The Austin-Healey line was born as a result of corporate politics and it died as a result of corporate politics
When Austin merged with the Nuffield Group to form the British Motor Corporation in late 1951, each side struggled for dominance. Leonard Lord, a former Austin man, invited specialist car makers to submit designs for a new sports car while, at the same time, delaying the introduction of the MGA. A prototype MG which bore a close resemblance to the ‘A’ had run at Le Mans in 1951. What this cost the company in terms of lost sales does not bear thinking about.
Frazer-Nash, Jensen and the Donald Healey Motor Company all entered the informal competition. Frazer Nash built a version of its Targa Florio model with Austin A90 running gear; Jensen made a pretty little car using MG components; Healey produced the Hundred which won the contest hands down. Not only was it one of the most stunning cars ever to be mass produced, but it used up components made for the A90 Atlantic which had been an embarrassing flop.
The Healey Hundred was first shown at the 1952 London Motor Show, where it was a sensation. Leonard Lord negotiated for the rights to it over dinner on the opening night of the show and it was renamed ‘Austin-Healey’ as it sat on its stand. Healey originally priced it at a basic £850, but Lord slashed that to £750 which made the Hundred the least expensive 100mph sports car in the world. Also at the show was the prototype which would become the Triumph TR2, a series of cars which always out-sold the Big Healey.
The DHMC was retained as a consultant to develop special models and look after the competition programme, but the overall direction of the production models remained in the hands of BMC. Healey was aware of the car’s shortcomings, poor ground clearance, axle tramp and a hot cockpit among them, but was powerless to rectify them. BMC rushed the car into production with barely any changes from the prototype and was content that the model sold around 5000 units a year throughout its life. Moreover it attracted people to Austin showrooms.
The car could have been much better than it was (and it was pretty damn good) had Healey and his team been allowed their way. After all, Healey was no special builder, he had been Technical Director of Triumph and, pre-war, was Britain’s most successful international rally driver. This counted for nothing; BMC had bought a star car at a bargain price and milked it for all it was worth.
When it was clear that new American emission and safety regulations would kill the range, BMH (as BMC had become) proposed a badge-engineered MGC to be sold as an Austin-Healey. Donald Healey ruled that out and, instead, produced three prototypes (commonly called the Austin-Healey 4000) which were six inches wider than the 3000 and employed the four-litre FB60 engine which Rolls-Royce supplied for the Vanden Plas Princess R, a comparatively unsuccessful model.
In near-standard form, this produced 175 bhp. It was 100 lb lighter than the MGC engine, it met the new American laws and Rolls-Royce made a dohc cylinder head which boosted power to 268bhp. The 4000 lost none of the stunning looks of the original; it was roomier, had better handling and it had incredible performance potential. It could have stayed in production for years, but those same American laws had seen the Jaguar E-type become throttled and, in US spec, it was down to 171 bhp. BMC had joined with Jaguar to become British Motor Holdings and Sir William Lyons of Jaguar was not amused by the potential that the Austin-Healey 4000 had to take sales from Jaguar. Lyons was ruthless when it came to protecting his make. He had had the Swallow Doretti sports car killed by threatening to stop buying components from its parent company and he was to have the very promising mid-engined Alvis GT car killed. He did the same for the Austin-Healey 4000. Corporate politics created the Austin-Healey and corporate politics killed it.
When BMH joined with Leyland in 1968 the chairman, Sir Donald Stokes, decided that ‘names’ did not sell cars and so severed the corporation’s links with Healey and Cooper. The only person in the world who did not know that names actually do sell cars (look at the success of the revived Mini-Cooper) had become the most powerful man in the British motor industry. Healey went on his way and Stokes gave us the Austin Allegro with a square steering wheel.
All Big Healeys were used the same basic chassis which was designed by Geoffrey by Garry Coker, who had joined Healey from Rootes in 1950. The main chassis rails were parallel boxes 3½ in deep and 3 in wide, Placed 17 in apart and braced by a dual cross-member at the front, a boxed cruciform structure a little aft of the middle and another crossmember at the rear. The bulkhead/scuttle was built from a number of metal pressings, and was welded to the chassis, as were the main body members, to reduce scuttle shake. Front suspension was Independent by coil springs and wishbones While the live rear axle was suspended on elliptical springs and located by a Panhard rod until the revised 3000 Mk III (Phase Two).
Years mode: 1953-54; production: 10,030
The original 100 with a 90bhp four-cylinder 2660cc engine driving through a three-speed gearbox with overdrive on the top two gears. Performance claims are for amusement only since the cars supplied to the press were not identical to those in the showrooms. It was claimed to be the first car to have a windscreen which folded back.
Top speed: 103mph; 0-60mph: 10.3s.
Years made: 1954-55; production: 50 plus works cars
A lightened BN1 with aluminium body panels built by DHMC with a special cylinder head, four-speed transmission without overdrive, disc brakes on all four wheels, a stripped cockpit, oval radiator and a 132bhp engine. Built as a road/competition car, the 100S was not particularly brilliant as either, but it is rare, is as gorgeous as any Big Healey and is now very desirable
Top speed: 126mph; 0-60mph: 7.8s.
