As someone who learned much about old cars from the late, great Bill Boddy and even more so from Denis Jenkinson, I am by reflex a sceptic. The legendary status of the Austin-Healey 3000 as ‘The Big Healey’ has always passed straight over my head. For one thing a 3-litre in-line ‘six’ is not particularly big. Nor is the 3000 itself. But I suppose within the rallying context such a roily sports car as the Abingdonprepared works Healeys would earn that tag against such contemporaries as an Erik Carlsson or Simo Lampinen Saab, the horde of Mini Coopers or even I guess a works Ford Cortina.
However, it’s been a privilege to become involved recently with ‘ARX 91B’ perhaps the best preserved of the BMC Abingdon Comps Department’s ‘Big Healeys’, which Bonhams are selling at the Goodwood Revival Meeting after no fewer than 43 years in its current ownership, .
Not only is the car’s interior remarkably original, even including Timo Makinen’s preferred cigar lighter, but its exterior envelope retains the original lightweight aluminium wing panelling. Old ‘ARX’ also embodies a remarkable dual history as both an International rally car and World Championship of Makes-level road racer.
No less a rally crew than Paddy Hopkirk and Henry Liddon gave this works car its first major outing, and success, in the 1964 Austrian Alpine Rally. The event was run on May 28-30 and had some unusual regulations, including one which allowed a 60kg weight to be carried instead of a co-driver. Only one of the 85 starters a Ford Cortina took the option. The 1200-mile course was arranged in three loops based upon the Austrian country town of Velden. Paddy Hopkirk was famously unhappy with the predawn start time of 4.30am on both the Friday and Saturday mornings, his late appearances costing him 10 penalty points each day. The Friday route led down into Yugoslavia before returning to Velden by mid-afternoon. The Saturday leg then sent the field charging around the mountain roads east of Velden before returning around mid-day. The final leg then set out that same afternoon, heading west and then north over some of the great classic pre-war Alpine Trial roads. The event gave Paddy and Henry an opportunity to recce roads which would be used for the mighty Liége-Sofia-Liége Rally.
They started first in ‘ARX 91B’, completing an initial acceleration and braking test before attacking the VhSiP Pass stage, well known in the reverse direction to old Liege Rally hands as ‘The Moistrocca’. Despite rain and a roadway unsurfaced in its upper sections, Paddy reached the summit in 10 minutes 48 seconds, 28sec faster than his nearest rival, future Abarth works driver Johannes Orher’s tiny, lightweight Steyr-Puch. On the loose-surfaced stage at Crna, ‘ARX 91B’ was again fastest and the second day saw Hopkirk/Liddon set FTD yet again, this time in fog, on the gravel-surfaced Koralpe hillclimb, before that afternoon’s three rugged stages. Still ‘ARX’ set FTD in all three; the rough, steep Turrach, the treacherously stony Solker Pass and ultimately run at night the majestic climb of the enormous Grossglockner. So the Hopkirk/Liddon ‘Big Healey’ won handsomely, with the fearless Ortner second in his furiously over-driven Steyr-Puch.
BMC Abingdon then ran ‘ARX 91B’ in the 1965 Targa Florio, to be co-driven by Timo Makinen and Paul Hawkins. They led their 3-litre GT class until 44-mile lap eight of the 10, when the rotor arm broke. ‘Hawkeye’, driving at the time, didn’t realise that a spare was in the car, and instead ran two miles to the Cerda pits to get one. His reaction when the pit crew told him he should have listened to their briefing the spare rotor arm being on board was typically blue… But he ran back, restarted and still finished second in class to nothing less than the Raveffo/ Starrabba Ferrari 250GT0/64…
In 1967 ‘ARX 91B’ passed via Chris Stewart to club racer Ted Worswick. He drove it down to Sicily where he and Richard Bond raced it in the 1967 Targa Florio. The trip was fantastic, they finished ninth overall scoring Austin-Healey World Championship points and again finishing second in class. Thus encouraged, Ted Worswick then entered ‘ARX’ for the BOAC ‘500’ at Brands Hatch. He shared the drive with Peter Clark, and in company with Ferrari P4s, 412Ps, 275LM5, the Chaparral 2F, Ford GT405, Lola T7OGT5 and Porsche 907s and 910s was still running at the finish though unclassified. He later wrote: “I don’t think we caused too many problems, and later in the race we were gaffing cheery waves from drivers in faster cars”.
Before Abingdon sold this remarkable veteran of the Austrian Alpine Rally and Targa Florio, they loaned it to my Kiwi friend Eoin Young, for a typically entertaining road test. To back up his perfectly usable and clean New Zealand driving licence, Eoin took his UK driving test in this deafeningly hairy-chested works car.., and failed. He claimed the examiner didn’t appreciate him steering it on the throttle. And he ended his story with this line about ‘The Big Healey’: “As a proven racer and a crumpet catcher it was ideal!”