In the Beginning
Donald Healey had first established his reputation through competition victories during the period between the wars – winning the RAC British Rally, Brighton Rally, Austrian Alpine Trial, Hungarian Alpine Rally, Glacier Cup and the Monte Carlo Rally between 1928 and 1932 in Triumphs, Rileys and Invictas – and parlayed that success into the position of Experimental Manager – and de facto competition director – with Triumph in 1933. In Coventry, Healey devoted himself to improving the Gloria and Dolomite models and competing in Triumphs at various events – including a class victory at Monte Carlo in 1934 – eventually rising to General Manager in 1939. Financial difficulties forced a sale to new ownership and an emphasis away from automotive manufacturing such that Healey left in 1941 to perform engineering work with the Rootes Group where he spent much of the war focusing on Humber fighting vehicles.
As the end of hostilities approached, Healey assembled a small cadre of close friends – including his engineer son Geoffrey – with hopes that Triumph could be resurrected – it would instead be purchased by Standard Motor Company in 1944 – to produce a sports car for the postwar market. With that door closed, the newly established, Warwick-based Donald Healey Motor Company turned to building its own cars based on Riley mechanicals, with the Westland and Elliott introduced in 1946. In keeping with his personal philosophy, the cars were actively campaigned – often with Donald behind the wheel – and took class honors in the Alpine Rally, Targa Florio and Mille Miglia in 1948.
Eager to build upon this success, Healey introduced the Silverstone in 1949 as an open-bodied sports car with primitive, rugged construction and reduced weight that allowed it to surpass the important 100-mph threshold and garner some competition success, though it was never very profitable. Eventually, the Westlands and Elliotts gave way to the similar-looking but larger Abbotts and Tickfords – none of which sold in substantially larger numbers than did their predecessors – forcing Healey to set his sights on the growing American sports car market. Healey had been intrigued with the notion of using Cadillac power for the Silverstone – an idea developed by Briggs Cunningham – and set off for the United States aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth to secure an engine supply from General Motors. During the voyage, Healey encountered Nash-Kelvinator Chairman George Mason who offered his assistance with the project if GM was unable to help. After Healey was rebuffed by GM, he contacted Mason, who offered not only to supply Nash engines for the project, but also to collaborate on an entirely new, limited production sports car. The Nash-Healey would come to save the struggling Donald Healey Motor Company – not through any sales of the car itself – but from the infusion of cash that Nash provided thereby allowing Healey to pay off his debts. Incorporating many bits from the Silverstone with the 3848-cc six-cylinder engine from Nash, the prototype car came in fourth overall in the 1950 24 Hours of Le Mans paving the way for its production debut in 1951. The car was well received – it was the first sports car offered by an American manufacturer since the 20s – but the somewhat bland styling chilled potential sales. A restyled version by Pinin Farina was introduced in 1952 – bodied and trimmed in Italy – but its attractive looks garnered few sales.
What Healey had desired for years – at least since the closing days of the war – was to build a sports car that was capable of popular – and financial success – in the lucrative North American market that had carried MG and Jaguar to spectacular new heights. The Nash-Healey had served its purpose by keeping the small company afloat and occupied while putting the Healey name out into the American market, but it had failed to win the sales necessary to maintain its viability as an automotive manufacturer. With his back against the wall and money tight, Healey rolled the dice and decided that his next attempt would aim for populist success with an affordable car – in the gap between MG and Jaguar – that made extensive use of cheap and affordable components that were made available from Austin due to slow sales of the Atlantic sedan.
What would become an automotive icon – the Healey 100 – was initially laid out between the two Healeys – father and son – in the family attic in late 1951. The mechanical parts were sourced directly from the Atlantic – including the stout and torque-ridden A90 2660-cc four-cylinder engine along with the 3-speed transmission equipped with an electric Laycock overdrive, front suspension, steering assembly and rear axle. Designer Gerry Coker was charged with creating an exciting style for the car – drawing from several Italian design elements – and the result of his work cemented its future success with a shape that was singularly attractive and distinct from anything then offered by MG, Morgan, Jaguar, Jowett or Sunbeam. With an anticipated maximum speed of at least 100-mph from the 100-hp engine the new car was given an appropriate moniker – the Healey 100.
