The Big Healeys…the name of a book (Moss No. 213-000) and a phrase spoken with reverence by all who love the cars that evolved from Donald Healey’s genius. They were big, in value performance and in the impact they had on the sports car marketplace between 1953 and 1967. The enthusiasm that follows them today is also big, with clubs for Healey owners in most countries of the world, and big gatherings of Healey owners happening regularly (a recent gathering at Whistler, just outside Vancouver, BC, drew close to 300 cars from all over the Western US and Canada).
The Austin-Healeys which are included in the ‘big Healey” group are the4-cylinder BNI and BN2 models, the 6-cylinder BN4, BN6, BN? and BT7 roadsters and the convertibles, the BJ7 and BJ8. All were 100 mph sports cars, all achieved noteworthy successes on the racetracks of the world, several set remarkable speed records. The convertibles added creature comforts which, aided by the cars’ power and overdrive transmissions, made them true high speed touring cars in the ‘grand manner’.
In this issue of Moss Motoring, we have asked three big Healey fans to talk about the three models of big Healey which seem to mark the three stages in the development of this classic British Sports car. Their views will give you their individual perspectives on the cars and, we hope, enable you to share the pleasure they derive from their Austin- Healeys.
Each of our three contributors has received a $50 Gift Certificate for his contribution. We are planning future articles on MG T-Series, MGAs, MGBs, Sprites, Midgets, Jaguar XKs etc. If you would care to submit an article for consideration for inclusion in such a feature, please send it to Moss Motors, PO Box MG, Goleta. CA 93116, Attn. Editorial Dept. Use the following articles as a guide for length and style, and note that they are for this series.
AH 100 BN2, by Reid Trummel
(Reid has owned five big Healeys since he first fell for a ten year old 3000 1971. For the last two years, Reid has edited Healey Highlights, the national publication of the Austin Healey Club (PO Box 6197, San Jose. CA95150). His gorgeous 100 BN2 recently won first in its class in the Concours at the 11th Annual West Coast Healey Meet, held in Whistler, BC.)
I agree with Donald Healey: the original “Big Healey”, the Austin-Healey 100, is the best example of the marque. Under Mr. Healey’s direction. Gerry Coker designed a car with truly timeless good looks. The ‘Hundred’ blends an economy of line with a strength of character which has seldom been matched. From its vertical-slat grill to its sloping boot lid, the Healey Hundred’s profile looks like the trace of wind flow over the wing of a jet fighter.. And that windscreen…it folds down, you know. No other production car of the era can match the Hundred’s ‘wind-in-the- hair, bugs-in-the-teeth’ credentials.
Between March 1953 and August 1956, a total of 14,612 examples were produced. The first 10,688 of these had a three-speed transmission and arc known as ‘series BNI’. In August 1955 a four-speed was introduced, and the final 3,924 units with four-speed are known as ‘series BN2’. My personal example is one of the later cars, a four-speed built February 1, 1956.
Sitting in the car you’ll encounter a skinny, large diameter steering wheel which frames a set of Smiths gauges including a 120 mph speedometer, a tachometer with ‘red line’ marked at 4800 rpm, a fuel gauge, and a ‘safety gauge’ which displays both water temperature and oil pressure. A black knob the size of a golf ball crowns the end of a rather long gear shift lever, and although the throw is rather long by today’s standards, gear changes are positive if a bit slow. The pedals are neatly grouped in the footwell; close enough for ‘heel and toe’ driving, yet spaced enough so that even my size 11 Feragamo loafers don’t get two for the price of one.
Turn on the ignition and the reassuring clicking of the Lucas electric fuel pump lets you know that all systems are ‘go’. Like all proper British sports cars, the Hundred has a starter button, and depressing it brings a big (2660 cc), torquey (144 lb ft at 2000 rpm), four-cylinder, cast iron, pushrod, overhead valve power plant to life. Breathing petrol and oxygen through twin 1 1/2″ S. U. carburettors, it produces a maximum of 90 bhp at4000 rpm. Top speed is over ‘the ton’ (100 mph), thus the name ‘Hundred’.
If you really try you’ll reach 60 mph in just over 10 seconds, and you can put a quarter mile behind you in 17 and a half. Coupled to the transmission is a Laycock de Normanville overdrive which operates on third and top gears, giving a total of six forward ratios. This combination of six speeds and a very torquey engine gives you outstanding flexibility whether you’re accelerating uphill in fourth gear with overdrive engaged, or hanging the tail out in a sweeping flat-out-in-third-gear curve. The Hundred cruises down the highway effortlessly but purposefully at 70-80 mph, but if you’ re inclined the same way I am, you’ll much prefer the by-ways to the highways.
