SPORTS CARS TESTS

AUSTIN-HEALEYS, 1953 -1967

Marvelous cars that changed the sports car world

ONE COULD WRITE reams about the history, charm and charisma of the Austin-Healey cars and their impact on the motoring enthusiast world. The Big Healeys (to distinguish them from the Sprite) were produced for some 15 years and carved out a niche for themselves as the best selling medium-size sports cars of their day. The Healey was something of a natural progression for the American sports car driver of the Fifties, who had started with an MG TC or TD and wanted to move up to a more powerful car.. I,remember this was the case with one of my brothers who owned a bright red 1952 MG TD, which he rather generously shared with me and in which I received my first traffic citation. Eventually the red TD gave way to a jet black Austin-Healey 100-4, which seemed to our youthful eyes ever so much more rakish and befitting our dashing self images. Unfortunately, we weren't wise enough to keep both cars and the Healey later went away in favor of something else. A DKW, I think.

The point is, the Austin-Healey was an important factor in the development of the sports car movement in America as well as in other parts of the world, and it's a car that still has a surprising number of devotees eight years after its demise. R&T Contributing Editor Cyril Posthumus wrote about the Big Healeys in April 1972. "Incredibly rough and solid, yet handsome and amazingly cheap. In short, it was a lovable bastard." Posthumus was referring to the fact that the original Healeys had humble origins, using the Austin A90 4-cylinder engine mated to a 4-speed gearbox that had such a low 1st gear it was blocked off in the earliest cars.

The Austin-Healey 100 made its debut at the London Auutomobile Show in 1952 and was an immediate hit. Donald Healey and his son, Geoffrey, designed the car to be a lightweight, well shaped automobile, using as many stock Austin components as possible to keep the cost down. The original A90 Austin engine was a 2660-cc overhead-valve affair which produced 90bhp at 4000 rpm. Coupled with the A90 4-speed gearbox which had been slightly modified so that it could be floor-mounted rather than column shift, the combination gave the Healey an excellent power-to-weight relationship. The final drive ratio was 4.10: I which further aided the acceleration but did little for high-speed cruising, Thus, a Laycock de Normanville overdrive unit was fitted.

The chassis was a relatively simple one with two main 3-in. square box-section frame rails with crossmembers that carried steel floor pressings. The front suspension consisted of coil springs and A-arms with lever-type shock absorbers. The rear suspension consisted of a live axle suspe'nded and located by leaf springs and lever shocks.

The 100-4 went into production at Longbridge in May 1953 and continued little changed until June 1955. In August of that year, improvements were made to the brakes and front springs, and the 4-speed BMC C-type gearbox was installed. Almost 15,000 100-45 were built between the startup and November 1956, including the relatively rare 100M (for Le Mans) and very rare IOOS (for Sebring) competition models,

The Sixes

 IN THE late summer of 1956, the Austin-Healey 100-6 was born with the BMC C-series 2639-cc engine. This new powerplant produced 102 bhp at 4600 rpm, but this improvement in horsepower was pretty well eaten up by the increased weight of the new Healey. The cockpit had been enlarged at th.e expense of the trunk and two very small seats had been placed behind the front seats. There were minor revisions to the body, the wheelbase was slightly longer and the original fold-down windshield was replaced with a fixed one. The gearbox remained unchanged from the late 100-4s.

In 1957, modifications were made to the 6-cylinder engine in the form of a new 6-port head, aluminum alloy intake manifold, modified distributor and twin 1.75-in. SU HD6 carburetors. These changes brought the compression ratio up to 8.5: I and the horsepower rose to 117 at 5000 rpm, giving the 100-6 a slightly quicker elapsed time for the quarter-mile run (18.1 vs 18.8 sec) and improved the top speed in overdrive from 103 to III mph.

