring car would be the basis for a new limited-production sports racer, christened 100S. Intended for racing homologation and competition-minded owners, it had a reinforced frame and an all-aluminum body with a new grille and a one-piece Perspex windscreen. The bumpers were deleted to save weight while the fuel tank was enlarged from 12 to 20 Imperial gallons (14.4 to 24 U.S. gallons; 54.5 to 90.9 liters). Four-wheel Dunlop disc brakes were standard, as was a close-ratio Morris gearbox, although overdrive moved to the options list. The 100S engine was similar to the earlier Weslake-designed four-port unit, but had revised manifolds, a high-compression aluminum head, a lightened flywheel, and dual exhausts. Output was 132 hp (98 kW) and 168 lb-ft (228 N-m) of torque, which combined with the lighter weight and close-ratio gearbox to give ferocious performance: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 8 seconds with a top speed of more than 125 mph (201 km/h). List price was just under $5,000.
The higher-revving engine was far from smooth and there were problems with the aluminum cylinder heads, clutches, and exhaust manifolds, but the 100S was a true dual-purpose sports racer, taking class victories at both Sebring and the Mille Miglia in early 1955. Unfortunately, that summer, one of the Special Test prototypes was also involved in the worst racing tragedy of the decade. On the 35th lap at Le Mans in June, Healey driver Lance Macklin’s car, registration NOJ 393, was rear-ended by Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes 300SLR. The Mercedes flipped over and struck a retaining wall, sending its engine and debris hurtling into the crowd and then catching fire. Macklin was not injured, but Levegh and about 80 spectators were killed with dozens more injured. Macklin’s car was impounded and not returned to Warwick until more than a year later.
Production of the 100S continued for about four months after Le Mans, ending in November. Including the Special Test cars, only 55 were built, including a prototype fixed-head coupe, which Donald Healey kept for his own use until the early 1960s.
BN2 AND 100M
By September 1954, production of all the earlier Healey models had ended, allowing the staff in Warwick to concentrate on the Special Test cars and other Austin-Healey projects. Fortunately, the Hundred was selling far better than all the previous cars combined: production totaled more than 10,000 cars through mid-1955. Quite a few were raced, with respectable results; one car even won its class in the 1955 Mobilgas Economy Rally.
The early Hundred, known today by its chassis code, BN1, underwent various running changes through its run, from new two-piece side screens to the substitution of the hypoid-bevel axle from the Austin Westminster for the original A70/A90 unit. In August 1955, all Hundreds received the four-speed taxi gearbox, along with wider front brakes and a longer body-side swage line, facilitating the use of two-tone paint. Those changes prompted a new chassis code: BN2.
Later that year, the standard BN2 was supplemented by a new model, the 100M. Introduced at the Earls Court show in October, the 100M was presumably intended to provide a cheaper replacement for the 100S, featuring a louvered bonnet, minor suspension modifications, and the Le Mans engine kit, giving 110 hp (82 kW). Priced 10% higher than the standard car, the 100M accounted for 1,159 units through mid-1956, roughly 25% of BN2 production.
Unfortunately, production was down significantly. Although the Hundred had outsold the Triumph TR2, the new TR3 was proving a more difficult opponent. Introduced in October 1955, the TR3 had revamped styling and additional power, giving it a small but significant advantage over the Austin-Healey. It was still more than $300 cheaper than the Hundred and even offered optional 2+2 seating. To match that competition, Healey would have to make some significant changes.
THE AUSTIN-HEALEY 100-6
One idea for improving Austin-Healey sales was a long-wheelbase model, known at Warwick as the L-type. Prompted by Donald Healey’s concern that lack of passenger space was costing sales, the L-type had a 2-inch (51mm) longer wheelbase, providing room for a pair of occasional rear seats. Gerry Coker also explored a number of possible updates to the Hundred’s styling, including enclosed headlamps, small tailfins, and louvers in the front fenders to exhaust engine heat (later adopted by some of the competition cars).
