Rivals: Lancia D50 and Mercedes-Benz W196
By Chris Nixon, ISBN: 0-85184-059-0 Transport Bookman, £39.95 It's a surprise to realise there has…
The Nash-Healey was the first of the post-war Anglo-American hybrids, presaging various Allards, the AC Cobra, Ford GT40 and 71/R Griffith, as well as more refined vehicles from Bristol, Gordon-Keeble and Jensen. It was made only for sale in America, although works cars competed with distinction at Le Mans and in the Mille Miglia. But it was done for by economics and a family rival.
In 1949 Donald Healey was on board the SS Queen Elizabeth bound for Africa in the hope that he could persuade General Motors to supply him with Cadillac V8 engines. He had seen the future and it was called the Jaguar XK120. Healey realised that the only way he could keep his small company at the forefront was by obtaining a lot more horsepower than could be provided by the tuned Riley engines he had been using. Furthermore, America had begun its affair with the British sports car and a huge potential market was opening.
Healey had been Britain’s most successful rally driver before the war, and he was highly regarded as an engineer; indeed, he had been Technical Director at Triumph before it went into receivership. During the war he worked on armoured cars at Humber, where he met two men who shared his ideas for a new range of sporting cars: Achille ‘Sammy’ Sampietro, who had worked for Alfa Romeo and Maserati, and Ben Bowen, who had been a stylist with Farina (the original company, not Pinin Farina). Together they conceived a design which they tried to sell to Triumph. Triumph decided against it, and Healey decided to go into production on his own account using tuned 2.5-litre Riley engines.
The Donald Healey Motor Company began production in 1946, making handsome roadsters, sportscars and saloons. Each had a rigid box-section chassis which weighed only 160Ib, with front suspension by trailing arms and an aerodynamically efficient body. As the first products from a small company, the cars were remarkable: the Elliot saloon of 1948, for example, was officially timed at 110.8mph, which made it the fastest four-seat production car in the world. Donald Healey, co-driving with his son Geoffrey, was ninth in the 1948 Mille Miglia with a Healey Roadster, and a Healey saloon took two class wins in the same race. The following year Geoffrey, co-driving with Tommy Wisdom, entered the Mille Miglia again and brought a Westland Roadster home tenth overall, and first in class.
A sports two-seater, the Silverstone, enjoyed success as a dual-purpose road and competition car, although at 19cwt it was on the heavy side, and in racing it was out-classed by the lighter and more powerful Bristol-engined Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica.
Healey had stolen a march on most makers by getting his cars into production relatively soon after the war, but the Jaguar XK120 showed what future buyers would expect. Further, Jaguar had brought the XK120 to the market at a basic £998, attracting ‘only’ 33% tax on the home market, but since Healeys cost around £1500, tax was levied at 66%. But Healey reasoned that there could be a niche in the market for his cars, on both sides of the Atlantic, if only he could make them powerful enough. Hence his sea-voyage to South Africa.
Also on the Queen Elizabeth was George Romney, General Manager of the Nash Kelvinator Corporation. Nash had prospered during the war when engaged on government work, but was facing the problem of competing with the Detroit Big Three in peacetime. The two car-makers met on board, and when Healey failed to get his Cadillac engines, he turned to Nash on the strength of that chance meeting with Romney.
It solved both their problems. Healey would provide Nash with chassis based on the Silverstone but with all-enveloping bodies, and Nash would provide the running gear while also paying off the debts of DHMC. Healey would get a foothold in the American market, while Nash would be ahead of its competitors by cashing in on the new rage for sportscars. Romney also knew that if you had a sportscar in a showroom people would pay a visit just to look, and that gave the salesmen a chance to sell a Nash.
The car was officially announced early in 1951, but, before that, Healey had taken delivery of one of Nash’s 3848cc straight-six ohv engines and had set about improving it. The fitting of twin SUs, a new camshaft, an alloy head and other tweaks raised the power from 112 to 140bhp, though production cars came with 125 bhp at a leisurely 4000 rpm. The output from the standard engines was not as high as the XKI20 1160 bhp at 5000 rpm), but with 215 lb/ft torque at 2500 rpm it had an edge over the Jaguar’s 195 lb/ft at the same revs. On the other hand it had only a three-speed gearbox with overdrive to the Jaguar’s four speeds. It did not take Jaguar long, however, to add an overdrive and also increase both power and torque. The two models were direct rivals and there was no other sportscar in their class at the time, unless you count the Allard 12 which was definitely not a well-appointed sportscar for everyday road use.
Jaguar and Nash-Healey met in the 1950 Mille Miglia: an XK120 finished fifth, while Donald and Geoffrey Healey were forced off the road by a lorry and finished 177th. That was the official story; the truth was that the car, which was still basically a Nashengined Silverstone, was doing so poorly that Healey deliberately drove it along a wall to be abIe to invent a story and so save face with his partner in America.