While the bulk of 100-6 Healeys were of the new 4-seat configuration, the demand for a 2-seater was so strong that in June 1958 the factory began turning out 100-6s with only two seats. Again, almost 15,000 100-6 cars were produced, with more than 10,000 of them being 4-seaters. Production of the 100-6 ended in March 1959 and three months later the first of the 3000s emerged from the factory, which had by now been moved' to Abingdon.

The Healey 3000

 MORE THAN 42,000 Austin-Healey 3000s were built during the period from June 1959 to December 1967 when the famed marque came to an end. The 6-cylinder C-series engine was bored and stroked to 2912 cc, compression was raised to 9.0: 1 and power went up to 124 bhp at 4600 rpm. The 3000 also featured a larger-diameter clutch, stronger cluster gears and the addition of Girling disc brakes. In appearance, the early. 3000 was little changed from the 100-6, except for the flash on the grille and the 3000 insignia.

The 3000 Mark II was introduced in May 1961 and had three SU carb¥retors, a new camshaft and stronger valve springs, bringing the bhp figure up to 132 at 4750 rpm. The new triplecarb arrangement provided more power, mostly in the top end, and slightly better fuel economy when properly tuned, and those last three words are important. Difficulties in maintaining the proper state of tune were so widespread that the 3-carburetor setup lasted less than a year, and in March 1962 a return was made to twin carburetors.

Several changes were made to the body. These included a fully convertible top (as opposed to a roadster with removable top), a wrap-around windshield. wind-up side windows in place of curtains and other refinements that moved the Healey away from its traditional sporty image and toward a more comfortabl~ touring car position. Performance did not deteriorate with the loss of the third carburetor and, in fact, the convertible became the fastest production Healey ever with a top speed of 117mph and a quarter-mile time of 17.1 sec.                                                                                                                   .

Over the next five years, until the end of production in December 1967, the Big Healeys were marked by modifications designed to make them well fitted, pleasant GT cars. The horsepower climbed to 150 at 5250 rpm, servo assist was added to the.brake system and the interior was groomed with a wood veneer facia and lockable glove box, The Austin-Healey was still marked by an abun-dance of smooth power and torque. along with a heavy feel to the handling that inspired confidence in the car's durability. The styling was timeless, one of the cleanest and best-looking sports cars ever. But the U.S. federal safety regulations were announced for January I, 1968 and the factory decided that too. many modifications would have to be made to meet them. After 15 years and more than 70,000 cars, Austin-Healey became a marque of the past.

Buying a Used Healey

THE PURPOSE of the R&T Used Car Classic series is to give the reader sufficient information to make a decision about purchasing the subject car. To many of us, buying a new sports or GT car may be financially difficult (if not impossible) or we may simply be caught up in a euphoria of nostalgia that tells us they just don't build them like they used to. Whatever the reason, great joy and exhilaration can result from owning a car such as the Austin-Healey, or the other marques we have covered in this series. It's also prudent to point out that equally great frustration and despair can arise if the buyer makes an unfortunate choice.

For this portion of the report, we solicited the advice of David Ramstad of Everett, Washington, a Healey owner and active member of the Austin-Healey Club, Pacific Centre. Dave

writes:

Thinking about adding an Austin-Healey to your stable? But hesitating because well meaning though ignorant friends have done their best to divert you from the heartbreak of cranky old English sports cars? Did they hit you with dire warnings about those devilishly complicated SU carburetors or could it have been hideous word pictures of wire wheels flying off wornsplines at speed? While some British sports cars may have earned such reputations (1 love them all, regardless), 1 don't mind shouting that the Austin-Healey is not among them! Now, let's get into the pleasant task of making a wise purchase, All the standard guidelines for choosing any used car apply and will not be dealt with at length here. Our main concern is things peculiar to the Austin-Healey.

