Designing, Building, and Driving the Big Healeys

Interviews with John Gardner on the designs for the Healey 100, Geoffrey Shepherd on getting the order for the big Healeys and David Unitt on driving a big Healey.

John Gardner had various jobs at the Cape Works including working in the drawing office and for Healey Marine, Geoffrey Shepherd was a mechanical assembler at the Cape Works and David Unitt ran Wedgnock garage near Healey works and was the owner of an Austin Healey 100M.


John Gardner: I applied and went into the Drawing Office.  I was in there about eighteen months.  There was Gerry and Barry Bilbie. Gerry had got a great big piece of wall where, eventually, after a few weeks was put a big sheet of paper, for the whole length of the bar to make the layout completely and on there was put the layout for the Healey 100 which was taken from a cigarette packet, that Gerry had drawn for himself when he was at Technical College. And that is where that design came from.

Interviewer: You went to the motor show?

Geoffrey Shepherd: The firm went to the motor show with this American, this sports car, this American racing blue it was, with cream or ivory.  And they came back and said ‘oh, we got the biggest order’ and there was the car, and it was being driven about, it had wire wheels which was, again, unusual, again, because the Silverstone had wire wheels and then it went into pressed wheels, if I remember right and then it come round and the chaps were saying ‘oh, we are alright now’, we’d all got the trembles on a bit, you know…

Interviewer: the order?

Geoffrey Shepherd: I think the order for the ones to go to Pininfarina had finished, or was finishing, I don’t know.  We wasn’t making Silverstones then.  We were building these cars to go to Pininfarina, Italy, for the Yank, Nash Engines and I think that was coming to… I can’t remember.  And then, suddenly the lads come and they said ‘oh, we got’, Geoff somebody had come back from the motor show, and they said ‘oh, we got one of the biggest orders and Healey has gone to see Austin’ and they said we could have no engines, unless they made the cars. And then it become Austin-Healey…

John Gardner: At one point, while I was there, we were doing the modifications for the Healey 100, putting Le Mans conversions on, and then later converting the 100-6 which we put on a high compression head, high advanced distributor, high pressure oil pump, hard bearing shelves, heavier clutch, overdrive, high ratio back axle, and high pressure shock absorbers and sometimes we would convert them to disc brakes.  The engine alone, we used to get about ten and a half hours to do.  You had got to go some to do that.  If anybody’s engine didn’t fire up first time, there was a huge shout went up. [Laughs]

David Unitt: If they were American they called them ‘muscle’ cars but we just call them Big Healeys here. It’s sort of a really exciting thing to drive and you have to think carefully when driving it, I always think, because if you get in your modern car you just change gear and up and down the box and things like that, with a Healey you change gear carefully and wait a minute and you don’t sort of rush it, but it is a fantastic experience.

Interviewer: What’s it like on hills?

David Unitt: It’s a very powerful car on hills because you’ve got a lot of low down power so hills and things are absolutely no problem at all, you can storm up hills, past anything. So, it will keep up with modern traffic, I mean, obviously drivers, white van men, can probably overtake you on the motorway, but it is a really good strong performance car, you feel you can drop down in top gear and still pull away and get up anything.

Interviewer: I imagine it’s the sort of car that attracts a lot of comments?

David Unitt: Yes, it does. I’m quite elderly and even though I’ve had it thirty years I was still quite old then, but once driving out from a rally at Coombe Abbey, it was only a child of about six, but he did say, ‘oh look mum, there’s James Bond’. [Laughs] But I think he was more referring to the car.

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