Red, white&true

Poise, pace, reliability - the Austin-Healey 3000 had it all. David Malsher takes the 1961 Alpine rally-winning example to meet its former driver, Donald Morley

It's bright red, true blue British sports-car, with the charisma and presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins, but will any of the post-rush hour drivers let it join the traffic flow? No soul, some people.

To commemorate 50 years of Austin-Healey, we have taken the opportunity to drive a legendary example, XJB876, and meet Donald Morley, the man who made it famous with victory in the 1961 Alpine Rally.

But for now it seems we'll be sitting forever outside Brown & Gammons, in Baldock, where the car is stored. Eventually, a truck driver concedes, and a glance in the mirror reveals only the artic's number plate. Larger than a Trogeye' Sprite this car may be, but it hardly lives up to its Sig Healey' nomenclature. It's more commodious than a Series 1 Jaguar E-type of identical vintage and, it is startling to discover, not much slower. Even in overdrive top, this 3000 can hang on to fleeing repmobiles once it hits dual carriageway. Flick off o/d, and it gets seriously urgent — which is handy since we are late for our appointment.

We make it on schedule after some spirited driving, and we're intrigued to discover the car's mid-rev range alacrity is largely down to Donald's brother and navigator, Erle.

'Flick off o/d, and it gets seriously urgent - which is handy since we are late'

"After the 1960 Alpine Rally, when we had a lot of gearbox trouble with SJB471 [see sidebar], BMC decided to sort the gears out, and asked what ratios we wanted. And so Erie worked out a system whereby, with the use of overdrive in third and top, we would have a 6-speed gearbox. So it went first, second, third, overdrive third, fourth, overdrive fourth. He came up with the correctly-spaced ratios which made a lot of difference to Healeys thereafter — especially on the Alpine rallies."

The torque from 3700 to 5000rpm is not quite kidney-compressing, but it does shove you firmly into the back of the bucket seat. More impressive still is the car's composure. Yes, it does require constant minor steering corrections, but that's necessary from the 40mph mark on and, curiously, gets no worse as the speed rises. In fact, its tall tyres allow it to soak up grooves and ridges more competently than wide-tyred low-profile rubber fitted to 21st-century cars, while the non-period roll-cage prevents bad flexing over the larger crests.

If constantly tweaking the tiller comes as second nature, then so does braking early and lightly, anticipating rather than reacting. If you wait to see the brake lights ahead glow, a Healey grille/Mondeo boot interface is all too likely. And don't assume, either, that you will be saved by engine braking. Even double declutching won't guarantee slotting a lower gear in time to be of any use in retardation. Unless, of course, you are a past master. "I felt that we got a reasonable amount of engine braking," says Donald. "As for the brakes themselves, well, they weren't bad at all for the day, especially once they got properly warmed up. Mind you, many times at the end of a special stage we would get out and see our brakes were glowing bright red."

One imagines an Austin Healey 3000, especially in rally spec, to be a brute. The image of a beast lurking beneath the beautiful Gerry Cokerpenned skin is what sold them after all. But it's an animal of the Whipsnade Zoo variety: the potential to bite is there, but it's harmless unless cajoled into doing something it oughtn't Donald confirms this.

"For its day, the Healey handled really very well, and once the Weber carburettors went on in 1962, we had 200bhp with which to throttle-steer the car, and that made us very competitive against the Porsches, for example. The downside was that it was quite heavy on tyres. I remember once on the Alpine Rally wearing out a set of tyres and a set of brake pads in four hours."

'I remember once on the Alpine wearing out a set of tyres and brake pads in just four hours'

Today, that docile-if-handled-with-commonsense nature remains, inspiring confidence in the novice driver. Keep a firm hold of the steering wheel and, providing entry speed isn't overly optimistic, the front will grip amazingly well in the dry, encouraging the driver to get full on the gas ever sooner on successive apexes. The natural limit is found as the front end gets a little light, there is a momentary vagueness in the steering and a touch of understeer, but if you've left enough room, it's nothing troubling.

That's the score on A-and B-roads, at least. Down dusty single-track lanes, a prod of throttle on corner exits can be used to straighten the car out as 190bhp breaks traction. And beyond that are you kidding? Not on blind corners on public roads, not in the dry, and certainly not when the emotional ties between car and owner, Mick Darcey, are so strong.

