When the Austin-Healey was born it may have seemed like an overnight success, but there was plenty of history behind it.
Sometimes separating myth from legend is a fine line. A legend can be true, a myth never is, but a myth can be based on fact, usually distorted through the telling over time.
The formation of Austin-Healey during the London International Motor Show in October 1952 became one of the great legends of the British motor industry, but is not without its own element of myth.
According to many reports, when Leonard Lord first set eyes on the prototype Healey Hundred sports car at the Motor Show, at Earls Court, he was so taken with it that he immediately offered to build the car at Longbridge as a joint venture.
But, the coming together of the Austin Motor Company, an automotive giant by any standards of the day, and the Donald Healey Motor Company, a small but well-equipped and highly-respected private outfit, was not quite the spur-of-the-moment decision it has often been made out to be.
Firstly, there had already been some contact between Donald Healey (DMH) and Leonard Lord, particularly over the supply of engines, transmissions and chassis components from Austin.
Secondly, DMH already had a supply chain for all the various components for his new car sorted out and was virtually ready to begin, admittedly small-scale, production.
Leonard Lord is often cited as making bold, spontaneous decisions – the Healey contract and the decision to begin Mini production are prime examples – but it is clear that for the most part at least, he already knew more about a subject than he often let on. Many of his decisions were far-sighted and well targeted.
One instance of where he got it horribly wrong, though, was the release of the Austin A90 Atlantic in 1948. As with most British car-makers of the time, the great goal was to achieve export sales in America, to assist with Britain’s perilous financial state after the War.
Lord, with Austin stylist Dick Burzi, set out to capture the US sports car market with what they felt was exactly what the Americans wanted. How wrong they were. Americans, it seemed, didn’t want English cars trying to look like what they thought were American cars. They wanted English cars to look like quintessential English cars – exactly what the Jaguar XK120, launched the same year, was.
The A90 was launched amid much fanfare after it captured a “bagful” of endurance records at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s great selling point was its unstressed 2.66lt four-cylinder engine, which had loads of torque and seemed unbreakable (within its 4,800rpm limit). This was no surprise really, given the engine was basically a four-cylinder version of the tried and tested six-cylinder light truck engine from the War – also used in the Austin Sheerline of 1947.
But the styling of the A90 really let it down and no more than 350 of the total 7,981 were sold in the US before the decision was taken to pull the pin on it. Interestingly, some 821 were sold in Australia – but we were light on for any sort of sporting car and at the time Britain ruled car sales in this country.
As mentioned in last issue of this magazine, the MG TD was doing remarkably well in the States, being available in left-hand-drive – with 23,000 of the total 30,000 built, around 75%, being sold in North America.
Meanwhile, Donald Healey was having his own limited success in the US, thanks to an unlikely partnership with Nash-Kelvinator. Healey had made his name in the 1920s and ’30s as a rally and trials driver, and as Technical Director at Triumph through the 1930s. Triumph’s financial collapse in 1938 cost Healey dearly, but he stayed on in the company until after the start of the War, when he transferred to Humber to work on military equipment.
The early post-War period was a frenetic one for Healey, starting up the Donald Healey Motor Company and building a number of specialised sports and racing cars. These were on chassis of Healey’s own design, but usually fitted with the powerful Riley 2.4lt engine – the best known being the Healey Silverstone, released in 1949.
After racing driver Briggs Cunningham had proved the performance of his Silverstone chassis fitted with an American Cadillac V8 engine, Healey decided to travel to the US and see if he could organise supplies of engines from Cadillac.
A chance meeting on the ship with George Mason, president of Nash-Kelvinator, and an unsatisfactory meeting with Cadillac, resulted in an agreement for Nash to supply 3.8lt six-cylinder engines, later 4.1lt, to be put in cars of Healey’s design, and sold only through Nash dealerships in the US.
The deal put Healey in a comfortable and profitable position with a guaranteed income. Although the original Nash-Healey was not a big seller, it gave Nash the confidence to have an improved open version designed by Pinin Farina (see panel on p77). While marred somewhat by the bulbous Nash grille, the stylish little roadster and coupe were built to a high standard by Farina, had plenty of power thanks to the Nash engine and handled well courtesy of the Healey chassis.
