(first posted 3/20/2015) The Austin-Healey 3000, produced from 1952 to 1968, has gone down in history as one of the seminal British roadsters. It has a reputation and image as being a sports car for those who considered an MGA, MGB or Triumph TR roadster as too genteel, and insufficiently demonstrative of their abilities as a driver. It was a man’s car, and you had to be aware of that. It also had an absolute timeless elegance, and came about almost by accident.
In 1948, Austin, then an independent brand and company, introduced a 2+2 sports hardtop and convertible. Given the times and the economic state of Great Britain, it was aimed specifically at North America, in concept and perhaps crucially, in style. It was powered by the 2660 cc Austin four cylinder engine as also used in the Austin A70, and used a conventional RWD drive train set in a box frame chassis, also borrowed from the Austin A70 Hampshire saloon.
The weakest part of this car, known as the Austin A90 Atlantic, was the styling. Its Mum might have described it as attractive, but let’s be frank here, it wasn’t. It was expected to appeal to North American tastes, and was styled as if to mimic American trends, but actually looked as if it was trying to caricature them – instead of a bonnet emblem above the grille, there were two, over each front wing, for example. The Atlantic was not a success, and sold fewer than 8000 cars in four years.
But Austin had invested heavily in the engine and the Longbridge plant had a lot of equipment that was being under-utilised. One sharp eyed man spotted this, and developed a potential solution.
Donald Healey had founded and still ran a small sports car business in Warwick, south of Birmingham, using Riley, Alvis and, maybe surprisingly, Nash engines around one chassis design. The most numerous and perhaps the best known Healey was the Nash-Healey sports car, of which over 500 were built around a Nash Ambassador drive train of a Nash 3.85 L straight six and three speed gearbox.
In 1951, working at home whilst off duty to avoid any conflicts or issues with his agreement with Nash, Healey brought together the engine, gearbox, back axle and parts of the front suspension of the Austin Atlantic to create a car in the classic British roadster style, slightly larger but clearly in the same vein as the Triumph TR. Healey was responsible for the styling and links to the Nash-Healey are evident, although the body was actually built by Jensen.
The way Healey brought the components together, and the way he had been building cars previously were not dissimilar to the methods used by William Lyons at Jaguar before the war, and the result was a car that offered a lot of what Jaguar were now offering with the XK120 series. Officially, this was a private venture by Donald Healey, though some reports suggest he was provided with at least some encouragement by Leonard Lord, Chairman of Austin and later BMC. My hunch is that Healey had some pretty official clearance from Lord, if only to enable him to obtain a secure supply of the Austin components used in the car.
The car, identified as the Healey 100, was shown at the 1952 London Motor Show, which is when Lord officially saw it for the first time. The reception the car received was enough to stimulate Austin and Lord (above, with Donald Healey in the car) to formally come to an agreement (sign off on a prepared draft?) with Healey. Healey would continue to be responsible for the design; Austin would handle the production and marketing of the car, and pay Healey a royalty for each one sold, under the name Austin-Healey 100.
In the spring of 1953, the first cars, known as the BN1 series, were delivered from Longbridge, although the body was built, painted and trimmed by Jensen in West Bromwich, across the city of Birmingham. The car had the four cylinder 2660cc, OHV, 90bhp engine from the Austin Atlantic, as well as that car’s coil spring and wishbone front suspension and semi-elliptic leaf spring at the rear, with a Panhard rod to keep things in slightly better order. Slightly more unusual was the gearbox – nominally, it was a four speed transmission with synchromesh on the top three. However, the linkage was arranged such that first gear could not be accessed and an overdrive unit was fitted on the two highest gears, so the car had (effectively) a five speed, synchromesh gearbox.
The BN1, as posted on the Cohort by kiwibryce, was good for over 100mph and around 10 seconds for zero to 60mph. The wheelbase was 80 inches, so it was pretty compact, with the rear axle right up to the seats. This was a classic British roadster, strategically placed below the Jaguar XK120, above the old MG TF and the soon to arrive and much more modern MGA. Closest to it was the Triumph TR2, which also debuted at the 1952 Motor Show and went into production in 1953. Within a few years, the choice of British roadsters grew to include the MGA, Sunbeam Alpine, TR2 and the Healey 3000, as well as the Jaguar XK140. Quite a range!
In two years, to 1955, Longbridge built over 10,000 copies of the Austin-Healey 100; Lord’s backing of Healey over the Atlantic was paying off.
Healey (seen above at a BBC recording) was always keen to use motorsport to promote his cars and indeed to participate as well. Before the war, he had been an accomplished and successful rally driver before he joined Triumph as chief experimental engineer, and later as Technical Director, and indeed whilst he was working at Triumph. It is therefore no surprise that the first development of the Austin-Healey 100 was the 100S, with a revised cylinder head, disc brakes, alloy (rather than steel) panels, and no bumpers, windscreen or hood. This took the 100S, obviously intended as a track car, to around 120 mph. 50 were built, and most were exported from the UK.