Handling is fairly neutral, and with the Hundred’s light weight (just over 2100 pounds) and ample power, it is an outstanding performer. I run skinny bias-ply tires (as original), and so the driver is definitely in charge–no modern conveniences such as radial-ply tires to do the work for you.
The brakes are drum type all around (11″ x 1 3/4″ ), and the suspension is by coil springs, wishbones, anti-roll bar and lever shock absorbers at the front with a live axle, half elliptic leaf springs, Panhard rod, and another pair of lever shocks at the rear.
Shortcomings are few, but there are a couple which stand out. Unless you add an electric radiator fan or some such non-original aid to cooling, your Hundred will not happily tolerate hot, summer traffic jams. Water temperature can literally go off the scale in short order. It’s not a commuter. And weather protection leaves something to be desired. If you’d like to know what it’s like to drive one in a rainstorm, just go take a cool shower with your clothes on. It’s not your best choice for foul weather transportation.
Its shortcomings hardly seem worth mentioning, though. The Austin-Healey Hundred was the ‘purest’ variation of a noble marque. It exhibits a unity of design and purpose which became diluted in later models. The Hundred was never subjected to ‘design by committee’ which added ‘occasional seats’, gobs of chrome and other so-called luxury features to later models, and which have nothing to do with ‘practising the art of fast motoring.’
I’m quite sure that there will never be another Healey Hundred, but then it really doesn’t matter because I’m never going to sell the one I’ve got.
AH100-8 BH6, by Walt Glendenning (Walt is a long time Healey fan, runs a Healey restoration business named, appropriately enough, Absolutely British. Though he loves all Healeys, Walt’s favorite is the 100-6 and he rates the one in this picture a ‘keeper’.)
The enormously popular Austin-Healey 100 went out of production in 1956, and 1957 saw the introduction of the first mighty six-cylinder Healey.
Dubbed the 100-6, its performance was sluggish compared to the quick and nimble 100. Although it had two more cylinders, capacity was actualty 21 cc LESS! Adding to its woes, a poorly designed cylinder head with cast-in twoport manifold fed by two tiny 1-3/4″ H-4 SU carburettors was of little help in pushing its extra 260 lbs down the road (although it’s still capable of speeds in excess of one hundred mph!)
Performance was vastly improved in 1958 with a redesigned six-port, separate manifold head by Harry Weslake, and twin 1-V HD-6 SU carbs. However, it was still no match for the lour-banger 100.
Aimed at the ‘family’ market, the first 100-6 was offered in an occasional four seater’ model only. It had two tiny jump seats with practically no leg room. As one test report put it, they were ‘fit for small children and puppy dogs!’
To make room for the jump seats, the battery and spare tire were moved into the trunk. With the side curtains stored there also, that left precious little room for luggage, although an amazing number of small items could be crammed into the nooks and crannies surrounding the fuel tank.
Acceding to consumer demand, a sportier two-seater version was offered in 1958. As in the 100, the spare tire was stored on a shelf behind the seats, with two 6 volt batteries, in series, in a compartment beneath. The side curtains stowed neatly on top of the spare greatly increased the usable storage capacity of the trunk.
Optional overdrive, wire wheels, and adjustable steering wheel were very popular. A Healey with disc wheels, non-overdrive transmission, fixed steering wheel is seldom seen.
The stark ‘no frills’ cockpit of the 100 was only slightly improved. The fascia was fabric covered, and a padded dash top added. Heater and fresh air controls were conveniently center mounted on the fascia and a bit of chrome trim further enhanced its appearance The manual windscreen washer pump is more convenient to the passenger, and the choke remained out of sight under and behind the fascia. Many a driver has driven for miles at full choke before remembering to ‘feel’ for the knob to determine its status!
Larger door pockets can accommodate a variety of items readily ‘at hand’; towels, potato chips, maps, etc. A 12oz can of soda (or beer, depending on your preference) will neatly wedge in the forward confines of the pocket without danger of spilling. The soft-top, originally of dubious weatherproofing quality, can be erected by one person, although the required trips around the car would be good training for the Boston Marathon. Having someone to assist is a great help, if nothing more than to have someone to yell and scream at and take your frustrations out on.
Leg room is outstanding. In fact, the brake and clutch pedals are mounted so far forward that after-market 2″ pedal extensions became available for ‘short people’!