However, they were expensive cars and only 151 roadsters and 249 coupes were sold, on top of the 104 open cars designed by Healey’s (and built by Panelcraft). Geoff Healey (GCH) explained the problem in his book The Healey Story; “Nash shipped units from Kenosha to Warwick, where we fitted them to the chassis and road-tested…the chassis were then sent to Turin in closed rail trucks for Farina to complete the cars and ship them to the States.”
Having qualified as engineer and served with the Royal Engineers during the War, GCH worked at Armstrong-Siddeley under WO Bentley for a few years, before joining his father in 1949 as chief product engineer.
Working regularly at the Farina factory to iron out bugs with the early Farina cars, GCH learned a lot about how Farina operated. “This was to prove most valuable when the Healey Hundred was designed”, he wrote.
With many visits to the US, DMH realised that although both the Jaguar XK120 and the MGTD were selling well, there was an enormous gap, both in performance and price, between the two cars. He felt that if he built a car that could do 100mph, based on as many mass-produced parts as possible, that looked good and could sell for under $3,000 then it could be very successful.
With production of Healeys and Nash-Healeys in full swing, and a bit of money in the bank, DMH and GCH turned their attention to designing a completely new car to meet the perceived market.
As a small concern they were able to do in only a few months, what a larger public company might take years to achieve. They worked from home in GCH’s converted attic hobby room, in total secrecy – even from their own design and engineering staff.
The first question was to find a suitable engine and running gear, as DMH recalled in 1959 in Austin-Healey Guide (with Tommy Wisdom). “I examined the whole British motor industry, searching for a good, well-proven, reliable, easy to maintain unit capable of producing a b.h.p. figure not too far below 100. It had to be in large scale production already for two reasons – economy of original cost, and availability of spare parts and service facilities over as much of the world as possible.”
Although he had a fair amount of success with the Riley engine, DMH knew that it was not suitable for a couple of important reasons. Firstly, it was quite heavy and expensive to buy. Secondly, Nuffield, who owned Riley, was in the process of rationalising its engine range and the Riley 2.4lt engine was a likely target to be discontinued.
Similarly, a new 84bhp 3lt engine from Alvis was being used by Healey’s in another of their cars, but was also heavy and quite expensive. Lea-Francis had an engine that may have been suitable, but as Graham Robson explains in his book, Austin-Healey 100 & 3000 Series; “this was an old design, and Lea-Francis would surely never have supplied a competitor.”
“There were other engines which gave the right sort of power, from Aston Martin, Bristol or Daimler”, Robson continues, “but none of these would have been cheap enough for Healey’s needs.”
Spurred by continual press reports on the quality of Austin’s A90 engine, Donald Healey approached Leonard Lord, as GCH recalls. “DMH had known Lord for many years and decided to broach the subject of the supply of Austin units for our new car with him. Lord reacted favourably and on Tuesday 27 November (1951) he agreed to supply production units and any technical information that we might require.”
It is unlikely that Lord would have agreed to such a scheme without knowing at least some details of the proposed car.
“Len Lord immediately delegated Geoff Cooper of the Design Department to liaise with me”, GCH recalled. “Geoff was an ex-Austin apprentice…and knew everything about their products and their availability.”
GCH suggests; “that Lord secretly relished the thought of taking away the supply of engines from Lord Nuffield”. Many writers have made much of this rivalry between The Austin and Nuffield Group. However, it was around this time that Lord made his then still secret deal with William Morris to merge their companies into BMC.
It is unlikely DMH knew anything of the proposed BMC merge, because he was still concerned that if details of his own secret deal with Lord leaked out that it might jeopardise the immediate supply of Riley engines, which he still needed for the other Healey cars still in production.
With a suitable engine and transmission decided on, the father and son Healeys were able to set out the basic proportions of their new car. In a further reference to Farina, GCH said; “I had visited Pinin Farina in Italy and had seen their methods of constructing bodies which were well in advance of ours. This enabled me to incorporate their type of floor pan and body outriggers into the new design.”
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