Sprites at Le Mans

Then as now, Le Mans commands attention. To win at Circuit de le Sarthe brings notoriety as well as important sales in the showroom. The first 24-hour race at Le Mans was held in 1923 and while this year’s winning Audi may not resemble the models on the showroom floor, the success would have certainly been worthwhile for the German manufacturer. After all, Audi cars have crossed the line in first place eleven times since 2000 (12 if you count the Bentley in 2003 – Ed). 

Audi’s Le Mans record is certainly enviable as are those of many other manufacturers over the years. Take the Donald Healey Motor Company (DHMC) for instance. From 1949 to 1970 there were a total of 28 cars entered in Donald Healey’s name. 

At the age of 47, after a history of working for and driving such diverse marques as Triumph, Riley and Invicta, Donald Healey established his own motor company not long after the end of WW2.  

DHMC produced bespoke motor vehicles for the upper end of the market. Initially the mechanicals of Healey cars came from Riley, when it was part of the Nuffield Group. While a fine driver and automotive engineer, Healey was also a shrewd businessman who knew that the best way to promote his cars was through motor sport.  

First Le Mans Outing

The first production Healey car was built in 1946 with a special lightweight chassis, coachbuilt aluminium body, electron alloy front suspension and Riley drivetrain. It started to make the Healey name as a manufacturer in such events as the Alpine Rally and Mille Miglia. However it was Le Mans where the Healey was to leave its mark. In 1949 a lone Healey Elliot saloon ran at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, finishing 13th after completing 1,524 miles against 1,986 miles of the winning Ferrari 166MM. Not an auspicious success, but enough to inspire the cash-strapped English manufacturer.

Then, as happens, fate stepped in. Donald Healey met George Mason, the General Manager of Nash Kelvinator, while travelling to the US by ship in 1949. 

It was a meeting that not only led to the Nash-Healey sports car but also an almost fairytale success at Le Mans. In 1950 a Nash-engined Healey came in fourth place, and was sixth the following year. However, success was sweetest in 1952 when one of the two Nash-Healeys entered finished third, behind two Mercedes but in front of Works entries from Ferrari, Cunningham, Talbot, Aston Martin and Jaguar.

In late 1952 the joint venture Austin-Healey was born (see BMCE Issue 2 for the full story) and as part of the deal with BMC the DHMC had responsibility to promote the new marque through motor racing. Two Austin-Healeys ran at Le Mans in 1953 alongside a couple of Nash-Healeys. 

The DHMC also focused its attention towards the 12 Hours of Sebring and record breaking at Bonneville in Utah. With the Austin-Healey released on to the burgeoning US market it was important to gain racing exposure there.

New Breed

In 1956, Donald Healey and BMC’s Leonard Lord agreed that sports cars were becoming expensive and there was a need for an economical breed of sports car that used as many parts as possible from the BMC “parts bin”. Healey was contracted to design and develop the car, which, like the “big” Healeys, would be built by BMC.

Launched at the Monaco Grand Prix on 20 May 1958, the Austin-Healey Sprite was well received, despite some less than complimentary comments about the car’s cheerful “frog-eye” frontal treatment. While built at Abingdon, the home of MG, it once again fell to the DHMC to promote the Sprite through motor racing. The first event was at Sebring in 1959 where slightly modified Mk1 Sprites managed first, second and third in class.

At Le Mans, Sprites were entered almost every year from 1960 to 1968 hoping for class wins. For the 1960 event the 996cc Sprite was fitted with a Falcon fibreglass body and performed admirably, completing over 2,067 miles in the 24 hours, to finish 16th.

For 1961, 1963, 1964 and 1965 each Sprite was bodied in coupe form, to gain aerodynamic advantage along the long Mulsanne straight. The coupe body design of the 1965 cars came about following extensive testing at the Austin wind tunnel. The MkIII Sprite floor pan was significantly modified with the replacement of the steel floors and footwell panels by aluminium, glued and riveted to retain strength. Other fittings included lightweight alloy Girling four-wheel dual circuit disc brakes, cast magnesium Healey wheels and a full undertray.

Early in the year the car driven by Rauno Aaltonen and Clive Baker at Sebring took a resounding success in its class, and finished 15th outright. This despite the torrential downpour late in the race that saw many cars swamped and water so deep there was debris floating along the main straight.

The second Sprite prototype, driven by Paddy Hopkirk and Timo Makinen, put on a spectacular display in the conditions and finished a commendable 18th outright.

Preparations for 1965 Le Mans were not without drama, when the cars arrived at the circuit painted in a fluorescent green. French race officials took one look at them and, realising that the French cars of the same Prototype class were up against some stiff opposition, insisted that the colour be changed on the grounds of “safety”. 

After some select words and arm waving,  especially from Australian Paul Hawkins, the Austin-Healey team under Geoffrey Healey relented. Luckily, a gallon of surplus US Army WW2 paint was found and the cars ran in the livery of dark or olive green. One car driven by Hawkins/John Rhodes finished a very credible 12th overall (only 14 of the 51 starters finished) and, being first in class, defeated all the French competitors in the same class.

At Sebring in 1966 the DHMC again entered two Sprite prototypes: HNX 455D, driven by Hawkins/Makinen, and our feature car, HNX 456D, for Baker/Aaltonen.

Things again went well for the team, with Hawkins/Makinen putting in an excellent drive to again finish 18th, and first in class, while Baker/Aaltonen were back in 29th, but that was good enough for second in class.

DHMC also entered two cars for 1966 Le Mans, but both unfortunately didn’t last the distance. One of these was again HNX 456D – the car that has now found its way to Australia.

DHMC entered the car for Sebring in 1967, driven by Baker/Aaltonen, and finishing 1st in class and 13th outright. By this time, it was painted in the BMC Works team colour of Tartan Red.

This was the only car entered by the DHMC in Le Mans for 1967, and in 1968 the team entered this car and its 2lt Coventry-Climax engined Healey SR.

In 1967 the Sprite’s engine developed 105bhp breathing through a single Weber carbie and was dry-sumped. Enough to propel the car to 151mph down Mulsanne Straight, with an average of 101.5mph for the whole 24 hours. With a best lap of 108.13mph, the Sprite travelled a total of 2,422 miles and came in 15th, driven by Clive Baker/Andrew Hedges. It was the leading British car for the year, winning the Motor Trophy.

Lucas fuel injection and a crossflow cylinder head were fitted for the 1968 Le Mans, and  developed 111.5bhp. This was enough for 154mph down Mulsanne and an average of 95mph over the whole 24 hours, travelling 2,126 miles and again finishing 15th. The shorter distance and lower average speed than the previous year were due to the installation of the new Ford Chicane. The Healey team, with drivers Roger Enever and Alec Poole, again won the Motor Trophy as well as the Jaguar/Coventry Climax Trophy for the best performing British car. DHMC experimental engineer Roger Menadue won the award for Mechanic of the Year.

Interestingly, for its last outing at Le Mans the Sprite was known as a Healey Sprite as British Leyland (and therefore Austin) had withdrawn its financial support of the DMHC’s racing programme.

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