Donald Healey: An Association With Austin

An Austin-Healey 100M in a New York park. Donald Healey in the passenger seat and actress Louise King [wife of racing driver Peter Collins] in the passenger's seat. c.1955-1956.
Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR4804/3/132

During his visits to the USA Healey had spotted a gap in the market for a lighter, smaller British sports car. He was aware that Austin’s A90 Atlantic engine was available in large quantities and that it could be improved, so he contacted Austin Chairman Leonard Lord, who said he could supply the engine with transmissions as well.

Working in secret

In early 1952 Geoff Healey and Barry Bilbie worked on the chassis design and Gerry Coker worked on body styling. It had to be done in secret at home to keep the news away from Nash Kelvinator and Riley. Tickfords built a mock-up body and Gerry Coker came up with a new hinged window design. The frame was built by John Thompson’s of Wolverhampton, and used an ice blue colour to ‘hide’ imperfections in the prototype – by happy coincidence it also emphasised the car’s low and fast appearance.

The car was being prepared for the Earls Court Motor Show in 1952 and took part in high speed tests on the Jabbeke Highway in Belgium (reaching 110 mph). Basil Cardew, the influential motoring correspondent for the Daily Express, drove the car in a road test and gave it a good review on the opening day of the show. Donald Healey was not happy with the design of the grill so arranged for the car’s front to be close up to a pillar, so that only three-quarter front views were available.

Attracting attention

Despite his worries the car was extremely popular and attracted the attention of car manufacturers, including Leonard Lord. He came to a verbal agreement with Healey for Austin to manufacture the car at its works with a licensing agreement giving royalties to the Healey Company. Lord was happy for the design to stay much the same (most drawings produced by the Donald Healey Motor Company were overstamped with Austin Motor Company). The car had been called the Healey 100 on the opening day of show with a badge designed by Gerry Coker. It was re-designed overnight and the car was renamed the Austin-Healey 100.

The aim was for the cars to be produced at Longbridge, with Jensen Brothers taking over the body-building. Development work on future Austin-Healeys would stay at Warwick, as would the preparation and running of all factory entered competition cars, as well as a UK sales concession. Cars would also be sold at a new Healey showroom in Holland Park, London. After pressure from Austin distributors, the Austin-Healey also went out through normal Austin outlets, and the Donald Healey Motor Company got an Austin franchise.

Promotion, and racing

Serious production began in May 1953, but before then 25 cars were hand made at Warwick and six cars were taken to the USA for promotional purposes. The car was first shown over there (but not raced) in March 1953 at Sebring; then at the Miami World’s Fair (winning several trophies); then at the New York Motor Show in April 1953. The car was also taken to the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) site near Nuneaton for high speed testing, and then two cars went to Bonneville Salt Flats in September 1953 (one standard, one specially tuned for international records). It was also entered in the Mille Miglia, Le Mans and other races.

The company started to get enquiries from US servicemen based in the UK and because of the demand it got sole concession to cover this market. It often had multiple orders from individual bases, and some of the sales forces spent their whole time just serving this area. The good relations between the company and the various US forces meant that when testing cars it frequently got offered the use of United States Air Force runways in the UK, such as Brize Norton. It also got use of Dakota aircraft for travel to Le Mans.

A total of 74,000 Austin Healey 100s were built, with more than 80% going for export.

The previous article looked at the start of the Healey Motor Company, whilst the next focuses on Healey Marine.

The ‘Warwick Healey Motor Company’ material was purchased by Warwickshire County Record Office from the Healey family in June 2016 and includes items from different branches of the family. Subsequent donations were made by the family and others, including former Donald Healey Motor Company employees, individuals, and Healey enthusiasts.

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