The prototype example – completed in 1952 – proved the established aviation maxim that if something looks right, it will fly right and performed strongly right out of the box, such that during high speed testing in Belgium, the Healey was able to reach past 110-mph with ease. The 100 made its public debut at the 1952 Earl’s Court Motor Show despite the fact that Donald Healey lacked confidence in the styling – requiring that the car be displayed so that its front end was parked behind a pillar to hide what he considered an unsightly fascia – and feared that the car would be a failure, going so far as to caution Coker that “if this doesn’t work we’ll be nothing but a glorified garage.” Nonetheless, this prosaic assemblage of excess Atlantic parts amounted to something magical and when BMC Chairman Leonard Lord saw the car on the display stand his response was swift and immediate – put it into production – as is – as soon as reasonably practicable. The first 19 examples were hand-assembled at the Healey works in Warwick and made extensive use of aluminum body panels. Standard production cars would feature aluminum center shrouds with steel fenders, doors, hoods and trunks lids, although these components were introduced irregularly such that various cars displayed a mixed array of body components fashioned of both materials. The aluminum and steel bodies and chassis would be assembled by Jensen in West Bromwich, while the running gear and interior trimming would be added at the Austin factory in Longbridge. Reaction to the 100 was acclamatory; Motor Trend remarked in 1953, “it’s really that good,” while Road & Track concluded, “the Austin-Healey 100 is a perfect example of fairly ‘ordinary’ components assembled together in such an ingenious manner that the results are almost unbelievable.”
Not surprisingly, Healey ensured that many of the early cars were used in high profile events and the 100 soon proved itself in competition and during special high-speed record attempts that saw two modified cars – an aerodynamic streamliner and an endurance car – reach 192 mph and 143 mph respectively – while finding success at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Mille Miglia. In standard form – designated BN1 – the 100 was capable of maintaining 110 mph for extended periods – despite the extraordinarily long stroke of the engine it was durable if kept around 5000 rpm – and could reach from 0-60 mph in 10.5 seconds. The smooth and flowing lines penned by Coker accounted for much of the car’s success, as it was more attractive than any British car exclusive of the more expensive AC Ace and Jaguar XK. Inside, it featured two bucket seats – copied from a 1934 Austin Seven – trimmed in leather and a two-piece dashboard that housed the instruments directly in front of the driver. The first cars used fixed driver’s seats with an adjustable – telescopic – steering column – that made fitment of larger drivers problematic while the ergonomic challenges imposed by the Atlantic gearbox were nothing short of a hot mess. The lever itself was long – four times longer than would be used on the Sprite – and it protruded in ungainly fashion from the side of the tunnel next to the driver’s leg. More disastrously, it had been designed for use with a column-shifter so that in the 100 it operated in reverse pattern with first gear located down and to the passenger side with second up and towards the driver. To add insult to injury, the 4-speed transmission had such low gearing in first that it was blanked off so that only three direct gears were available. Overdrive was engaged with a toggle switch on the dash that provided a useful gear for high-speed cruising.
Notwithstanding these ergonomic flaws, until the introduction of the TR2 in 1954, there was nothing anywhere near the 100 that could match its speed and reliability and for the first year of production, demand far exceeded supply with many of the cars purchased privately campaigned in rallies and road races. When the TR2 arrived it usurped the Healey’s position as the most-affordable 100-mph sports car and Warwick focused on extracting more performance from the 100 to distance it from its rival. Lessons learned from the Le Mans competition cars led to the introduction of the 100M – sold as a separate model and as an aftermarket kit – which offered an additional 20 horsepower through addition of stronger valve springs, performance camshaft, higher compression pistons, larger carburetors fed through a cold air box and an uprated roll bar, rear springs and dampener valves. Identified by a louvered hood with a regulation leather ‘bonnet’ strap, these cars would later be the most coveted standard models of the range. The 100M would be the ideal car for the gentleman racer who drove his car during the week and then competed with it on the weekends.
The most valuable Healeys, however, would be the fifty 100S Sebring replicas that were intended for competition use and clothed with all-aluminum bodies, stronger chassis, disc brakes and powered by an improved engine equipped with the Weslake-designed cross-flow aluminum cylinder head. These cars were capable of reaching more than 125-mph and covering 0-60 mph in less than eight seconds. The 100S was successful at the 12 Hours of Sebring and won its class at the 1955 Mille Miglia before one example – NOJ393 – was involved in a catastrophic accident that summer at Le Mans resulting in the death of 83 spectators.
When the 100M was introduced in 1955, it was joined by an improved basic 100 – identified internally as the BN2 – that addressed the single largest fault of the first-generation BN1; the eccentric, reverse-pattern 3-speed manual transmission. Adapted from the gearbox used in the Austin Princess, the new 4-speed transmission was stronger and used a conventional shift pattern with overdrive on 3rd and 4th to provide six forward gears. The odd side mounted gearbox lever of the earlier cars was moved closer to the centerline while larger drums and wheel arches accounted for the remainder of the changes. The BN2 was produced in far smaller numbers than its predecessor – 4,604 to 10,030 – but the 4-speed transmission and better brakes make them the best drivers – excepting the 100M – of the range and prices reflect that advantage.