Says Mick: "After the Morleys rallied it for BMC, Peter Moon ran XJB876 with works support from 1962, which is when the triple SUs were replaced by triple Webers. And then a gentleman called Sid Segal bought it, completing his trio of ex-works Healeys which comprised 67ARX and SMO744. I had a road-going 3000 MkIII at the time, and he befriended me just through that link. When he came to sell them, I was starting my own business, and I couldn't afford to buy one, let alone the whole trio. So I assumed I had missed my chance. "One Sunday morning, though, I got a call from him to pop over for breakfast That was quite a regular occurrence, only this time he told me to bring my Healey. After breakfast, we walked down to his garage, opened the doors, and there was XJB876. He said, 'I want you to have it,' and I replied, Sid, I still can't afford it'. And he told me to give him my road-going 3000 in exchange, and to forget the difference in value! Sid Segal was one of a kind." Clearly.

No suprise then that Mick never intends to sell the car. But he is not afraid to use it in competition.

"Absolutely not. These cars thrive on being driven; it's a crime to leave them locked up and to cosset them too much. Three years ago, we finished third on the Liege-Rome-liege, and were leading the Classic Marathon until we wrongslotted and I tried to make up too much time on one stage; we lost a lot of time wedged on a rock next to a precipice in the Alps."

Donald Morley loves the way the car has been maintained, and can spot few alterations since its heyday beyond the addition of a roll-cage and the Weber carbs. "The overdrive switch was originally on the dashboard and we had it moved to the gearlever, as it is now, only we had wooden gear-knobs and this one's aluminium. Also, we had a horn in the passenger foot-well for Erle to press, as well as here on the transmission tunnel. But otherwise, it's just like it was."

The temptation to press any horn button you can find is strong indeed when swimming with the sharks of today. No favours are granted by motorway drivers who see the car in their mirrors, ignore its closing speed, and pull out in front anyway, then look startled as it blasts past at the next available opportunity.

And 'blast' is the operative word here. If there can be one criticism, one gripe, one reason to shy away from using XJB876 as a mad car, it's the lack of refinement. With the exhaust exiting in front of the left-rear wheelarch, perspex slide-windows that rattle at the slightest vibration, and doors that fit as snugly as a catflap over a manhole, the cockpit is preposterously noisy.

'Terrible' and 'quite frightening' are phrases Donald uses to describe the in-car cacophony. He's too kind. From the outside, the sound of a Healey gunning hard makes young children cower in terror. Having that sound constantly around, where there's no protection, no escape, is quite another prospect.

Erle used to complain that the exhaust heat was so severe it caused the floorpan to bum his feet, but it's the multivibes of exhaust against floor that leaves the biggest impression. Way down at 2350rpm, there is a resonance that soothes like a Black & Decker drill being thrust through the inner car. It's a spasmodic problem when accelerating through this rev-zone, but if you're trying to potter in fourth — well, best find an alternative.

Past 4000, though, when it's pulling hard and fast, both engine and exhaust are glorious clarion calls, and the aftertaste is a melodious zim that leaves the ears ringing. Unsilenced is golden. More importantly, the unit sounds as unburstable as it proved in Morley's hands: "We set ourselves a limit of 6500rpm, and they were fine up to there. It was a very strong engine; in fact, I don't think we ever had one let us down."

Nor does it give any hint of doing so, over four decades on. It was hard to suppress a chuckle when passing broken-down cars of about 10 per cent the Healey's age. Up to the point they quit, were they providing 10 per cent of the driving thrill offered by this beautiful machine? Exactly.

This is not a temperamental thoroughbred ill equipped to deal with the rigours of modern life. It can play the workhorse role, blessed as it is with a reasonably supple ride, benign handling, decent traction, good grunt and a temperature needle that never edges too near the danger zone in heavy traffic.

But nor is it stoical: this car informs the driver, through all of his — or Pat Moss' — senses, how much of itself it's giving.

Return the effort accordingly, though, and this Austin-Healey 3000 provides a wonderfully satisfying driving experience.

Our thanks to Midi Darcey, Donald and Val Morley, Paul Woolmer of the Austin Healey Club and Brown & Gammons for their help above and beyond.