The arguments begin again … when is a replica not a replica? Peter Thorp went through this with the GT40, and Brian Angliss with the AC MkIV, now Geoffrey Healey faces the dilemma as he presents the Healey Silverstone and Mk IV models, visually resembling the classic six-cylinder 3000 model but totally re-engineered around Rover’s 3.5-litre V8 and five-speed transmission.
“I think you should describe it as an evolution, my father would have approved of that. It’s a modern version of the car BL stopped making in 1968, and it’s where I suppose the car would have got to if it had stayed in production.”
Although Geoffrey Healey joined the board of the Healey Motor Company when it was formed in 1985, the moving forces are brothers Graham and Peter Holmes, whose Harrier Cars company made the first prototype. It was shown to Donald and Geoffrey Healey at an Austin Healey Club weekend in 1984, “but,” says Geoffrey, “I’m afraid that Donald didn’t like it very much at first. He made a number of criticisms which the Holmes brothers took to heart, and his attitude changed completely as it was developed. By the time he died, last January, he was very enthusiastic about the new car.”
The Silverstone and MkIV need no higher recommendation than that, but they also have warm approval from the club management, and from stalwart Healey 3000 racer John Chatham. “I think the car will be received all right,” says Chatham. “There will be those who say, ‘oh, fibreglass’, but I’ve worked on so many cars that were rotting away. They’ll be able to drive this and keep their genuine cars for weekends, if that’s what they want to do.”
Nostalgia often deadens the critical senses, and we forget now that the 100/4, the 100/6 and 3000 models had fairly flexible chassis (not to mention extremely heavy steering, and an alarming lack of ground clearance which could even have the exhaust systems scraping the roadway on motorways). These fundamental problems were never really solved even by the competitions department at Abingdon, where for instance sliding bolts were fitted to stop the doors from flying open, but the modern-day versions have no such drawbacks.
The Holmes brothers are particularly highly qualified to produce a new sports-car which will be examined critically, Graham being an aeronautical engineer and Peter a noted restorer of classic sports-cars.
“We couldn’t contemplate undertaking the panel work of the old car; we couldn’t afford the presses for one thing,” says Graham. The platform chassis was discarded, and the new Healeys have steel tube backbone chassis which are fully protected against corrosion, and torsionally stiffer than the original car with bodies fitted. The bulkhead has been strengthened, side impact resistance increased, and interior dimensions increased for greater comfort and safety.
Front suspension is similar to the original, with upper and lower wishbones, but at the rear Ford’s Scorpio semi-trailing-arm independent system has been fitted. A full disc-brake system is taken from the Scorpio, with ventilated discs at the front: “so that we can adopt ABS if we want to later on,” as Graham Holmes points out. The rack-and-pinion steering comes from Cam Gears, and there is a choice of centre-locking wire or alloy wheels, which fit onto specially designed hubs.
Designed to appeal to the sports driver who hankers for the original sliding plastic side windows and is happy to have cloth upholstery and rear view mirrors which you adjust by hand, the Healey 3500 Silverstone model is expected to cost £25,000. It weighs 985kg (compared with about 1100kg for the old 3000), and the 190 bhp fuel injected Rover V8 provides what ought to be exhilarating performance. Acceleration to 60 mph in under six seconds is claimed (quicker, even, than the rally models which Paddy Hopkirk, Timo Makinen and Pat Moss used to master), with a maximum speed in the region of 140 mph.
The 3500 MkIV Convertible is fully laden with decadence, to appeal to a different type of customer, and comes with leather upholstery, wood veneer (any tree you nominate), electrically-operated side windows, gas dampers, through-flow ventilation, adjustable steering column, full stereo and more besides.
“The convertible takes us 66% longer to build,” says Graham Holmes, “and that has to be reflected in the price” … That will be £34,000 when the first car rolls off the line in July.
The Convertible is inevitably much heavier, at 1240kg, and the acceleration time to 60 mph suffers by half a second. Healey lovers will like the useful 65-litre fuel tank (lead-free fuel for the V8 engine, but they haven’t found anywhere yet for a catalytic converter), and the 12,000-mile service intervals. Weight distribution has been improved substantially, thanks to the alloy V8 engine, to 45:55 (“the old six was so heavy that it took two men to pick up a cylinder head,” commented Geoffrey Healey, himself a former Rover engineer), and apparently the Healey 3500 can be accelerated hard on wet roads with virtually no loss of traction. Ground clearance has been established at 5in, and care taken to keep the exhaust system out of harm’s way.
Offering the new Healeys as two-plus-two models, with space for small children in the back, is reckoned to be a good sales point, and the Healey Motor Company expects to find a steady demand for 200 cars a year, mainly from Britain and European markets but possibly with distribution in Japan, too. Production will start at existing small premises near Stroud in Gloucestershire, but will soon be moved to a more suitable factory in the same region, where up to a hundred people might be employed.
Loyalists who thought the world ended when the Austin Healey 3000 was phased out in 1967 may never change their minds. Open-minded enthusiasts, and there were a number of them at the Easter presentation, are more likely to think that a new era of Healey motoring is about to begin. MLC