Mechanical

 THE POWERPLANT, be it A90 4:cylinder or C-series 6, is a rugged, low-stressed, heavy cast-iron unit producing a considerable amount of torque at low speeds. These engines are noted for their reliability and long lives, quite lacking in major trauma. Unlike the highly tuned engines found in Alfas, Porsches, etc., the Healey's engine almost never breaks, but simply increases its clearances with a corresponding increase in oil consumption over a comparatively long period of time,

The engine is very easy to live with because of its ample power and infrequent mechanical needs and, happily, pollution control devices are absent because all Healeys were produced prior to 1968.

The prospective buyer should perform a compression check and if possible a full leak down test to see if copious amounts of oil are coming from the lower rear of the engine. If so, this indicates either a failure in the rear plate gasket or a crack in the rear main bearing area, among other less likely possibilities. If you are not planning to tear down the engine in your restoration process, you should avoid a car with this problem. The average, reasonably well cared for engine usually requires little more than a careful valve grind, piston ring replacement and complete tune-up to put it back in the pink. With good lubrication practices, the lower ends of these engines seem to last forever.

The BMC C-type 4-speed gearbox fitted to all Big Healeys from August 1955 on can be a problem if found in a car once owned by an insensitive (read brutal) gear changer. First and 2nd gears normally produce a distinct but not excessive whine, but the mauled gearbox will make obviously expensive noises (most often in 1st and reverse) and will usually exhibit slow or nonexistent synchromesh action, Because of the Healey's ample torque, synchromesh was never felt to be necessary in bottom gear.

The Laycock de Normanville overdrive unit seldom suffers failure in its internals, Poor or no overdrive function is often cured by careful troubleshooting of the unit's electrical control system or by adjustments to the hydraulics. If questions remain after a test drive, consult local Healey enthusiasts, British car repair shops or the nearest Leyland dealer, in that order.

The Big Healey's rear axle is very strong and trouble free, seldom needing more than a seal replacement to cure a leak. This axle is often called upon to handle the torque of an American V-8 and apparently suffices.

Body and Chassis

ENEMY NUMBER one to the A-H semi-unit, aluminum and steel construction is rust. The buyer should carefully examine the lower 12 in. all around the car to determine the extent of deterioration. Lower fender to chassis joints (front and rear), rear fender lower cavity, lower door area and sills and lower flange of the trunk lid are the most common areas for rust. Cars in the north central and eastern U.S. and eastern Canada, where salt is used on winter roads, have usually suffered the most. Many Healeys show some minor, non-structural rust which can be easily repaired, but those cars with major rust in the inner body sills, outrigger beams and floor sections are to be avoided.                          .

I should stress the Big Healey can be kept free of rust with some precautions. The car has few totally closed areas and if water drains in doors, sills and convertible top channels (1963-1967 cars) are kept open, and if accumulations of road dirt and salt are frequently flushed out of wheel wells and lower body areas, the Healey can be preserved intact for many years. Speaking of rust problems, a fast-moving item in the Healey world is the replacement fuel tank. The tank is in the trunk cavity and will occasionally have deteriorated to the point of seepage. Fortunately, replacements are available for approximately $110.

The substantial box-section chassis appears to be indestructible. This is not an illusion-terribly bent Healeys have been reconstructed because of the strength of the frame. However, carefully examine the forward and aft crossmembers. Lack of care when jacking up the car at these points (Healeys are never raised by their bumpers!) has led to serious bending or holes punched through the welded seam by a small but lethal jack pad. Using jacks with wide flat pads or a block of wood will prevent damage of this sort.

Healey front suspension and steering may exhibit,considerable looseness. The cure here is to overhaul and re-bush the lower Acarm pivot points and swivel pins. replace the tie rod ends and adjust or overhaul the steering box. You should recognize that the Healey's cam-and-peg steering lacks the taut feel of rack and pinion, and Healeys always display a certain amount of play in the steering wheel.