In 1955, the car was refreshed as the BN2, with a new four speed gearbox, still with overdrive but now with some very gentle styling changes. Many of these were converted by the Healey factory to 100M specification, with a 110bhp version of the same four cylinder engine and some go faster details, such a leather bonnet strap. But after just one year, the car moved to the next level, as the Austin-Healey 100-Six.
The four cylinder engine from the Atlantic was replaced with a 2639cc version of the BMC (actually Morris designed) C series engine, with 102bhp, over 90hbp previously, although the performance was pretty much unchanged in standard tune. Something that did change, however, was the weight of the car – it went up by 270lb, mostly over the front wheels. The wheelbase was also increased by 2 inches, to give a very cramped 2+2 (or occasional four seater as BMC called it) layout at the expense of a reduction in boot space, as the spare wheel was relocated.
Production moved to BMC’s Abingdon factory, historically the home of MG, in 1957 and power was raised to 117 bhp to give a speed of 111 mph.
BMC seemed to move in a strange way at many times, with many products, and the Austin-Healey was no exception for in 1958, the car was available again as a classic two seat layout, although on the longer wheelbase. Now known as the BN6 series, the spare wheel went back to its old spot, the tonneau cover was re-profiled and the car was sold alongside the BN4 2+2, until 1959, when perhaps the definitive ‘Big Healey’ was born.
The Austin-Healey 3000 actually had a 2912cc version of the C series engine, with 124 bhp and 162lbft of torque. This was an engine that majored on torque, changing the nature of the car somewhat even if it looked practically identical and was little, if any, faster outright than before.
Front disc brakes now came as standard. It was again offered as a 2+2 seater and as a 2 seater, although 80% were sold as the 2+2. The feature car is a 1960 3000 Mk1, in 2 seat form, and very nicely kept it is too. Used, not abused or cocooned, and cared for properly. The colour choice on this car is a classic – attractive, somehow appropriate and pretty well unique to the Austin-Healey.
From 1961, the car had a remote gearchange as well, rather than the awkward looking arrangement in the feature car.
From this point onwards, the car’s development was very similar to that of the Jaguar XK120 to the XK140 and finally the XK150 during the 1950s. It moved, in two steps, to a much more comfort oriented car. The screen was larger, there were real side windows, not detachable sliding side screens and a much more substantial hood, rather than the very basic one previously supplied. All cars were now the 2+2 variant.
The 1964 Mk3 had an increase in power and the first new interior for 10 years. This itself showed the change in the car better than anything else – gone was the functional and slightly spartan interior in favour of something with wood veneer, leather trim and centre console storage. Power was up 148bhp, and so was the weight – now 2550lb, or around 450 lb more than the original 1953 car.
Production ran on to 1968, and in total over 70,000 cars were built. Its slot in the BMC range was nominally taken by the MGC, though the Triumph TR6 could make a claim for the spot as well, after the BLMC merger.
The 3000 is fondly remembered now, and usually referred to as the “Big Healey” to separate it from the much smaller and lower power Austin-Healey Sprite (the Frogeye or Bugeye). It was always seen as a fairly muscular car, not a fashion roadster – MG offered that much more closely. Perhaps the closest recent car to it was the 3.0 litre BMW Z3 or even something like the (absolutely British) TVR Griffith. A top condition 3000 can now command over £50,000 (say $70,000), and is undoubtedly still a car with a personality and charisma that says something about the driver, and his approach to classic motoring. A true classic car, in every way.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Big Healey made a significant impact in motorsport, with many circuit race victories and titles to its name in the 1950s and 1960s. More evocatively (to me at least) were the road rally successes in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
In the Big Healey and the Mini, BMC probably had the two most surprising and most surprisingly successful rally cars of the period. The rally cars had over 200bhp, even if they were pretty unwieldy in a tight corner and ground clearance was always an issue. The Big Healey is always a popular draw at a classic rally, 50 years later.
In 1960, Pat Moss, Sir Stirling Moss’s sister and wife of Swedish rally legend Erik Carlsson, won the gruelling Liege-Sofia-Liege (that’s Belgium to Bulgaria and back) in a Austin-Healey 3000 and in 1964 Rauno Aaltonen and Tony Ambrose (above, in one of the most atmospheric photos I’ve shown on CC) won the same rally again– four days and nights with no scheduled sleep breaks. At one stage, Aaltonen reportedly slept whilst Ambrose drove 77 miles in 52 minutes, over cobbles.
Rallying has certainly changed a lot, even if the Big Healey never really did.