The Withdrawl Of Austin-Healey
By withdrawing their entries shortly before the Le Mans race and announcing their intention of withdrawing from European sports car races Austin-Healey called forth considerable criticism.
The French sporting paper L'Equipe called Donald Healey's action unfair and the Sports Editor of one of our weekly contemporaries has referred to the matter as discourteous to the Le Mans organisers.
To counter these comments Donald Healey has issued a further statement, which reads as follows:
WITHDRAWAL OF AUSTIN-HEALEY FROM EUROPEAN RACES.
As there has been considerable comment and some criticism in the French newspaper of the statement issued last week by the Austin Motor Company and myself. I feel that as the entrant of the team at Le Mans I should amplify the brief statement issued.
The chief criticism has come from the French sporting journal L'Equipe, which states that the Austin-Healey cars entered were prototypes and themselves bear no resemblance to production cars of this make. I can only repeat, that the Austin-Healeys are basically production cars and that all such cars which have run in any race or record attempt since their introduction have been such.
Last year the two cars which performed so well at Le Mans were completely standard chassis and bodies, and the few modifications carried out on the engine — change of axle ratios, etc. — have all been made available to the public, and have since been supplied in large quantities to owners.
The majority of the cars admitted to the Mille Miglia in the sports category were literally racing cars. Less than three weeks before the race the regulations were changed to allow single-seaters to suit the designs of one Italian manufacturer. The descriptions some of the cars being specially built for Le Mans are of a type which could never he made and sold to the public on a production basis — due to their elaborate design and prohibitive cost — and bear not the slightest resemblance to cars sold. They certainly will provide a great race spectacle for the racing public and advertisement material for their makers.
These cars are admitted to enter the Le Man's race as prototypes, but the entry form is accompanied by a letter from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders which states "The Society accepts your assurance that the ... cars you propose to enter for the above will be prototypes of cars you intend to put in production." Is this august body happy that its members make these promises year after year without any intention of keeping their word?
The Austin-Healey cars under preparation for this year's event were basically production models but, if we were to keep pace with our competitors, I found they would have to have such radical alterations as special high-compression cylinder head, and multiple non-British carburetters, multi-pad type disc brakes with complicated servo system and special wheels to suit, close-ratio gearboxes and ratios quite unsuitable for normal use. The bodies would have to he converted to virtually single-seater shells. The resulting car would bear no resemblance to our production model with its expensive specification — brakes alone would cost more than a complete production car. Would our assurance to the S.M.M. & T. be worth much?
I therefore decided to stop their preparation and to withdraw mv entry as a protest against regulations which admit such changes and virtually change a great sports-car endurance test into a race of hand-built prototype racing cars.
My withdrawal from the race was done in ample time to allow the organisers to admit their reserve entries; this will at least admit a few genuine private entries who have been on the reserve list. My deposit is forfeited and I ignore the French paper assertion of "unfair play." I have competed in French events for thirty years and in the past five years my little company has spent more than £30,000 in the preparation and running of cars in this event! I feel I am fully entitled to make a decision of this kind, which is made with the one idea of trying to bring sports-car racing back to a more realistic basis.
Motor sport in America is often criticised owing to their comparatively short experience of it, but they do try and control the cars admitted in sports-car races so that the genuine private owner has a chance. For instance, in the S.S.C.A. Airfield races a production car must be as cataIogued and cannot even he run "modified" until the club has proof that the manufacturer has sold 500 such modification kits. Stock cars for record attempts are selected from random agent's stock by the A.A.A. and only running-in and adjustments are allowed under very strict supervision.
We sell sports cars to the buying public which have to be suitable for everyday use, but they are sports cars and the owner is entitled to expect them to be eligible for sports-car races; he often wants to compete in such events but is frightened off by the manufacturer's entry which he knows will be to an entirely different specification.
Warwick, June 1st, 1954. D. M. Healey.