The side-shift gearbox, with its long gear-change lever is not conducive to speed shifting. Horrible grinding noises in first and reverse are invariably the end result of the driver failing to come to a complete stop before engaging the non-synchro first gear.
The exceptionally low profile of Hie car, resulting in a mere 4-5/8″ ground clearance further compounded by an under-slung exhaust created unique problems for the Healey driver. A head-on assault on an inclined driveway is accompanied by ear shattering noises from the tail pipe and rear license plate. Driving with reckless abandon over shopping center speed bumps often results in a dramatic increase in exhaust noise; followed by a trip to the local muffler shop!
The six-cylinder Roadster Healeys are…well…just fun to drive. Not as quick as the 100 or later convertible models, throttle response is still satisfying. They will cruise effortlessly at speeds well beyond the double-nickel speed limit. Mountain roads, switchbacks and Mack trucks are handled with ease.
Envious looks, thumbs-up signals, and little boys’ noses flattened against windows do wonders for the ego, and attest to the superb lines created by Donald Healey and Gerry Coker, little changed throughout the entire production of the ‘big’ Healeys.
AH 3000 MkIII BJ8, by Dudley Halms (Dudley has owned five Austin-Healeys, and currently has a Bugeye Sprite and the 3000 MkIII shown above with his wile, Bonnie. He lives in Juneau, Alaska, and the 3000 is his 1st choice for long distance touring.)
The Austin-Healey 3000 MkIII was the last in the series of ‘Big Healeys’. To the enthusiast it is known as the ‘BJ8’, which is the production code for the series. About 17,000 MkIII’s were built, between early 1964 and the end of 1967–making it the most popular Austin-Healey built. The MkIII is quite different from the early Austin-Healeys. The differences primarily reflected the changing taste of the sports car buyer, especially in North America where the majority of the cars were sold.
The excitement in the fifties of driving a British sports car that had a hard ride, minimal weather protection, side curtains instead of windows, and few creature comforts was giving way in the sixties to a more civilized approach. The German and Italian cars were offering roll up windows, removeable hardtops, radios, and good roadholding with out an unduly rough ride, plus more power. The cars weren’t as attractive as the early fifties British roadsters, but they were much more practical.
Austin-Healey responded to the market with power increases several times during their production. The MkIII had a three liter, six cylinder engine with a pair of two-inch SU carburettors. The transmission had four speeds plus a smooth electric overdrive in third and fourth. Third over drive nearly duplicated fourth normal, so the car effectively had five ratios (not six), with fourth overdrive being a true overdrive ratio. The MkIII continued the roll-up windows, side vent windows and convertible top that were introduced with MkIII models. (A convertible top is permanently attached and merely pulled up. A roadster top is erected over a removable frame and attached to the car.) The MkIII also offered increased soundproofing and an attractive wood veneer dash, with a console running down from the dash to between the seats over the transmission tunnel After production of about 1.300 MkII’s, a ‘Serics2′ MkIII was introduced. This model had increased ground clearance and door locks. Subsequent years saw minor changes, such as large separate turn signal lights.
How is the car to drive and to live with on a dairy basis some twenty years later? In a word–great!! It retains plenty of that British sports car feel and fun, while providing comfort and weather protection adequate to withstand even the coldest winters. And it’s still a very attractive car. Properly maintained, it is a very dependable car. Most components were engineered to be both simple and strong.
Last summer, I drove my MkIII over 3,000 miles from Port Rupert, British Columbia to California. I drove over 600 miles one day, and I never got tired. Fortunately, I was able to drive the entire distance with the top down. The car is smooth, relatively quiet and comfortable. It will cruise effortlessly at 2,500 rpm (which is about 55 mph) all day. The only problem is engine heat. The occupants sit right behind the big six cylinder engine, and it’s impossible to escape the heat.
While luggage space is not large by any standards, it is certainly adequate for two people for a two week trip–provided that they pack things in a series of small, soft sided bags. MkIII Healeys have two small’ buckets’ in back that are supposed to be seats. They’re only useful if the top is down and then only for very short distances, since you sit about two feet above the top of the windshield.
Fortunately, the rear seat back folds down to form a luggage shelf, which is the true purpose of the space.
The 3000 MkIII is the most powerful, most comfortable, and most useful model of Austin-Healey ever built More MkIII’s are available today than any other model. (Unfortunately, they also command some of the highest prices.) The MkIII is not the sportiest, the best handling, or the best looking Austin-Healey. Your choice will depend on your views of what a good British sports car should be. But if you choose a Healey–any Healey–you won’t be disappointed!