Rear leaf springs occasionally turn up with broken leaves, in which case the car's attitude will take on a marked list. The four Armstrong lever-type shock absorbers will need to be replaced if leaking badly. Americans haven't seen a car in years that requires refilling the shocks; often a neglected Healey may simply be in need of shock fluid to restore its proper ride and handling. The price of replacement lever shocks has risen to the point where the cost of converting to tube-type shocks is justified. This requires the addition of mounting brackets to the chassis, and these are available along with the proper shocks from major Koni suppliers.

The Achilles heel of most wire wheel-equipped sports cars is the splined hub on which the rear wheels are mounted and, of course, the wire wheels themselves. If you test drive a car that exhibits a momentary lag followed by a clunk from the rear when you engage the clutch, you face a large cash outlay to replace or re-machine the splined rear hubs. There has been a love-hate relationship with wire wheels forever and their periodic maintenance is costly. This is not helped by the fact that the noble profession of wheelwright is disappearing, and many owners do convert to stamped steel discs or cast alloy wheels. Few owners of traditional British sports cars can tolerate the accompanying character alteration, however. Replacement Dunlop wire wheels have increased drastically in price and you should plan on paying $70-$80 each for new wire wheels-possibly half that for rebuilding your existing wheels. Talk around before committing your wobbly rims to the local wheel wizard because quality varies considerably.

Parts and Prices

WHAT'S THE story concerning parts? Initially, as established dealer spares inventories shifted away from the Healey when it was discontinued, the situation looked quite bleak. Fortunately, circumstances began to turn around just a few years ago and today there is no need to fear any serious shortage of general spare parts. With the Big Healey's emergence as a collectible car there has been a rise in small, specialized businesses in North America and Great Britain dealing in used, new-old stock or newly manufactured copies of obsolete parts. Simply combing the "Market Place" section of Road & Track will yield several firms offe~ing extensive lists of spares. You must remember though, that Healeys are not Beetles or Impalas so you may have to do a certain amount of legwork. Considering the car has been out of production for eight years and compared to other sporting cars of recent decades, parts are surprisingly reasonable and not terribly expensive.

How much is that solid, well maintained old Healey going to cost? While wild price fluctuations aren't uncommon in a car of this sort, some approximations can be made. There are very few original or acceptably restored 4-cylinder 100s (1953-1956) 'below $2000. 1 believe the same can be said for the 100-6 series (1957-1959) and the early 3000, unofficially known as the Mark I (1960-1961). The 3000 Mark 11, the triple-carburetor equipped 1962 roadster and rollup window 1963 convertible, is most often found in the $2000-3000 range. And the final Big Healey, the .3000 Mark III (late 1964-1967), loaded with 150-bhp engine, vacuum-boosted disc brakes, and walnut facia is a bargain between $3000-4000, with figures of $4500-5000 not unusual. Extremes range from badly rusted machines going for a few hundred bucks in eastern Canada to pristine, low-mileage Mark Ills listed at more than $6000 here in the Seattle area.

Conclusion 

UNDAUNTED BY those who consider seekers of old British sports cars completely mad and equipped with the basic data necessary to distinguish a good prospect from a dog, the search for that fine old Austin-Healey can begin. At this point, a mighty plug for Healey clubs is in order. Far from being simply mutual admiration societies, these groups of true believers diligently pursue sources of spare parts, offer discounts to their members on various Healey-related merchandise and publish priceless technical and historical information. And that only accounts for half of their efforts. The number of club tours, regional meets and other happenings increases by the year.The Austin-Healey is one of the few vintage sports cars still economically available to the average enthusiast. If this big, fast and good-looking machine fits your requirements, you would do well to not hesitate much longer.. As the existing supply of cars shrinks, prices of the better examples are definitely on the rise, with no foreseeable end in sight. Good luck and happy Healeying!

Driving Impressions:

THREE AUSTIN-HEALEYS

ONE OF THE pleasures of authoring a Used Car Classic is the opportunity to drive a good example of the car being covered. In this case, I had the fun of driving three Austin-Healeys at Orange County International Raceway one afternoon, thanks to the efforts of Don Mollett, President of the Austin-Healey Association of Southern California. Don brought his 1960 3000, which he bought in 1971 for a mere $300.

