Successful on the stages, less so on track, the Big Healey nevertheless remains a British classic as it reaches its half-century
By Richard Heseltine
Its true meaning has been diluted over time through misuse and manipulation but here it’s entirely appropriate. Lifting Motor Sport’s self-imposed embargo on the word ‘icon’, if only for a moment, there are few British sports cars more deserving of the tag than the Austin-Healey 3000. As charismatic as any object ever can be, rugged yet rakish, it’s a great British throwback; one that still captivates a full half-century since its inception. Sure, it’s palpably vintage but then this handsome brute never was exactly cutting-edge. That was not what mattered.
Just try and conjure this sports car archetype in your mind’s eye; Timo Mäkinen hurling one down a narrow forest track, the Morley brothers soaking up the punishment on the Tulip Rally or Pat Moss showing the boys the way home on the international stage. Iconic? And then some. The Big Healey wasn’t exactly a purpose-built competition tool. Heck, it didn’t even win that often in racing, but it’s still memorable for all the right reasons.
But then it had a name to live up to. Prior to WWII, marque instigator Donald Mitchell Healey had been variously a Monte Carlo Rally winner and respected engineer (witness his fabulous, if ultimately doomed, straight-eight Triumph Dolomite). On going it alone after the cessation of hostilities, ‘DMH’ set about producing a series of sports and touring cars under his own name with Riley, Alvis and Nash power. Yet for all their sporting credentials, none were huge hits commercially: a Nash-Healey cost a whopping £800 more than a comparable Jaguar XK120, so the need for a cheaper alternative – with an eye on the burgeoning Stateside market – was key to the fledgling marque’s continued survival.
Enter the Austin A90-engined Healey 100 in 1952 which so impressed motor mogul Leonard Lord of the British Motor Corporation that he adopted it as a volume product: Austin took over the marketing and manufacture of the car with Healey acting as an engineering and racing consultant. And it sold, the US being particularly susceptible to the caddish 100/4. But its character changed substantially in 1956 with the insertion of the C-series straight-six from the Austin A105/Westminster. The ever-so-slightly larger Austin-Healey 100-Six (or 100/6) was an instant success, a 1957 revamp including a new six-port head, larger valves and raised compression ratio. In mid-1959 displacement was enlarged to 2913cc (from 2639cc) and, at a stroke, the legendary 3000 was born, either as the BT7 2+2 or BJ7 two-seater.
Overall, the biggest difference between the new strain and the outgoing model was the adoption of Girling disc brakes up front and increased top speed. With overdrive, the 3000 could reach 116mph at a time when the average saloon car struggled to top 80mph. John Bolster gushed in Autosport: “The Austin-Healey 3000 is a wonderfully effortless car… [It] maintains the reputation of a good quality fast touring car which its predecessors established. The new performance will make it even more competitive.”
In every sense. It didn’t take long for the BMC Competition Department to get its mitts on the 3000, having already dipped its toe with the 100/6. It was an instant success: Pat Moss was second on the 1959 German Rally, runner-up on the 1960 Alpine and outright victor on the punishing Rome-Liège-Rome that same year. And that was just for starters.
Trackside, the 3000 was homologated as a proper GT in 1960, complete with hardtop, 25-gallon fuel tank and all-round disc brakes. Prepared at the Healey factory in Warwick, and based out of Murphy’s Garage in Avon Park, Florida, three cars were entered for that year’s Sebring 12 Hours. The Gil Geitner/Lew Spencer entry came home 15th and fifth in class, while the Jack Sears/Peter Riley entry placed 33rd overall. The John Colgate/Fred Spross car, meanwhile, crashed out. A singleton entry for June’s Le Mans 24 Hours for Sears/Riley ended early with big-end failure.
Ultimately, the 3000 never quite delivered on its promise as a racer. As a road car, it became increasingly outmoded, too. The arrival of the Mark II in May ’61 bought about a styling makeover and more power, although where it all went was a mystery to both The Autocar and The Motor which recorded inferior test figures to the original model… Further variations followed, the ‘3000 Sports Convertible’ of 1962 featuring wind-up windows and new (vaguely) wrap-around windscreen. By the time the faster Mark III appeared in February ’64 (which finally alleviated the chronic lack of ground clearance), the writing was on the wall, with America’s Car & Driver going so far as to label the Healey ‘an aerodynamic Edwardian’. In December ’67, the game was up and it was left to the oft-maligned MGC to pick up its mantle.
