Imagine designing your own car and seeing it drive. Better yet, designing your own car and driving it yourself at better than 100 mph. Exciting stuff.
There, parked behind the ropes at the 1952 London Motor show was Donald Healey’s very own Healey Hundred sports car. The sleek prototype – made even sleeker with its rakish fold-down windscreen – stunned show-goers with its sheer beauty. Also impressive was the fact that the roadster had
been tested by Donald Healey himself at speeds above 100 mph (hence the name).
The creation also caught the attention of Leonard Lord, chairman of the then recently formed British Motor Corporation (BMC). The company supplied the Healey’s 90-horsepower 2.7-litre four-cylinder engine, four-speed manual transmission and other mechanical components. Both Lord and Healey saw the huge exportmarket potential for the car, and a deal was soon struck between the two men. BMC would manufacture the car since it was clear that Healey’s cottageindustry plant could never keep up with the expected demand.
Before the London Motor Show ended, the Healey Hundred was renamed the Austin-Healey 100. With a list price of about $1,500, it was pricier than an MG TD or Triumph TR2, but far more affordable than Jaguar’s exotic XK120.
With their eyes firmly fixed on the lucrative North American market, Lord and Healey (Healey then had the role of chief designer and consultant) set about generating prototypes to be shipped to the United States.
At first sight, American audiences reacted with the same enthusiasm as those in Britain. The Austin-Healey captured the Grand Premier Award at the 1953 Miami World’s Fair and was also named International Show Car of the Year at the International Motor Sports Show in New York.
With such an audacious debut, orders began flooding BMC’s Longbridge, England, plant. The company was churning out more than 100 Healeys a week, with 80 per cent of production destined for overseas delivery.
Those early 100s showed their versatility as daily drivers as well as weekend warriors on race tracks and rally courses. Although well suited for both tasks, the Healey wasn’t without its faults. Excessive engine heat tended to fill the cockpit and more than one exhaust system was destroyed due to ground-clearance problems. However, considering the car’s impressive performance (zero to 60 mph in a little more than 10 seconds), superb handling and great looks, these remained minor quibbles.
As the Austin-Healey’s popularity and reputation grew, its founder remained active as its chief ambassador. As a former First World War aviator, an automotive engineer and successful competition driver (winning the 1931 Monte Carlo rally), Healey was perfectly suited to the role. In 1954 at age 56, he piloted a streamlined-bodied supercharged Austin-Healey 100 to a number of speed and endurance records at the Bonneville salt flats.
In 1956, the original 100 series gave way to the 100-6. The car had a slightly longer wheelbase, redesigned grille and powerbulge hood, along with the availability of
“occasional” rear seats that could give even the tiniest toddler a bad case of leg cramps. A 102-horsepower 2.6-litre inline six-cylinder was standard, although the car was actually slower than the previous model due to its added weight. That condition was corrected after the first year with an extra 15 horsepower.
Despite higher prices and a bulkier size, Austin-Healey sales remained strong. By then, Healeys were being successfully campaigned on race courses the world over, including France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, Sebring, Fla. and Nassau Speed Weeks events.
The last major upgrade occurred in 1959. Branded the Austin-Healey 3000, the list of improvements included a more powerful 2.9-litre OHV straight-six (which would ultimately break through the 10-second zero-to-60-mph/96 km/h barrier), front disc brakes, roll-up windows and a retractable convertible top. At long last, the dangerously exposed exhaust system was rerouted to a more protected location. And, for the first time in the Healey’s history, a removable hardtop became optional.
However, success would not continue. BMC was totally unprepared to properly adapt to the United States government’s looming safety and environmental regulations. By the end of 1967, Donald Healey’s dream reached the end of the line.
Since Donald Healey’s death in 1988 at age 89, interest in his cars, as well as their resale values continues to climb.
After more than 50 years, the Austin Healey’s attractive styling and its race-proven sturdiness have helped keep this legendary sports car from growing old.
Malcolm Gunn writes for Wheelbase Media, which supplies news and features to newspapers.