Classic car: Austin Healey 3000 —

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148

The stuff of which dreams are made?

The trouble with nostalgia is that it tends to blind people to the harsh realities of a given situation. Twenty years ago I was just on the verge of taking my driving test, anxiously waiting for the day that I could venture out onto the public highway in my mother’s Morris Minor convertible. And in those heady, imaginative, days of youth, I used to glance longingly at some of the sports cars which were then available, hoping some day to own one myself. I would have done well, financially, if I’d taken the plunge and chosen to invest my life’s savings — which then amounted to just over £100 — in a friend’s MG TC which was on offer at the time. I didn’t, and I mildly regret that fact now. However, if I came within an ace of buying that rather dilapidated TC back in the early months of 1964, my dream car lay totally out of reach. In those “macho” days of the “swinging sixties”, the Austin Healey 3000 was one of the big, beefy sports cars available on the British market and I fell in love with it. With its long bonnet, gracefully proportioned lines and rorty exhaust, it seemed to represent everything that was splendid about the classic British sports car.

Powered by a six-cylinder in-line derivative of the engine which also powered the hideous Austin A90, the Healey 3000 developed as much as 124 bhp in road going trim — which really wasn’t bad by the standards of the day. Chrome wire wheels, Cinturatos (whatever they were!) and inevitably accompanied by pretty young females (well, I suppose they must have been young then), I envied the fortunate few in our district who owned these kings of the road. They really were Jack the Lad!

I have now, through the generosity of Unipart, been allowed to drive a Healey 3000 at long, long last. This organisation keeps a fully restored rally version, chassis number 1 dating from 1959, on its strength and actually loaned the machine out to one enthusiastic privateer to use on the 1982 Himalayan Rally. Smartly turned out in its distinctive red and white livery of the old BMC rally team, this was the car which Don and Erle Morley took to third place on the 1960 RAC Rally. In the early 1960s the big Healeys did their fair share of competition work for BMC, finishing second on the RAC on several occasions, and coming very close to winning this prestigious event thanks to the efforts of Timo Makinen and his co-driver Paul Easter back in 1965. They gained a reputation as rugged cars, fearfully difficult to handle, but capable of putting up with as much punishment as they could find on such marathons as the Liege-Sofia-Liege and other out-and-out endurance runs which masqueraded under the title of “rallies” two decades ago. But did Makinen really fly down mud-clogged Scottish forest tracks at 130 mph? And did those big Healeys really create a worthwhile legend? I visited Unipart’s Cowley base recently to try to find out.

This machine is featured on the first Motoring News video production which is publicised elsewhere within this issue, and was previously tried by a colleague who returned from the experience somewhat daunted, although admittedly impressed. It should be remembered, of course, that the Healey 3000 was, on the face of it, just about the most unsuitable car ever conceived for rallying purposes, particularly alongside the agile FWD Minis which started to make their competition name in the early 1960s. But the one thing the big Healey really had going for it was its strength: it was an immensely rugged machine which could literally bulldoze its path along rutted forest tracks and mountain passes.

I approached the Unipart machine with a degree of guarded optimism. After all those years of regarding the Healey 3000 longingly from a distance, I was now about to subject myself to a turn behind the wheel. Would I emerge in raptures, regretting all those lost years without a Healey 3000 in my life? Or would I find that the sun had gone in quite dramatically?

I pulled open the driver’s door and regarded the cockpit. I’d always observed the Healey’s driving position to be extremely cramped, but the recent addition of a roll cage (presumably for its trip to the Himalayas) meant that I had to insinuate myself into the cockpit by means of some pretty dramatic contortions. Once installed, I began to feel depressed. I’ll freely acknowledge that I’m no whippet, but I felt trapped and claustrophobic like never before. The steering wheel was virtually resting against my chest thanks, at least in part, to the non-standard bucket seats that had been installed, and the tiny pedals seemed masked by my size 11 feet. Visibility down that long bonnet was poor and the whole effect was rather stifling. By this stage in the adventure I was regarding matters with a degree of trepidation.