But while the 3000 was given a roasting towards the end of its life, few remember that now. Altogether more compelling was Don and Erle Morley’s domination of the Tulip Rally which they made their own from 1962-65, even if outright victory proved elusive due to the handicapping system. Then there was the duo’s 1961 and ’62 Alpine triumphs. Rauno Aaltonen’s win on the 1964 Spa-Sofia-Liège was similarly a lesson in sheer grit. Ironically, the one rally that evaded the Big Healey was Britain’s own RAC classic. Unwieldy and bestial at the best of times, the 3000 wasn’t suited to the forest stages but nevertheless recorded four second places between 1961-65. Ultimately it was Aaltonen who upset the model’s best chance of success. Timo Mäkinen was the class act for most of the ’65 running, only to get overtaken on the final night by his countryman’s Mini Cooper S as the Healey struggled for grip in the snow.
That epic drive would prove the car’s swansong as a works entry. By now the rally-spec 3000 was substantially different to the production edition, with six-branch exhaust manifolds, a light alloy cylinder-head, triple twin-choke Webers and mild overboring to 2968cc. Add in ally body panels and a glassfibre bootlid and you were only just getting started. One final outing for the factory squad on the 1967 RAC ended before it had even begun as the rally was cancelled due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.
By contrast, racing always took a back seat to the off-piste stuff, irregular forays being largely of the long-distance variety. A factory 3000 managed 12th place on its return to Sebring in 1963 with Bob Olthoff and Ronnie Bucknum sharing, the sister car of Paddy Hopkirk and Don Morley (in his sole circuit race in a Healey) coming home in 26th spot. Fourth place in the ’65 Guards 1000-mile event at Brands Hatch for the Hopkirk/Roger Mac-driven privateer entry rounded off the model’s frontline circuit career. It would be left to club racers to maintain the car’s relevance with the likes of former BMC staple John Gott upholding marque honour in ModSports, while John Chatham racked up the miles (and wins) in his famous ex-Le Mans car ‘DD300’ for aeons.
“I bought the car in 1964,” recalls the Bristolian. “I raced it until 10 years ago and I’ve lost count of how many starts I had in it. There was one year when I won 24 races and I believe I had the longest Healey racing career by some margin. In 1990 I took ‘DD’ over to the States and did five races at Watkins Glen, Road America and so on. I’m also the only person mad enough to have driven one over the Andes. I did the ’95 London-Mexico in a 3000 MkII and everyone told me, ‘You can’t take that, it’ll never last…’
“What I like about the Healey, apart from the looks, is that there’s nothing particularly exotic about them so they’re affordable. They’re also quite nimble once you know what you’re doing, and they can be made to go very quickly.”
It’s a view backed up by historics ace Jeremy Welch who, together with his father Denis, has been a Healey loyalist for decades. “The appeal lies in the fact that you can get high up the grid in a car that’s not particularly valuable,” he says. “Well, not by comparison with a lot of stuff out there. To be on the second or third row against things like Lightweight E-types; to be there with a car that’s worth £60,000 or so gives me a degree of pleasure.
“I think what holds them back, why they’re not worth more, is simply the fact that they’re not the easiest car to drive at the limit and that puts people off. Without wishing to blow my own trumpet, it’s the driver that makes the difference at the sharp end. The Jaguars and the like have more sophisticated suspension and fatter tyres so you have to work that much harder to keep up with them. However, the Healey comes into its own in the rain on its narrow rubber and I’ve enjoyed some good runs when it’s been wet.
“It would likely set you back £100,000 to build a competitive racer from scratch and you can buy one already done for a lot, lot less. Most people who race them tend to have started out with a road car and got into it through hillclimbs and sprints. It’s a good way of improving as a driver before you start throwing money at a car.”
Eligible for all manner of circuit series, from the Austin-Healey Club Race Championship to Masters’ Oldies but Goldies, along with countless stand-alone events, the 3000 is ironically less well served in historic rallying (we can’t remember the last time we saw one on a special stage) with international endurance events becoming its métier as Escorts and Porsches slug it out for outright honours closer to home. Which, when you think about it, is appropriate.
The inherent likeability of the Big Healey counts for much here. While we’re all apparently doomed to credit card comeuppances, it’s not as though you’ll lose money on a well-prepped example so long as you stay shiny side up. And with a thriving cottage industry of related specialists, parts supply isn’t an issue. So while we cannot promote fiscal irresponsibility, a half-awakened interest in the model in this, its 50th year, may inflate Healey values. Now could be the perfect time to take a punt…