100 (BN2) Years made: 1955-56; production: 4604
The same as BN1, but with a four-speed gearbox plus overdrive. Let us not forget that this makes it a six-speed transmission.
Top speed: 103mph; 0-60mph: 10.3s.
100M Years made: 1955-56; production: n/o
Not a model, but a combination of optional extras, usually on a BN2 chassis. A 100M should have the 110bhp Le Mans tuning kit which was sold through BMC dealers. Most had louvred bonnets with a leather strap, but any Healey 100 could be so fitted. DHMC built 519 100Ms, some of which were conversions of earlier BN1 models, and BMC built 640. Individuals could order all the bits through their local dealer so some genuine 100Ms were built up in retrospect and not all had the high compression pistons so they had 100bhp engines. The best of the four-cylinder cars.
Top speed: 109mph; 0-60mph: 9.6s.
100-Six (BN4) Years made: 1956-59; production: 10,268
Two inches longer in the wheelbase, wider doors, plus-two seats for legless dwarves (a move Healey opposed) and a 102bhp, 2639cc six-cylinder engine. It had a new radiator grille, which reflected Austin styling, external door handles and a fixed windscreen. Steel wheels were standard, wires were an optional extra and, to keep the basic price down, items such as overdrive were also made extras.
In 1957 production switched from Longbridge to Abingdon, which provided a welcome break because the new model was not well received and there were considerable stocks of unsold cars. When production resumed the engine had been uprated to 117bhp, which was more to the liking of the buying public. A car which is significantly slower than the one it replaces is not a smart move.
Top speed: 103mph; 0-60mph: 12.9s.
100-Six (BN6) Years made: 1957-59; production: 4150
Two-seat version of the 100-Six with 117 bhp engine (like later BN45). Healey wanted the car to be kept as a two-seater, and strong sales figures support him, but the market was changing.
Top speed: 111mph; 0-60mph: 11.2s.
3000 (BT7) Years made: 1959-61; production: 10,825
Two-plus-two 100-Six with new 124bhp version of the 2912cc BMC C-series engine. There were disc brakes on the front wheels (they were a long time in coming considering that the 100S had four-wheel discs in 1954) and there was an optional factory hardtop which improved the aerodynamics and, hence, the performance.
Top speed: 114mph; 0-60mph: 11.4s.
3000 (BN7) Years made: 1959-61; production: 2825
Two-seat version of the 3000, but note falling sales. The public was beginning to perceive the car as a tourer.
Top speed: 114mph; 0-60mph: 11.4s.
3000 Mk11 (BT7) Years made: 1961-62; production: 5095
Mixture as before, but with 132bhp three-carburettor engine which was difficult to keep in tune. It was replaced after a year by a two-carburettor set-up which caused no problems and actually improved performance. This typifies BMC’s dynamic approach to the customer.
Top speed: 114mph; 0-60mph 10.9s.
3000 Mk11 (BN7) Years made: 1961-62; production:355
Two-seat version of the 3000 MkII, and the last two-seat variant. The small numbers made reflect the buying public’s changing perception of the car.
Top speed: 114mph; 0-60mph: 10.9s.
3000 Mk11 Convertible (BJ7) Years made: 1962-65; production: 6113
A refined car with wind-up windows, curved windscreen (which improved aerodynamics), a 131bhp two-carburettor engine and a fixed hood which meant that the hardtop was dropped. It was an indication that the Big Healey was increasingly seen as a touring car rather than as an out-and-out sports car.
There is a small irony in the fact that the road cars became more civilised as the works rally cars became formidable machines and they all had the hardtop which was impossible to fit on the BJ7.
Top speed: 116mph; 0-60mph: 10.6s.
3000 MkIll Phase One (BJ8) Years made: 1943-64; production: 1390
Power up to 150bhp, which meant that the car could finally exceed the fictitious 0-60 mph time of the original BN1. 120-plusmph and sub-10s 0-60mph time were exceptional figures, but even the most sycophantic road tester was writing about hot cockpits, axle tramp, ground clearance etc.
Top speed: 121mph; 0-60mph: 9.8s.
3000 Mkill Phase Two (BJ8) Years made: 1964-67 (one car built in ’68); production: 16,322
The most popular of all Big Healeys, and the best. It had a modified rear suspension. Radius arms replaced the original Panhard rod, and this gave better ground clearance and more suspension movement. It was an indication of what Healey could have done with the concept had he been given his head.
Top speed: 121mph; 0-60mph: 9.8s.
Over 72,000 examples of the Big Healey were made, but this figure could have been much higher had Donald Healey been given more credit for knowing what he was talking about. There has never been a more stunning mass-produced car – it still turns heads – but it did have faults. Healey knew this, and he wanted to correct them, but BMC did not want to know because it was a profitable line for little effort.
There is one further irony in the story. Just two cars were sold to Japan. They were bought by Datsun for evaluation as the latter prepared production of the 240Z, which wiped British sports cars out of the North American market.
BMC sold 72,000 examples of one of the world’s most desirable cars in 14 years; Datsun sold nearly a million of its Z series in the same time. The Datsun was a good car which deserved its success, but it was not a star in the mould of the Austin-Healey.