It was in sad shape then, but Don has restored the car from the ground up. It is now a very good-looking car- and is in good mechanical condition with the exception of the synchromesh.

In addition, two other members of the club brought their cars: a 1956 100-4 owned by Don Rould of Buena Park, California and a 1967 3000 Mark III owned by Jim Whitehead of Fullerton, California. Rould is the second owner of his 100, purchasing it in 1959 and keeping it in excellent shape ever since.

Whitehead bought his 3000 in 1972 and

, repainted, and reupholstered the car, making it like new. All three owners were kind (and courageous) enough to allow me to drive their cars' and they all managed to hide their fears rather well.

r started out with Rould's black 1956 100 which brought back a flood of memories of my brother's Healey. The clutch is mechanical rather than hydraulic, requiring a deft touch. Once in motion, the gear change 'to 2nd will also produce a clunk if you're not careful, but this problem soon recedes as you drive along with the top down, the wind in your face (literally if you are my size and protrude above the windshield) and that great exhaust note ringing in your ears. The tailpipe exits the left side of the car, just behind the door and ahead of the rear wheel, so you can listen to the exhaust note at all times!

Whitehead bought his 3000 in 1972 and repainted, and reupholstered the car, making it like new. All three owners were kind (and courageous) enough to allow me to drive their cars' and they all managed to hide their fears rather well.

I started out with Rould's black 1956 100 which brought back a flood of memories of my brother's Healey. The clutch is mechanical rather than hydraulic, requiring a deft touch. Once in motion, the gear change to 2nd will also produce a clunk if you're not careful, but this problem soon recedes as you drive along with the top down, the wind in your face (literally if you are my size and protrude above the windshield) and that great exhaust note ringing in your ears. The tailpipe exits the left side of the car, just behind the door and ahead of the rear wheel, so you can listen to the exhaust note at all times! I had rememhered my youthful days at the wheel of the Healey as being ones of excitement at the relative power and performance of the 4-cylinder engine, 1 was happy to note my memory had not glamorized the effect and the power is really'there. The brakes are not as ef­ficient as we have come to expect with modem cars, but to hell with the brakes and press on regardless!

I rejoined the group and drove Mollett's 3000 next. The 6-cylinderengine has a more throaty rumble than the four and Mollett's car has that peculiar Healey exhaust whine. Trying to keep in mind the marginal synchros, 1 sped off down the course, enjoying the power of the six and especially the low-end torque that allows it to pull smoothly from about 2000 rpm up. The brakes felt somewhat better as they should, and the handling was absolutely classic in the sports car tradition, with slight understeer that changes to oversteer with heavy throttle application in a corner. The solid rein axle produces some jumping on uneven surfaces and the ride is firm in the manner of sports cars of that day. None of these comments should detract from the fact that the car handles quite well, bearing in mind the surface of the road, and the ride is certainly pleasant enough. Whitehead's 3000 Mark III is representative of the last year of the Big Healey. It has the comparatively luxurious features such as the rollup windows and walnut veneer facia of a modern sports or GT car and really does not seem dated much. There is plenty of power, but it seems to be slightly flatter than the earlier 3000, On the other hand, the servoassisted disc brakes make themselves evident immediately and give the driver the secure feeling that he can use the power and still avoid unpleasantries. Another nice feature of the later Healey is that you don't get the constant flow of warm air on your feet you get with the earlier models. All in all, the Mark III compares quite favorably with most of the present sports and GT cars still on the market in looks, comfort and performance.

Driving those Austin-Healeys brought back a lot of memories and helped to bring into focus what being a car enthusiast means, A small, open car with room for two persons, ample power and a feeling of freedom, These are cars for escaping everyday living and entering the fictional world of wine, women and song.