Nineteen fifty-four might as well be a different planet, as seen from 2021. When this car came off the production line, England was still firmly in black and white: Winston Churchill was in Downing Street, Frankie Laine was topping the hit parade and the term “British Empire” was still halfway relevant. But it’s a testament to Donald Healey’s skill that his little creation here seems just as exciting now as it did then. Which is more than can be said about Frankie Laine.
I lucked out big time when I saw this Austin-Healey pull up near the park where I was with my kid. It seemed like the car was going to stick around for a while. The guy who drove it met with a couple, and it looked like a sale was taking place. Hence, by hanging around a bit, I was able to ascertain the model year and able to photograph this beauty from several angles – and eventually with the top down, too. Jackpot!
Actually, “Jackpot” is probably the term that this car inspired to its creators, too. The Donald Healey Motor Company, created right after the Second World War, was the source of a bewildering amount of great sports cars. Some were made under Healey’s own name, but the bulk of models were hyphenated. In this category, Austin took centre stage with Healey in devising two ranges of British sports cars that made all concerned very wealthy indeed: Austin-Healey made boatloads of the diminutive Sprites throughout the ‘60s, but this legendary double-barreled marque started off making the more exclusive “Big Healeys” in the early ‘50s.
Donald Healey had an undeniable talent in finding ways to mix and match various mundane car parts and fashion them into an exciting sports chassis. This sometimes meant working with the Nash parts bin or using Riley (or even Alvis) 4-cyl. engines, but those experiments met with limited success. Healey finally honed in on the one British engine, and the one British carmaker, that had the gumption to take things to the next level.
At the Earl’s Court Motor Show, in October 1952, Healey exhibited the Hundred roadster. It had Austin running gear, but otherwise was completely unrelated to the Longbridge giant. Leonard Lord, Chairman of Austin since 1946, was very impressed. He had been trying to get Austin to make something a bit like this, basically trying to conquer foreign markets, since he took the helm. Hence the Austin A90 Atlantic and the A40 America, which unfortunately were both major sales duds.
But it wasn’t going to be a total loss. Healey found the A90’s massive 2660cc 4-cyl. engine was, despite its modest 90hp output, very interesting for at least three reasons. One was that, if it was put into a small and light enough car, the result could make for a decent enough performer. The other was that this oversized engine was pretty bulletproof – an important consideration, given the reputation of certain British manufacturers and Healey’s endurance racing ambitions.
The third reason for employing the big Austin 4-cyl. was roping in Leonard Lord. Healey knew that Austin was taking a bath with the Atlantic on the American market. The reason was that Austin foolishly tried to manufacture a pseudo American car size-wise, but used a big 4-cyl. to power it. Despite Austin’s aggressive promotion of the car in the States, only 350 units were sold there from 1949 to 1952. Americans did not need an American-sized car made by an English company. What they were prepared to consider was a British sports (or sports-luxury) car – the sort of thing Donald Healey could design in his sleep.
The Hundred’s technical aspects were not revolutionary. A sturdy box-section chassis with a short wheelbase and an X-frame, a coil-sprung double-wishbone independent front suspension, a live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs and a Panhard rod in the back, all tempered by reasonably-sized hydraulic drum brakes. Chassis production was subcontracted to John Thompson in Wolverhampton; the all-metal roadster body would be made in West Bromwich by Jensen, who were already involved in both the Austin A40 America and some of Healey’s prior endeavours. Chassis and body met mechanicals at the Austin factory in Longbridge. Only a handful of prototype cars were ever made by Healey in Warwick, including a dozen LHD demonstrators sent across the Atlantic in early 1953, before the complex manufacturing process detailed above was up and running.
Taken together with the torque-rich A90 engine and mated to the standard-issue 3-speed + overdrive, the total was worth much more than the sum of its parts, thanks to Healey’s knack for getting the most out of every component and creating a cohesive ensemble. The final touch, and not the least, was the styling, credited to Gerry Croker (1922-2020), who also designed the Frogeye Sprite. With its sweetly flowing fender line and supremely elegant grille, the Healey Hundred was clearly going to appeal to anyone with eyesight – i.e. a surprisingly large proportion of the motoring masses.
All it needed was an appropriate price (US$ 3000 when launched in 1953) and it soon became a true success story. So much so that all partied involved – BMC, Healey and Jensen – kept the party going, with substantial detail changes (such as the engine) but essentially the same concept, for 15 years. Healey took a heavily modified “basically standard” Hundred to the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1954 and managed to push it perilously close to 200mph. But the real glory lay in the street-legal 100 M (110hp) and 100 S (132hp) versions, which looked like a production car, yet raced alongside Maseratis, Gordinis and Jaguars at Le Mans or Sebring.
The standard production car could pull off 100mph – the all-important “ton” – and go from 0 to 60mph in under 11 seconds, both which, though far from outstanding by the early ‘50s, was plenty for anything named Austin. Just under 15,000 of the 4-cyl. Austin-Healey 100s were made from 1953 to 1956 – an unqualified success.
The Big Healey then switched to a 2639cc 6-cyl. and got a new grille in the process. Production soon moved to the MG plant in Abingdon, before the engine grew to 2.9 litres in 1959. The car was rechristened Austin-Healey 3000 and gradually became ever more powerful – going up to 148hp by 1964, still popular thanks to lower prices right up to the end, in December 1967.
The later 6-cyl. Healeys are more powerful and offer additional creature comforts. For my money though, nothing beats the 4-cyl. cars, with that handsome fan-shaped grille. But all Austin-Healeys stand alongside the Jaguar XKs, the MGs A & B and Triumph TRs as the epitome of the post-war British roadster, serving Blighty’s insatiable need for other countries’ money by providing fun, style and value. For such was the order of the day, and such was service at Her Majesty’s pleasure.