I have often written in Motor Sport that the very best modern motor-cars have all the handling qualities of the vintage era, and more besides. But in practice, I am bound to confess that this commendable theory is seldom borne out. Although there are some modern sports-cars whose handling qualities are beyond reproach, the result is often achieved in a spongy, indefinite sort of way which, although it may be perfectly satisfactory, contributes nothing, either to the confidence or pleasure of the driver. The best of them seem to be those which have fairly stiff springing, somewhat in the vintage tradition when, of course, the problems of independent suspension and gyroscopic effect are considerably reduced. One front-line modern-to-the-minute sports-car, which unquestionably holds the road as few others, is notorious for a back end which floats about in the most degage manner, and this is by no means conducive to the driver’s peace of mind. Other cars cling, leech-like, to the road until the moment of break-away, when the controls seem to go soggy, as on a stalled aeroplane, and produce just about as much effect — a horrid feeling. Some American machines have ultra-low-rate suspension which works well at low and medium speeds over rough surfaces, but at high speeds the whole car works up a low-rate wallow, which can easily lead to hedge-hopping and other acrobatic activities for which the wing-loading is altogether inadequate. Added to which, they roll madly.
The Healey car does none of these things.
In praising it, it is difficult to know where to start, since it has all those qualities which attach, in theory, to soft suspension, but which are so seldom achieved. And the suspension of the Healey is very soft indeed. When stationary, the car can be rocked from side to side with only a light handpressure. With a high centre of gravity the Healey would roll outrageously: that is one of the points on which the Americans fail so conspicuously. But the Healey is exceptionally low built, and it is entirely free from any tendency to roll, even though it has none of the fashionable anti-rolling expedients. The chassis is also conspicuously rigid, although so light, and unsprung weight has been studied meticulously. As a result of these two factors, the wheels follow the road-surface whatever happens, and the rest of the car remains rock-steady, even when travelling at ridiculous speeds over “colonial sections,” or when one wheel is wantonly driven over a kerb. A passenger might never know it had been done.
The Healey therefore satisfies the three absolute necessities of soft springing-low centre of gravity, stiff chassis, low unsprung weight. I venture that there is no production-car today which conforms more closely to all three requirements.
The practical gains are the obvious ones of outstanding passenger comfort, freedom from wheelspin, and maximum resistance to side-slip when cornering.
Every form of i.f.s. involves certain compromises, but it is widely held that the trailing-link arrangement gives the best result, and, the most pleasant from the point of view of “feel,” which is so important to the driver. The Aston-Martin “Atom” prototype quite converted me to this way of thinking, and the Healey confirmed my opinion. At the same time, it is difficult to obtain any large range of travel and, therefore, a low spring-rate, with trailing links, but this difficulty has been overcome entirely on the Healey by the layout which has already been described, in conjunction with very long trailing arms. These, of course, are subject, to high lateral stresses when cornering quickly, but the Healey apparatus has obviously been made with this difficulty kept well in mind, since it is exceptionally rigid, while weight is kept down by the use of light, high-tensile alloys.
In so many fast cars one becomes rather painfully conscious of the back axle at high speed. The exceptional rigidity of the Healey layout, both laterally and in twist, aided by the light unsprung weight, contributes to a back-end which is entirely self-effacing; one never gives it a thought.
The steering gear itself is light and positive in action, trouble having been taken to screw the steering box firmly on to the chassis; an elementary precaution which so many designers seem to overlook. It is reasonably high-geared, but some people might prefer it even higher. This point of view might be justified for the reason that the driver’s right elbow is somewhat cramped, and large arm movements are not easily made. Particularly is this the case since the steering wheel (although possessing reasonable adjustment for rake) comes very snug into the driver’s lap. With low build and streamlined coachwork it is difficult to see how this can be overcome. The low build necessitates a substantial tunnel to contain the transmission arrangements, and the seats (splendid ones, incidentally, rock-solid and perfectly gripping the shoulders) are necessarily set on each side of the tunnel. In a non-streamlined open car (it was the open Healey I drove) the side of the body comes inside the driver’s right elbow, which thus has the freedom so desirable in fast cornering. But a streamlined body has to be pretty well the full width of the car, and high, so that the elbow cannot be hung outside. It is difficult to see how this can be overcome in rear-wheel-drive cars, except those with independent or de Dion layout, when the prop. shaft tunnel can be very much reduced in size. My high-built saloon Bugatti, although two or three inches narrower than the Healey, affords considerably more living room for the driver.