A manufacturer is entitled to hold any given view of regulations governing competitions for which his cars are eligible but criticism of the Austin-Healey withdrawal from Le Mans is justified because the most theatrical time was chosen to put this into practice. The Le Mans rules have been unchanged for many years and Donald Healey must have been fully aware that prototype vehicles would be competing. Had he refrained from entering on the basis of his object ion to the trend of sports/racing cars away from near-catalogue model, his argument could have been weighty and convincing. Having entered, this argument becomes a slender excuse for withdrawing a team of cars, especially so near to the eve of the race.
Many people will agree with Mr. Healey's contention that present day sports-car races are breeding a completely fantastic tvpe of the road-equipped competition car. To win the Mille Miglia, Targa Florio or Le Mans race it desirable to prepare specialised cars, on a par in cost and performance with Formula I racing cars and which figure in few, if any, of the catalogues published by the World's sports-car manufacturers.
How to retard this trend, remembering the problems of scrutineering for non-standard items and the lack of spectator-appeal of standard or nearly standard, and therefore unspectacular, cars racing together, is a big issue.
We are inclined to agree that some curb should be placed on near-racing competition sports cars and certainly we feel that the inclusion of non-standard vehicles in touring-car races (e.g., the 918-c.c. Morris Minors with proprietary o.h.v. heads in the B.R.D.C. Silverstone race), is ludirrous.
We might have expected some sort of protest at being called upon to race against 3.3 Lancias, 4.9 Ferraris and 110 m.p.h. Jaguars to have come from a concern which has always been proud of racing only standard models — Frazer-Nash for example. But Mr. Healey has not only made himself unpopular in certain quarters by entering for Le Mans only to scratch his team; it seems to us that he has issued his statement against sports-car racing from a glasshouse. For, according to our representative on the spot, Austin-Healey entered for the Gran Turisrno category of the recent Mille Miglia, in which cars were meant to conform in detail to a catalogue sent in with the entry, cars which were non-standard in respect of disc brakes, magnesium wheels, David Brown gearboxes, large fuel tanks and, in the case of two of the cars, virtually single-seater bodies. They were transferred by the organisers to the sports-car category and although Lance Macklin's was last but one in its class it had the honour of being the highest-placed British car.
Another instance of a non-Standard Austin-Healey would appear to be the car, NOJ392, submitted for Press road-tests, according to correspondence on pages 198, 260 and 322 in recent issues of Motor Sport. We cannot be definite on this point because no Austin-Healey has been submitted to us for test, but the Editor drove two of these cars round Goodwood circuit on the occasion of last year's Guild of Motoring Writers' Test Day and one certainly possessed different overall gear ratios from the other. In a contemporary road-test report on an Austin-Healey the gear-ratios are given as 9.05, 5.08, 3.84, 3,667 and 2.775 to 1: 0-60 m.p.h. occupied 11.2 seconds and the mean maximum speed was 106 m.p.h. A recent report published in America by Road and Track quotes ratios of 9.28, 5.85, 4.42, 4.12 and 3.12 to 1; in this case the average top speed is 102.3 m.p.h. with hood and sidescreens erect. (The estimated absolute maximum for a standard version is about the same as that of the timelier Triumph TR2.)
So Donald Healey seems not averse to modifying his cars when it seems expedient to do so. Indeed, in his statement on the Le Mans withdrawal he refers to engine modifications and changes of axle ratio which have been made to competition Austin-Healeys. These he excuses by saying these have "all been made available to the public and supplied in large quantities to owners." The problem is.. where does one draw the line?
Here Donald Healey has a strong point. He reminds us that our S.M.M.T. asks for an assurance from British entrants in sports-car races that if prototypes are entered they are of cars intended for future production. Presumably if you can afford it you may purchase the sort of cars Austin-Healey raced in this year's Mille Miglia and certainly the Type C Jaguar, which represented Wm. Lyons' "Le Mans special" two or three seasons ago, and the DB3 Aston Martin which served the same purpose for David Brown, are now seen in the hands of private owners. If a demand exists the 1954 Le Mans Jaguar will presumably become "buyable" but, will a millionaire be able to acquire the sort of sports-cars which Ferrari, Lancia, Mercédès-Benz, Maserati, Cunningham, Porsche and others build for Le Mans?