According to Geoff Healey, serious thought was also given to standardizing the 100S engine across the line, which would have given the Hundred a clear performance edge over the TR3. However, Austin management was not enthusiastic; the 100S engine was expensive to produce, requiring a unique block casting to match the aluminum head’s altered stud positions. BMC preferred to modify the Hundred to accommodate the newer Morris-designed C-series six, which was replacing the big four in BMC’s bigger sedans.
Installing the six in the Hundred chassis was not a complex exercise, but the engine itself left much to be desired. While a six-cylinder engine might seem to provide a marketing advantage over the four-cylinder TR3, the C-series was slightly smaller in displacement than the big four and actually had less torque. Worse, the six was considerably heavier than the four — dry weight was over 600 lb (277 kg) — which eroded the Hundred’s power-to-weight ratio.
Hoping to cast the new engine in a good light, the Healeys decided to take two six-cylinder cars to Bonneville in August 1956. The original 1953–54 record-setter was fitted with aerodynamic body extensions and an oval grille (once again courtesy of Gerry Coker), along with a heavily modified C-series engine with a new six-port head and separate intake manifold. The 1954 streamliner was also modified extensively and fitted with a supercharged six, producing 292 hp (218 kW).
On the Salt Flats, both cars blew their engines repeatedly, but the endurance car nevertheless set numerous speed records, including a six-hour average of more than 146 mph (235 km/h). The supercharged streamliner, driven by Donald Healey himself, reached speeds of up to 203 mph (327 km/h) — short of the 217 mph (349 km/h) originally projected, but still an impressive figure. It would be the last run for Donald Healey, who had recently turned 58. Afterward, the Healeys’ insurance company, understandably nonplussed by the whole affair, finally persuaded him to leave the risky stuff to others.
The six-cylinder production car went on sale that fall. Christened Austin-Healey 100-6 (and known today by its BN4 chassis code), it completely replaced the four-cylinder BN2. The BN4 was 6.5 inches (165 mm) longer than the BN2 and had the longer-wheelbase chassis and 2+2 seating. Except for its new grille and hood scoop, the BN4 looked much the same as the four-cylinder car, but weight was up about 240 lb (110 kg). Most of that was on the nose, requiring stiffer front springs and a thicker anti-roll bar. As a result, the six-cylinder cars had heavier steering than the fours and a new propensity for initial understeer and dramatic final oversteer.
Press response to the 100-6 was lukewarm. Instead of giving the Healey an edge over the TR3, the six-cylinder engine seemed to be a step backward. While the six-cylinder car’s top speed was similar to the four’s, 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) acceleration took about a second longer than before. Worse, the BN4 still had drum brakes, while the Triumph now offered standard front discs, something the Hundred had yet to offer except on the 100S. Sales of the 100-6 were not significantly better than those of the BN2, amounting to about 5,000 units a year.
In response, Healey started work on an alternative: a smaller, cheaper Austin-powered sports car, codenamed Q1 (and later ADO 13). It would emerge in May 1958 as the first Austin-Healey Sprite. The Sprite was one of the last projects Gerry Coker worked on for Healey; in 1957, he moved to the U.S. to become a body engineer for Ford.
IMPROVING THE SIX
In early 1957, the staff in Warwick built a handful of six-cylinder Hundreds for competition. One, built with the reinforced chassis from the 100S, was driven by Tommy Wisdom and his daughter Ann in Italy’s Sestrière Rally in March with indifferent results. Three others, prepared for Austin’s East Coast U.S. distributor, the Hambro Automotive Corporation, ran at Sebring a few weeks later, although only one finished the race, managing second in its class.