The engine is luxuriously cushioned and smooth for its type, but you cannot expect completely to smother up a big four-cylinder unit, burning 600 c.c. of gas at each explosion, and showing no less than 125 b.m.e.p. at its peak revs. of 4,500 per minute, when the piston speed is also the considerable one of 3,600 feet per minute. The engine is in no sense rough; indeed, its balance is obviously splendid; but you know it is working away. Anyway, the outfit is avowedly a sports-car. It somewhat upsets preconceived notions about piston speed, since 2,500 f.p.m. gives only 70 m.p.h. and the car will definitely cruise effortlessly at anything up to 80. This does not mean that accepted tenets are wrong, but that they may be overridden in special cases.
In the first place, the Healey-Riley engine and crankshaft are both short and exceptionally rigid. In the second place, even at 80 m.p.h., only a small throttle opening is called for, so that the engine is working quite lazily. These factors evidently more than offset the high frictional losses concomitant with high piston speed, as is shown by the startling fuel economy at high road speeds recently obtained by the Motor (31.2 m.p.g. at 70 m.p.h. and 24.8 m.p.g. at 80 m.p.h.). The low fuel consumption is also a tribute to the good aerodynamic qualities of the coachwork.
The power curve is, I should guess, something between the flat-topped variety popular in America, and the straightline pattern of the high-revving, short-stroke engine, like the V12 Lagooda.
The gear ratios are well suited to the power-curve, being only moderately closely spaced. A change from top to third demands a 30 per cent. increase in engine speed, and from third to second 33 per cent. The engine will pull smoothly at less than 1,000 r.p.m. in top (about 22 m.p.h.), and pulls away well from that speed if he throttle is opened gradually. But it is from 60 m.p.h. that top really comes into its own, and this speed is easily attained in third, when the engine is turning at only 3,800 r.p.m. (the safe limit is 5,000 r.p.m., which gives 80 m.p.h. in third and 53 m.p.h. in second). Obviously, therefore, the ratios are spaced out to the best possible advantage, and the free use of them is facilitated by good synchromesh arrangements and dog engagements. The clutch itself is light to operate and smooth in action, it being perfectly easy to get away from rest in third with a minimum of clutch slip. The particularly effective output of the engine is contributed to largely by the excellent ingurgitation through twin S.U. carburetters, and unimpeded expectoration through the beautiful four-pipe, Bugatti-like exhaust manifold.
And then, the car as a whole ?
Immediately on taking over control the driver has every feeling of confidence. At once, the car is put through fast open bends at speeds which would even embarrass most Bugattis. The steering is sufficiently sensitive for the driver to be able to judge exactly what is going on at each corner of the car, and it is always the right thing which is happening. The car is free from over or understeering bias, but in extremity, the breakaway is at the back end, which is where it should be. There is not a trace of roll and the bonnet remains rock-steady, like the very best racing cars. The Healey must, one feels, be very much like the German G.P. cars. Although the steering is so accurate there is very little reaction, thanks, no doubt, to the geometry of the linkage.
The driver sits well up and has a good view forward and of both mudguards. The screen pillars are narrow. The brakes, too, are well up to the performance and produce none of the peculiar effects one might expect with 68 per cent. of the effort on the front wheels, together with the long trailing links.
Actual performance figures remain to be taken in the near future, when the car is submitted to the full Motor Sport road-test curriculum. The foregoing remarks are the results of a short drive, undertaken to afford no more than some general impressions.
And the impression afforded is that of a very fine motor-car indeed, of which England may well be proud.