Double-barrelled diehard

Muscular British classic that scored competition successes galore

Big Healey – sounds like a character in a gangster film, no? Someone brawny, tough, determined. And there’s a lot in that. Donald Healey’s co-production with the far larger Austin company, under its BMC umbrella, resulted in a sports car with just those qualities, as proved in major rallies and plenty of racing. A car boasting period credentials in those events has become much coveted, but with heading for 60,000 Austin-Healeys built in several variants, they offer plenty of choice for the enthusiast buyer. The car Vintage & Prestige has in stock, in the desirable BN6 spec, did its bit for Britain’s ‘export or die’ campaign – built at MG’s Abingdon works in 1958 with left-hand drive, it went straight to San Francisco and put treasured dollars into the home economy.

After 32 years the car returned to a home in Jersey and has recently had a complete restoration to concours standard, with just about everything checked, reconditioned or if necessary replaced (including valves and valve seats to utilise unleaded fuel). Casual onlookers may easily miss the differences and assume it’s a Healey 3000, but this earlier model is a 100/6 – pretty similar but lacking 400 of the ccs in its big brother’s title. Whereas the first Austin-Healeys made the most of a four-cylinder Austin A90 engine, the 100/6 upgraded to a big six from the Westminster saloon and, although it was hardly sophisticated, the new 2.6-litre pushrod engine was sturdy and simple to fix.Unshackled from the weighty Westminster it brought enough horsepower to make the Healey lively on the road. In truth the extra weight of the six cancelled out its power until, in 1958, a new 12-port head and manifold raised the figure from 102 to 117bhp. That’s the spec of this BN6 model, the final iteration before the bigger-engined 3000 arrived.

Healey redesigned his car to swallow the longer six-cylinder engine, increasing the length by six inches and making an already attractive design even better proportioned, especially with the sweeping two-tone paint option in classic ice blue over white. At first you could have a couple of cramped perches in the rear, but that wasn’t popular and disappeared with the arrival of the BN6.

With its drum brakes and ladder chassis the 100/6 offered no technical innovation; Healey very sensibly chose simple, affordable parts from the generally uninspiring Austin range, relying on weight loss and million-dollar looks for sales appeal. Sports cars famously generate low volumes and similar profit margins, but are essential to chrome-plating your market image, which is why BMC’s Leonard Lord pounced on the single example the Healey company built and showed at the 1952 British Motor Show. He needed a ‘halo car’ and here was one ready-made, using parts from his range. Overnight he made a deal with Healey, the car’s name became double-barrelled and Healey’s firm went from turning out hand-built vehicles to being a maker recognised across Europe and America. In 3000 MkI and II form the Big Healey would survive until 1968, but the car’s extrovert character and its huge competition success ensures that in all its versions it remains a favourite from Britain’s golden era of sports cars.