It was obvious that the C-series engine needed more muscle, so Tommy Wisdom’s car was modified with the high-compression six-port head and new intake manifold created for the Bonneville engines. Wisdom and navigator Cecil Winby took the car to the Mille Miglia in May. Although their final standing was unspectacular, the new engine worked out very well, achieving the second-highest average speed any Austin-Healey had ever managed in that event. The new head and intake manifold became standard on production cars in October, providing more respectable performance.
A month later, the Austin-Healey production line shifted from Longbridge to the MG plant in Abingdon. Although MG and Healey were rivals in the marketplace, the move appears to have been a mostly positive one for both parties. The Healeys had never been entirely satisfied with production at Longbridge (although Geoff Healey later acknowledged that some of the problems stemmed from the tendency of his father and Leonard Lord to make important decisions in private meetings, leaving the Austin staff without clear marching orders) and Donald Healey was friends with MG managing director John Thornley despite Lord’s periodic attempts to foster competition between them. The Healeys apparently also had a good relationship with MG chief engineer Syd Enever, who had been very helpful with the preparation of the Bonneville cars and the Sprite.
In response to dealer requests, a two-seat Hundred (chassis code BN6) was reintroduced in early 1958. When the BN6 was introduced in March, BN4 production temporarily ceased to clear parts inventories at Jensen, but it resumed in September, after which both body styles were offered concurrently. While buyers liked the idea of the two-seater (which is more popular with collectors today), it was far less practical than the 2+2, which sold much better.
In the spring of 1958, Jack Sears and Peter Garnier drove a 100-6 in the RAC Rally and Tulip Rally. Although their final results were unspectacular — fifth in class in the former, DNF in the latter, thanks to a broken distributor — Sears and Garnier nonetheless made a strong showing, suggesting that the six-cylinder car had a promising future in rally competition. Shortly afterward, the BMC Competitions Department in Abingdon, then headed by Marcus Chambers, decided to aggressively campaign the 100-6 in European rally events.
As a rally car, the Hundred had both strengths and weaknesses. In racing tune, the six-port C-series engine was reasonably powerful, flexible, and generally reliable. The Healey’s body structure was also exceptionally robust, particularly with the reinforced 100S-type frame — several crews walked away from serious crashes with little more than bumps and scrapes. However, the six-cylinder cars were tiring to drive and could be a real handful on wet, slippery roads. Oversteer was the order of the day, and even expert drivers could end up in the weeds if they didn’t catch a tail slide in time. Rally crews also suffered the same shortcomings that annoyed private owners: too much cabin heat in warm weather, marginal heating in the cold, and generally spotty weather protection.
Nonetheless, over the coming years, the six-cylinder Healeys would establish themselves as fearsome rally competitors. A lengthy list of class victories began in August, when Pat Moss (younger sister of Stirling Moss) and navigator Ann Wisdom took the GT class at the Liège-Rome-Liège Rally, coming in fourth overall and taking the Coupe des Dames. Although one of the other Healey entries crashed, two more took fourth and sixth in class, earning BMC the Manufacturer’s Team Prize.
FROM 100 TO 3000
In March 1959, the 100-6 received a new engine, new chassis codes, and a new name: Austin-Healey 3000. Without looking at the emblems, the differences were hard to spot, but they included several welcome improvements. First among those was the engine, the latest 29D version of the C-series six, with a new cylinder block, a larger bore, and a higher compression ratio, bringing displacement to 2,912 cc (178 cu. in.) and output to 124 hp (93 kW) and 162 lb-ft (220 N-m) of torque. The stronger engine was backed with a stronger gearbox and, belatedly, front disc brakes.
The 3000 had noticeably stronger performance than the 100-6: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) now took about 10 seconds while top speed was nearly 115 mph (184 km/h). (Competition and works rally cars were naturally even faster, thanks to a revised exhaust manifold, a hotter camshaft, and larger S.U. H8 carburetors.) The list price was up to £829 ex works (£1,175 10s 10d with purchase tax), $3,051 POE in the U.S., but the 3000 was more popular than the 100-6; sales improved by more than 30%.