If not, Donald Healey would seem to have decent, grounds for complain.
We think he was wrong, however to draw attention to these specialised Continental sports/racing cars in the way he did, especially after his entry of non-standard Austin-Healeys in the touring categgory of the Mille Miglia.
If he found that hs only partially specialised cars stood no chance against the "prototypes" at Le Mans surely it would have been a sensible gesture to have run them as a demonstration of high-speed reliability, advertising the fact that they were near-standard. Years ago Charron-Laycock, a make of which Donald Healey has probably either never heard or which is beneath his notice, ran a car in the first J.C.C. 200 Mile Race at Brooklands. It finished 18th out of 20. Did they bewail the fact that special Talbot-Darracq, Bugatti and A.C. racers had beaten their lone entry? They did not. What they did was to publish a picture of their car in full-page advertisements in the motor papers, with, below, it, two tabulated specifications, one applying to the racing Charron-Laycock, the other to their standard model. Thus they emphasised that, apart from having no lamps, self-starter or road equipment, a racing body, a Claudel-Hobson instead of Zenith carburetter, pressure in place of Autovac fuel feed and a non-adjustable steering column, the racing car was absolutely standard and consequently its non-stop run at 65 m.p.h. over 200 miles of the unsmooth Brooklands Track was a highly credit able performance.
Having made his entry for this year's Le Mans race Austin-Healey would have been advised to start, even if using standard cars. These would, we feel sure, have performed satisfactorily and this could have been advertised effectively on "Charron-Laycock" lines, particularly as much favourable comment was heard last year when these cars, believed to be standard models apart from the aforementioned close-ratio gears, were placed 12th and 14th at Le Mans, driven by Gatsonides/Lockett and Becquart/Wilkins. The privately-entered Triumph which finished 15th this year was certainly increased the prestige of the TR2.
It is true that Mercédèz-Benz achieved a small degree of publicity by refraining from entering for last year's Le Mans race after having snatched victory in 1952 on the retirement of Levegh's Talbot — on the grounds that they would have won again in 1953 had they been present and that they had no further lessons to learn. But not to enter is different from entering only to withdraw, and this year Mercédès-Benz and Lancia at least withdrew reasonably soon; declaring their cars unready; not a few weeks before the race, as Austin-Healey have done.
The fact remains that Donald Healey, however unsporting and unfortunate his action, has focussed attention on the position of sports-car racing.
Whether in future this will lead to a change is a matter for conjecture.
Sports-car racing comes broadly into three categories — catalogue cars, cars which differ from standard but only in respect a modifications purchasable from the manufacturer, and "prototypes," in which few holds are barred in pursuit of "improving the breed."
A mid-way line between the catalogue cars which Frazer-Nash, for instance, used to enter for the Ulster T.T., and the 4.9-litre V12 Ferrari "single-seater" sports car which won this year at Le Mans might be found by stipulating that competing cars must use pump fuel and be able to run satisfactorily under traffic conditions such as prevail along Oxford Street between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. each weekday.
When the writer asked Aston Martin if the cars with which they had won the Team Award in a pre-war Ulster T.T. conformed to catalogue he was told "no, but we can convert a standard 'Ulster' to T.T. specification if you are willing to pay for the mods, and you will find you can poodle along behind the trolley-buses in Hounslow without oiling plugs, overheating, or making a noise that will win you a ticket" — which was found to be true.
The "docility with speed" theme might in some way be applied to entrants in sports-car races. On the other hand, we have no proof that a 3.3 Lancia or 4.9 Ferrari would not conform . The withdrawal of Austin-Healey, "the sports car of the century," from Le Mans was lamentable, and its disappearance from future European sports-car races is to be regretted, but Mr. Healey's reasons certainly provide food for thought. — W. B.