At Le Mans, it had an enveloping version of the basic Silverstone body and while the best Jaguar XK120 to finish was down in 12th place, and not in the best of health, Tony Rolt and Duncan Hamilton brought the Nash-Healey home fourth behind two Talbots and an Allard. It was a promising performance for a car intended for production. Hamilton and Rolt were sixth at Le Mans in 1951 in the same car, but with a coupe body (a Jaguar C-type won) and in 1952 they were third behind two works Mercedes-Benz 300SL coupes while all the works Jaguars retired early with overheating problems. Also in 1952 Leslie Johnson’s Nash-Healey was seventh in the Mille Miglia, and first ‘British’ car home.
In the classic races the Nash-Healey had a more distinguished career than the XK120 (the C-type was a different matter). True, it was a works car with a lighter body than production models, but it was a lot closer to them than was the C-type to the XK120.
In the market place, however, the Jaguar was a clear winner. It had a top speed of over 120mph, to the Nash-Healey’s 102mph — or so Jaguar claimed. No customer ever saw a genuine 120mph in a standard XK120. An XK120 was claimed to accelerate from 0-60mph in ten seconds, but The Autocar could not better 12 seconds in a standard car — exactly the same as the Nash-Healey. Jaguar and Healey were both capable of lending road testers special cars (did any standard Austin-Healey 100 ever match the 0-60mph in 10.4 seconds that the test car did?) but it was Nash which supplied test cars to magazines, and it was a little more circumspect.
In handling and general dynamics there was not a great deal to chose between the rivals, but on style and equipment they were worlds apart. The car we were lent was sharing a showroom at Portfield Classics in Chichester with an early XK120 Roadster. This allowed direct comparisons to be made at leisure.
It is not so much that the ‘Healey is an ugly car, as that the Jaguar has one of the most outstanding body styles in history. Compared to what else was on offer in February 1951, the ‘Healey is a handsome and well-proportioned car; in fact, its styling was actually more modern than the Jaguar. The XK120’s main styling cues — vertical radiator grille, distinct bonnet, headlights between wings and radiator — were already dating, but Lyons somehow made it work.
It is true that the Healey’s heavily chromed radiator grille and bonnet scoop are not to everyone’s taste, but it was intended for the American market. Healey also produced the G-type for the home market: this had a similar body, but Alvis TA21 running gear and much less chromework. To judge the shape with European eyes, look at the Healey-Alvis and compare it to what else was being offered at the time. The Healey emerges as the stylish car that it is.
The dashboard of the Jaguar is a model of how instruments should be laid out. While the dashboard on the Healey is clear, it does not feature a tachometer. The indicator switch is hidden away and so is the overdrive button — not good ergonomics. The Jaguar has a ‘fly off’ handbrake; the ‘Healey has an umbrella handle type to the left of the steering wheel, which is particularly nasty. The ‘Healey’s glove comartment is small and has no lid — it would not take WB’s legendary Rolleiflex camera, which used to be a fair standard — but the Jaguar has no glove compartment at all. While the ‘Healey’s bench seat has room for three, the Jaguar is for two only, and if the seats look more like a proper sportscar’s, it should be remembered that they wore considered unsuitable for high-speed work and Jaguar eventually offered bucket seats as an option.
The hood on the ‘Healey is fixed and it stows behind the seat, but it is still a two-man job to erect it. One should not of course compare it to the XK120 Roadster, but to Jaguar’s other offering, the Drophead Coupe, which is considerably more civilised.
In terms of overall appointment the Jaguar wins by a country mile. It looks the part, it feels the part and it is beautifully detailed. The map-pockets on the ‘Healey are for show only, whereas the XK120’s will hold Ordnance Survey maps and have covers with press-stud fastenings. The real difference, however, is that the XKI20 cost $3400 and the Nash-Healey was launched at $4063. It is no wonder that while Jaguars sold by the thousand, the original Nash Healey sold only 104 examples in its first year of production, and peaked at 162 in 1953.
Despite that, the car was fairly successful in SCCA racing because American buyers had access to all sorts of tuning accessories which buyers of Jaguars did not. The average speed-shop knew how to work a stock-block mill, or add a Paxton supercharger, and had probably never clapped eyes on one of those fancy European motors with two overhead camshafts. The buyer of a Nash-Healey with speed in mind could have it tweaked to become a 140mph motor, which was not so easy with an XK120.
The Nash-Healey could also take all of the power you could give it, since we are talking about a Healey-Silverstone in a party frock, but most people who bought sportscars did not race them, and for everyday work the XK120 undoubtedly had the allure. Whisper it softly, however, the ‘Healey’s American running gear put it streets ahead of anything from Europe at the time in terms of usability and reliability. It was a wry joke among Jaguar owners that to drive one on a daily basis you needed to buy two, since one would always be in the workshop.