The 3000’s rally debut came in June, when BMC entered three cars in the 1959 Alpine Rally, John Gott and Chris Tooley taking second in their class. Similar victories followed at the Liège and the German Rally, where Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom won their class and achieved second place overall, claiming the Coupe des Dames for good measure.
The 1960 season was even better. The ‘big’ Healeys, as they were now known following the introduction of the Sprite, won their class in the Circuit of Ireland, the Geneva Rally, the Tulip Rally, the Alpine Rally, and the Liège, which Moss and Wisdom also won outright. The season closed with 3000s taking first, second, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, and 10th in their class at the 1960 RAC Rally, also claiming the Team Prize. Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom took the European Ladies Rally Championship and were named drivers of the year.
In early 1961, the 3000 was upgraded to Mark II form, which meant little more than a new grille and a revised 29E engine with three carburetors, providing 132 hp (98 kW). The extra power gave a slightly higher top speed — an increasingly academic point on public roads — but the extra carburetors did little for acceleration. Six months after introduction, the Mark II also received a new shift linkage allowing a centrally mounted shifter, along with an insulated fiberglass gearbox cover intended to reduce cabin noise and heat.
While it wasn’t a great advantage on the street, the three-carburetor engine made for another superb rally season. Pat Moss and Ann Wisdom took their class at the Tulip Rally in May and the big Healeys went on to five more class victories, including the Morley brothers’ outright win at the Alpine Rally in June. The 3000 racked up an additional eight class victories in 1962, with Pat Moss and new partner Pauline Mayman also claiming the Ladies’ European Rally Championship. (Ann Wisdom had left the team after her marriage to driver Peter Riley the previous year.) Big Healeys took second and third in their class at Sebring in 1960, but three attempts at Le Mans ended DNF in 1960, 1961, and 1962.
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 a 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 to resuscitate big Healey 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 drove the prototypes also wondered if the 4000 might have been too refined for its own good, more of a boulevardier than a real sports car.
Unable to meet U.S. motor vehicle standards, the Austin-Healey 3000 expired in December 1967, although a final car was completed offline about three months later.
In May 1968, BMC merged with Leyland Motors to form the British Leyland Motor Corporation, chaired by Leyland’s Donald Stokes. Hoping to bring the corporation’s financial hemorrhaging under control, Stokes began terminating BMC’s agreements with consultants like Healey and John Cooper. The 3000 was already dead by then and the smaller Sprite would follow in 1970 (although its MG Midget sibling would survive through 1979).
In 1969, Kjell Qvale of San Francisco’s British Motor Car Distributors — one of the world’s largest Austin-Healey distributors — took over Jensen Motors, which had been struggling since the retirement of the Jensen brothers a few years earlier. Knowing that the Healeys’ contract with British Leyland was expiring, Qvale suggested that they join him at Jensen to create a replacement for the Austin-Healey 3000. In 1970, Donald and Geoff Healey became Jensen board members, leading to the creation of the Jensen-Healey in 1972.
As tends to be the case with BMC cars, production figures for the big Healeys are a complicated subject, but the total for all versions was more than 73,000 units. About 44,000 of those were 3000s, with the remainder split roughly evenly between the four-cylinder cars and the 100-6. Added to the Sprite, that brings total Austin-Healey production to about 200,000 cars between 1953 and 1970 — not a lot by Austin standards, but impressive for a small range of sports cars designed by a handful of people in a tiny company.
While the Sprite was the better seller, it was the Hundred and 3000 that made the Austin-Healey name and they’re the ones most people remember. Donald Healey built cars both before and afterward, but if not for the big Healeys, we suspect the rest would be little more than historical footnotes today. Along with its Triumph rivals, the big Healey also remains a standard-bearer for British sports cars: pugnacious and eccentric, rugged and direct, always ready to back up its racy image on a racetrack or rally course. (The 100M, for example, was quite close to the cars that ran at Le Mans in 1953, lacking only their aluminum bumpers, oversize fuel tanks, and heavy-duty brake linings.) The big Healey wasn’t necessarily easy to drive or live with, but it was the real thing, and that still counts for a lot.