In order to fire up the 175 bhp rally developed version of the big six cylinder engine, Unipart had fitted an extra battery in the boot, but even this didn’t appear sufficient to stir the beast into life. We were eventually despatched on our way courtesy of a willing shove from Unipart’s Mike Black and Andrew Duncan, the Healey spluttering and throbbing its way out of the Cowley factory, gently crunching its underside on the rumble strips in the process. The clutch was quite progressive, if rather on the firm side, while the throttle pedal was reasonably smooth.

The brakes, however, I found to be something else. This Healey 3000 was fitted with discs all round, a considerable improvement, so I understand, over the earlier Healey 100/4s in which one of our proprietor’s sons risked his neck regularly during the 1950s. I can only say that life must have been particularly exciting in those days, for even with disc brakes the Healey 3000 exercises one’s right leg muscles particularly well. The six cylinder engine, fed through three Weber 45DCOE carburetters, bursts into life with an endearing metallic rasp and, once one has selected first gear by means of that appallingly vague and haphazard change, it’s time to rush off through the country lanes with an optimistic grin on one’s face.

I suppose one of the biggest errors was the fact that I drove down to Cowley behind the wheel of one of the latest Audi Quattro coupes, with the result that I was hardly in the most receptive frame of mind for the spine-jarring wrestling match that awaited me. I understand that the Healey 3000 has some suspension movement, but I was hard pressed to identify it: we lurched along in a series of bumps, thumps and crashes, the car’s lack of fundamental stiffness (it was, after all, developed as an open two-seater) contributing more than its fair share of scuttle shake and flexing sufficiently to allow the doors to fly open occasionally as we negotiated roundabouts — a charming quirk that rather took our breath away!

Noise levels as the revs build up are quite dramatic, the engine’s metallic clatter competing energetically with the rasping open exhaust. There’s a considerable amount of torque to propel the big Healey away from low speeds in top gear: just as well, in my view, since the gearchange is pretty limited in its appeal. In view of the way in which the speedometer needle was bouncing about, we’re not in a position to bring you much in the way of performance figures, but the original 124 bhp Healey 3000 sprinted from 0-60 mph in under 11 sec., pretty impressive by 1959 standards. This competition version certainly felt extremely quick — certainly quicker than the standard machine — and although the rally Healeys were said to have top speeds approaching the 130 mph mark, I have to confess that I wouldn’t have been brave enough to approach that figure in this machine — even if I’d been given an empty airport runway on which to try it!

On its narrow Cinturatos, this Healey provided us with a graphic reminder of just how far tyre and suspension technology has advanced over the past two decades. One’s abiding impression is of a ludicrously low level of overall adhesion and the car’s basic attitude was one of tiresome understeer which gradually translated itself into sloppy oversteer — and held one’s attention by the need to wind off lock on the low-geared steering with the dexterity of a juggler. It didn’t take too much right foot to produce great clouds of blue smoke from the rear wheels under power out of tight corners, but I came to the ultimate conclusion that I wasn’t born to the heroic traditions of motoring. It all seemed a massive waste of effort to me: I mean, it didn’t even perform any of its handling quirks nicely or progressively. Even allowing for the fact it is 24 years old, the Healey 3000 struck me as a remarkably unsophisticated creation.

I have had the opportunity of driving a Porsche 356A, a rival product from the same era, and I could see that there were still pleasant aspects to its character. I’m disappointed to say that I didn’t feel the same way about the Healey 3000. I don’t doubt that the men who drove it in competition anger were heroes: I don’t doubt that it was a fun car by the standards of 1959. But I don’t necessarily accept that it was a particularly good car, by the standards of the day. Entertaining, yes, but desperately crude and unrefined.

I left Cowley wishing I’d left my dreams intact and unsullied. There’s a phrase that goes something like “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all . . .” Well, it doesn’t apply to the Healey 3000 as far as I’m concerned. I wish I’d contented myself with imaginative longing: for me, the reality was a stark disappointment. — Alan Henry