I am 5ft 9in and could not drive the ‘Healey with the seat forward, and even with it pushed back as far as it would go (the travel is not great) it was not terribly comfortable. The steering wheel is huge and the steering itself is fairly high geared; a smaller wheel and lower gearing would have been an improvement. The pedals have the accelerator in the centre, which requires mental adjustment, but that is not the problem. The trouble is that they are biased to the left and the brake pedal is not where it should be on a car with a centre throttle. It took conscious effort to find it and I admit it that it foxed me more than once. Not being quite sure where the brake pedal is located is not a good thing.
When the car starts there is a satisfying engine note which says ‘I am a race-bred sportscar, not the boulevard cruiser I have been styled by some writers’. In the American manner of the time the bottom two gears are there to get the car under way; third (with or without overdrive) is all that is needed for most driving. In fact it pulled strongly from 15mph in top on one of the steepest hills in the Sussex Downs. Which is just as well, because the gearchange is not very precise. It is also actually under one’s right leg. This is a feature which nobody felt inclined to copy.
On the open road, the ‘Healey is a satisfying performer. It is not as crisp as the XK120, but is among the best of the cars of the period I have driven. It likes to be steered on the throttle, which is how a sportscar should behave. One goes back to the fact that it has a Healey Silverstone chassis, which was an outstanding sportscar. It accelerates well, handles well and brakes well, and even if it looks (and feels) on the large side, it turns heads.
It gave me the impression that a long acquaintanceship would be rewarding — all good cars reveal their personalities slowly; the average modern saloon tells you everything in ten minutes. I like those torquey American engines — the Yanks may have been behind on chassis, but they could cast iron like nobody else — and because of that I think 1 could learn to live with the eccentric pedal layout and the decidedly odd gearchange.
By no stretch of the imagination was the Nash-Healey a failure as a sportscar, viewed by itself, but it had the misfortune to go on sale against the XK120, which is like being a very good heavyweight boxer who might have been World Champion had not his career happened to coincide with that of Muhamed Ali.
Executives at Nash were disappointed by the car’s sales and blamed the styling. The company had entered an agreement with Pinin Farina (only later did it become Pinin farina) to style its regular range of cars, and decided that Farina should restyle the Nash-Healey. The new version, from 1952, had a steel, not aluminium, body but was actually lighter, and while it was less slabsided it was still no visual competition for an XK120. In my view the Farina body is not an aesthetic improvement, and all it did was to hike up the price. The logistics of producing the new model made the exercise unworkable and doomed it to failure. Nash cornPonents were sent to the Healey factory at Warwick, and for 1952 this meant a 414Occ engine with 135 bhp at 4000 rpm and 230 lb/ft of torque at 2000 rpm. From Warwick the completed rolling chassis were sent to Italy to be bodied. Then the finished car was sent to the States where the pricetag had risen to $5858 — a Cadillac Series 60 Special cost $4323.
Not only that, but Nash is rumoured to have lost $2-3000 on each Farina car sol, even when the price topped $6000. Further, from 1953 it faced another rival in the market place, the Austin-Healey 100, which cost only $3000 and could out-perform the Nash-Healey in every department, including kerbside presence. Before long the Austin-Healey was joined by the equally tempting and fast Triumph TR2 at just $2400 and that sealed the Nash-Healey’s fate.
Production came to an end in 1954 after a total of 506 had been made, 104 with the original body and 402 Farina cars. Production was down to 90 cars in 1954, whereas the contract that Nash had with Healey stipulated that at least 100 chassis be bought each year. Rumour had it, however, that Healey had only ordered 500 sets of suspension components, believing that to be a reasonable production run, and had run out.
1954 also saw the end of Healey as a separate maker. It had been engaged as a consultant to BMC which was making the Austin-Healey 100, and had made small numbers of Healey cars in addition. After 1954, DHMC devoted itself to developing new cars for BMC, running the Austin-Healey racing programme and building special cars for racing.
The Austin-Healey which killed the Nash project was also arguably born from it. Donald Healey had able to make an accurate analysis of the American market, and using that knowledge he instigated the Healey Hundred, which he thought he might sell at a rate of five a week. It was taken over by BMC, became the Austin-Healey 100. and a marque was born. A great man, Donald Healey, and the Nash-Healey, while not a great car, deserves more credit than it is sometimes afforded. It has become a cult car among American classic car enthusiasts, and having driven one I can see why. In Europe it is a rarity; the total imported from the ‘States is probably in single figures, and most of those are Farina cars. I had never even seen one before I wandered into Portfield’s showroom, and I was delighted to add to the list of rare cars which I’ve had the good fortune to drive. M L
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