Special thanks to Martin Alford, John Baker, Clive Barker, Storm Bear, Stephen Kingsbury, Peter Roses, Chuck Forward, and Tina Van Curen.
In 2012, we licensed a condensed version of this story to the Angie’s List classic cars channel. However, Angie’s List had no connection with the original article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
Information on the careers of Donald and Geoff Healey and the development of the Austin-Healey 100, 100-6, 3000, and 4000 came from the following sources: Keith Adams, “Connections: Jensen,” and “The Whole Story,” AROnline, 25 August 2011, www.aronline. co. uk, accessed 29 February 2012; Gary G. Anderson, Roger Moment, Austin-Healey 100, 100-6, 3000 Restoration Guide (Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Co, 2000); The Auto Editors of Consumer Guide, “1953-1967 Austin-Healey 100 and 3000,” HowStuffWorks.com, 20 August 2007, auto.howstuffworks. com/ 1953-1967-austin-healey-100-and-3000.htm, accessed 10 March 2012; “Austin Healey 100 and the Triumph TR3,” Australian Motor Manual 15 September 1956, pp. 22-25; John Baker, “Healey 100-3000,” and “History of the Company,” Austin Memories, 2006, www.austinmemories. com, accessed 21 August 2010; John Bolster, “John Bolster Tests the Healey ‘Hundred,'” Autosport 24 October 1952; Peter Browning and Les Needham, Healeys and Austin-Healeys including Jensen-Healey, Second Edition (Sparkford, Yeovil: J.H. Haynes & Co., Ltd., 1976); John Chatham, “The Austin Healey 4000,” Classic and Sportscar Magazine Vol. 10, No. 5 (August 1991); Anders Ditlev Clausager, Original Austin-Healey 100, 100-Six and 3000, Second Edition (St. Paul, MN: Bay View Books/MBI Publishing Co., 2002); Marty Clear, “The man who designed COOL,” Coyote’s Classic Cars, 2 May 2005, www.dcoyote. org/ healey_history.shtml, accessed 10 February 2012; Brad Constant, “Austin Healey involved in racing’s deadliest crash sells for more than $1 million,” Autoweek 2 December 2011, www.autoweek. com, accessed 9 February 2012; Mike Covello, Standard Catalog of Imported Cars 1946-2002, Second Edition (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2001); S.C.H. Davis, “Profile: 1954 Austin-Healey: A sports car for the young and for the young at heart,” The Autocar 1 April 1955; “Donald Healey,” Austin Healey Club, 2012, www.austinhealeyclub. com, accessed 8 February 2012; “Donald Healey and the History of the Big Healeys,” Unique Cars and Parts, n.d., www.uniquecarsandparts. com.au, accessed 8 February 2012; Craig Fitzgerald, “Donald Healey,” Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car #8 (April 2006), p. 56; Tim Harry, “Classic car reviews: Austin-Healey 100-6,” Helium.com, 11 January 2011, www.helium. com, accessed 29 March 2012; Geoffrey Healey, Healey, The Specials (London: Gentry Books, 1980); 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; “History and Specification: Austin-Healey 100/6,” Vanilla Classics, n.d., www.vanillaclassics. com/ car.php? v=12, accessed 19 March 2012; David Knowles, MG: The Untold Story (Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1997); Tom McCahill, “McCahill Drives the Austin Healey,” Mechanix Illustrated November 1953, pp. 96-99, 209; Alex Meredith, “SIA Interview: Donald Healey,” Special Interest Autos #67 (February 1982), pp. 58-62; “Over the hills and fast away” [advertisement] The Motor 4 March 1959, p. 27; Frederick Pearce, “The Big Healey Stretch,” Auto Magazine August 1973, englishcars. com/ austinhealey/ 4000/ ah4000.html, accessed 21 March 2012; “Road & Track Road Test No. F-3-56: Austin-Healey 100M,” Road & Track Vol. 7, No. 1 (September 1955), n.p.; “Road & Track Road Test No. F-11-55: Austin-Healey ‘100S,'” Road & Track Vol. 8, No. 5 (January 1957); “Sale 19293, Lot 433,” Bonhams, 1 December 2011, www.bonhams. com/ eur/auction/19293/lot/433/, accessed 9 February 2012; “Setting the pace for tomorrow” [advertisement], The Motor 13 March 1957, p. 25; “The Autocar road tests: Austin-Healey 3000 (No. 1852),” The Autocar 22 December 1961, pp. 1038A–1038D; “We haven’t yet built a sportscar capable of flight” [advertisement], Autocar 3 September 1965, p. 12, Jonathan Wood, “Obituary: Geoffrey Healey,” The Independent 16 May 1994, www.independent. co. uk, accessed 15 February 2012; Walt Woron, “It’s Really That Good!” Motor Trend Vol. 5, No. 11 (November 1953), pp. 22-25; the Wikipedia® entries for Pat Moss (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pat_Moss, accessed 20 March 2012), Donald Healey (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Healey, accessed 8 February 2012), the Donald Healey Motor Company (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Healey_Motor_Company, accessed 11 February 2012) and Geoffrey Healey (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Healey, accessed 8 February 2012); and the Healey Museum website, www.healeymuseum.nl, accessed 10 February 2012.
Additional background information on other BMC vehicles of this period came from “1950 Austin A70 Hereford,” Autofiles.org, n.d., www.autofiles. org, accessed 26 February 2012; “A Resume of the Origin and Life of Vanden Plas,” Vanden Plas Owners’ Club, 2004, www.vpoc.info/ History.htm, accessed 10 March 2012; Keith Adams, “Fireball XL5 – BMC’s broken arrow,” AROnline, 25 June 2011, www.aronline. co. uk, accessed 2 April 2012; Keith Adams and Declan Berridge, “In-house designs: Rolls-Royce projects,” AROnline, 25 June 2011, www.aronline. co. uk, accessed 2 April 2012; John Baker, “A90 Atlantic,” “A90/A95 Westminster,” “A99-A110 Westminster,” “Austin A105,” “Austin Taxi,” “Austin 3 Litre Saloon (ADO61),” “Princess 4 Litre ‘R,'” and “Vanden Plas,” Austin Memories, n.d., www.austinmemories. com, accessed 25 February to 30 March 2012; Martin Cannell and Craig Tiano, “A brief history of the 4 litre R,” Vandenplas.com, 2000, www.vandenplas. com, accessed 10 March 2012; Paul Niedermeyer, “Automotive History: The Curious F-Head Engine,” Curbside Classic, 20 February 2011, www.curbsideclassic. com/ automotive-histories/ automotive-history-the-curious-f-head-engine/, last accessed 2 April 2012; “Riley Pathfinder,” GB Classic Cars, 2011, www.gbclassiccars. co. uk/ riley_pathfinder.html, accessed 10 March 2012; the Wikipedia entries for the Austin A70 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin_A70, accessed 26 February 2012), Austin 16 hp (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin_16_hp, accessed 26 February 2012), the Austin Atlantic (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin_Atlantic, accessed 26 February 2012), the Austin Champ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin_Champ, accessed 10 March 2012), the Austin FX3 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austin_FX3, accessed 29 February 2012), the BMC C-series engine (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BMC_C-Series_engine, accessed 30 March 2012), and the Wolseley 6/99 (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolseley_6/99, accessed 30 March 2012); and an email to the author from John Baker on 8 March 2012.
Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate equivalency of British and U.S. currency at the contemporary exchange rate ($2.80/£), not 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 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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